“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”
1 Cor. 11:2
“For this cause left I [Paul] thee [Titus] in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting [lacking]…”
“[Christ] Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances [in the Mosaic economy]…”
That the Mere Will, Determination, Judgment or Saying So of Authorities is an Insufficient Ground of Faith & Obedience, & that Authorities are Never to Act or Require Something without a Naturally, Morally or Spiritually Sufficient Reason, & that Manifest to Consciences
On Vestments, Black Genevan Gowns, Collars & Dress for Public Worship
On the Holy Kiss, Foot Washing & Anointing with Oil
On Eating & Drinking Blood…
On Tithes & Offerings
On Head Coverings in Public Worship
On Sabbath Schools
Whether Ladies have the Right to Vote for Church Officers
Order of Contents
On the Subservient Nature of Church Policy to the Word
How All Church Governing May be Practically Done unto Edification
How Church Discipline is Limited to Edification in its Time & Place
Tactics of Church Government unto Edification
On the Mutability of Church Policy
On Uniformity & Liberty in Church Policy
The Church may not Discharge What is Warranted in the Word
Public Worship Ordinances are Partly Moral & Partly Positive
Contra Church Boards
On Reforming Church Ordinances
How Far Church Orders may Limit Christian Liberty
The Formal Ground of Obedience: Nature & Scripture, not the Church
On Guilt & Innocence in Breaking Church Ordinances
A Forgotten Common Place of Reformed Ethics
Conservative, reformed theology today, so affected by a simplistic Biblicism, has nearly no recognition of the ethical category that used to be a common place in Reformation theology, that of Church ordinances.
Biblicists often take many commands in Scripture as unqualified and absolute. Yet, nearly all the major reformers and puritans understood the prohibition of the Jerusalem Council to ‘abstain… from things strangled, and from blood’ (Acts 15:20), not as a universal moral law, but as a temporary Church ordinance only for that time and context, in order to prevent scandal amongst the Jews.¹ This is an example in Scripture of the Church (with the concurrence of the Holy Ghost, Acts 15:28) binding something that is not inherently good or bad, but rather indifferent, for the decency, peace and welfare of the Church, which command is neither unqualified, nor necessarily unalterably applicable to all societies.
¹ For the persuasive Biblical and historical arguments for this position, see our page, ‘On Eating & Drinking Blood…’.
What does the Category of Church Ordinances Encompass?
The next question that might arise is, how many more such commands are there in Scripture which fall into this same category? Read the confessions and documents below to find out the answers of the reformers and puritans.
If a command in Scripture is not inherently spiritual or a purely basic, universal law of nature, then it is positive in some respect, especially with regards to the particularities of human society and the Church.
Many such positive, Church ordinances in Scripture have a natural basis; hence they are not purely arbitrary (but were put forward with wisdom for the situation). That which arises from the inclinations and light of nature in such ordinances is continuous in all times; however, their positive aspects, in its relation to the particulars of society and the Church, may be qualified and variable as is fitting for varied situations and the natural circumstances.
The Kinds of Church Ordinances
Not all things in the category of Church ordinances are alike. At the Reformation Romanists argued from the Church’s prohibition of eating blood in Acts 15 that they could make up and bind new doctrines, ceremonies and good works.
There are at least three categories to be distinguished within Biblical, protestant Church ordinances:
1. Positive, religious institutions of God about his government and worship that He has bound, upon his authority and appointment, for the whole New Testament age. These, in their religious aspects, may not be altered or added to. This category is the main concern of Samuel Rutherford in his Divine Right of Church Government (1646, though he also addresses the following two categories as well).
2. Positive commands of good-order that have a natural basis for them. The natural principles in these commands might be set forth in alternate Church ordinances as are naturally fitting to the circumstances. The Church is limited in her power in these ordinances to staying as close as possible to the natural and moral laws that undergird them, without unnecessarily going beyond those natural laws. Included here are judicial decisions of Church-courts.
3. Positive ordinances respecting things indifferent (things not having any inherent morality in them), which are ordained solely for the good end which they effect or tend toward. That good end might be to prevent scandal, such as in Acts 15, or it might be something more positive that promotes attaining a good end of the Church (consistent with her spiritual commission). There is no limit as to how much good the Church may do; and hence there is no limit in principle to the number of these ordinances as long as they do not unduly restrict the freedom we have in Christ.
Church Ordinances are for the Well-Being of the Church
The reformers made a distinction between the essence of the Church and the well-being of the Church. The well-being of the Church is not necessary to the existence of the Church, though, of course, it is necessary to the Church’s flourishing in spiritual health.
As reformed theology has held Church government to be part of the well-being of the Church (and not its essence),¹ so all of the exercises of Church government are also part of its well being, including all Church ordinances. An example which illustrates this is the case of the Corinthian Church. They were a Church, with serious problems, before Paul ever wrote to them and gave them numerous Church ordinances for their reformation and well-ordering in 1 Cor. 10-16.
¹ The seven thousand that had not bowed the knee to Baal in the hills of Northern Israel were God’s visible Church in that district, though they had no Church government, or assemblies that we know of. Note that the definition of the visible Church in WCF 25.2 does not include Church government (or any Church ordinances, or their exercise).
The Positive Aspects of Public Worship Ordinances
Public worship ordinances are included in the first of the three categories of Church ordinances enumerated above. Insofar as they have a religious and spiritual character to them, they cannot be changed or added to, and are obliging in fitting circumstances.
However, insofar as these spiritual acts must take place in certain natural circumstances, so they have positive, and thus variable, aspects to them, which are to be ordered with discretion unto the welfare of the Church.¹ That which is variable about them, and is indifferent and changeable, are their circumstances (which are common to all actions in human society): whether they take place at this time or that time, in this place or that place, in this building or that building, or no building at all, etc.
¹ See the subsection ‘Public Worship Ordinances are Partly Moral & Partly Positive’ below on this page, quoting Bullinger, Rutherford, Turretin & Peck.
Whether public worship ordinances take place at all is also according to the discretionary power of the Church unto its well-being. The Church might purpose a church-plant in one area, though not in another, though both areas have need of it. Such positive ordinances of the Church, even of public worship, give way unto moral necessity, so taught Hosea (Hos. 6:6) and Jesus (Mt. 12:2-7), and Rutherford, Durham, Turretin and Rivet.¹ In a time of danger, public worship services, when not for the well-being of the Church, might be wholly omitted altogether; so taught the puritans.²
¹ See our page, On the Relations Between the 1st & 2nd Tables of the Law.
² So Bownd, Rutherford, Durham, Walker and Willard; see our page, Of Works of Necessity & Mercy on the Sabbath.
Westminster, Rutherford, Durham and Turretin, amongst others, made the distinction that God’s positive commands bind always, though not unto all circumstances (WLC 99.5). Hence, where a command cannot be done, though the command binds in the general, yet if there is a spiritual disposition in the heart to it, God considers this ethically sufficient (Gen. 22:10-12; 2 Cor. 8:12).
How does this consist with Heb. 10:25, which speaks of ‘not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together’? As William Gouge pointed out in his commentary (in location), the Greek word for ‘forsake’ means to utterly forsake, in principle. The context of the passage, both in the chapter and in Hebrews as a whole, is that of apostasy, not simply of natural danger. Christians that flee in natural danger will return when that danger is over, unlike those who apostatize.
It might be objected that persecution, also involving a natural danger, was also present in the context of the letter to the Hebrews. While this is true, nonetheless, given the qualifications above, to interpret Heb. 10:25 as binding all Christians to every regular opportunity for public worship without fail, irrespective of all imminent threats of danger from persecution, was contrary to even the view of the sensible puritans, Bownd, Rutherford and Willard (see the webpages above).
One fundamental reason for this (amongst others), is that public worship ordinances are for the well-being of the Church. It is counter-productive if those ordinances destroy the very essence of the Church. Ordinances are made to serve the Church; the Church was not made to serve ordinances. If it tends more to the health and well-being of the Church to omit Church ordinances, then they ought to be omitted.
How Church Ordinances Bind
Church ordinances are binding insofar as they enforce moral principles, are rightly applied in the circumstances, and as honor is due to the governors (according to the 5th Commandment, Ex. 20:12). When ordinances respect matters inherently indifferent, they bind unto the good end that they are designed for, insofar as persons are morally obliged unto that good end.
It may be objected that the choice of Church governors unto one good end instead of another may be a bit arbitrary (insofar as they have freedom to so choose, and differing elderships may choose different ends to pursue). Here then it is questionable whether the ordinance itself enforces a necessary moral good that is binding apart from the very ordinance itself being put forward by the Church-governors.
However, the Church governors have the right to direct and order the Church by the prerogative of their office; the layperson does not. The elders have that office, having been called thereto due to their eminent spiritual gifts from Christ for being able to wisely govern the Church; and, being in their office, they have knowledge concerning the governance of the Church that laypersons do not have experience with or access to. Nonetheless, if the desired end of the Church governors is not one that seems to have moral compulsion in and of itself upon the members of the Church, and as the things of faith and good works ought not normally to be done out of compulsion, so in such a matter the elders likely ought to seek to promote that good end through positive, voluntary incitements (2 Cor. 8:7-13 & context).
It is precisely because there is some arbitrariness in the matter of some Church ordinances, and yet this matter is used to good ends by wise governors (who have such authority), that Church Orders of different denominations are truly binding in some degree in their jurisdictions (especially given their denominations’ various characteristics, histories and sensitivities), though these Church Orders materially differ with each other. What one should find, though, in various Church orders, is a unity of principles, spirit and wisdom which facilitates Christ’s revealed will in Scripture being done.
How Church Ordinances Do Not Bind
Given that Church ordinances have positive and variable aspects to them and sometimes concern matter wholly indifferent in itself, it ought to be expected that Church ordinances are not as binding as straight, natural and moral obligations. This is true for all three categories above:
1. Even a Church’s call to worship does not absolutely bind church-members in all localities and every circumstance to attend the public worship service. In the Old Testament, despite the standing, available and regular services, only the males were required to attend the Israelites’ three major festivals in Jerusalem. This, no doubt, was due to the need of some persons to take care of necessities at home during the long trip.
In all the instances where the Old Testament calls parents to bring their ‘sucklings’ before the Lord to the great assembly, it was upon extraordinary occasions. Especially in that time, though also in our time, there may be numerous necessities that might prevent this from occurring every week without fail (including sicknesses, ice-storms, white-outs, plagues, etc.). It may be surprising to some that Calvin and the Genevan Christians were fair-weather church-attenders (see the quote below). We, however, have a bit more obligation in the matter, having enclosed automobiles with paved roads.
2. Where there is some natural basis for the ordinance, yet that same natural obligation, or the good end it was instituted for, might be fulfilled in another way, or might be overridden by a more pressing natural obligation.
Nor can disobedience to a positive ordinance (not wholly moral), in and of itself incur guilt. In a disciplinary process the local session may summon one under discipline to appear before them in a given place and time (according to the moral purpose of governors seeking to preserve the peace and purity of Christ’s Church, and the church-member’s moral obligation to submit to such governance unto that end). There may, however, be a legitimate reason, communicated or not, why the person cannot appear. However, if after three such instances where the person does not appear, he having been able to, and he does not communicate any necessary reason for not appearing, most reformed books of discipline allow the court to charge the person, in the external sight of the court, with the moral sin of contempt of lawful authority.
3. One may disobey a Church ordinance without guilt where the matter is indifferent and the particular circumstances or reason for which the ordinance was ordained does not apply. Hence, if one lived during the book of Acts and was in a private situation where Jews or Jewish Christians would not be scandalized or find out about it, it would be lawful to eat blood if it was not done out of spite for authorities (see Turretin below).
If no natural reason appears for the ordinance, if one disobeys it without any dishonor recurring to the authority, nor does scandal result from it, one may disobey the ordinance without guilt; so Rutherford argues at length.¹
When Church Order Must be Disobeyed
Church order is to facilitate Christ’s will governing his Church. However, unfortunately, it is not uncommon that the labyrinth of developed Church orders (which are there to protect natural, moral and positive rights we are not always accustomed to consider) hinder and even totally block Christ’s will from being done. This may acutely affect the simple and injured sheep of Christ who hear his voice and know his will, and yet are left with no redress.
This situation not infrequently occurs in the name of elders claiming that their hands are tied due to their vows to uphold the Church’s order, that is, hundreds of positive statutes that systemically block God’s moral will from being done on earth as it is in Heaven. This is not for the good of Church.
Church governors, however, have only been given power and authority from Christ her King for the good of the Church (Eph. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 13:8,10; 10:8), and none to her detriment. Hence, any positive statutes that block the Church’s good from being fulfilled have no power or authority from Christ whatsoever, and hence have no binding authority in his House.
As to vows: Vows are never unqualified; they are always ‘in the Lord’, whether expressly said or not.¹ If any vow blocks one from doing God’s moral will, it is a sinful vow and should be repented of. It is impossible for a creature to bind himself contrary to the will of God by his own actions or authority, or that of any other authority. Such Church-officer vows also swear to the Word as the primary standard, all other things being at best subordinate standards. Hence any claim that Christ’s will cannot be done in the Church (when it is morally possible for it to be done), because of the restrictions of Church order, is a sinful claim.
¹ “Exigencies of the law of nature cannot be set down in positive covenants, they are presupposed.” – Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex… (1644; Edin., 1843), p. 118
Christ spoke to the issue: The Pharisees asked Christ why his Christian disciples ‘transgress the tradition of the elders.’ (Mt. 15:2) Christ gave examples of how the Pharisees omitted a moral commandment of God by keeping all of their traditions (Mt. 15:4-6) and asked them, ‘Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?… Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.’ (Mt. 15:3,6)
To elders today that omit the Commandment of God in preference for their own Church orders and thereby bind Christ’s sheep under them de facto (in point of fact) with their man-made traditions through their negligence of keeping God’s commandments, Christ says:
‘This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me. But in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ (Mt. 15:8-9)
Moral fulfillment and necessity overrides all positive laws (when they conflict), including all Church ordinances and constitutions; so taught Jesus (Mt. 12:1-8), Rutherford, Durham and Turretin.¹ To say it more clearly: God’s Moral Law overrides all Church constitutions, orders, ordinances and dictates. Why? Because fundamentally ‘there is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy’. (James 4:12)
¹ See their quotes on our page, On the Relations Between the 1st & 2nd Tables of the Law.
When God chastens his Church for not keeping his Commandments with his four arrows: the sword, famine, wild beasts and plagues (Eze. 14:21), they never seem to have respect to the niceties of books of Church order.
Study the reformed writings below, because they are right, having been derived from God’s Word and sifted for generations. Beza, Gillespie and Turretin are the best.
In perusing the resources below, seek understanding. When a situation is presented where contrary ethical duties seem to press, and yet one clearly takes precedence over the other, ask yourself: ‘Why?’ In other circumstances, where the same duties press and yet the other duty clearly takes precedence, ask again: ‘Why?’ As you answer these questions, you will come to a much greater understanding of the foundations and relations of ethics; that is, you will come into a much deeper understanding of God’s Will. This is precious, and priceless.
May this collection of resources help Church governors to order Christ’s House aright, according to his will revealed in nature and Scripture, and may it help you to walk wisely therein.
“The heart of him that hath understanding seeketh knowledge…”
“For unto every one that hath, shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
On the Post-Reformation
Heppe, Heinrich – Ch. 27, ‘The Church’, sections 49-50, pp. 686-688 in Reformed Dogmatics ed. Bizer, trans. Thomson (1950) (Wipf & Stock, 2007)
Heppe, an 1800’s, German reformed scholar, quotes on the topic Bucan, Maresius, Riissen, Turretin, Heidegger & Wendelin.
Calvin, John – ‘The Importance of Customs Being Conformed to Nature’ †1564 13 paragraphs Being his sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:11-16, from Men, Women, and Order in the Church, pg. 55-59, trans. Seth Skolnitsky
Bullinger, Henry – Letter 104, to L. Humphrey & T. Sampson, May 1, 1566 in Zurich Letters, 2nd ed. chronologically arranged in one series (Parker Society, 1846), pp. 214-224
The continental reformer, Bullinger, is addressing English reformers under the reign of Queen Elizabeth who had asked him various questions. The main issue under consideration is that of ‘habits’, or vestments (clerical garb in worship, and sometimes outside of worship) which was being forced on ministers by both the Anglican Church and State. Humphrey and Sampson were against them, but Bullinger was more tolerant of them, at least in the meantime till other more important Church issues could be reformed.
Under the best interpretation, these vestments were indifferent and only civil, something the State (and Church) could in theory (under certain conditions) regulate under the consideration of doing all things decently and in order. Hence many issues of church policy, theory and obedience to the magistrate are here opened up and analyzed. The discussion is very thought-provoking.
While Bullinger gets a number of things right, there are some small but important ways in which his analysis is not careful or accurate enough:
The magistrate may only rule according to moral law; hence there needs to be sufficient natural warrant for him to be able to impose regulations about the dress of ministers (Bullinger overlooks this), especially when the issue is involved with the external administration of the Church, which is a matter in sacra.
Bullinger infers that if a human authority prescribes something about matters indifferent, for the sake of decency and order, it therefore becomes necessary on the conscience. This is rightly denied by Calvin, Turretin and others below (see their reasons).
Other points of Bullinger are not wholly satisfactory. Some of this may be allowed due to his context of being in position under a Church reforming (or so it was thought); Gillespie and Rutherford coming some generations later, in a more advanced state of the Church, are better on some of the minute worship issues. However, Bullinger’s discussion is in general very important and worthy of respect.
Calvin, John – Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, sections 27-32
“28. We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish… the legitimate observances of the Church, if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended, viz., that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained. In order by certain bonds, as It were, of moderation and humanity… since nothing here is sought but the maintenance of charity by a common office…
30. …the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them He alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies [he used as an example bowing in prayer], he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe, (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages, in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency.
Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms. I confess, indeed, that we are not to innovate rashly or incessantly, or for trivial causes. Charity is the best judge of what tends to hurt or to edify: if we allow her to be guide, all things will be safe.
31. Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey…”
Perkins, William – pp. 67-68 of ch. 2, ‘Of the Duties of Conscience’ in A Discourse of Conscience... (Cambridge, 1596)
Gillespie, George – ‘…the dissecting of the true limits, within which the Church’s power of enacting laws about things pertaining to the worship of God is bounded and confined, and which it may not overleap nor transgress’ pp. 130-136 of English-Popish Ceremonies, Part 3, Chapter 7, Sections 5-7 ff. (1637) Gillespie’s 3rd Distinction, which may be one that the most hangs on, begins on p. 131, lt. col., bottom, beginning ‘Sect. 7’.
See Bannerman below for a summary of Gillespie’s three distinctions. For Gillespie’s discussion of things that are not ‘circumstances’, but are purely indifferent, see the Fourth Part of his work.
Baxter, Richard – A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience Buy (1673), pt. 3, Ecclesiastical Politics
Question 26. Whether Church-canons, or pastors’ directive determinations of matters pertinent to their office, do bind the conscience? And what accidents will disoblige the people; you may gather before in the same case about magistrates’ laws in the political directions: As also by an impartial transferring the case to the precepts of parents and schoolmasters to children; without respect to their power of the rod (or supposing that they had none-such).
Question 31. Who has the power of making Church canons?
Question 136. How shall we know what parts of Scripture precept or example were intended for universal, constant obligations, and what were but for the time and persons that they were then directed to?
Baxter was a congregationalist.
Turretin, Francis – Questi, and on 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’ under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3, pp. 285-293
“In making laws, ministers are only heralds and envoys, who promulgate the laws of the prince and enunciate the commands of God, addressing believers in his name; but in constitutions they are directors of external worship in matters pertaining to good order (eutaxian) because although God has prescribed in general that all things should be done decently and in order, still He has sanctioned nothing in particular, but left it to the prudence of pastors, who are able to dispose of them as they see is conducive to edification.
For so great is the variety in minds, so great the conflict between judgments and dispositions, that unless they are bound by certain laws as by chains and bits, they would easily disagree with each other and the unity of the church be dissolved. Since about things of this kind there was no special precept, since they are innumerable and mutable depending upon circumstances of times, places and persons, God wishes the rulers of the church to consult for its peace, edification and decorum by determining those things which seem best adapted to the habits of the people and with regard for times and places.” – p. 286
La Placette (1629-1718) was a French Huguenot minister.
“…if the laws of the Church obliged the conscience in such a [absolute] manner, as that the transgression of them were a sin, the observance of them would then be a good action…
…the persons against whom I dispute, pretend the violation of ecclesiastical laws to be therefore only sinful, because it implies an infraction of the law of God, who has commanded us to obey the Church: but if not to do what the Church enjoins be to violate the law of God, must it not be allowed, that to comply with her injunctions, is to observe the same divine law, and consequently to perform a good and virtuous act?…
Lastly, if ecclesiastical laws obliged the conscience, the Church would only have changed her yoke by the establishment of Christianity: she would still continue a slave; and the only difference would be, that whereas under the [Mosaic] Law her servitude was terminated with respect to God, she would now be in bondage to men…
…ever since the Reformation, it has been a particular controversy between the Romanists and us, whether ecclesiastical laws oblige the conscience, in other cases besides those of contempt and scandal. The Church of Rome has declared for the affirmative; and Protestant authors, as well Lutherans as Calvinists, for the negative.
If any question this, let them give themselves the trouble of reading Bellarmine De Bonis Operibus [Of Good Works], particularly book 2, ch. 7 [‘Ecclesiastical Law Obliges the Faithful in Conscience…’], and the Brothers of Valemborch, tome 1, p. 183; tome 2, p. 187, among the papists; and among those of our communion, the supplement to Chamier, p. 375; Rivet’s Summary of Controversies [in French], tract 2, question 9 [‘Whether the Church may Make Laws?’]; [Jean] Mestrezat, Of the Church, Theses of Salmur, tome 1, disputation 1 [‘Whether Conscience to the Faith is Prior to that of the Church, or that to the Church is Prior to that of the Faith?’]. But this is not all, the Confession of Faith, published by the Reformed Churches of France, is express to the same purpose; see Article 33. So that if I have gone too far in this respect, I have all the Protestant Churches for my vouchers.” – pp. 71-75
Bannerman, James – The Church of Christ, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1868)
Pt. 2, ch. 4, ‘The Extent and Limits of Church Power’, pp. 235-248
Pt. 3, Division 2, Subdivision 1, ch. 2, section 1, ‘Extent of Church Power with Respect to the Public Worship of God’, points 3-4 – section 2, ‘Limits of Church Power with Respect to the Public Worship of God’, pp. 344-375
In this section Bannerman summarizes (pp. 354-8) the three principles of George Gillespie (in his work above) as to what indifferent things the Church has power to bind over. It must:
1. ‘only be a circumstance of divine worship, and no substantial part of it–no sacred, significant, efficacious ceremony;’
2. ‘be such as are not determinable by Scripture;’
3. be those for the appointment of which she is ‘able to give a sufficient reason and warrant.’
Cunningham, William – Ch. 9, ‘Church Power’ in Discussions on Church Principles (Edinburgh, 1863), pp. 235- see especially pp. 246-9
Peck, Thomas – Ch. 12, ‘The Nature & Extent of Church Power’ in Notes on Ecclesiology (Richmond, 1892), pp. 106-119. See especially pp. 116-9.
Girardeau, John – The Discretionary Power of the Church, Matt 28:20 (d. 1898; 1907), extracted from Sermons, ed. Rev. George A. Blackburn.
The editor of these sermons said, “This is not the most eloquent, but it is the most valuable and the most timely sermon in this volume. It was preached before the General Assembly, at St. Louis, May 20, 1875. The author called it a testimony.”
Girardeau uses numerous of the same categories as Peck.
The Westminster Assembly
Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 31
“III. It belongs to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his word.[d]
IV. All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.[e]
V. Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs, which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition, in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.[f]
‘Debate on Power of Synods’ & ‘Debate on Synods’, pp. 288-94 in ed. Hall & Hall, Paradigms in Polity… (Eerdmans, 1994) This section is an excerpt from the Westminster Assembly minutes.
On the Use of the Word ‘Ceremonies’ Below
The word ‘ceremonies’ came to mean, in the debates about worship in the late-1500’s and 1600’s, especially with regard to the episcopal formalists, any action or thing in, or about, worship that positively signified any natural or spiritual thing beyond its own nature or natural use; or to put it another way: anything used in worship that was symbolic. Hence the presbyterians, arguing in accord with Scripture and what would later become known as the Regulative Principle of Worship, argued against all such symbols not appointed by God in his worship.
The word ‘ceremonies’ before that, in the early and mid-1500’s, often had a much broader use by the reformed, encompassing any positive ordinance or policy of the Church, including those which are legitimate and in accord with Scripture and presbyterianism.
Hence, in many of the quotes and articles below, the word ‘ceremonies’ does not necessarily imply something objectionable. The Westminster divines, Herbert Palmer and Daniel Cawdrey, confirm this:
Sabbatum Redivivum… pt. 1 (1645), ch. 1, p. 5
“But forasmuch as the word ‘ceremony’… is diversely taken by diverse men…
1. For ‘ecclesiastical’, to signify any external rite belonging to external worship: as being a Church matter, and being distinguished against things political concerning the commonwealth. For God has been pleased in all times of the Church to ordain as some external worship, so some rites and ceremonies belonging thereunto, suitable to those times…”
Other Reformed Confessions & Documents
The Tetrapolitan Confession 1530
in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries… vol. 1 (2008), p. 155-6
Ch. 14, ‘Of Human Traditions’
“Furthermore, concerning the traditions of the fathers or such as the bishops and churches at this day ordain, the opinion of our men is as follows: They reckon no traditions among human traditions (such, namely, as are condemned in the Scriptures) except those that conflict with the law of God,ª such as bind the conscience concerning meat, drink, times and other external things, such as forbid marriage to those to whom it is necessary for an honorable life and other things of that stamp.
For such as agree with the Scripture, and were instituted for good morals and the profit of men, even though not expressed in Scripture in words, nevertheless, since they flow from the command of love, which orders all things most becomingly, are justly regarded divine rather than human.
Of this sort were those of Paul–that women should not pray in the church bareheaded or men with heads covered; that they who are to commune should tarry one for the other; that no one should speak with tongues in the congregation without an interpreter; that the prophets without confusion should deliver their prophecies to be judged by those who sit by.
Many such the Church even today justly observes, and according to occasion frames anew, which he who rejects despises the authority, not of men, but of God, whose tradition whatsoever is profitable. For ‘whatever truth is said or written is said and written by His gift who is the truth itself,’ as St. Augustine has devoutly written.
But oftentimes there is disputing about this as to what tradition is profitable, what not–i.e. what promotes and what retards godliness. But he who shall seek nothing of his own, and consecrates himself entirely to the public profit, shall easily see what things correspond to God’s law and what do not.”
Confession of Sueveland 1530
Ch. 14, ‘Of Human Traditions’ in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), pp. 436-7. This is a Lutheran confession.
“For such [traditions] as agree with the Scripture, and were ordained for good manners and the profit of men, although they be not word for word expressed in the Scriptures, nevertheless in that they proceed from the commandment of love, which ordereth all things most decently, they are worthily to be accounted rather of God than of man.
Of this sort were those set down by Paul, that women should not pray in the Church bareheaded, nor men with their heads covered; that they who are to communicate together should tarry one for another: 1 Cor. 11:5; 10:7,33, that no man should speak with tongues in the congregation without an interpreter; that the prophets without confusion should deliver their prophecies to be judged by them that sit by, 1 Cor. 14:28,29.
Many such the Church at this day, for good cause, observes, and upon occasion also makes new; which whoso refuses, he despises the authority, not of men, but of God, whose tradition it is, whatsoever is profitable. For, ‘whatsoever truth is said or written, by his gift it is spoken and written, who is truth,’ as St. Augustine has godly written. But oftentimes there is disputing about this; what tradition is profitable, what not: that is, what doth set forward godliness, what does hinder it. But he that shall seek nothing of his own, but shall wholly dedicate himself to the public profit, he shall easily see what things are agreeable to the law of God, what are not.”
The First Helvetic Confession 1536
Article 23, ‘Holy Meetings’
“We think that holy meetings are so to be celebrated, that above all things the Word of God be propounded to the people everyday, publicly, in a public place, and appointed for holy exercises: also that the hidden things of the Scripture be daily searched out and declared by those that are fit thereunto…”
Article 25, ‘Of Things Indifferent’
“Those things which be called, and are properly, things indifferent, although a godly man may, in all places, and at all times, use them freely, yet he must only use all things according to knowledge, and in charity; to wit, to the glory of God, and to the edifying of the Church, and his neighbors.”
The French Confession 1559
Articles 32-33 in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), p. 421
Ch. 20, General Councils, Their Power, Authority, and the Cause of Their Summoning
“As we do not rashly condemn what good men, assembled together in general councils lawfully gathered, have set before us; so we do not receive uncritically whatever has been declared to men under the name of the general councils, for it is plain that, being human, some of them have manifestly erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance. So far then as the council confirms its decrees by the plain Word of God, so far do we reverence and embrace them.
But if men, under the name of a council, pretend to forge for us new articles of faith, or to make decisions contrary to the Word of God, then we must utterly deny them as the doctrine of devils, drawing our souls from the voice of the one God to follow the doctrines and teachings of men.
The reason why the general councils met was not to make any permanent law which God had not made before, nor yet to form new articles for our belief, nor to give the Word of God authority; much less to make that to be his Word, or even the true interpretation of it, which was not expressed previously by his holy will in his Word; but the reason for councils, at least of those that deserve that name, was partly to refute heresies, and to give public confession of their faith to the generations following, which they did by the authority of God’s written Word, and not by any opinion or prerogative that they could not err by reason of their numbers. This, we judge, was the primary reason for general councils.
The second was that good policy and order should be constituted and observed in the Kirk where, as in the house of God, it becomes all things to be done decently and in order. Not that we think any policy of order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies which men have devised are but temporal, so they may, and ought to be, changed, when they foster superstition rather than edify the Kirk.”
The Scottish First Book of Discipline 1560
“Policy we call an exercise of the church in such things as may bring the rude and ignorant to knowledge, or else inflame the learned to greater fervency, or to retain the church in good order. And thereof there are two sorts:
The one utterly necessary, as that the Word be truly preached, the sacraments rightly ministered, common prayers publicly made; that the children and rude persons be instructed in the chief points of religion, and that offences be corrected and punished. These things, we say, are so necessary, that without the same there is no face of a visible kirk.
The other is profitable, but not of mere necessity: as, that psalms should be sung; that certain places of the scriptures should be read when there is no sermon; [and] that this day or that day, few or many in the week, the church should assemble. Of these and such others we cannot see how a certain order can be established. For in some churches the psalms may be conveniently sung; in others, perchance, they cannot. Some churches may convene every day; some thrice or twice in the week; some perchance but once. In these, and such like, must every particular church, by their own consent, appoint their own policy.”
…In smaller towns, as we have said, the common consent of the church must put order…
It appertains to the policy of the church to appoint the times when the sacraments shall be ministered…”
Theodore Beza 1560
‘Theodore Beza’s Confession (1560): A Brief & Pithy Sum of Christian Faith’, 5th Point, ‘Of the Church’, 18. ‘…When or at What Time They Should Establish Disciplinary Procedures in the Church’ & 19-20 in Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries, ed. Dennison (RHB, 2010), vol. 2, pp. 311-12
“18. First there ought to be a greater difference placed between the doctrine of salvation required in the church and those things which they establish only to keep civil order. For doctrine, we also comprehend under this light the sacraments, which teach the conscience and do not depend on man who is bound to maintain it under the pain of damnation without changing, adding to or diminishing anything (in no such way, as we have declared before).
But the canonical ordinances concerning the manner of proceeding are all exterior and outward according to the circumstances of places, times and persons, by reason of which they can neither be perpetual nor universal without exception. For such order and fashion may be held in one place which cannot be used in another place. Such a thing also is good in one place or at one time which would be unprofitable or harmful at another. And for this reason, there is often contradiction among the canons, as it is necessary to have with respect to those things which are expedient. Since such ordinances are mutable and made by man, it follows that they do not concern the conscience, especially in cases of slander and disorder–a prohibition of the purpose for which they were established, i.e., the edification and peace of the Church.
For example, it was agreed by the council of Jerusalem… that the gentiles should abstain from eating the sacrifice of idols, from blood and beasts that are suffocated or strangled. I say that this is an ordinance distinct from the one before [fornication] (which pertains not to conscience nor to salvation simply, but only to the external and outward life), to attain an end more excellent and perfect, i.e., that the doctrine of salvation may take place among the Jews (Acts 15:19-21). For if it had been otherwise, apostles would have contradicted themselves. In the beginning, they agreed upon this–that grace alone justified by faith without the works of the Law (Acts 15:9-11); and also they would have contradicted the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who witnessed and said that what enters into the mouth does not defile a man; and St. Paul, who was in this council, would have been contrary to himself (Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 8:8; Col. 2:16-23; Titus 1:14-15). For shortly afterwards, he wrote that the kingdom of God was not in meat nor drink, and that one might eat of all things without creating any difficulty for conscience sake.
Such prohibitions are devilish doctrines (1 Tim. 4:1-3), except when they are used for the liberty of the edification of neighbors. For avoiding slander (Rom. 14:13-19; 1 Cor. 10:23-4), let those then who will not understand this difference declare to us why they have abolished the apostolic ordinance; or whether they have greater power than the apostles; or else whether they will give place to the truth of God and study with us what may serve to the glory of God, instead of serving their own ambition and avarice in falsely abusing the title and authority of the church (Col. 2:8).
19. The second point: since such ordinances and statutes are made to increase the doctrine of the gospel, let them be established and set up in such a way that there is no abuse or any kind of superstition…
20. The third point: since men are so prompt and ready to love their own inventions and to turn the true religion into superstition; and also the times of the shadows of the Law are passed, and that God now ill be served in Spirit and truth and not in outward ceremonies (Jn. 4:23; Gal. 2:4; 5:1; and the whole epistle of the Hebrews); therefore, above all things, special regard must be taken that nothing be brought into the church except what is profitable and especially appropriate and necessary… But certainly the purest simplicity is the best, and the more Jesus Christ is plainly and simply declared, the more it is agreeable to His Word…”
The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church of Geneva 1561
as trans. Dr. Mary Crumpacker in ed. Hall & Hall, Paradigms in Polity… (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 146-7
“39. As for the number, place and time of sermons, let this be determined by the weather. But let there be a sermon at least at daybreak on the Sabbath at Saint Peter’s and Saint Gervais, and at the accustomed time at the aforementioned Saint Peter’s, the Madelaine, and Saint Gervais.
40. At noon, let there be catechism, that is, instruction of small children in all three churches, namely at Saint Peter’s, the Madelaine, and Saint Gervais;
41. at three o’clock, in all the parishes as well. Word-days there shall be preaching at the same time every day in the three parishes, Saint Peter’s, the Madeleine and Saint Gervais; that is to say, from six to seven in summer from Easter tot he first of October, and in winter, from seven to eight. Let prayers be made especially on Wednesdays, unless, as above, another day was set on account of the weather.
42. In addition to the aforesaid sermons, there shall be preaching three times a week in the morning at Saint Peter’s, namely, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and at Saint Gervais, Wednesdays, before the above-mentioned ordinary sermons.”
Belgic Confession 1561
Article 32 in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), p. 422
The Hungarian Confessio Catholica 1562
ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions 2.527-8
“Further, we retain freely and without partiality those ecclesiastical ordinances which have been introduced in the church for the sake of good order and the maintenance of purity (Augustine, on John; letters 118, 119); and as long as anything is not contrary to faith and good morals, we will consider it, but in keeping with circumstances, retain the freedom to reject or to retain and alter it, as Scripture, the fathers and councils teach…
…For the decrees, councils and fathers teach correctly that custom and human ordinances must be honored if they are in no way contrary to the catholic faith and good morals, but profitable for edification (Augustine, letters 23, 86; decrees of Popes Anastasius II and Pius; the fathers; Isa. 10; Rom. 14; Col. 2; Titus 1).
…We maintain unaltered all the traditions of Christ which we are commanded to keep. But those examples and other deeds of Christ and the apostles which are not appointed for us to follow, we leave free and indifferent. Therefore, they are in grievous error that follow the pope in his filth, shackling [constraining] in the use of [omitting] the chalice [in the Lord’s Supper to the people], [using only] unleavened bread [in the Lord’s Supper], and vestments, and have not the courage freely to follow Christ and the apostles.”
The 2nd Helvetic Confession 1562/4
“If there be any Churches which have faithful prayer in good manner, and no singing at all, or they are not therefore to be condemned: for all Churches have not the commodity and opportunity of singing. And certain it is by testimonies of antiquity, that, as the custom of singing has been very ancient in the East Churches, so it was long ere it was received in the West Churches.”
The Scottish Second Book of Discipline 1578
“6. The final end of all assemblies is, first, to keep the religion and doctrine in purity, without error and corruption; next, to keep comeliness and order in the kirk.
7. For this order’s case, they may make certain rules and constitutions appertaining to the good behaviour of all the members of the kirk in their vocation.
8. They have power also to abrogate and abolish all statutes and ordinances concerning ecclesiastical matters that are found noisome and unprofitable, and agree not with the time, or are abused by the people.
9. They have power to execute ecclesiastical discipline and punishment upon all transgressors and proud contemners of the good order and policy of the kirk; and so the whole discipline is in their hands.
11. The power of these particular elderships is to give diligent labours in the bounds committed to their charge, that the kirks be kept in good order; to inquire diligently of naughty and unruly persons, and travail to bring them in the way again, either by admonition, or threatening of God’s judgments, or by correction.
12. It pertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline rightly maintained, and the ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed.
13. It belongs to this kind of assembly to cause the ordinances made by the assemblies provincial, national, and general, to be kept, and put in execution; to make constitutions which concern to prevpon [that which is suitable] in the kirk, for the decent order of these particular kirks where they govern; providing they alter no rules made by the general or provincial assemblies, and that they make the provincial assemblies foreseen of these rules that they shall make, and abolish them that tend to the hurt of the same.”
ed. Richard R. DeRidder, The Church Orders of the Sixteenth Century Reformed Churches of the Netherlands… trans. DeRidder with Peter H. Jonker & Leonard Verduin (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1987), pp. 546–57
1. To maintain good order in the Church of Christ, it is necessary to have in it offices, assemblies, supervision of doctrine, sacraments and ceremonies, and Christian discipline, concerning which [matters the following articles] appropriately deal with.
85. In indifferent matters the foreign churches which have different customs from our own shall not be rejected.
86. These articles concerning the lawful order of the churches have been so formulated and adopted by common consent that, if the welfare of the churches demands otherwise, they may and ought to be altered, added to or diminished. Nevertheless, no individual congregation, classis or synod shall be permitted to do this, but they shall diligently seek to maintain them until [it] is otherwise ordered by the General or National Synod.
Confessions of the Waldenses
The Waldensian Confession of Turin (France) 1556
in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions 2.106 & 109
“Fifth, concerning traditions and human constitutions: they voluntarily accept those which serve good order, honesty, and the reverence due to the holy ministry. But concerning those which are proposed as meritorious, to bind and control consciences against the Word of God: they cannot accept them…
The councils have produced several beautiful and holy constitutions for controlling pastors and lay people, ordaining that pastors who are licentious, drunk or scandalous be deposed, that the one who attends the Mass of a licentious priest be excommunicated, etc.
Concerning obedience to human traditions, they voluntarily receive the ordinances and constitutions, which (as St. Paul says) establish order, are honorable, and revere the ministry ordained by God. But concerning traditions which contradict the commandments of God and which have been instituted for part of His service, like those which are done to merit the remission of sins or to bind consciences, because they are manifestly contrary to the Word of God, they can in no way receive them…
Finally, they do not deny that the councils have established very helpful and praiseworthy ordinances concerning the election of bishops and pastors of the church; ecclesiastical discipline, both of clergy and of people; and the distribution of the bounties of the church.”
The Waldensian Confession (1561)
in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions 2.405
“Concerning obedience to human traditions, they voluntarily accept ordinances and constitutions, those–as St. Paul said–which are right; they honor and reverence the ministry ordained by God…”
Confession of Bohemia 1573
This was the last such confession of Bohemia, being composed of four former, similar confessions. It was approved by the common testimony of the University of Wirtemburg, Germany, even as Luther and Melancthon had approved of one of the former ones published in 1532. It has also been called the Confession of the Waldenses, following the common title assigned unto these Churches.
“This… Bohemian Confession… tilts slightly toward the Reformed theology that the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) had discovered through contacts with the Swiss and German Calvinistic Reformation. The more Lutheran orientation of the 1535 document has been adjusted in the direction of a Reformed understanding.” – James Dennison, Jr., Reformed Confessions 3.323
in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), p. 417-420 & ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions 3.345 & 371-5
Ch. 7. ‘Of Good Works and the Christian Life’
“Now all good works are divided [as follows]: first, generally, into those which pertain to all true Christians according to the unity of faith and catholic salvation. Secondly, particularly, into those which are proper to the order, age, and place of every man as the Holy Spirit specially teaches elders, masters, the common sort, parents, children, the married, the unmarried, and everyone, what are their proper obligations and works.”
“Concerning this adjunct type, human traditions, dispositions, and ceremonies introduced by good custom, it is taught that these things are of inferior nature, and less necessary than are the gifts of the ordinary ministry; indeed, that they are instituted and appointed for the sake of ecclesiastical ministry and to serve it.
And yet they are with uniform consent to be retained in the ecclesiastical assemblies of Christian people with ordinary divine worship, according to the doctrine of the holy apostles: ‘Let all things be done (in your community, namely, in the church) decently and in order’ (1 Cor. 14:40). Also: ‘God is not the author of confusion, but of peace’ (v. 33).
But they must always be kept with this caution and within these bounds, that they may not be taken for foundations on which salvation must ground itself, or for worship which is appointed by God without any distinction, and that they do not more or more strictly bind the consciences of men than the commandments of God. And they are not [to be] preferred by being set forth before them, but that they are take for trappings, decor, honest show, and laudable discipline, and thus that they do not violate the Christian liberty of the Spirit of Christ and of faith, nor disturb charity. On the other hand, no man, by pretending a show of Christian liberty, withdraws himself from serviceable dispositions to be used in good and pious ways.
Now by the mention of Christian liberty is chiefly understood that liberty by which through Christ we are freed from sin… Also, [it is that] by which we are made free from all obligation to conscience to any human traditions, that one may not be tied in such a way or rather more strictly to these than to the commandments of God, and finally, that no one may suffer his conscience to be seared by these as with a hot iron.
Therefore according to these things, all these human traditions and ceremonies of whatever kind which obscure or take away the glory, honor, worship, and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and draw the people away from true and sincere faith–and also, as we say briefly, for the sake and cause of which, the commandments of God are broken, neglected, and lightly regarded, and the Word of God is not exercised or handled in its own sincerity and truth–these are not only to be observed, but to be avoided.
For Christ our Lord sharply reproves those Pharisees… ‘…For you lay the commandments of God apart and observe the traditions of men’ (Isa. 29:13; Mk. 7:6-9). And St. Paul admonishes us to take heed of such human trifles when he says, ‘Beware, lest there be any that spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, through the traditions of men, according to the rudiments of the world and not after Christ’ (Col. 2:8). Concerning which also there are canons extent in the canon law whose words are these: ‘We praise custom, yet that only which is known to use nothing contrary to the catholic faith’ (Distinct. 8. et 11. Cap. Consuetud.).
Wherefore those rites only and those good ceremonies ought to be observed, which, among Christian people build up the one and true faith and sincere worship of God, concord, love, and also true and Christian or religious peace. Therefore, whether they exist and are introduced by bishops, by ecclesiastical councils, or by any other authors whatsoever, the simpler sort ought not to be wearied by them, nor to be moved or disquieted, but to use them for good because they are good, and to observe this rule only in them: that they always put their greatest confidence in those things only which are of God and place their only and chief confidence and refuge in them, and with all diligence take heed that they are not drawn away by such ceremonies from those things which are the greatest of all, and in which religion is grounded, and thus from the things themselves. For those divine and wholesome things are to be preferred in every respect before all other things of all men. The conscience ought to be bound to them alone. For the Lord Himself pronounced a woe against the elders of the Jews who preferred their own traditions before the divine commandments, and those which were the lesser before things of greater weight: ‘You leave [He says] the weightiest matters of the law, as judgment, and mercy, and fidelity. These you ought to have done and not to have left undone the others’ (Mt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42).
And although our preachers do not keep all rites equally with other churches (which cannot be, and is not necessary to be done, that in all places of Christian assembly, one and the same ceremonies should be used), yet they do not resist or oppose any good and pious disposition, neither are they so minded, as that for the sake of ceremonies, they would raise up any dissensions, even though they might think that some of them were not necessary, so that they may not be found to be contrary to God and to His worship and glory, and which do not diminish true faith in Jesus Christ which alone procures righteousness.
Howbeit in this place and on this point, one thing must not be passed over with silence, namely, that we ought by no means to burden the people with many superfluous and grievous traditions such as the Mosaic traditions were under the law. For the apostles prohibited this, just as St. Peter said to certain ones concerning this, ‘Why do you tempt God in laying a yoke upon the necks of the disciples?’ (Gal. 5:1)…
Also, men are taught to acknowledge this, that human traditions do not contain a perpetual and immutable law: but that, as they are for just causes instituted of men, so also they may upon just and weighty causes, and if the matter so require, be broken, abrogated, and changed, without any sin;
according to the example of the apostles, who did “transgress the traditions of the elders, whenas they did eat bread with unwashed hands,” Mt. 15:2; Mk. 7:5, and did not observe the same fasts with others, and yet they were not by this means guilty of any sin; also according to the example of the first and holy Church, upon which the apostles and the whole Council laid this commandment by the Holy Ghost, “that they should abstain from the eating of those things which were sacrificed to idols, and of blood, and of that which is strangled.” Acts 15:29. Notwithstanding, after that the causes and occasions, for the which the decree was made, in process of time did vanish away, even this Apostolical constitution did grow out of use.
Neither in these things ought we to care for the offence of the
wicked, who are offended with this thing; as the Lord saith, “Let them alone: they be blind, and guides of the blind.” Mt. 15:14. And on the other side, we must take diligent heed hereunto, that no offence he given to little ones, by a rash, froward, and wicked using of Christian liberty: Rom. 14:20; 1 Cor. 8:10,13, for this also the Lord saith, “Woe be to that man by whom offence cometh.” Mt. 17:7.
Now if so be that there be any unlikeness in traditions and external ceremonies, and if any diversity, which is not hurtful, be found in ecclesiastical assemblies, certainly no man ought to be so ignorant of these things, as for this cause to be offended therewith, or to take offence at others, and in this respect to reproach or hurt others, or to be an author of sects, and also of factions; seeing that there was never in all places one and the same form of an ecclesiastical constitution on this point, neither is there at this day the same. The which thing also is mentioned in the books of the Canon law, in these words:
‘The holy Church of Rome doth know, that constitutions and customs, being diverse according to time and place, do nothing at all hinder the salvation of the faithful, if the canonical authority be not against them.’ Distinct. 12. Cap. Scit.
Rather it becometh every sound Christian to be content in his conscience to rest in that, if he see Christians to have the one Spirit of Christ, Phil. 2:5, and with agreeing minds to hold and follow his true meaning, and one and the same doctrine, in all these things, and chief points of faith. For “he that hath not this Spirit of Christ, he is not Christ’s,” (as the apostle doth witness, Rom. 8:9) although he use all and every kind of ceremonies or constitutions.
Therefore, whosoever be Christ’s, this is their duty, as in all other such like things, that as members of one body, they do suffer and bear one with another in charity, without the which nothing can profit any whit, according to the meaning of the Apostolic doctrine, 1 Cor. 13:7.”
Some Lutheran Confessions
Confession of Sueveland 1530
Ch. 14, ‘Of Human Traditions’ in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), pp. 436-7
The Confession of the Four Cities was presented, both in the German and also in the Latin tongue, to the Emperor Charles the Fifth in the same assembly held at Augsburg (which produced the Augsburg Confession), in the same year, by the ambassadors of the cities of Strasburg, Constance, Meiningen, and Linden. These four cities are commonly counted neighbours to Sueveland.
Confession of Saxony 1551
Article 20, ‘…of Traditions, that is, of Ceremonies Instituted in the Church by Man’s Authority’ in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), pp. 431-5
This Confession was written in Latin in the year 1551, in the behalf of the Saxon Churches, by Philip Melancthon, that it might be presented to the Council of Trent.
Confession of Wirtemburg Early-1550’s
Article 35, ‘Of Ecclesiastical Ceremonies’ in ed. Peter Hall, The Harmony of Protestant Confessions (London, 1842), pp. 435-6
This was a German, protestant confession offered to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent for debate. It is predominantly Lutheran, though it contains some concessions to the Reformed. See more background info here.
A Reformed Catholike: or, A Declaration showing how near we may come to the present Church of Rome in sundry points of religion: and wherein we must forever depart from them… ([Cambridge,] 1598), 7th Point, ‘Of Traditions’, pp. 136-7
“Conclusion 3. We hold that the Church of God has power to prescribe ordinances rules, or traditions, touching time and place of God’s worship, and touching order and comeliness to be used in the same: and in this regard, Paul, 1 Cor. 11:2, commends the Church of Corinth for keeping his traditions, and Acts 15, the Council at Jerusalem decreed that the Churches of the Gentiles should abstain from blood and from things strangled. This decree is termed a tradition, and it was in force among them so long as the offence of the Jews remained.
And this kind of traditions, whether made by general councils or particular synods, we have care to maintain and observe; these caveats being remembered:
First, that they prescribe nothing childish or absurd to be done:
Secondly, that they be not imposed as any parts of God’s worship:
Thirdly, that they be severed from superstition or opinion of merit:
Lastly, that the Church of God be not burdened with the multitude of them.”
The Divine Right of Church Government… (1646), Introduction, Section 1, pp. 11-12
“…he [Paul] speaks of many special positive precepts and rules of policy, as of poor widows, the alms to be given to them; the not rebuking of an elder, the office of elders governing, and of elders laboring in the Word and doctrine, the not receiving an accusation against an elder, but under two or three witnesses, the public rebuking of those who offend publicly, the not admitting to the ministry raw and green soldiers not tried, and many other particulars of policy, of all which he says gravely, [1 Tim. 5] v. 21, ‘I charge thee before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things, etc.’
Certainly, [in Greek] these things were not one commandment, but all the precepts of faith and of Church-Government spoken of in this epistle; and truly I shall think that Paul who particularizes that Timothy should not drink water, but a little wine because of his infirmity, and of bringing with him the cloak that he left at Troas, and the parchments, 2 Tim. 4, does far more specify all the positives of policy and writ how all the Timothies and pastors are to behave themselves in the Church of God…
…for other positive things of policy that should be of perpetual use, and not all of the same kind, and of equal necessity…”
Free Church of Scotland
Catechism on the Principles and Constitution of the Free Church of Scotland Issued by Authority of the General Assembly… New Edition (Edinburgh, 1882), p. 23
“Q. 61. In what light are the acts of Church assemblies to be viewed?
A. They are not new or additional laws, regulating points on which the mind of Christ has not been revealed, or cannot be ascertained, but declarations of the laws of Christ, and applications of these laws, and of the principles involved in them, to particular cases or circumstances. (Acts 15:6-29, compared with 1 Cor. 8.)”
Lavater, Ludwig – A Brief Work on the Rites & Institutions of the Zurich Church (1559) ToC This is mainly a platform of Church government, or a book of discipline.
Lavater (1527-1586) was a Swiss Reformed theologian working in the circle of his father-in-law, Heinrich Bullinger. He served as Archdeacon at the Grossmünster in Zurich and briefly as the Antistes of the Zurich church as the successor of Rudolf Gwalther.
Polanus a Polansdorf, Amandus – ’59. Of the Ecclesiastical Power, where is of the Power: of Ecclesiastical Elections, of Judging Religious Controversies, of Ecclesiastical Order and Jurisdiction of the Church…’ in The Divisions of Theology Framed according to a Natural Orderly Method (Basil, 1590; Geneva, 1623), pp. 235-240
Zepper, Wilhelm – Ecclesiastical Polity, or the Form & Rule of the Administration & Governance of the Kingdom of Christ, which is the Church in this Earth... (Herborn, 1595), Bk. 1
Ch. 9, ‘Of Ceremonies in General’, pp. 47-8
Boethius, Heinrich – 18 Theological Disputations: of the Power of the Church & the Calamities of it, in General & in Specific (Helmstedt, 1604) This is only one disputation, from a collection of 18.
Boethius (1551-1622) was a German, reformed professor of theology and Greek.
Tilen, Daniel – An Ordered Arrangement of Theological Disputations held in the Academy of Sedan, vol. 2 (1607, 1611)
27. Power of the Church in how it Ought to Constitute Good Order 271
28. Power of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction 281
29. Power of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction: Polemical 291
30. Councils: Of the Nature of Them 305
31. Councils: Of the Authority of Them 315
Tilen (1563-1633) was a German-French Protestant theologian. Initially a Calvinist, he (after this work was published, it appears) became a prominent and influential Arminian teaching at the Academy of Sedan. He was an open critic of the Synod of Dort of 1618-9.
Pareus, David – Collection 9, 28, ‘Of the Vanities of Bellarmine about the Controversy of Indulgences, Extreme Unction, Ecclesiastical Order & Matrimony’ in Theological Collections of Universal Orthodox Theology, where also All of the Present Theological Controversies are Clearly and Variously Explained, vol. 2 (1611/20), pp. 536-540
Comenius, John Amos – An Exhortation of the Bohemian Church to the Anglican Church on the Good of Unity, Order, Discipline & Obedience in a Rightly Constituted, or Reforming, Church, with a Description Prefixed of the Order and Discipline in the Churches (Amsterdam, 1660)
Comenius (1592-1670) was a Czech philosopher, pedagogue and theologian from Moravia who is considered the father of modern education. He served as the last bishop of the Unity of the Brethren before becoming a religious refugee and one of the earliest champions of universal education, a concept eventually set forth in his book Didactica Magna. As an educator and theologian, he led schools and advised governments across Protestant Europe through the middle of the seventeenth century.
The Unity of the Brethren church had its roots in the teaching of Czech reformer Jan Hus. Comenius was greatly influenced by Boehme and was interested in prophecy. PRDL lists him as reformed.
Voet, Gisbert – Ecclesiastical Politics (Amsterdam, 1663-1676)
vol. 1 (1st part of the 1st part), Book 1, Tract 2, ‘Of the Power, Polity & Canons of the Churches’
7. Of the Polity or Government of Churches, p. 241 ff.
On Custom [Consuetudine], p. 261
15. Some Questions on Canon Law, p. 332
Vol. 4, pt. 3, bk. 4, Tract 1, ‘Of Ecclesiastical Power’
Alting, J. Henricus – A Logical and Theological Exegesis of the Augsburg Confession with an Appendix of the Problems Involved (Amsterdam, 1647)
14. ‘Of Ecclesiastical Order’ 88
15. ‘Ecclesiastical Rites’ 91
Alting exegetes this major Lutheran confession and argues the Reformed position.
On the Subservient Nature of Church Policy to the Word
pp. 290-1 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’ under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3
“XX. Although the authority of these constitutions is great in the church, we deny that it is absolute, but limited; or that it is equal with the divine laws; or that it is as great a sin to transgress the former as the latter. We deny that they can change the nature of things, so that what are in themselves indifferent can be made necessary and of perpetual right; or that any part of Christian righteousness is in them, much less any merit with God; or that they can extend themselves beyond ecclesiastical polity or good order (eutaxian), which by themselves are not of piety, but only on account of another thing and by accident.
Again, we say that they are not to be measured by themselves, but by divine laws, that they may not in anyway obstruct, but may rather subserve the latter.”
How All Church Governing May be Practically Done unto Edification
Durham, James – 7. ‘A Sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12’ in Collected Sermons of James Durham…, vol. 1 (Naphtali & RHB, 2017), pp. 916-940.
Eph. 4:11-12 says, “He gave… pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints… for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
This sermon, first published in this volume, was very historically important, being preached at a synod in Glasgow in 1652, as the beginnings of the Resolutioner and Protester controversy arose in the Church of Scotland, which sadly split the Church for the better part of a decade.
The practical advice Durham gives in this sermon is second to none, giving many specifics on how all Church governing, in all aspects of it, must be done unto edification in its time, place and circumstances. This sermon is something of a microcosm that Durham would later greatly expound upon and expand in his book on Scandal.
On How Church Discipline is Limited to Edification in its Time & Place, etc.
Durham, James – ‘Instance 2’, Rules 1-4 in 7. ‘A Sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12’ in Collected Sermons of James Durham…, vol. 1 (Naphtali & RHB, 2017), pp. 922-924
Tactics of Church Government unto Edification
pp. 921-2 of 7. ‘A Sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12’ in Collected Sermons of James Durham…, vol. 1 (Naphtali & RHB, 2017)
“Question. And if it be questioned how can any truth be kept [back], or any duty forborne? Should not all sin be reproved and can we be truthful to God and the people and not reprove sin or in forbearing any necessary duty, suppose it be to censure and maintaining authority of adjudications?
Answer. The question is not wither duty should be forborne or if all sin should be reproved, but of the right means how to get such a sin taken with and how to get such duty done rightly. [2.] The speaking of all truth and doing of all duty is not a duty simply lying on ministers at all times, for that which may not edify is not a duty. Besides that, all ministers know not all truth; therefore speaking of truth and doing of duty must be so gone about as they preach such and such a particular truth, to convince of this or that sin, or bring to the doing of such a duty, principally to edify the body of Christ, [and for] the saving of people’s souls. And if the forbearing of such a truth or the not pressing such a duty for a time gain the soul sooner, is he not bound to make his practice subservient to that end?
To clear it in a similitude: a man gets a commission to take in a strong city, but he is not obliged to take it in at such a strong port that is strongly fortified and at no other, but he is left to skill how to go about it or where to assault it. Will not wisdom say it were better to go to a part that is weaker or a part where either is more easy access and entry to be had, his commission being principally to take in the town and not that port now?
A minister’s work is to cast out Satan, and all lusts out of the soul, and to bring every thought in subjection to Christ, and whither is it wisdom to batter at one door of the soul that is strongly fortified against such a truth, or to look to win in by another that is less controverted, wisdom would say it is best to labor to win in on the soul by a truth that is less controverted and then it is far more easy to win that sort the sinner, keeps and gains the city.
This was the way Paul took, and directs ministers to use this holy wisdom and prudence, not stinting them to one gate [way] of pressing to duty or proponing [setting forth] truths, or convincing of sin, but leaving room to them to follow that way which may most edify, and to choose matter and method of proceeding as may be most subservient to that end. For when folks are confirmed in a thing and have a prejudice at that [which] may be spoken against it, it is a double work to a minister to set on a sin that is both in the affection and judgment.
It is far better going in at another port than were the prejudice is fixed. Hence Paul leaves controverted questions of the law and is less preaching down those, but is more in positive truths and sins unquestioned, [and on] principles acknowledged by those he dealt with, and with idolaters and superstitious Samaritans beginning with preaching Christ, and not first falling on their idols, which might mar the other.”
On the Mutability of Church Policy
The French Reformed Churches 1599
The First Synod at Paris, ch. 2 in John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia Reformata… (London, 1692), vol. 1, p. 7
“41. These present articles of Discipline are not so ordained by us, but that if the Church’s profit do require, they may be changed. But it shall not be in the power of any one particular church to change them, without having first advised with, and got the consent of a national synod.”
p. 292 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’ under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3
“XXIV. …But ecclesiastical canons (since they are of positive and human right, constituted only for the sake of external order, with the same consent with which they were enacted) can be changed and modified, others more suitable, in accordance with times and persons, being substituted for them. This Tertullian has well expressed: ‘The one rule of faith is wholly and alone immovable and unchangeable… But this law of faith remaining, others of discipline and conversation admit a newness of correction (On the Veiling of Virgins 1 [ANF 4:27; PL 2.889]).]
On Uniformity & Liberty in Church Policy
The French Confession 1559
ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions (RHB, 2010), vol. 2, p. 151
Article 32, Church Rules
“We believe that it is expedient, that those who are chosen superintendents in the church, should wisely consult among themselves, by what means the whole body may be conveniently ruled, yet so as they do not swerve form that which our Lord Jesus Christ has instituted. And this does not hinder, but that in some churches there may be those particular constitutions, which will be more convenient for them than for others.”
The Divine Right of Church Government… (1646), Intro
“And as touching things of prudence, they are things properly mixed [partly moral and partly positive], as at what hour sermon shall begin in such a church, at eight, or nine or ten of the clock; how the worship shall be ordered, whether you should begin the worship with a word of prayer, or a word of praising, or a word of exhorting to stir up for the duty of the day, is a matter of prudence;
and because God has not laid the band of a precept on us, to begin with either of the three; therefore it would seem, that though the things themselves be moral, and must be warranted by a Word of God; yet the order is not moral, but prudential, and so cannot fall under a command of the Church;
for to me it is hard that men and the Church should lay on a tie or bond of a precept where God has laid on no such bond; The Church, in these mixed things, where the morality is not clear, at farthest can but go on to directive advices, as Paul does, 1 Cor. 7:6,12. Not to imposing of laws, nor to injunctions or commandments under the pain of Church-censures; for Christ must bind and ratify in Heaven all Church-censures on earth, and so the Church cannot command nor censure but as Christ Himself would command or censure.”
Section 5, pp. 80-81
“Again I conceive that there be two sort of positives in the externals of [Church] government or worship:
1. Some divine, as that there be in the public worship, prayers, praising, preaching, sacraments, and these are substantials; that there be such officers, pastors, teachers, elders and deacons; that there be such censures, as rebuking, excommunication and the like, are morally divine, or divinely moral: and when the Church forms a directory for worship and government, the directory itself is in the form not simply divine….
2. There be some things positive-human, as the ordering of some parts, or worship, or prayer, the form of words or phrases, and some things of the circumstantials of the sacrament, as what cups, wood or metal; in these the directory lays a tie upon no man, nor can the Church in this make a directory to be a Church-compulsory to strain men:
And this way the directory is not ordered and commanded in the frame and contexture as was the [Anglican] Service-Book [which was sought to be imposed on Scotland in 1637]; and the pastor or people in these are not properly moral agents [working things in themselves moral or religious], nor do we press that Scripture should regulate men in these.”
Appendix, pp. 87-8
“8. The non-necessaries, or such things as need not be in the worship of God, which do bring scandal, must: 1. be such as are neither necessary in specie, nor in individuo, ‘in kind’, or ‘in specie or nature’, or ‘in their individuals’ and particulars, as the whole category of men’s devices, as:
1. Unwritten traditions—not necessary, not written.
2. Human, mystical, symbolical signs and ceremonies—not necessary, not written.
3. Human holy-days, crossing, kneeling to elements, altars, crossing, surplice, rochets, etc.—not necessary, not written.
4. This and this human holy-day, this crossing—not necessary, not written.
2. These things are judged not necessary that are not necessary by way of disjunction, as surplice is not necessary by way of disjunction; for neither is surplice necessary, nor any other white or red habit [garment] that has some mystical, religious signification like unto [the] surplice; So kneeling to the elements [of the Lord’s Supper] is neither necessary, nor any the like religious honoring of them, by prostration before them, or kissing them.
But the things of the [Westminster] Directory for the Public Worship [which had been adopted by the Church of Scotland], as many of them are [1.] necessary and have express warrant in the Word, as praying, preaching, sacraments, praising, etc.
So 2. some things that are non-necessaries in the individual or particular words, or things, yet are they not to be removed in their alternative necessity, either this or the like, though some [persons] be thereby scandalized. Because though they be not necessary simply, yet are they necessary by way of disjunction, as that the minister say either these or the like words; for words to that sense are necessary. So the order that the Directory prescribes in citing such and such acts of divine worship is necessary either this way, or a way as convenient not different from this; for some order of necessity there must be.
So the [Anglican] Liturgy or Service Book, whatever Joseph Hall say on the contrary (as it is little that he does, or can, say), though it should contain many things necessary in specie, ‘in the kind’, sit for the external public worshipping of God, yet because these words in individuo, ‘in their particulars’ are not necessary, is to be removed, because though all the matter were good ([though] as much of it is Popish), yet that book in its structure, frame, style, grammar, method and form is Popish, and framed after the model of the Roman Missal, especially performed with the cursed authority of the Council of Trent, under Pius V, in all the masses, rubrics, epistles, Gospels, etc. is scandalous, and a Directory in Scripture words is better, and [the Anglican Service Book] is therefore justly laid aside by the Reverent [Westminster] Assembly and honorable Court of [the English] Parliament, because there is scandal in words, in style and language, in divine worship.
And these [Separatists?] who will abstain from practicing of some things in the Directory, for fear of scandalizing others, must give reasons from the Word that these things they forbear are neither necessary simply, nor by way of disjunction. Because as I conceive, things neither necessary in the same individuals, nor by way of disjunction, are such non-necessaries as are to be removed out of the worship of God for fear of scandal. And that any such non-necessaries can be found in the Directory, I do not see as yet.”
Gillespie, George – Ch. 15, ‘Of Uniformity in Religion, Worship of God and Church Government’ in Miscellaneous Questions
The Church May Not Discharge What is Warranted in the Word
The principle below, which derives from Scripture, is profound and far reaching.
While the Church may have sufficient circumstantial reasons to forbid a given practice due to its tendency to cause scandal, yet, if that practice is warranted and condoned in Scripture as something that God deems good, or something which tends towards good, which may be necessary for persons to perform in some, or any, circumstances, then, insofar as the Church has no power against the Word or God, so the Church may not wholly and absolutely forbid that practice in all circumstances.
In the context of the quote below, Rutherford sought to persuade the Church of Scotland of this principle in relation to private meetings for spiritual conferencing. Some persons in the Church of Scotland were seeking to forbid them altogether due to their being abused, and hence being scandalous. However Rutherford noted that meetings for private spiritual conferencing are warranted in the Word. If God deems them to be good, then how can the Church wholly forbid that which God has called good (see 1 Tim. 4:1-5)?
Unfortunately, the Church of Scotland in 1647 (seven years later) prohibited nearly all private, spiritual conferencing in their context when there was ‘peace and purity of the gospel’ in the land, due to abuses and fears of scandal. See The Directory for Family Worship, sections 6-7.
It it true that indifferent things ought not to be used if they cause scandal (Rom. 14); hence the Church can uphold and enforce this moral principle by forbidding the use of such indifferent things that cause scandal, to some degree. However, some indifferent things are warranted in God’s Word, and indifferent things in general may be used to a good, even a necessary purpose, and to that extent they may be necessary to do a needed good and fulfill God’s Will. Hence, even indifferent things cannot be wholly forbidden by the Church, even in light of offending weaker brothers (or scandal), inasmuch as God considers such things indifferent and not evil; and the reception of our actions by others is subordinate to the reception of our actions by God.
Further, some Church courts that lord over poor saints believe that they have the power to dismiss issues and cases for their own (sometimes ethically plausible) reasons, from their own point of view. However, if a saint insists on the issue, it being founded upon a truly pertinent verse or principle of Scripture (rightly inherent in the situation), the court has no power to dismiss the case out of hand without taking it up and dealing with it, insofar as all Church government is to be a servant of the Lord’s Will, and not a pimp of it.
The principle below checks the certain amount of sovereignty that Church courts necessarily must have in order to successfully and profitably navigate the Church’s many, and sometimes complex, issues that arise. The principle below binds Church governors so that they are not their own masters; and it gives sure rights to Christ’s sheep, which cannot be dismissed, if they come with the Lord’s Will written in Scripture in their hands (and if it is morally possible for the Church-governors to address and handle it).
To put it simply: if a something is brought to a Church court which they have the power to act upon, and it is warranted in Scripture, they must address the issue and handle it faithfully.
At the 1640 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Robert Baillie, Letters 1.252
“What Scripture does warrant, an assembly may not discharge.”
Public Worship Ordinances are Partly Moral & Partly Positive, & Hence may be Held, or Not (if Necessary), & to Differing Degrees in Variable Circumstances
Letter 104, to L. Humphrey & T. Sampson, May 1, 1566, pp. 220-21 of Zurich Letters, 2nd ed. chronologically arranged in one series (Parker Society, 1846).
“In fact, the times and places of religious assemblies are assuredly regarded among things indifferent; and yet, if there is no prescription in such cases, consider, I pray, what confusion and disorder would ensue?”
Divine Right of Church Government... (1646)
pp. 2 & 4
“And here also we consider things circumstantial, as time, place, etc. And circumstances are either merely physical [which are not regulated], or 2. merely moral [which are regulated], or 3. mixed, partly moral, partly physical [which are partly regulated]…
3. There be some mixed circumstances [of worship], as these same physical circumstances, clothed with their own seasonable conveniences; so time for worship, and due and convenient time is required, there may be some scandalous and superstitious time for worship… a place is required for private worship, and a fit place, such as is not the market-street for private praying; the inconveniency of the circumstance may vitiate the worship.”
“…therefore all the former circumstances, as they are clothed with either moral conveniency and expediency, or with some religious positive goodness, must be warranted by the Word of God, or the rules of sinless and spiritual prudence, which cannot deviate from the Word of God…
And as touching things of prudence, they are things properly mixed, as at what hour sermon shall begin in such a church, at eight, or nine, or ten of the clock; how the worship shall be ordered, whether you should begin the worship with a word of prayer, or a word of praising, or a word of exhorting to stir up for the duty of the day, is a matter of prudence; and because God has not laid the band of a precept on us, to begin with either of the three; therefore it would seem, that though the things themselves be moral, and must be warranted by a Word of God; yet the order is not moral, but prudential, and so cannot fall under a command of the Church;
For to me it is hard that men and the Church should lay on a tie or bond of a precept where God has laid on no such bond; The Church, in these mixed things, where the morality is not clear, at farthest can but go on to directive advices, as Paul does, 1 Cor. 7:6,12, not to [the] imposing of laws, nor to injunctions or commandments under the pain of Church-censures; for Christ must bind and ratify in Heaven all Church-censures on earth, and so the Church cannot command nor censure but as Christ Himself would command or censure.”
The Covenant of Life Opened… (1655), p. 214
“Question. Wherein stands the eternity of the Covenant of Grace? And what other properties there be of the Covenant?
Answer. The Law and Covenant of Works is a rule of everlasting righteousness, and so may be called an everlasting righteousness, containing precepts of the Law of nature intrinsically good, such as to know love, fear, trust in Him as the only true God: and in this sense it is an eternal Covenant.
But 1. it is not eternal in the positives of the Second, and Fourth, and Fifth Commands, the way of worship, the means, as ceremonies, Sabbath, magistracy, and such like, which are not to continue in the life to come, and so neither faith nor hope in God through Christ, 1 Cor. 13:13; Rom. 8:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:7, nor a Temple, nor ordinances, nor the Kingdom of Christ as now dispensed are to be the binding rule for eternity to such as are confederates of the Covenant of Grace, Rev. 21:22,23; 1 Cor. 15:24.”
vol. 2, 11th Topic, The Law of God, 2nd Question, The Nature of the Moral Law, section 3, p. 8
“III. (2) We must distinguish between simple precepts (i.e., merely moral) belonging to natural right and mixed precepts (moral and ceremonial, partly of natural and partly of positive right; as the fourth commandment concerning the Sabbath, which is moral as to the genus of public worship, but ceremonial as to the circumstance of the defined time; and the fifth, which is moral as to the prescribed duty and the promise of longevity, but ceremonial as to the appended promise of the land of Canaan).”
vol. 3, pp. 286 & 290 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’ under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’
“III. …acts of divine worship are twofold, some which do not differ from the worship itself (to wit, from piety and holiness, in which worship essentially consists); others ordinated to worship as helps or instruments to perform that worship suitably and declare it abroad.
The former kind of acts can be instituted and commanded of God alone, who is the sole chief and legislator, who has dominion over the conscience; nor does any right belong to the church of adding, taking away or changing anything.
The latter, again, are either necessary and so also instituted by God, at least as to being (to on)–for example that assemblies should be held, the word preached, the sacraments administered; others are contingent and free as to quality (to poion), the reason of which depends upon the honesty and fitness of particular churches (to wit, that assemblies should be held in this or that time and place and the sacraments administered).
The former, as being necessary, depend upon God alone and the church has no control or power over them; the latter God has thus far left to the will of the church as means and indifferent, so that a regard be always paid to divine truth., Christian simplicity and public edification.
XIX. The object of this directive power is not the doctrine itself of faith and worship (which rests upon the Word of God alone), but other things concerning which the express Word of God is not given, which are either merely indifferent and free or ambiguous and doubtful, concerning which God has delivered nothing certain in particular, such as was the case about which the apostle speaks in 1 Cor. 7:10,12, or which refer to the mode of external worship, or the determination of the circumstances, without which the precepts of the first table and the public exercises of piety in ecclesiastical assemblies scarcely and not even scarcely can be rightly observed and performed.
Here pertain the time, place, form and rule of prayers, addresses, of the administration of the sacraments, fasts, alms-giving: all of which ought to be established and exercised not with confusion, but rightly and decently (euschemonos) for the edification of the church. Since these in themselves are indifferent and do not directly touch the mystery of our salvation, they do not of themselves bind the conscience, nor yet are they so fixed and immovable that they may not be reformed and changed where the use of the church shall demand.”
XVI, 29, as trans. in Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, ch. 16, sect. 49
“As regards eutaxia [good-order] in matters naturally outward and indifferent she [the Church] sets up those she thinks most likely to further edification, not in order that, as is the vicious way in the Papacy, they may become an essential part of divine worship, the norm of which is to be sought in God’s Word alone; but in order that they may be its supports and instruments suited to persons, times and places, as things concerned solely with the determination of outward circumstances, which may be altered in various ways to meet the exigencies of public edification.”
Notes on Ecclesiology (Richmond, 1892), Ch. 12, ‘The Nature & Extent of Church Power’, p. 118
“With this view agrees Calvin. (See Institutes, Bk. 4, ch. 10, pp. 28-31.) The notion of Calvin and our Confession is briefly this: In public worship, indeed in all commanded external actions, there are two elements, a fixed and a variable.
The fixed element, involving the essence or the thing, is beyond the discretion of the church. The variable, involving only the ” circumstances” of the action, its separable accidents, may be changed, modified or altered, according to the exigencies of the case. The rules of social intercourse and of grave assemblies in different countries vary. The church accommodates her arrangements so as not to revolt the public sense of propriety.”
Contra Church Boards
Thornwell, James H. – Collected Writings (Richmond, 1873), vol. 4, Church Operations
‘Argument Against Church Boards’, pp. 145-172
‘Argument for Church Boards Answered’, pp. 173-216
‘Debate Touching Church Boards’, pp. 217-241
‘Church Boards & Presbyterianism’, pp. 242-296
In light of the need to establish and provide churches in the western expansion of America, congregationalists and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. formed a Plan of Union in order to work together for this cause under a compromise form of government. This lasted from 1801-1837. During this time many presbyterians, at the hand of congregationalists, became familiar with the use of boards, especially in light of the rising and popular, voluntary, national boards in America that were effectively doing Church work.
After the Plan of Union, the Presbyterian Church set up Church Boards. They would remain a part of the Northern presbyterian Church, though the subsequent Southern presbyterian Church did not use them, and were, in general, opposed to them. Charles Hodge in the North, amongst others, advocated for Boards. James Thornwell in the South, and others, argued against them.
Part of the problem with standing boards is that they act in many ways with an official power independent from the courts of elders of Christ’s Church, which have been given, by Christ, the governance in his Church. The people on such boards are also often appointed to those positions independently from the governance of the Church courts.
The Southern Presbyterian Church, on the other hand, along with the historic Church of Scotland during the 2nd Reformation, used committees to do such work, which were directly governed by the courts of the Church, and operated under them and their authority.
Another important issue controverted in the debates was how far or strictly does Scripture regulate Church government. Hodge argued that Scripture only gave certain general principles for Church government, but left the details to the Church’s discretion. Thornwell argued for a closer application than Hodge. For the unadulterated truth, that Church government is regulated as closely as Scripture regulates it, and what this all involves, in general and in detail, see Rutherford’s Divine Right of Church Government.
For a detailed timeline of the events through the Church Boards controversy, with numerous primary sources listed and linked, see ‘Jure Divino Presbyterianism & the Board Debates, 1841-1861’ at the PCA Historical Center.
Robinson, Stuart – ‘More Boards in the Presbyterian Church.—Some Inquiry into Fundamental Principles’ The Presbyterial Critic and Monthly Review I.5 (May 1855): 197-204
Robinson expounds on the notion that Boards essentially represent and work an Independent principle in a presbyterian Church.
John B. Adger:
“Dr. [Benjamin] Palmer well remarks that there was left over a “residuary bequest”—”a sort of remainder”—from the original controversy with which the church was rent in 1837-’38 [regarding the Plan of Union between presbyterians and congregationalists; see Palmer’s Life and Letters of Thornwell, pp. 182-221.] This bequest and remainder was the board controversy. One expression which he uses in relation to this very point is liable to be misunderstood. He says:
“During the period, when the [presbyterian] church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great national [voluntary] societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of boards. The church had become familiar with that mode of action,” etc.
No one will deny the influence of Congregationalism upon the Presbyterian Church, especially in those portions of it most contiguous to New England; nor that in the Northwestern wilderness, where the American Education Society and the American Home Mission Society chiefly operated, there was brought about a vassalage of the Presbyterian Church to Congregationalism.
Of course, Dr. Palmer did not mean to apply his remark to our church in all its parts and portions. Neither is he to be understood as meaning that our whole [presbyterian] Church had become familiar with that mode of action in the sense of becoming, in any degree, satisfied with it. The sturdy Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, who constituted the bulk of our Presbyterian Church in those days, had been educated better by their fathers, and could not approve the mixing up of the church with voluntary associations. They tolerated the Plan of Union, but, from the first, they did not like it, and it was influence from such quarters that finally overthrew it…
…when it is considered that in less than two years after the abrogation of the Plan of Union, there began a most determined opposition to the continuance of these methods [of Boards].” – My Life and Times, ‘The Board Controversy’, pp. 362-387
On Reforming Church Ordinances
On a Proper Zeal in Reforming Church Ordinances according to the Word
Calvin, John – ‘John Calvin on Imperfection in the Church’ from The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Presented to the Imperial Diet at Spires, A.D. 1544, in the name of all who want Christ to Reign (1544) in Tracts and Letters relating to the Reformation, trans. & ed. Henry Beveridge (7 vols, Edinburgh: Calvin Trans. Society, 1844), 1.186-87
On Having a Certain Tolerance in Reforming Church Ordinances, as is Warranted in Scripture
Vermigli, Peter Martyr – pp. 188-190 of Letter 53, ‘Martyr to Bishop Hooper’, Nov. 4, 1550 in Gorham, Gleanings of a few scattered ears during the period of the Reformation in England (London, 1857)
The principles for reformation that the continental divine Martyr gives to Bishop John Hooper, an English reformer, are profound.
However, not everything that Martyr says here is recommended, at least as applied to the vestment controversy in question. Martyr did not like vestments and wished for their removal, but he also opposed Hooper’s deliberate opposing of them at that time as Martyr believed there were much more pressing matters to contend for (so as not to get distracted on small matters). Martyr thought that vestments could be tolerated for a time till further reformation was made.
Calvin, John – Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, section 22
Calvin cites Acts 15 and the prohibition of the otherwise indifferent issue (in the Christian era) of eating blood as Scriptural evidence for a certain tolerance in reforming Church ordinances for the health and greater good of the Church.
No commandment of God, nor a Church ordinance or the reforming thereof, ought to destroy the Church. Both the peace and the purity of the Church ought to be aimed at in such reforms.
p. 923 of 7. ‘A Sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12’ in Collected Sermons of James Durham…, vol. 1 (Naphtali & RHB, 2017)
“Rule Two. We must have a respect to the ordinance itself, that it be not made contemptible, that the discipline of Christ’s house be not rendered obnoxious to reproach and contempt; and as in the first reformation of religion, when men were coming out of popery and were ready to fear and spurn at discipline, and knew not the difference between the popish yoke and Christ’s yoke, in that case and in that time there was forbearance on this account.
‘I would they were cut off that trouble you’ (Gal. 5:12). Why then would he not cut them off? Because there was such a distemper among the Galatians, they were so bewitched and led away after the false teachers, and Paul’s authority was questioned; therefore he held himself at a wish and will not put forth the authority he had against those false and corrupt men.”
How Far Church Orders, with Sufficient Natural Circumstances, may Limit Christian Liberty? Only insofar as the Word & Moral Law Limit it.
A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies... ([Leiden] 1637), pt. 4, ch. 3, pp. 10-11
“Moreover, as we may not use any indifferent thing at our own pleasure; so neither may the Church at her will and pleasure command the use of it: but as our practice, so the Church’s injunction must be determined and squared according to the former [three] rules [of using indifferent things (1) to the glory of God, (2)according to the law of charity and (3) purity of conscience]. And if any man think, that in the use of things indifferent he may be led and ruled by the Church’s determination without examining any further, let him understand that the Church’s determination is but a subordinate rule, or a rule ruled by higher rules.
He [Dr. Forbes] has been speaking of the rules which God’s Word gives us concerning the use of things indifferent, and all of them he comprehends under this rule, that we should hear the Church and obey them who are set over us, as if God’s rules were subordinate to men’s rules and not theirs to his. We say not that every man may use things indifferent suo arbitratu [according to his judgment]: but we say withal that neither may the Church command the use of things indifferent, suo arbitratu. Both, she in commanding and we in obeying, must be guided by the rules of Scripture.
They who are set over us in the Church have no power given them of Christ which is not for edifying, Eph. 4:12. The council of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (which is a lively pattern of a lawful synod to the world’s end) professed they would lay no other burden upon the disciples except such things as the law of charity made necessary for shunning of scandal: and so that which they decreed had force and strength to bind, a Charitate propter Scandalum [from charity due to scandal], says Sanctius. But suo arbitratu [by their (mere) judgment] they enjoined nothing. It appears by this place (says [Thomas] Cartwright) that there may be no abridgment of liberty simply decreed, but in regard of circumstance, according to the rule of edification. And if the Church’s decrees and canons be not according to the rules of the Word, yet forasmuch as everyone of us shall give account of himself and his own deed, we must look that whatsoever the Church decree, yet our practice in the use or omission of a thing indifferent, be according to the foresaid rules.
We may not for the commandment of men transgress the rule of piety by doing anything which is not for God’s glory and ordered according to his will; neither ought any of us to obey men, except for the Lord’s sake and as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God; which teaches us the manner how we ought to obey men, namely, propter Christum et sicut Christus praecipit [for Christ, as Christ commands]. For if we should know no more but the will of man for that which we do, then we should be the servants of men, not the servants of Christ.
Neither yet may we for any human ordinance break the rule of charity: but whatsoever either would weaken or not edify our brother, be it never so lawful, never so profitable to ourselves, never so powerfully by earthly authority enjoined, Christians, who are not born unto themselves, but unto Christ, unto his Church and unto the fellow members, must not dare to meddle with it.
Nor lastly may we obey men so as to break the Law of Purity, and perform any action with a doubtful conscience, that is, whereof either the Word has not, or we out of it have no warrant: in which case tender consciences must be tendered, rather than be racked by authority: for be the things in themselves never so lawful, etc., they are utterly unlawful to me without such information.
Whereas therefore some say that in the use of matters indifferent, the laws of those who are set over us ought to rule us; we still answer that our practice may not be ruled by any law of man except it be according to the rules of the Word; whereof one is this: Tantum oportere esse obedientiae studium in Christianis, ut nihil agant, quod non existiment vel potius certi sint placere Deo (Calvin on Rom. 14:5).”
The Divine Right of Church Government (London, 1646), Appendix, ‘An Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal’
Question 5, p. 58
“Things that fall under an affirmative precept [of God], and these cannot be totally omitted for eschewing scandal: for whatever God has commanded, is some way necessary. Therefore, it some ways, and in some cases may be done, though offence be taken at it;
but branches, or parts of affirmative precepts may be omitted for eschewing of scandal, as such a particular kneeling in prayer, in such a place¹…”
[¹ This seem to be a justification for the Church of Scotland in 1645 officially laying aside what had become a somewhat common custom in the Scottish Church, for ministers to privately and silently, before the congregation, kneel and pray before entering the pulpit (or while in the pulpit) just before preaching in the public service (Peterkin, Records, p. 422). It appears that Rutherford had previously been favorable to the practice, though, by at least 1640 became persuaded against it. See the section on ‘Bowing in the Pulpit’ in Fentiman, ‘The Predominant Exclusive Psalmody of the English & Scottish Churches from the Reformation through the Puritan Era…’.
To give another example illustrating Rutherford’s teaching: At the 1640 General Assembly, when many would have prohibited private spiritual conferencing altogether for fear of the abuse of it, Rutherford argued, “What Scripture does warrant, an Assembly may not discharge; but privy meetings for exercises of religion, Scripture warrants.” Nonetheless, the Church of Scotland’s Directory for Family Worship (1647, point 7) appears to prohibit private spiritual conferencing for reason of its abuses.
The implicit premise appears to have been that what may tend towards scandal may be prohibited by the Church; yet according to Rutherford’s teaching here, it cannot be prohibited absolutely if it is in fact warranted by Scripture, and therefore morally necessary in some situations.
Rutherford also taught that all ordinances of synods are positive law, and hence do not bind the conscience. Rutherford was also a Protester, and publicly protested for the greater part of his life, illustrating the principle that no claim of causing a scandal can prevent the morally and Biblically warranted duty of respectfully and appropriately continuing to protest unto the truth.]
“2. There be two necessities of things, one natural, and first in that regard; another religious, and in that regard secondary.
The former necessity does always stand, except God remove it by some posterior commandment. It’s necessary that Adam and Eve eat of all things that God created for eating. God (I grant) may remove this necessity in some, and command either Adam to fast for a time, or not to eat of the tree of Knowledge.
So say I, warning by Bells [signaling that divine service is starting soon, though Romanists previously used them unto superstition] has a physical necessity, the use of the temples [church-buildings] in worshipping has the like necessity, so have gold and silver a necessity, God only, either by a commandment or by an exigence of providence that stands to us (as in the case of a scandal), for a command can remove the physical necessity and inhibit Israel to use such and such gold as has been in use in the heathen idols, and may forbid to perform an act of obedience to an affirmative command in the case of scandal, as he may forbid Paul to take wages for preaching the Gospel, though Paul have some natural necessity of taking wages.
But the Church, without a higher warrant from God, has no power to restrain us in the necessary use that God has given us.”
The Formal Ground of Obedience: the Light of Nature & Scripture, not Because the Church has Said
The Divine Right of Church Government... (1646)
Intro, section 5, ‘Moral Obedience Resolved Ultimately in Scripture’, pp. 80-82
“2. As concerning actions of Church-policy that cannot be warranted by the light of nature, and yet have intrinsical conveniency and aptitude to edify and decently to accommodate the worship of God. I conceive these may be done, but not because the Church so commands, as if their commandment were the formal reason of our obedience, but because partly the light of the Law of reason, partly scripture does warrant them…
Question. But does not the Church determine things that of themselves are indifferent, as whether [the] sermon should begin at nine of clock or ten in the morning; and after the Church has past a determination for the diet of ten a clock, the indifferency of either nine or ten is removed and the practice, without any warrant of Scripture, [is] restricted to one, for order and peace sake; and why may not the like be done in positives of Church-government?
Answer. The truth is [that] the Church by her will puts no determination on the time, but only ministerially declares that which God’s providence accommodating itself to the season, climate, the conveniency of the congregation as they lie in distance from the place of meeting, has determined already…”
Question 2, p. 101
“6. What is warranted by natural reason, is warranted by Scripture, for the Law of nature is but a part of Scripture.”
Protesters No Subverters… (1658), p. 95-6
“…we shall premise some common and known truths concerning Church-judicatories and their decrees and sentences, as:
1. That (to express it in Calvin’s words, in the eighth chapter of the fourth book of his Institutions) whatsoever reverence or dignity is by the Spirit of God in the Scriptures given, whether to the priests, or prophets, or apostles, or their successors, all of it is given not properly to men themselves, but to the ministry, wherewith they are clothed; or (to speak more expeditely) to the Word; the ministry whereof is committed unto them, Ex. 3:4; 14:31; Deut. 17:•; Mal. 2:46; Deut. 17:10; Eze. 3:17; Jer. 23:28; Jer. 1:6; Mt. 28:19; Acts 15:10; etc.
2. That as their authority is founded upon, and wholly derived from the Word of God, so in the administration and exercise thereof, they are in all things to walk according to this rule, Isa. 8:19-20; Mal. 2:6-7; Mt. 28:19.
3. That Church-power is not a lordly and magisterial power, but a lowly and ministerial-power, not an absolute and autocratoric, but a limited and hyperetic-[below-kind-of-]power; and that Church decrees and sentences are all of them regulae regulatae, [rules being regulated] rules that are subordinated, and do not bind but in the Lord, and so far as they are conform to that first inflexible and unerring-rule, prescribed by Himself, Lk. 22:24-27; Gal. 6:16; 1 Peter 5:2-3; 1 Tim. 3:15-17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Eph. 6:1.”
On Guilt & Innocence in Breaking Church Ordinances
The Company of Pastors in Geneva 1541-64
The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin trans. Philip E. Hughes (Eerdmans, 1966) as given in ed. Hall & Hall, Paradigms in Polity… (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 118-9
“The Persons whom the Elders or Delegates (Commis) Ought to Admonish
and How they Ought to Proceed
[154.] If anyone speaks critically against the received doctrine, he shall be summoned for the purpose of reasoning with him. If he is amenable he shall be dismissed without scandal or disgrace. But if he is stubborn he shall be admonished for a number of times until it becomes apparent that there is need of greater severity, and then he shall be forbidden the communion of the supper and denounced to the magistrate.
[155.] If anyone is negligent to come to church in such a way that a serious contempt of the communion of Christians is apparent, or if anyone shows himself to be scornful of ecclesiastical order, he shall be admonished, and if he responds with obedience he shall be amicably dismissed. But if he persists, going from bad to worse, after he has been admonished three times, he shall be separated from the Church and denounced to the Seigneury [magistrates].”
p. 285-6, 290-1 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church? Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’ under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3
“However, we think that no proper lawmaking (nomothetiken) power was given to the church by which she can make laws directly and by themselves binding the conscience; but only an ordaining power (diataktiken), which can form constitutions and canons for the preservation of peace and good order (eutaxias), which on this account do not bind the conscience by themselves and directly, but only indirectly in case of scandal; that these are… only an order by by ministers; not of the essentials of Christ’s kingdom, but only of the external accidents and things indifferent; nor are they good per se, but only on account of circumstances and their relation (schesin) to the end.
IV. (2) …Laws bind the conscience per se and directly, and a violation of them incurs guilt; but constitutions bind the conscience only indirectly, and a violation of them incurs guilt; but constitutions bind the conscience only indirectly and mediately in case of scandal and contempt. Hence the guilt arising from their violation is not properly on account of the violation of the constitution, but on account of the neglect of the authority which God ordained, and on account of the scandal given.
XX. Again, in the transgression of them [church constitutions] there can be no sin except indirectly (i.e., not on account of the usurpation of the thing itself [as in homicide, fornication], but on account of another thing [if it is from contempt of lawful authority], for because obedience is commanded by God, there is sin in a neglect of it, if with a neglect of brotherly edification, or if from impiety and license. However, if all these are absent, there will be no sin in a transgression of them… nor is the authority of the one commanding to be so much regarded as the cause of the command.”
“Let all things be done decently and in order.”
1 Cor. 14:40
“Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.”
1 Cor. 11:33-34
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you…
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat… And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. Now the Lord of peace himself give you peace always by all means.”
2 Thess. 3:6-7,10,14-16