“Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”
1 Cor. 14:29-32
“Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.”
1 Thess. 5:11
“And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts: I will go also.”
Order of Contents
Example of an Exercise
Historic Quotes (in chronological order)
John Calvin 1541
First Book of Discipline 1560
Church of Scotland 1598, 1638
Henderson describes “The Exercise” 1641
Rutherford on 1 Cor. 14 1642
The beginning of the Protestant Reformation recognized that the regular spiritual fellowship and conferencing of church office-bearers is vital (as it is in all ages). Huldrich Zwingli began such exercises in 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland. The practice continued in Geneva with John Calvin and spread into England under Thomas Cartwright. “The Exercises” began in Scotland at the beginning of her Reformation in 1560 and continued through the mid-1600’s during the time of the Westminster Assembly. Samuel Rutherford argues (below) for this practice from the general equity of 1 Cor. 14:29-32, besides the many other general and practical reasons for it. The Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1560) lays out the framework for it in detail. Alexander Henderson (1641) described what the practice looked like in his day.
The Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), both in Scotland and in the U.S., continues these colloquiums today, as well as many other faithful churches. For such a spiritual conference open to the public, see the Banner of Truth’s Ministers’ Conference, held in Pennsylvania each May. Some of the richest spiritual blessings of saints throughout history have been when they have regularly gathered together for fellowship with one another and our Savior.
Forbes, John – “The Exercise”: The Reformers and Meetings for Biblical Interpretation, 2015, 29 paragraphs, pp. 11-19 of The Bulwark: Magazine of the Scottish Reformation Society, Jan-Mar 2015.
Forbes is a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. The headings are: (1) Beginnings of the Reformation in Scotland, (2) “The Exercise”, (3) What was “The Exercise”? (4) The History of the Exercise – Zurich, (5) The History of the Exercise – Geneva, (6) The Biblical Justification for “The Exercise”, (7) What Became of the Exercise?
Murray, John J. – ‘The Exercise’ – As Practiced in the Scottish Reformation, 41 min., 5.73 MB
Murray, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), speaks on the history of the spiritual conferencing of elders at one of their spiritual conferences for office bearers and male communicant members of the church.
Jung, Joanne – Godly Conversation: Rediscovering the Puritan Practice of Conference Buy 2011, 224 pages
Some of the best sermons in print are from these English puritan spiritual conferences held every morning during the dark days of the Restoration of King Charles II. For an introduction to them, see The Cripplegate.
An Example of an ‘Exercise’
Henderson, Alexander – At the Weekly Exercise, probably toward the end of summer, on Gal. 5:7-9, 1638, in Sermons, Prayers and Pulpit Addresses by Alexander Henderson, pp. 31-55
John Calvin 1541
Calvin’s influence in Geneva, Switzerland was a major influence on Knox and the Scottish Reformation. This excerpt comes from the ‘back-bone’ of the Genevan Reformation: Ecclesiastical Ordinances, from Calvin: Theological Treatises, edited by J. K. S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 58-72,
First, it will be expedient that all the ministers, for conserving purity and concord of doctrine among themselves, meet together one certain day each week, for discussion of the Scriptures; and none are to be exempt from this without legitimate excuse. If anyone be negligent, let him be admonished. As for those who preach in the villages, throughout the Seigneury [feudal lordship], they are to be exhorted to come as often as they are able. For the rest, if they default an entire month, it is to be held to be very great negligence, unless it is a case of illness or other legitimate hindrance. If there appear difference of doctrine, let the ministers come together to discuss the matter. Afterwards, if need be, let them call the elders to assist in com posing the contention.
The First Scottish Book Of Discipline 1560
For Preaching, and Interpreting of Scriptures, etc.
To the end that the church of God may have a trial of men’s knowledge, judgments, graces, and utterances; and also, that such as somewhat have profited in God’s word may from time to time grow to more full perfection to serve the church, as necessity shall require: it is most expedient that in every town, where schools and repair of learned men are, that there be one certain day every week appointed [to] that exercise which Saint Paul calls prophesying. The order whereof is expressed by him in these words:
“Let two or three prophets speak; and let the rest judge. But if anything be revealed to him that sitteth by, let the former keep silence. [For] ye may, one by one, all prophesy, that all may learn, an d all may receive consolation. And the spirits (that is, the judgments) of the prophets, are subject to the prophets.” [1 Cor. 14:29-32]
Of which words of the apostle, it is evident that in Corinth, when the church did assemble for that purpose, some place of scripture was read; upon the which, first one gave his judgment to the instruction and consolation of the auditors; after whom did one other either confirm what the former had said, or did add what he had omitted, or did gently correct or explain more properly where the whole verity was not revealed to the former. And in case some things were hid from the one and from the other, liberty was given to the third to speak his judgment for edification of the church. Above the which number of three (as appears), they passed not, for avoiding of confusion.
These exercises, we say, are things most necessary for the church of God this day in Scotland. For thereby (as is said) shall the church have judgment and knowledge of the graces, and utterances of every man within their own body; the simple, and such as have somewhat profited, shall be encouraged daily to study and proceed in knowledge; the church shall be edified (for this exercise must be patent to such as list to hear and learn); and every man shall have liberty to utter and declare his mind and knowledge to the comfort and edification of the church.
But lest that of a profitable exercise might arise debate and strife, curious, peregrine [strange] and unprofitable questions are to be avoided. All interpretations disagreeing from the principles of our faith, repugning to charity, or that stand in plain contradiction to any other manifest place of scripture, are to be rejected. The interpreter in that exercise may not take to himself the liberty of a public preacher, yea, although he is a minister appointed; but he must bind himself to his text, that he enter not by disgression in explaining common-places. He may use no invective in that exercise, unless it is with sobriety in confuting heresies. In exhortations or admonitions he must be short, that the time may be spent in opening of the mind of the Holy Ghost in that place, in following the file [course] and dependence of the text, and in observing such notes as may instruct and edify the auditure. For avoiding of contention, neither may the interpreter, neither yet any of the assembly, move any question in open audience, whereto himself is not content to give resolution without reasoning with any other; but every man ought to speak his own judgment to the edification of the church.
If any is noted with curiosity, or bringing in any strange doctrine, he must be admonished by the moderators, the ministers and elders, immediately after that the interpretation is ended. The whole members and number of them that are of the assembly ought to convene together, where examination should be had, how the persons that did interpret did handle and convey the matter; they themselves being removed till every man has given his censure; after the which, the persons being called, the faults (if any notable be found) are noted, and the person gently admonished. In that last assembly all questions and doubts (if any arise) should be resolved without contention.
The ministers of the parish churches to landward, adjacent to every chief town, and the readers, if they have any gift of interpretation, within six miles must assist and concur to those that prophesy within the towns; to the end that they themselves may either learn, or else others may learn by them. And moreover, men in whom are supposed any gifts to be which might edify the church if they were well applied, must be charged by the ministers and elders to join themselves with that session and company of interpreters, to the end that the church may judge whether they are able to serve to God’s glory, and to the profit of the church in the vocation of ministers or not. And if any are found disobedient, and not willing to communicate the gifts and spiritual graces of God with their brethren, after sufficient admonition, discipline must proceed against them; provided that the civil magistrate concur with the judgment and election of the church. For no man may be permitted to live as best pleases him within the church of God; but every man must be constrained, by fraternal admonition and correction, to bestow his labors, when of the church they are required, to the edification of others.
What day in the week is most convenient for that exercise, and what books of the scriptures shall be most profitable to be read, we refer to the judgment of every particular church, we mean, to the wisdom of the ministers and elders.
Church of Scotland 1598, 1638
Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
For better observing of the presbyteries, it is statuted and ordained, that every presbytery shall assemble themselves once orderly each week, in the full number; at the least, so many of them as have their residence within eight miles to the place of the ordinary convention of the presbytery. That every member of the presbytery study the text whereupon the exercise is to be made. That a common head of religion be treated every month in every presbytery, both by way of discourse and disputation.
1638, Dec. 8th, Session 16 declaring Episcopacy to have been abjured by the Confession of Faith, 1580, and to be removed out of this Kirk.
The question being proposed by the Synod of Louthian, in the Assembly holden in July 1579, anent a general order to be taken for erecting of Presbyteries in places where public exercise is used, until the time the policy of the Kirk be established by a law, it is answered, “The exercise may be judged to be a Presbytery.”
Henderson Describing the Elders’ Conferences 1641
Alexander Henderson, The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland, 1641, Part II, Chapter IV, ‘Of Greater Presbyteries or Classes’
It is permitted to the expectants [students for the ministry], having entered before upon the public exercise or prophesy [the elders’ conference], to sit by the ministers and elders in the meeting of the presbytery and to give their judgement of the doctrine, but they have no voice when matters of doctrine or discipline are debated. And in the handling of some matters which are thought fit to be concealed and kept secret till they be by common consent published, they are to be removed.
…The ministers and elders (who are commissioners), together with the expectants [students for the ministry] and others who are pleased to be present, meeting in the place and at the day and hour appointed (which is accustomed to be one half hour after nine o’clock in the forenoon, whereof warning is given by the sound of a bell, so that all the affairs of that day, unless there be somewhat extraordinary to hold them longer, may be exped [expedited?] against mid-day), do begin with prayer and proceed to the textual interpretation of Scripture (which is done by the ministers, each one in his own place by course, or by the expectants, whose names are set forth in a table or written in the register of the presbytery for that end). After the first speaker, some other who follows in order and is also appointed by the presbytery the day before, speaks in the second place, collects some doctrines (one or more upon the text expounded) and shows the use thereof. The second speaker, having ended about eleven o’clock, the exercise is closed with thanksgiving by him who spoke first. The matter of each day’s exercise is some portion of that particular book of the Old or New Testament agreed upon in the presbytery. Once every month some common place or controversy is handled unto which the exercise gives place for that day. The ground is read in Scripture, the state of the question propounded, the arguments for the truth pressed and vindicated from the sophistication of the adversaries. But the arguments contra [the adversaries] are left to be proposed in the presbyterial meeting by such ministers as are called by the moderator to dispute upon the propositions or theses exhibited by the contraversar and propugned [assailed] by him, before the day of the next meeting, the moderator being praeses [president] of the disputation. That the presbytery may go through all the controversies, they have also a table wherein they are all digested in order, so that each minister or expectant knows a month before what is next to be treated.
The exercise (or common head of controversy) being ended in public, the people depart and the ministers and elders (with others who are permitted to be present) go to the private place of their meeting, where (all being set in order and the moderator having begun with prayer) the doctrine that was delivered in public is examined and each one of the presbytery and expectants either approves, or (in charity and soberness of spirit) propounds his doubt against any point spoken of. Which being done, the speakers for that day are called upon (they being apart at this time) and their interpretation and doctrine is approved and they are encouraged. Or (if there be cause), they are in a brotherly manner admonished and the doctrine censured (for this they call the censure of the doctrine). The matters before mentioned are the subject of the presbyterial jurisdiction, are propounded, modestly debated, and either concluded or taken to further deliberation, or remitted to the synod. And so the meeting is concluded with prayer.
Rutherford Expounding Elders’ Conferences from 1 Cor. 14:29-32 1642
Samuel Rutherford, A Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland
…therefore a college of presbyters, or a presbytery of pastors and elders, who have power larger than a session, even to excommunicate and ordain pastors is necessary in the church, which ordains Timothy to be a pastor, and so may deprive and excommunicate him, 1 Tim. 4:14; Acts 20:17-18,28-29. These are to assemble together, and to prophecy two or three by course, and others sitting by are to judge, that every man’s gifts may be tried by the presbytery and the church edified, 1 Cor. 14:27-32, and howbeit these prophets were extraordinarily gifted, yet their preaching by courses and the authoritative trying and judging of the gifts of the prophets and pastors cannot be extraordinary, for if that were extraordinary and temporary, there should be now in the church no college of pastors who are to try the pastors, that they lay not hands on them suddenly (1 Tim 5:22) and are to take care to commit the Gospel to faithful men who are able to teach others, 2 Tim. 2; Tit. 1:5; therefore is this presbytery in our church, 1 Tim. 4:14.
“Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.”
“But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
“For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.”