WCF Subscribers: Ecclesiology Poll

What is your position?


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W.C. Dean

Puritan Board Sophomore
I have been thinking about this issue lately, and so I would like to hear from my brothers who hold to the Westminster Confession (any edition of it). Just to be clear, "other forms of ecclesiology" would be congregationalism, independent churches, Episcopalianism (or any form with a bishopric).
 

B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
"Presbyterianism is required by Scripture. All other forms of ecclesiology are sinful." -- Wow!

For those who hold that position can you please explain how other forms of polity are sinful?
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
The poll is too simplistic. How are you defining Presbyterianism (2, 2.5, 3, or 4 office; Scottish or American)? What is meant by episcopacy (medieval and Laudian prelacy, primitive episcopacy, or "Presidential" Presbyterianism)? What is meant by Congregationalist (an autonomous church with a single or plural elder rule or pure democracy)? Do you distinguish between irregular and sinful? For instance, would a single congregation be inherently wrong in a situation where it was the only Christian church in a country or would it simply be an irregularity?

My position is that the presbyterial form of church government (plural elder rule with congregations subject to wider church courts) is founded on and agreeable to the word of God. I do tend to "borrow" somethings from other ecclesiologies. For instance, I would agree with the Congregationalists that there ought to be more of a place for the members of a congregation in giving their consent to church censures (I read that Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie were more favourable to this view than other Scots such as Robert Baillie, but that claim may be mistaken). Nor would I have a problem with one minister being recognised as first among equals by his fellow presbyters, but not if it were a pretext to introduce full-blown Prelacy.

Also, I encourage us to move away from using "Presbyterian" (or Congregationalist or Episcopalian) as an identity-marker and follow the Continental Reformed practice of primarily calling ourselves Reformed. Naming denominations after their ecclesiology gives a prominence to the subject of church government that scripture does not. What else are we going to call ourselves? The Exclusive Psalmody Church, the Non-Musical Instruments Church, or the Anti-Christmas and Easter Church? While it may be (and I believe that it is) good to be all these things, making them the front and centre of one's identity is not healthy. "Reformed" refers to a whole system of doctrine, the whole counsel of God, and thus it is much better that we see ourselves as primarily Reformed while adhering to the presbyterial form of government.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
"Presbyterianism is required by Scripture. All other forms of ecclesiology are sinful." -- Wow!

For those who hold that position can you please explain how other forms of polity are sinful?

The argument is that other polities are departing from what God has commanded for his church. As a general observation, I think that it is fair enough, but, as my above post indicates, it requires some nuance.
 

W.C. Dean

Puritan Board Sophomore
I didn't intend to divide it up among the forms of opinions in regards to Presbyterianism (American/Scottish, teaching elder/pastor). That is why I left it open for WCF subscribers of any edition. The "I am not a Presbyterian" is for those who subscribe to the WCF but lean congregationalist. As for irregularity, I did not factor that in. I suppose I was thinking of a situation where the church had freedom to associate with a Presbyterian denomination or not.
 
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alexandermsmith

Puritan Board Junior
I don't think we want to be promoting a position that something is "simply" an irregularity. Irregularity is to be avoided. As has been said: if something is contrary to Scriptural teaching it is sinful. So those systems which are in opposition to the Scriptural system (Presbyterianism)- such as congregationalism, episcopacy &c.- are inherently sinful. I grant that there are circumstances where Christians may not be able to organise into a fully functioning Presbyterian system (e.g. they form only a single congregation), but that doesn't prevent them from being Presbyterian de jure, if not de facto (i.e. having no court superior than their session). And an isolated congregation is at liberty to associate with a denomination some distance from it (my denomination has a congregation in Singapore, one in Canada and one in the US; there are FCCs in the United States, yet these denominations are primarily situated in Scotland). And indeed I would encourage single congregations to do just that.
 

kodos

Puritan Board Junior
From the RPCNA Covenant of 1871: "Believing Presbyterianism to be the only divinely instituted form of government in the Christian Church, we disown and reject all others forms of ecclesiastical polity, as without authority of Scripture, and as damaging to purity, peace and unity in the household of faith."

I took an oath as first a ruling elder and then a minister in the RPCNA that "the permanent form of church government is presbyterian".

You can also read Jus Divinum (recently republished by RHB and through the work of our own @NaphtaliPress) for the divine right Presbyterian view. Most Baptists here would say that the baptism of infants is sinful. But I wouldn't get my feathers in a ruffle (while vigorously disagreeing!) because Baptists believe Baptist things.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
A far greater danger and sin than any given church polity in itself, is a prideful countenance with regard to, or the delinquent administration of the same. And I've been witness to both follies.

Historically, Calvin was at least theoretically supportive of episcopal polity.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
We should not confuse the scripturally prescribed aspects of what go under the name Presbyterianism and those things in it that are not prescribed (county, state, national presbyteries/synods/assemblies; boundaries of jurisdictions, or frequency of use of the higher courts), but are rather circumstantial (WCF 1.6). And one shouldn't get in a huff as noted about saying getting the prescribed things wrong is sinful; that is simply a consequence of being wrong or in error about a doctrine of Scripture, e.g., such as baptism as alluded to above already. That said, I'm not a fan of the poll given the mix of things in Presbyterianism that are set by Scripture by divine right and that which is according to the light of nature and Christian prudence. I agree with Daniel it needs nuance. And much of it goes to the well being and not the being of a church, so error here is not fundamental in Protestantism.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
I don't think we want to be promoting a position that something is "simply" an irregularity. Irregularity is to be avoided. As has been said: if something is contrary to Scriptural teaching it is sinful. So those systems which are in opposition to the Scriptural system (Presbyterianism)- such as congregationalism, episcopacy &c.- are inherently sinful. I grant that there are circumstances where Christians may not be able to organise into a fully functioning Presbyterian system (e.g. they form only a single congregation), but that doesn't prevent them from being Presbyterian de jure, if not de facto (i.e. having no court superior than their session). And an isolated congregation is at liberty to associate with a denomination some distance from it (my denomination has a congregation in Singapore, one in Canada and one in the US; there are FCCs in the United States, yet these denominations are primarily situated in Scotland). And indeed I would encourage single congregations to do just that.
de facto is the essence of irregular. It means that in a particular situation this is not the right way of doing things (de jure) but is the best way possible under the circumstances (de facto). For example, a new church plant (or a small established congregation) may not be able to appoint a plurality of local elders, voted in by the local congregation. de jure they rightly believe that congregations should have a plural eldership of men from within the congregation, but that is not possible under the present circumstances. In most of our Forms of Church Government, there is provision for Presbytery to appoint elders from outside the congregation to provide temporary leadership as a provisional (i.e. irregular) Session. Otherwise, they would have to shut the church plant or church down since it was in sin. Similarly, it's not right for members of a church never to attend public worship. Yet infirm and disabled people may never be able to attend worship in person. Should they be excommunicated for their sin? No, they are excused because of being "providentially hindered" - i.e. their situation is irregular. Of course, the irregular category can be abused, but it is historically an important category in the doctrine of the church.

The Scriptural warrant for this principle may be seen in Moses' "Irregular" Passover in Numbers 9. People who were ceremonially unclean through no fault of their own (for example, attending a relative who had just died) could not take part in the regular Passover in the first month. Yet anyone who failed to take part ion the Passover was to be cut off from the community. Moses inquired of the Lord, and the Lord gave an "irregular" provision for the Passover to be celebrated in the second month by these people - along with others who were providentially hindered for example by being on a journey. Yet they were not free to celebrate the Passover any time they wanted or in any way they wanted. They had to follow exactly the same rules, just one month later.

Irregular situations are those where a church or Christian is unable to do things the way they acknowledge to be right and Scriptural, for providential reasons. They are not thereby given license to do things in any way that they wish, but they may at times adopt different ways of doing things that are as close as possible to the right way of doing things under the particular set of circumstances. They acknowledge these things to be irregular/provisional and seek to move toward the right way of doing things as soon as possible.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
@iainduguid - yes, that is precisely what I was thinking about on the subject of irregularity. The example of a church plant is a good one. In a situation where there are no men in a congregation biblically qualified to be ruling elders that congregation will have to do without their own ruling elders. This situation is irregular, but it is not sinful. Whereas it would be sinful to appoint unqualified elders in order to avoid such an irregularity.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Irregular situations are those where a church or Christian is unable to do things the way they acknowledge to be right and Scriptural, for providential reasons.
True enough. But at the same time, even if I were convinced a particular polity was scripturally "best", and there were a local church with said polity, such is not the determining factor for me. I will always choose an overall healthy church (word faithfully preached, sacraments and discipline rightly administered, godly and effectively accountable leaders, biblical perspective on and participation in missions, etc.) over an unhealthy one with the de jure best polity.

I also think it is much more difficult than is commonly insisted here to demonstrate that scripture only sanctions presbyterian polity.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
I also think it is much more difficult than commonly insisted to demonstrate that scripture only sanctions presbyterian polity.
Do you mean the scriptures adduced you think can be made out to support other polities? Surely you are not saying that Scripture sanctions more than one conflicting polity?
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Do you mean the scriptures adduced you think can be made out to support other polities? Surely you are not saying that Scripture sanctions more than one conflicting polity?
You would have to define "conflicting." I do think scripture allows for a range of polities, at least in terms of how the supposed divisions and categories are commonly drawn.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
You would have to define "conflicting." I do think scripture allows for a range of polities, at least in terms of how the supposed divisions and categories are commonly drawn.
E.g., Synods yes, no. Of divine prescription, yes, no. Binding, not binding. The distinguishing tenets of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism cannot both be true. Neither may be; but both cannot be.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
You would have to define "conflicting." I do think scripture allows for a range of polities, at least in terms of how the supposed divisions and categories are commonly drawn.

In other words, certain polities are not necessarily mutually exclusive? Would an example be the Dutch Reformed denominations that seem to combine aspects of congregationalism with presbyterianism?
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
In other words, certain polities are not necessarily mutually exclusive? Would an example be the Dutch Reformed denominations that seem to combine aspects of congregationalism with presbyterianism?
Now that I think specifically about that case I would say, yes.

My current church is a good case in point, In my humble opinion. We are technically SBC, which is a rather loose confederation of so-called congregational churches. In practice, however we have a local session with a plurality of teaching and ruling elders. Yet I don't think anyone will deem us presbyterian even though we hold this fundamental aspect in common.

I've also been a member of a full-fledged Presbyterian church, and unfortunately it was not commendable in many other, again In my humble opinion, more important areas.

Being the history wonk that I am, I also find the dogmatic approach of some of the followers of presbyterianism an interesting contrast to the catholicity (small "c" obviously) of its acclaimed reformational founder. Calvin specifically allowed for episcopacy in England in his correspondence with Cranmer and other bishops there, and even effectively recommended it in Poland. Was he sinning by denying or compromising what he believed was allowed for in the Bible?
 
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kodos

Puritan Board Junior
Being the history wonk that I am, I also find the dogmatic approach of some of the followers of presbyterianism an interesting contrast to the catholicity (small "c" obviously) of its acclaimed reformational founder. Calvin specifically allowed for episcopacy in England in his correspondence with Cranmer and other bishops there, and even effectively recommended it in Poland. Was he sinning by denying or compromising what he believed was allowed for in the Bible?

Being a history wonk, I am surprised that you are surprised given what happened between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists at the Westminster Assembly.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Being a history wonk, I am surprised that you are surprised given what happened between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists at the Westminster Assembly.
I know some basics about the Grand Debate, but by all means enlighten me further.
 

kodos

Puritan Board Junior
I know some basics about the Grand Debate, but by all means enlighten me further.

You might want to read through the papers (and consider the timeline) of the Grand Debate (Not sure if the Napthali Press edition is still in print) as a research project for yourself. I wish I had the time to spend on this right now. But you probably know the years spent with the maneuvering of the five Independents trying to get the Presbyterians to drop Presbyterianism and the turmoil it created for the Assembly. Calvin certainly did not see how the spirit of Independency manifested itself in an attempt to establish national uniformity of religion. There were also the heated contentions between Parliament (who was not always friendly to Presbyterianism) and the Assembly as well. As someone who likes Church History you might want to consider the reasons why Jus Divinum... would be written in that time period.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
This summary is about the most in-depth reading I’ve done on the GD. My sense of it is that there was apparently a lot of wrangling over jurisdictions and permissions, which were not entirely free from entanglements particular to the 17th century British state-church. There is also a brief synopsis of research concerning inter-party correspondence on the matter that concludes politics played some role as well. The degree to which this may or may not be accurate I am not qualified to say, as I haven't undertaken to access the actual study. I also have read enough elsewhere to know there were two different positions even among Westminster Presbyterians concerning the exclusive biblical propriety of their polity, as characterized by jury eno vs. jury humano, or something-er-other...

With regard to time periods, the extent to which certain influential Westminster era factors are no longer in play surely deserves consideration in terms of today's church structures and inter-relations.

My basic position is this: The Bible has relatively little to say with respect to specific church organization. Giving disproportionate weight to the matter seems, well, disproportionate. It is clear to me that God is infinitely more concerned with the qualifications and faithfulness of each teacher and leader compared to rigidly prescribing a precise form of church organization. There are of course biblical passages that talk about the apostles appointing elders in the fledgling churches, but to what extent these are descriptive vs. prescriptive is of course part of the debate. And just how what is indeed said may rightly pertain to specific governmental structures like classes and synods seems far too general to be dogmatic about. So, in my view:

If a church with congregational polity preaches the pure gospel and rightly administers the sacraments and discipline, may their tribe increase.
If a church with presbyterian polity preaches the pure gospel and rightly administers the sacraments and discipline, may their tribe increase.
If a church with episcopal polity preaches the pure gospel and rightly administers the sacraments and discipline, may their tribe increase.

That seems to have been a pragmatic basis of Calvin’s ultimate catholicity as well – let there even be bishops and archbishops so long as the pure gospel is advanced.

If one is convinced that one polity is biblically mandated to the exclusion of all others, and has taken vows to that effect, then they should by all means uphold them. Personally, I would not be comfortable being under such a constriction.

I am not inclined to read a multi-volume, or extended blow-by-blow account of the GD. Still, my request and desire for further enlightenment on this topic is genuine. If someone can offer some relatively succinct yet still substantial reasons why they think my take is inadequate or otherwise ill-considered, then please do so (although in which case I suppose it may be best to start another thread).
 
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B.L.

Puritan Board Sophomore
The argument is that other polities are departing from what God has commanded for his church. As a general observation, I think that it is fair enough, but, as my above post indicates, it requires some nuance.

Where has God commanded Presbyterian polity in the Bible?

From the RPCNA Covenant of 1871: "Believing Presbyterianism to be the only divinely instituted form of government in the Christian Church, we disown and reject all others forms of ecclesiastical polity, as without authority of Scripture, and as damaging to purity, peace and unity in the household of faith."

I took an oath as first a ruling elder and then a minister in the RPCNA that "the permanent form of church government is presbyterian".

You can also read Jus Divinum (recently republished by RHB and through the work of our own @NaphtaliPress) for the divine right Presbyterian view.

I understand why a Presbyterian would hold to Presbyterian polity, so the oath you took -- presumably in agreement with the document your denomination wrote in 1871 -- isn't surprising. I do, however, find the language you quoted to be surprisingly harsh in tone. As small as the RPCNA is are there any challenges in how Presbyterian polity is put into practice in your denomination? Take Virginia for example where I believe there is a single RPCNA congregation in the entire state. What sort of irregularities does the geographic separation within a Presbytery create if any?

And one shouldn't get in a huff as noted about saying getting the prescribed things wrong is sinful; that is simply a consequence of being wrong or in error about a doctrine of Scripture, e.g., such as baptism as alluded to above already.

Some of this shrapnel may have been intended at my initial comment, not sure. I'm not upset in the slightest. Amused perhaps, but not in a huff. I think it is a hard sell to show how Congregationalism, or any other polity outside Presbyterianism, is an actual transgression of the law of God (i.e. sinful).
 

kodos

Puritan Board Junior
Brothers, your objections are very strange - this is a poll for those who subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Confession that includes Chapter 31.3 -

"III. It belongeth 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."

Once again, I do not understand in what world, someone can object to a Presbyterian upholding the Confession of Faith as saying Congregationalism in particular, is sinful - because Synods and councils are an ordinance of God in the Confession of Faith.

Proof texts - ""Acts 15:15, 19, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31. [See in the Bible.] Acts 16:4.

Feel free to disagree - but that is not the point of this thread. If you want to know why Presbyterians would find other forms of church government sinful - well, I don't know what else to tell you. It is spelled out in many different works and many threads undoubtedly on this very board.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Brothers, your objections are very strange - this is a poll for those who subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Confession that includes Chapter 31.3 -
Fair enough. I apologize if I've unduly interfered in a sectarian discussion. Pax.
 

kodos

Puritan Board Junior
As small as the RPCNA is are there any challenges in how Presbyterian polity is put into practice in your denomination? Take Virginia for example where I believe there is a single RPCNA congregation in the entire state. What sort of irregularities does the geographic separation within a Presbytery create if any?

Just as a note on this - you will note a phenomena that as time went on, county sizes have increased in the United States of America. It is much the same with the size of Presbyteries. As technology and transportation have allowed for easier communication and gatherings, the sizes of Presbyteries have increased. It is is certainly easier for churches to have a Presbytery meeting a state away compared to the time of the Apostles!

But I'm hopeful that in my lifetime, we might plant enough churches in the Dallas Fort Worth area to have a Presbytery for just our Metroplex :)

#PresbyteryGoals
 

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
Where has God commanded Presbyterian polity in the Bible?

The question in the OP is addressed to those who believe that the presbyterial form of church government is founded on and agreeable to scripture. For the purposes of this thread, I am not going to write a treatise on church government.
 
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