Church Government

“He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;  for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”

Eph. 4:11,12




The Regulative Principle of Church Government

Views of Church Government 

The Offices of the Church 

The Ruling of the Church

Church Membership



Order of Contents

Ladies Voting in the Church
On Extraordinary Practices in Church Government




Alexander, Archibald

The Faithful Elder, HTML, no date or source info, 6 paragraphs

A Dialogue Between a Presbyterian and a “Friend”1792, 40 pp.

Berkhof, Louis – The Power of the Church, 1950, 21 paragraphs, from his Systematic Theology

Dabney, Robert – A Speech against the Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians1867, 16 pages

For the other side of the argument, from a southern white pastor of black slaves, urging their capacity to rule as elders, see John L. Girardeau’s Our Ecclesiastical Relations to Freedmen1867.  Girardeau’s position came to prevail and was enacted within a few years.

Girardeau, John – Our Ecclesiastical Relations to Freedmen, 1867, 18 pages

Girardeau, a southern white pastor of black slaves, argues that blacks may be elders (governors) in church courts.  For an exposition of what Girardeau is arguing against, see Robert Dabney’s A Speech against the Ecclesiastical Equality of Negro Preachers in our Church and their Right to Rule over White Christians, 1867, 16 pages.  Girardeau’s position came to prevail and was enacted in the southern church a few years later.

Hodge, Charles – What is Presbyterianism?  An AddressRe-typeset PDF, 1855, 80 pages

Isbell, Sherman – The Church in Relation to its Constitution2006, 12 pages

Isbell describes the European understanding of a constitution and argues that a church’s constitution is inviolable and cannot be changed

Miller, Samuel – On Ecclesiastical Polity, 1833, p. 171, 42 pages

Rutherford, Samuel – A Defense of the Government of the Church of Scotland, PDF, 1642, 20 pages, being chapter 20 of his A Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland

Rutherford describes and defends from scripture the church government of the Church of Scotland in his day.  It is an excellent, brief, overview and defense of a four office view of church government, the calling and ordination of office bearers, and the Scottish practice of the administration of the Lord’s Supper.  It also has helpful articulations of Biblical views of days of fasting, marriage, offering, church censures, private and family worship and spiritual conferencing.




Cunningham, William – Discussions on Church Principles: Popish, Erastian and Presbyterian,  Buy  1863, 565 pages

Many people are aware of Bannerman’s Church of Christ, which positively expounds the doctrine of the Church from scripture.  Cunningham’s work is more polemical, against the errors of alternative views.  Both are needed.  This is his main work on Church writings, a subject too often neglected in our day.

Hodge, Charles – Discussions in Church Polity  Buy  1878, 560 pages

This and his Essays and Reviews are the main source for Hodge’s important and influential writings in church theory and practice, especially in the context of the 1800′s debates between the northern and southern presbyterians.  In it you will find him defending the historic reformed view that the Roman Catholic Church is part of the Visible church, that her baptism is valid, and that baptized infants are under the discipline of the church.  On the other hand he argues against the historic reformed view of the Establishment Principle for a Voluntary position with regard to Church and State, and for an Americanized three office view of church government.  In his day the new issue came up of church boards, which he defends, as opposed to the more rigorously Biblical view of Thornwell against them.  Many other interesting points of polity are also discussed.

Miller, Samuel

Letters Concerning the Constitution and Order of the Christian Ministry… with a Prefatory Letter on the Episcopal Controversy1830, 558 pages.  The Letters are systematically laid out in the table of contents starting with the testimony of scripture concerning church government, then the testimony of the history of the church, followed by the rise and progress of prelacy and its practical problems.

Miller became heavily involved in public debates about prelacy (top-down church government by bishops) due to the rise of the influence of Episcopalians in his area.  This is must reading for a defense of presbyterianism from scripture and history, and for showing the Biblical and historical errors of episcopalian government.

Letters to Presbyterians, on the present crisis in the Presbyterian Church in the United States1833, 340 pages

Presbyterianism, the Truly Primitive and Apostolic Constitution of the Church of Christ: or a View of the History, Doctrine, Government, and Worship of the Presbyterian Church,1848, 308 pages

The Primitive and Apostolical Order of the Church of Christ Vindicated1840, 398 pages, by Samuel Miller

The Ruling Elder: respecting the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the OfficeHTML,  Buy  1840, 335 pages

The best American book on the subject preserving the historic reformed view that the Ruling Elder is a distinct office from the Minister and that the Ruling Elder is also a “presbyter” (“elder” in the English) along with the Minister.  Thornwell would come along and claim that the Ruling Elder holds the same office as the Minister.  Hodge in the North then rightly distinguished the Ruling Elder as a separate office, but excluded the Ruling Elder from the category of “presbyter” (“elder” in English), as do the Episcopalians.



Ladies Voting in the Church

Whether Ladies have the Right to Vote for Church Officers



On Extraordinary Practices in Church Government

James Guthrie

Protesters No Subverters…  (Edinburgh, 1658)

p. 22

“…what wonder were it though, [for] the gaining or preserving of that which is more excellent and necessary, and for avoiding of a greater evil, should sometimes and in some cases, persuade unto a sinless preterition [passing over] of some things, otherwise fit to be observed in the course of formality and order;”


pp. 28-29, 33

3.  That the General Assemblies [of the Church of Scotland] in the progress of Reformation [from 1638] did begin to be so sensible of the multitude of insufficient and scandalous men that did still remain in presbyteries and synods, that they did judge presbyteries and synods not able to purge themselves, and that therefore it was necessary to [extraordinarily] give commission to some select brethren, nominated by themselves, for visiting the bounds of presbyteries and synods, with power to these brethren to try and censure such ministers and elders as they found insufficient or scandalous.

4.  That these brethren found so much work in many places of the country as they were not able soon to overtake, but after the continuing of their diligence by renewed commissions for two or three years space, the General Assembly, upon the report of what was yet to do in places that had only been in part visited, and in consideration of the condition of other places, not yet visited, did find it necessary to [extraordinarily] appoint select persons, nominated by themselves, for visiting most of the presbyteries and synods in the country, with power to try and censure, as aforesaid.

5.  That those almost general visitations of the whole Land, albeit judged most necessary for purging of the Kirk of the multitude of corrupt or insufficient men, whom presbyteries and synods were either not able, or not willing to censure, was never kept, because of the war immediately following betwixt the two nations [Scotland & England]….

2.  The General Assemblies (as we have already showed) did conceive extraordinary commissions and visitations to be needful when the Church was in a much better condition than she is now [in 1658]; And though not a few in presbyteries and synods did then speak the same language that our [Resolutioner] Brethren do now, to wit, that it did lay a foundation for an universal imputation upon the synods and other Church-judicatories as not worthy to be trusted with the work committed to them by Christ, and was a tyrannical imposition upon them, yet that did not hinder the [General] Assembly so to do, because they did see that such a way of commissions and visitations was necessary for the time, when presbyteries and synods (many of them) were either not able, or not willing to do that duty in order to the purging of the Church of corrupt officers.”


pp. 33-34

“3.  That there is a difference betwixt the essentials and circumstantials of presbyterial government; the one being such as are of divine or scriptural institution, and in themselves unalterable; the other being such as are of positive human institution, which are to be regulated by that great end of edification, and therefore may be altered accordingly as they do or do not contribute for that end.

It is observable that the resolution Brethren in this and sundry other of their papers do in many of these challenges which they bring against the protesting Brethren (as proceeding in their planting of churches and ordaining and admitting of [ministers?], and propounding of overtures for purging and planting the Church in such a disorderly way as is destructive to the being of the government, we say, they do confound these things, and oftentimes take circumstantials for essentials:

As for instance, that a minister shall be ordained by a plurality of presbyters, we hold with them to [???] of scriptural divine institution, but that he be ordained by such a number, officiating in such bounds, the Scripture has not determined; And therefore, if the major part of a presbytery conspire for keeping out a godly man from the ministry that is lawfully called by the congregation and rightly qualified, because he is not of their judgment in declining courses, it’s no breach upon the being and essentials of the government that he receive his ordination and admission to the ministry from a neighboring presbytery, especially when this conspiracy is generally throughout the country, and no remedy thereof can be had by a superior judicatory:

So in the case of the overture in hand, though because of the present condition of synods, and for edification, there be a little alteration of some things from the common way of order, yet does it not involve anything destructive to the being of the government.  No persons are desired to be upon these visitations but ministers and elders duly qualified, and members of the respective synods; No power is desired to be given but that which is properly ecclesiastical; Nor is it desired to be derived from any fountain, but from the synod itself; Nor to proceed by any rule but by the Word of God and the acts of uncontroverted [former] General Assemblies [which allowed and executed such]; Nor are they to exercise it independantly, but with subordination unto, and being accomptable to the synod from whence they do receive it…

Is it tyrannically to impose, to desire the synod for the better and more unanimous carrying-on the Work of God, to ratify the nomination of some of the choicest of their own members, made by no forinsic persons, or party, or power, but by the intrinsic members of the synod itself, and that in such a distracted condition of the Church, and that they are not comptable [accountable], is alleged gratis [freely without warrant].

The Article, as propounded to our Brethren, does expressly provide that these committees shall in their proceedings be comptable to the synods, nor does that clause of the synods not reversing anything done by these [smaller] committees, without the previous advice and consent of the [larger] general committee of delegates, import anything to the contrary, but that the synod may take an accompt of the proceedings of their own committee, and admonish and rebuke them; yea, and take away their commission and power, in the case of mal-administration, and give it to others of their number, nominated as aforesaid:

And for a jurisdiction by this means set up above themselves, we can see no such thing in the Overture, but only a power of advice upon the part of these delegates (which yet the synod are not simply tied by the Overture to follow, as in the case of their advising the synod to reverse the deeds of these Committees) and a brotherly condescension in the synods in the present condition of the Church, not to reverse things done by these committees without the advice and consent of these delegates.

Neither will our Brethren’s negative voice prove it; because as these delegates have not a negative voice in all cases, as we have already showed, to wit, in the case of ratifying of the proceedings of these committees, the synod being free, notwithstanding anything in the Overture to ratify, albeit the delegates should not consent, but advise otherwise; So it is a new device to say, that a negative voice infers a superior jurisdiction and power; for, at most it makes but a co-ordinate power: And that there is any absurdity in this, that a committee of delegates, nominated by the common consent of all the synods, should, in this condition of the Church, have such a power (if yet it be a power of jurisdiction) we do not see.

4. This Overture was not propounded as a perpetual standing way, always to be followed and kept up in the Church, as our Brethren are pleased to insinuate, much less was it propounded hereby to lay a way for perpetuating of differences and contentions (a prejudice also they are pleased to load it with) but, as it expressly bears, to continue only till the present differences be healed, or, till the Lord in providence minister some better way for settling peace amongst us.

Will the resolution Brethren in this present sickly declining and distracted condition of the Church, allow of no remedy for purging thereof and composing differences, that is in any circumstance out of the common road of the ordinary procedures of presbyteries and synods?  We know that they will tell us that the Church is sound and healthy, and sufficiently able by presbyteries and synods to purge herself.  But why then (we pray our Brethren to tell us) did the General Assembly, before these differences did arise, unanimously, judge that presbyteries and synods were not sufficiently able to do it, and did, upon conviction hereof, appoint extraordinary commissions and visitations for doing of it?

…but, that by some mean or another that is not sinfull, the House of God might be purged;…

Whence it appears, that nothing will please, unless the protesting Brethren condescend, as asses, to bow down under the burden by an absolute submission to presbyteries and synods, as now constituted (that is upon the matter to the Brethren for the public Resolutions, the protesting Brethren being, by their own verdict, a few number in comparison of the body of the ministry of this Church) in their present and future actings, how negligent or corrupt soever, which themselves make evident in the next thing whereupon they impeach them, as projecters against, and subverters of the government of the Church, to wit, their refusing to engage themselves to an absolute submission to the sentences of the Church judicatories.”




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