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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Alan D. Strange

Chapter III
The Nature and Exercise of Church Power

1. The power which Christ has committed to his church is not vested in the special officers alone, but in the whole body. All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part. The power of believers in their general office includes the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices. The regular exercise of oversight in a particular congregation is discharged by those who have been called to such work by vote of the people.

Comment: The Roman Catholic Church sees all church power as vested in the bishop, particularly the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), and identifies the two, being willing to go so far as to say, “The bishop is the church.” Protestantism, among all the things that it entails, involves a reaffirmation of the significance and importance of the laity, so that church power is not seen to devolve only to the ministers, elders, and deacons but has a proper residency among all the church, including the whole of the laity. Luther spoke of this reality as the priesthood of all believers. Our FG addresses it in terms of the general office of the believer. This means that all believers have the Spirit and have a part in all the aspects of church life, growing together with every member, as Paul argues by using the metaphor of a body (1 Cor. 12), with no parts dispensable or insignificant.

It is out of the discharge of the general office of believer that special office arises. In other words, it is out of a faithful Christian life that some men emerge in their walk as having gifts that would suit them for special office (1 Tim. 3:1–11). It is to this special office to which oversight in the church is particularly given and set forth in the next section. Men are brought into special office only by the vote of the congregation, whether through the election of local ruling elders or through the calling of a minister. Ministers and elders are never imposed upon a congregation apart from their approval. More about this at the appropriate place below.

2. Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

Comment: Ministers of the Word and sacraments exercise both teaching and ruling functions in the church. As teachers, they are preachers who authoritatively proclaim God’s Word, particularly the unsearchable riches of Christ and all the promises of God that are “yes” and “amen” in him. They are also instructors in doctrine and life as part of the church’s catechesis of the youth and discipleship of all members. As rulers, ministers govern in the congregation, and on the session, together with ruling elders, who are “other church governors.” Ruling elders hold the ruling office, then, together with ministers, though they do not hold the teaching office. Ruling elders, together with ministers, exercise this office for rule (they are the ones now who have the gifts for such rule) in guiding and guarding the church.[1] More on the particular of these offices at the appropriate place in the FG.

These teaching and ruling elders are said now to hold the only permanent church offices with gifts for rule. In the Old Testament Levites and elders of the people held such offices as did Apostles and elders in the New Testament era before the close of the canon (as at the Jerusalem Council—Acts 15). The Levitical priesthood has expired due to the fulfillment of all to which that system pointed and the Apostolate also ceased when the canon of Scripture closed. The Apostolate admits no successor with respect to the extraordinary aspect of its office; however, with respect to the ordinary aspect of its office, it finds its successor, or perhaps, better, its analog, in the New Testament Minister of Word and Sacrament. Even as elders joined Apostles in the joint rule of the church at the Jerusalem Council, so, now, ministers join elders in the joint rule of the church.

This joint rule of minister and elders occurs not only at the level of the local church in the session but also at the broader levels of the presbytery (governing the regional church) and the General Assembly (governing the whole church). This is because the church is also connectional (universal or catholic). Ministers and elders thus govern not only in their own local congregations but also at the level of the regional and national church. The New Testament makes clear that neither everyone in the church governs (congregationalism) nor is there a hierarchical clerical government (episcopacy). Rather, ministers and elders, the latter serving as rulers from the among the people, join together in the local and broader church for a rule of the people that properly reflects the Presbyterian principles contained in God’s Word.

3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section 2).

Comment: Church power is exclusively ministerial and declarative, which means that it is to be carried out in a servant (ministering) mode and involves proclamation (declaration) of the Word.[2] This stands over against the Roman Catholic Church, for which church power is magisterial and legislative, meaning that the church can proclaim dogma on its own authority, based on the Word and tradition, and that it can legislate—make canon law—and not simply declare what the Word says. Protestantism does not believe that the church is self-authenticating, only the Word is; Rome believes that the power of the church to declare doctrine is not limited to what the Word proclaims but is based on the teaching authority that the church possesses to proclaim dogma and canon law.

 No church judicatory can properly do anything other than proclaim “thus says the Lord:” it must cite in all its decisions a proper application of the Word of God. This means that the church may not in matters of faith or worship speak “beside” or in addition to God’s Word. No doctrines may be promulgated that are not biblical and no elements may be added to worship that do not come from God’s Word. For example, the church cannot shape worship as it pleases nor can it tell people what to eat, drink, and the like. It can say “don’t be a glutton or a drunkard” but it can prescribe no specific diet. This is not the proper province of the church; when the church exceeds its proper biblical authority, it denies true Christian liberty, either in adducing unbiblical rules for its members to follow or in introducing novel elements in worship or doctrine. Church judicatories, in other words, must neither add to nor take from the Word of God. To do so is both treason with respect to Christ’s rule and tyranny with respect to the flock that office-bearers are called to shepherd, not to domineer over (1 Pet. 5:2–3).

4. All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.

Comment: This is one of the most important lessons for us to learn in terms of the doctrine of the church and the polity of the church.[3] Church power is not like the power given to other institutions ordained of God. The family has a power proper to it, for example, which includes the exercise of discretion. Parents, for instance, may forbid their children from wearing certain clothes or eating certain foods. The church does not command with respect to what one eats or wears (as long as one is not gluttonous or immodest) but permits a wide range of Christian liberty, particularly with respect to adiaphora (matters indifferent).

Similarly, the church exercises no coercive authority as does the state, which enjoys the power of arrest and imposition of civil and criminal penalties for those adjudged guilty at law. The symbol of authority for parents is the rod and for the state is the sword, indicating that parents may employ corporal punishment and the state may inflict penalties up to and including death. The power of the church is the power of the keys—to admit to or bar from Holy Communion.

This power is said to be wholly moral or spiritual. It is not a lesser authority; in fact, it is the greatest authority. To remain barred from the Table of the Lord is more injurious for the soul (and body) than the death penalty is. The church receives its power from Christ through the vicarage of his Spirit. Church power is spiritual because it is distinctly an administration that occurs in and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The church administers the means of grace, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer, and its work is a spiritual work, ministering first of all to the inner man (to the outer as needed, of course, but the focus being to the inner, spiritual man).[4]

Chapter IV
The Unity of the Church

1. Since the church of Christ is one body, united under and in one God and Father, one Lord, and one Spirit, it must give diligence to keep this unity in the bond of peace. To this end the church must receive those endued with gifts of Christ as Christ himself, must submit to those whose call to govern in the church has been properly acknowledged, and in particular must learn of those with gifts of teaching the Word of God. Further, since every Christian is endued with some gift for the edification of the body, he must minister this gift to the church as a faithful steward. Church government must maintain this fellowship in Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit and seek its restoration when it has been disrupted through schism.

Comment: Sometimes we witness the division of the church (one may think of it in terms of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant, for instance) and despair over its unity. We often hear ecumenical exhortations to unity, from both the left and the right, that suggest that the church is not unified. While true calls to unity are quite appropriate, especially given our divisions, they must always be recognized as calls not to become something that we are not, but rather calls to be who we are.[5] We are, as FG 4.1 asserts (in keeping with John 17), one body, united together and brought into the fellowship and communion of the blessed, holy, undivided Trinity. We have unity as God’s great gift: we who were not a people have been made one and we have far more in common in Christ than we do differing with one another.

The basis for unity then is not that all in the church speak the same language, share the same culture, or even like the same music, but that we all partake, by the Holy Spirit, of the same spiritual life, hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Wherever on earth we have national citizenship, we all have heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20), being seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). And notice this feature, then, of our unity. That unity that we have in Christ binds and commits us to strive for it always and everywhere, manifesting itself in our willingness as the church to receive those whom Christ has gifted as we receive Christ himself.

If the church refuses those gifted for office by Christ through the Spirit and instead ordains and installs those not gifted, then it invites disunity. So, those gifted and called of Christ to serve in church office need their calling discerned both by the congregation as a whole and by those who have also been received as officers in Christ’s church. The church must especially receive the preachers/teachers that the Lord sends her, as such labors together with the ruling elders and deacons, in the mutual governance and service of the church.

Not only are officers gifted, but every Christian enjoys the gifts needed for the specific calling that God gives to him or her. Proper church government helps ensure the harmonious operations of all the gifts in a congregation (or broader church body), enabling all to serve as they have been called, and maintains these gifts so that fellowship in Christ and in the gifts given by the Spirit is achieved, making for the harmonious working of the body. Failure in this respect promotes schism or division, when some exalt their gifts and offices over others either failing to recognize such gifts and offices of others or ill-regarding the gifts as of no consequence (regarding their own gifts instead as paramount). This all makes for division, as does heresy, and good church government seeks to avoid such and foster unity.

2. It is the right and duty of those who rule in the church of God to maintain order and exercise discipline, for the preservation both of truth and duty. These officers and the whole church must censure or cast out the erroneous or scandalous, always observing the requirements of the Word of God, and seeking the honor of Christ's name, the good of his church, and the reclamation of the offender.

Comment: The ancient and medieval church spoke of the attributes of the church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic). These proved necessary but not sufficient, and the church in the Reformation found it necessary to affirm as well certain marks of the church, whereby the true church (over against the Roman and Eastern churches) might be identified.[6] Among these marks (alongside the pure preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments) was the faithful exercise of church discipline. This section speaks of maintaining order, addressed here in the FG, and exercising discipline, addressed in the BD, as it will much more fully be explicated in the BD commentary.[7]

In the middle ages, church discipline tended either to be ignored or abused; abuse employed discipline politically, enforced against those who offended hierarchs, the pope especially. With the Reformation came a recovery not only of preaching and a right doctrine of the sacraments but also a restoration of the biblical doctrine of church discipline, without which the church remains deficient. This is because Christianity cannot be reduced simply to doctrine, on the one hand, or life, on the other. It is both—a life that emerges out of a proper understanding of our native spiritual inability, Christ being the sole remedy for our great need, calling us by his Word and Spirit to live as new men and women in vital spiritual union with him. When those who are baptized and profess faith in Christ go astray, whether seriously in doctrine (to the detriment of a credible profession), or markedly in life, it is a mark of the true church to call them to repentance and back to the fellowship of the church.

3. The manifestation of the unity of the church requires that it be separate from the world. Apostasy in faith and life is destructive of the fellowship in Christ; only by rejecting such error can Christian fellowship be maintained. There are many antichrists, many false apostles and teachers. From these the church must turn away, and those who steadfastly hear the voice of false shepherds and follow them cannot be regarded as the sheep of Christ. There are organizations which falsely call themselves churches of God, and others which once were churches, but have become synagogues of Satan. Communion with such is spiritual adultery and an offense against Christ and his saints.

Comment: The church is both one and called to be one, even as saints are holy and called to be holy. All of the attributes of the church (unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity) are inter-dependent; thus, the church can never express its proper oneness or unity without being, among other things, holy. And holiness presupposes a proper separation from the world. The church is a kingdom not of this world, and it must maintain its integrity as such in the face of the world and all its temptations. It has been said that when the church seeks to be most like the world she does the world the least good. The church must witness to the world a life shaped by God’s Word, a life that is holy and separate from worldliness, from the idols of our culture and times.

False doctrine and sinful living (apostasy in faith and life) destroys our unity with God and with each other as members of his mystical body. Unity cannot be purchased at the expense of purity and holiness, which, in fact, are necessary for unity; we have true unity only as we stand together on and in the truth. What unites the church is not that we all like the same music, or food, or sports teams: it is that we all worship the same God as set forth in his Word. All our differences give way to the unity that we have in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Thus, the enemy strikes at truth, seeking to foster disunity by promoting errors among us, through the agencies of false gospels and messiahs, promoted by false teachers and religious hucksters.

The church requires capable teachers and orthodox teaching so that she may know and remain firm in the truth. Only then can she resist error and turn away from false teachers and false churches. Here the FG reflects the Confession of Faith at 25.4–5 in teaching that churches may be more-or-less pure, in doctrine and life, and that some have so departed from biblical truth and godly living that they are synagogues of Satan, no longer worthy of the name church. Not only then is the church to separate from the world, but true saints ought to separate from false churches. To have communion with antichrist (another way of speaking of false teachers and churches in the aggregate) is spiritual adultery: the church is Christ’s bride and to be in league with falsehood is for the bride to be untrue to her faithful husband and Lord.

4. The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations. In such denominations Christians exercise a fellowship toward each other in doctrine, worship, and order that they do not exercise toward other Christians. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have gravely departed from apostolic purity; yet all of these which maintain through a sufficient discipline the Word and sacraments in their fundamental integrity are to be recognized as true manifestations of the church of Jesus Christ. All such churches should seek a closer fellowship, in accordance with the principles set forth above.

Comment: The fact that we are one often seems lost in the call to be one, coming as it does in our highly divided denominational scene. We should take heart, though, that our denominational divisions, while lamentable, do not destroy, though they obscure, our unity in Christ. This is because, ultimately, our unity is “of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:1–7) and this transcends all our differences, making all true Christians, in whatever church they may be in, to have and enjoy a trans-denominational unity with all other true Christians. To be sure, the closest bonds of fellowship are with other true believers in one’s own denomination, sharing confessions, liturgies, church orders, and the like that are not shared with other Christians, who are in different ecclesiastical bodies. As noted above some churches have so gravely departed from the Bible that we cannot have, nor do we seek, fellowship with them.

We do seek, however, fellowship with churches of like faith and practice (other Reformed and Presbyterian churches), as well as recognize on a different level other churches that may not be Reformed or Presbyterian but that maintain a gospel witness of some sort nonetheless. We seek the closest alliance with the sister churches with whom we have the most in common, naturally, and with all churches, in varying degrees, that are truly evangelical, which is to say, that faithfully preach the gospel.

Endnotes

[1] Mark R. Brown, editor, Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993) is one of the more important volumes of recent years to treat the offices of the church and their mutual relationships. See especially Thomas Smyth, “An Ecclesiastical Catechism: Officers of the Church,” first published in 1843 and reprinted here, 119–133.

[2] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline and Government of the Christian Church (1869; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), Part II (“The Power of the Church”). This tome merits consultation across the range of topics it treats but is particularly helpful on the nature, limit, and other aspects of church power.

[3] The historical roots of this doctrine of the spirituality of the church are contained especially in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1578; widely available online). The First Book of Discipline (1560), modeled after Calvin’s Genevan Discipline, did not reflect this anti-Erastian sensibility so strongly. It was only after the short-lived overthrow of Presbyterianism in Scotland in 1572 that the commitment to the spiritual independency of the church emerged as it did in the Second Book, all of which provided historical precedent for the sensibilities of the Westminster Form of Presbyterial Government and this FG.

[4] Alan D. Strange, The Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church in the Theology of Charles Hodge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 132–174 seeks to develop the links between the Holy Spirit, the church as a spiritual entity, and the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.

[5] Alan D. Strange, “Barriers to Ecumenicity,” in Ordained Servant 27 (2018): 31–37.

[6] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church in the Contours of Christian Theology, Gerald Bray, series editor (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 99–115 is helpful not only on the relationship between the attributes and the marks of the church but also on the visible/invisible, local/universal, and institute/organism perspectives on the church.

[7] Until the BD commentary: Alan D. Strange, “Conflict Resolution in the Church,” Parts 1–2, Ordained Servant (Nov.–Dec. 2019) at https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=778&issue_id=150 and https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=786&issue_id=151.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2020.

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