Presbyterianism

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A ‘presbyter’ is the Biblical office of elder.  ‘Presbyterianism’ is the rule of Biblical elders.  We are presbyterian because we believe that the Bible clearly teaches this as the form of government for Christ’s Church.

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Order of Contents

Introduction
Biblical Warrant for Presbyteries

Articles
Books
That Church Planting is to be Helped by all Levels within Presbyterianism
Quote
On Natural Law in Church Government
On Cases of Extraordinary Necessity in Church Government


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An Introduction to the Biblical Warrant for Presbyterianism

It was not Christian lay persons or the local session of elders that received the Keys of the Kingdom of Christ to bind and loose, but the apostles as representatives of the universal visible Church (Jn. 20:22-23; Mt. 28:16,18-20;16:18-19; Eph. 4:11-12), which authority has descended upon the regular and continual presbyteries of the Church (1 Tim. 4:14).

In Matt 18:15-20, the classic text on Church discipline, the ‘church’ has the power of the Keys of government.  What does the word ‘church’ mean in this passage?

In the Old Testament, matters of great weight were prescribed to be appealed to the Levitical officers in Jerusalem (Deut. 17:8; see this in practice in 2 Chron. 19:8).  As George Gillespie argued (in Aaron’s Rod, p. 188), the Hebrew equivalent of the word ‘church’ is often used to designate these great assemblies of elders and rulers of Israel (1 Chron. 13:2,4; 29:1; 2 Chron. 1:3, etc.).  And that which is commanded to, and performed by, the elders (Dt. 19:12; Josh. 20:4), is also said to have been done by the congregation (Num. 35:24; Josh. 20:6; Ex. 12:3,21), as the elders are the congregation’s legal representatives.  “It was not, therefore, to any assembly, but to an assembly of rulers that causes were brought in the Old Testament.”

In the day when Christ spoke, before the New Testament Church was separate from the synagogue, the word ‘church’ referred to the ecclesiastical, judicial, ruling assemblies of the synagogue, and excommunications (according to the Jewish practice) were not binding if pronounced by fewer than ten men (see Aaron’s Rod, pp. 23-4).  These ruling assemblies of elders alone had the power of excommunication, and are called ‘presbyteries’ in the Greek of Luke 22:66,71 and Acts 22:5.

In the New Testament the word ‘church’ often refers to greater, judicial assemblies, the body of regional overseeing office-bearers and the body of regional congregations (see the Greek of Acts 19:38-9Acts 11:222 Cor. 2:6; Acts 13:1-3; 20:17,28; 21:18-19; etc.).  The 1800’s, Southern Presbyterian, Thomas Smyth demonstrates in detail that there were presbyteries at Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Samaria and Corinth in his Ecclesiastical Catechism, pp.  69-75.

1 Cor. 5:1-5 is the only description of an excommunication that we have in the New Testament, an example of exercising the Keys.  It is clear from 1 Cor. 12:20,28 and 14:3,22,24 that there were many regional office bearers in the congregations at Corinth that sat judging as a college of elders, 1 Cor. 14:29.  When Paul tells them to excommunicate the offender, it is with his regional judicial authority (1 Cor. 5:3-5), and we know from 2 Cor. 2:6 that it was done by ‘many’.

The congregation does not have the power of the Keys to excommunicate as they are ruled, not rulers.  To be a ruler to oneself is not to be under authority.  Rather, it is Christ that rules his visible Church from heaven through the earthly officers He sets over his people (Eph. 4:11-13).  For lay persons to vote another member out of the church is the equivalent of the children of a family kicking out their sibling by popular vote.  

Thus, ‘Church’ in Matt 18 does not mean the congregation or the local session, but the whole Church, in its various levels of ruling government, which alone has the full root of delegated authority from Christ to rule over his flock.

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Biblical Warrant for Presbyteries

Binnie, William – The Associating of Neighboring Congregations under a Common Representative Government, p. 131, two pages, from his The Church

Smyth, Thomas – Of the Presbytery  1841  6 pages in question and answer format.  From his Ecclesiastical Catechism, pp.  67-75,

Smyth demonstrates in detail that, by apostolic practice, there were presbyteries at Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Samaria and Corinth.  Be sure to look up all the scripture references, and then tell your friends.

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Articles

1600’s

Baillie, Robert – ‘A Discourse Anent Episcopacy, 1638’ in Religious Controversy in Scotland, 1625-1639  ed. David G. Mullan  in Scottish History Society, Fifth Series, vol 11 (Edinburgh: Scottish Historical Society, 1998), pp. 149-191

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1800’s

Cunningham, William

Presbyterianism, 1863, p. 514, ten pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 2

Testimony of the Reformers as to Presbyterianism, 1863, p. 525, 9 pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 2

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1900’s

Berkhof, Louis – The Government of the Church, 1950, 32 paragraphs, from his Systematic Theology

Berkhof gives the Dutch perspective on modified-presbyterianism, which gives less authority to synods and more authority to the local congregation.  For the classic, Biblical view of presbyterianism, see any of the Scotch writers.

 

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Books

1600’s

Calderwood, David – The Course of Conformity, as it has proceeded, as it is concluded, and as it should be refused  (1622)  130 pp.

This work is primarily against episcopacy.  Some attribute it to William Scot (c. 1558-1642) or James Melville.  Thomas M’Crie assigned it to Calderwood.

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1700’s

Anderson, John – A Defence of the Church-Government, Faith, Worship & Spirit of the Presbyterians: in answer to a late book entitled, An Apology for Mr. Thomas Rhind, or, An Account of the Manner how and the reasons for which he separated from the Presbyterian party and embraced the communion of the Church  (1714; Edinburgh: 1820)

Anderson (c.1668-1721) was a Scottish minister in Dumbarton.  On Anderson, see Robert Wodrow, Correspondence, vol. 1, Letter 15, pp. 34-9.

“But the work by which he is best known, and in which his learning and wit appear to the best advantage, is his ‘Defense of the Church Government…  and [it] may be said to have never been answered.” – Wodrow

William G. Blaikie: 

This publication has always been considered one of the ablest defences of the presbyterian system.” – DNB

Aiton, Thomas – The Original Constitution of the Christian Church: wherein the Extremes on Either Hand are Stated & Examined, to which is added an Appendix containing the Rise of the Jure Divino Prelatists, and an answer to their Arguments by Episcopal Divines  (Edinburgh, 1730)  vol. 1, 2 (Appendix)

Aiton (or Ayton, 1694-1739) was a Scottish presbyterian, minister at Alyth.  His work was recommended by Samuel Miller and Thomas Smyth.  Thomas F. Torrance has an essay about this book in Duncan Shaw’s “Reformation and Revolution” (1967).

Hall, Archibald – An Humble Attempt to Exhibit a Scriptural View of the Constitution, Order, Discipline, and Fellowship of the Gospel-church  1795

Brown, John, of Hadddington – Letters on the Constitution, Government, and Discipline, of the Christian Church  d. 1787

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1800’s

Abbott, James – A History of the Roman and English Hierarchies, with an Examination of the Assumptions, Abuses and Intolerance of Episcopacy, Proving the Necessity of a Reformed English Church  1831  385 pp.

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That Church Planting is to be Helped by all Levels within Presbyterianism

With General Assemblies

The Scottish Second Book of Discipline  1578

Ch. 7, ‘Of the Elderships, and Assemblies, and Discipline’

“22.  This [general] assembly is instituted, that…  things generally serving for the weal [health] of the whole body of the kirk within the realm may be foreseen, treated, and set forth to God’s glory.

23.  It should take care that kirks be planted where they are not planted…”

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With Regard to Presbyteries

George Gillespie

Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland  (Edinburgh, 1846), Part 2, Concerning the Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, and the Authority Thereof

Ch. 2, ‘Of the Independency of the Elderships of Particular Congregations’, last section, p. 44

Ch. 3, ‘Of Greater Presbyteries, which some call Classes’, ‘The last proposition’, pp. 48-49

These sections show that church planting is to be under presbyteries, which have the main charge of this responsibility, they providing the direct regional oversight; and that the root of Church authority is the presbytery and not local sessions.

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With Regard to Local Sessions

The Scottish Second Book of Discipline  1578

Ch. 7, ‘Of the Elderships, and Assemblies, and Discipline’

“10.  The first kind and sort of assemblies, although they are within particular congregations, yet they exercise the power, authority, and jurisdiction of the kirk with mutual consent, and therefore bear sometimes the name of the kirk.

When we speak of the elders of the particular congregations, we mean not that every particular parish can, or may, have their own particular elderships, especially to landward; but we think three or four, more or fewer, particular kirks may have one eldership common to them all, to judge their ecclesiastical causes.”

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Quote

Jonathan Edwards, who was an early-1700’s, New England congregationalist

From a letter from Edwards to John Erskine in Scotland.  Memoir of Edwards, prefixed to the London edition of his Works, p. 163

“You are pleased, dear sir, very kindly to ask me, whether I could sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and submit to the presbyterian form of government; and to offer to use your influence to procure a call for me to some congregation in Scotland.  I should be very ungrateful if I were not thankful for such kindness and friendship.

As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty; and as to the presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land, and the presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God, and the reason and nature of things; though I cannot say that I think that the presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland is so perfect, that it cannot, in some respects, be mended.”

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On Natural Law in Church Government

Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646), Intro, Section 5, p. 80

“As concerning actions of Church-Policy, that cannot be warranted by the light of nature, and yet have intrinsecal conveniency and aptitude to edify and decently to accomodate 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…  Again I conceive that there be two sort of positives in the externals of 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:

[2.] and when the Church forms a directory for worship and government; the directory itself is in the form not simply divine.”

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How Church Government is in its Fountain Positive, though includes Natural Law in Some Respects

Article

Rutherford, Samuel – Ch. 14, pp. 200-203  of A Peaceable & Temperate Plea…  (1642)

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On Cases of Extraordinary Necessity in Church Government

Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea...  (1642), ch. 1, pp. 7-8.  See the original for the references.

“2nd Conclusion:  I deny not but there is a power virtual, not formal in the Church of believers, to supply the want of ordination of pastors or some other acts of the keys simply necessary, hic et nunc; this power is virtual, not formal, and extraordinary not ordinary, not official, not properly authoritative, as in a Church in an island where the pastors are dead or taken away by pest or otherways; the people may ordain pastors or rather do that which may supply the defect of ordination, as David without immediate revelation from Heaven to direct him, by only the Law of nature, did eat showbread;

so is the case here, so answer the casuists and the schoolmen that a positive law may yield in case of necessity to the good of the Church; so Thomas, Molina, Suarez, Vasquez, Vigverius, Sotus, Scotus, Altisiodorensis, Durand, Gabriel; and consider what the learned Voetius says in this.  What if in an extreme case of necessity, a private man, endued with gifts and zeal, should teach publicly after the example of the faithful at Samosaten.  Yea and Flavianus and Diodorus preached in Antioch, as Theodoret says; yea, says Voetius, an ordinary ministry might be imposed on a laic, or private person, by the Church, though the presbytery consent not [and do not ordain him], in [a] case of necessity.

God (says Gerson) may make an immediate intermission of a calling by bishops; yea (says Anton. speaking of necessity’s law) the Pope may commit power of excommunication, quia est de jure positive, pure Laico et mulieri, to one mere laic, or a woman; though we justify not this, yet it is hence concluded that God has not tied Himself to one set rule of ordinary, positive laws: a captive woman (as Socrates says) preached the Gospel to the King and Queen of Iberranes, and they to the people of the land.”

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Related Pages

Church

Church Government

The Regulative Principle of Church Government

Offices of the Church

Unity of the Church