Church Polity

By | June 23, 2012
Church Polity
From “The Ruling Elder” 
by Samuel Miller, Professor in the Theological Seminary at Princeton, 1831

It is ever also to be borne in mind that the Church is not a mere voluntary association, with which men are at liberty to connect themselves or not, as they please. For, although the service which God requires of us is throughout a voluntary one: although no one can properly come into the Church but as a matter of voluntary choice: although the idea of either secular or ecclesiastical compulsion is, here, at once unreasonable and contrary to Scripture: yet as the Church is Christ’s institution, and not men’s; and as the same divine authority which requires us to repent of sin, and believe in Christ, also requires us us to “confess him before men,” and to join ourselves to his professing people; it is evident that no one is at liberty, in the sight of God, to neglect uniting himself with the Church. Man cannot, and ought not, to compel him; but if he refuse to fulfill this duty, when it is in his power, he rejects the authority of God.  He, of course, refuses at his peril.

The question, whether any particular form of Church government is so laid down in Scripture, as that the claim of divine right may be advanced on its behalf, and that, of consequence, the Church is bound in all ages, to adopt and act upon it; -will not now be formally discussed.  It has been made the subject of too much extended and ardent controversy, to be brought within the compass of a few sentences, or even a few pages. It may not be improper, however, briefly to say, that it would, indeed, have been singular, if a community, called out of the world, and organized under the peculiar authority of the all-wise Redeemer, had been left entirely without any direction as to its government: – That the Scriptures, undoubtedly, exhibit to us a form of ecclesiastical organization and rule, which was, in fact, instituted by the Apostles, under the direction of infinite Wisdom: -that this form was evidently taken, with very little alteration, from the preceding economy, thus giving additional presumption in its favor: – that we find the same plan closely copied by the churches for a considerable time after the apostolic age: – that it continued to be in substance the chosen and universal form of government in the Church, until corruption, both in doctrine and practice, had, through the ambition and degeneracy of ecclesiastics, gained a melancholy prevalence: – and, that the same form was also substantially maintained by the most faithful witnesses for the truth, during the dark ages – until the great body of the Reformers took it from their hands, and established it in their respective ecclesiastical connexions. 

These premises would appear abundantly to warrant the conclusion, that the form of government which answers this description, is the wisest and best; that it is adapted to all ages and states of society; and that it is agreeable to the will of Christ that it be universally received in his Church. All this the writer of the following Essay fully believes may be established in favor of Presbyterianism. There seems no reason, however, to believe, with some zealous votaries of the hierarchy, that any particular form of government is in so rigorous a sense of divine right, as to be essential to the existence of the Church; so that where this form is wanting, there can be no Church. To adopt this opinion, is to take a very narrow and unscriptural view of the covenant of grace. 
Still it is plain, from the word of God, as well as from uniform experience, that the government of the Church is a matter of great importance; that the form as well as the administration of that government is more vitally connected with the peace, purity, and edification of the Church, than many Christians appear to believe; and, of consequence, that it is no small part of fidelity to our Master in heaven, to “hold fast” the form of ecclesiastical order, as well as the “form of sound words” which He has delivered to the saints.

There is another class of passages,already quoted in a former part of this chapter, which is entitled to more formal consideration. I mean such as that found in 1 Thess. v. 12, 13. “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.”  Such also as that found in Jeb. xiii. 17. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, ” &c. Here the inspired writer is evidently speaking of particular Churches. He represents them as each having a body of Rulers “set over them in the Lord,” who “watch over them,” and whom they are bound to “obey.”

In short, we find a set of officers spoken of, who are not merely to instruct, and exhort, but to exercise official authority in the Church.  Now this representation can be made to agree with no other form of government than that of the Presbyterian Church.  Not with Prelacy; for that presents no ruler in any single Church but the Rector only. It knows nothing of a Parochial Council, or Senate, who conduct discipline, and perform all the duties of spiritual rule. Not with Independency; for according to the essential principles of that system, the body of the communicants are all equally rulers, and even the Pastor is only the chairman, or president, not properly the Ruler of the Church. But with the Presbyterian form of Church government, in which every congregation is furnished with a bench of spiritual Rulers, whom the people are bound to reverence and obey, it agrees perfectly.

There is only one passage more which will be adduced in support of the class of Elders before us. This is found in Matt. xviii. 15-17. Here it is believed that the 17th verse, which enjoins: “Tell it to the Church,” has evidently a reference to the plan of discipline known to have been pursued in the Jewish Synagogue; and that the meaning is, “Tell it to that Consistory or Judicatory, which is the Church acting by its  representatives.” It is true, indeed, that some Independents, of more zeal than caution, have confidently quoted this passage as making decisively in favor of their scheme of popular government. But when carefully examined, it will be found not only be no means to answer their purpose; but rather to support the Presbyterian cause.  We must always interpret the language agreeably to the well known understanding and habit of the time and the country in which it is delivered. Now, it is perfectly certain that the phrase: “Tell it to the Church,” was constantly in use among the Jews to express the carrying a complaint to the Eldership or representatives of the Church. And it is quite as certain, that actual cases occur in the Old Testament in which the term Church (ekklasia) is applied to the body of Elders. See as an example of this, Deuteronomy xxxi. 28, 30 comparing our translation with that of the Seventy, as alluded to in a preceding chapter. We can scarcely avoid the conclusion, then, that our blessed Lord meant to teach his disciples, that, as it had been in the Jewish Synagogue, so it would be in the Christian Church, that the sacred community should be governed by a bench of Rulers regularly chosen and set apart for this purpose.

In support of this construction of the passage before us, we have the concurring judgment of a large majority of Protestant divines, of all denominations. We have not only the opinion of Calvin, Beza, Paraeus, and a great number of distinguished writers on the continent of Europe; but also of Lightfoot, Goodwin, and many others, both ministers of the Church of England, and the Independents of that country. It is worthy of remark, too, that Chrysostom, known to be an eminently learned and accomplished Father, of the fourth century, evidently understands this passage in the Gospel according to Matthew, as substantially agreeing with the views of the Presbyterians; or, at any rate, as totally rejecting the Independent doctrine.
Few ministers of the Church of England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, were more distinguished for talents, learning, and piety, than Thomas Cartwright, Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, the opponent of the high prelactical claims of Archbishop Whitgift, and concerning whom the celebrated Beza pronounced, that he thought “the sun did not shine upon a more learned man.”  This eminent divine, commenting on Matthew xviii. 17 “Tell it unto the Church,” &c., thus remarks: “Theophylact upon this place, interpreteth, Tell the church, that is many, because this assembly taketh knowledge of this and other things, by their mouths, that is, their governors. Chrysostom also saith, that to tell the Church is to tell the governors thereof. It is, therefore, to be understood, that these governors of the Church, which were set over every assembly in the time of the law, were of two sorts; for some had the handling of the word; some other watching against the offences of the Church, did by common counsel with the ministers of the word, take order against the same .  Those governing Elders are divers times in the story of the gospel made mention of, under the title of ‘Rulers of the Synagogue.’  And this manner of government, because it was to be translated into the Church of Christ, under the gospel, our Saviour, by the order at that time used among the Jews, declareth what after should be done in his Church. Agreeably hereunto the Apostle both declared the Lord’s ordinance in his behalf, and put the same in practice, in ordaining to every several Church, beside the ministry of the word, certain of the chiefest men which should assist the work of the Lord’s building. This was also faithfully practised of the Churches after the Apostle’s times, as long as they remained in any good and allowable soundness of doctrine.  And being fallen from the Churches, especially from certain of them, the want thereof is sharply and bitterly cast into the teeth of the Church’s teachers, by whose ambition that came to pass.