The Development of
Presbyterian Church Government
by William Stanford Reid
1. Church Government in the Old Testament Dispensation:
In discussing any problem the first thing necessary is a definition of the terms to be employed. Therefore in commencing a study of the historical development of the “Presbyterian” form of church government, we must first define what we mean by church government. When we settle- that problem we can then- proceed with our investigation.
As we turn to the question of the nature of church government, we are immediately faced with the problem of the composition of the church. Who are its members? To this question there have been given many answers, but the only one which seems to be Scriptural and at the same time most inclusive is that the church is composed of the redeemed people of God. It is made up of those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. This means that those who belong to the church are those who have made profession of faith in Christ as Saviour, and their children, who are also to be regarded as having been born again. (I Cor. 7: 14).
We must, however, make a distinction at this point between what is known as ‘the visible church’ and ‘the invisible church.’ The latter includes only those who have been truly regenerated by the sovereign power of God; those who alone on the day of judgment will enter into glory with the Lord. The visible church, however, is composed of all those who profess to have been regenerated. Now many of such professing Christians and covenant children may not be regenerate. Indeed many are not, but seeing that the profession has been made, their claims cannot be denied until proven untrue by outward action, for God alone knoweth hearts of men, and alone can tell if their profession of faith is sincere. Therefore, all who say that they have placed their faith in Christ as Saviour, and who by their lives seem to indicate that they speak the truth are to be accepted as members of the church until by over act they show that they do not truly belong in the body of the elect. If they are not truly regenerate, however, they belong only to the visible church, even though never found out. Thus the invisible church forms the core of the visible church which includes both true Christians and those who falsely claim to be such.
It is the visible church which appears before the world, and there are certain marks by which it is characterized. In the first place the work of the church is to preach the Word of God, both for the upbuilding and strengthening of those already within its bounds, and for the purpose of bringing those outside to saving faith in the Lord Jesus
Christ. Along with, but subordinate to, the teaching of the Word goes the administration of the sacraments. These are two in number, one baptism, being conferred on entrance into the church as a sign that the new member is regarded as being regenerate, while the second, the Lord's Supper, is for the purpose of reminding Christians of the grace of God in their salvation, by which means their faith is stirred up that they may be strengthened and enabled to grow in grace.
As there must be, however, some means of ensuring the church’s faithfulness to its God-given duty, it is not merely a loose body of individuals, but a compact organization by which is ensured the appointment of teachers, and their restraint if they teach that which is wrong. The church is also the agency which is to administer the sacraments
and which should endeavour to make sure, as far as is humanly possible, that only those who should
do receive the sacraments, and that in all other respects they are properly administered. In other words the church must be organized in order that it may function effectively by fulfilling its duties.
For this reason God has ordained church government, men being appointed from the church to govern and direct its activities. Whether appointed directly by a voice from Heaven, or indirectly by a vote of the church, these men are the officers of the church of God, and in holding that position are Christ’s representatives. It is their duty to so direct the church that Christians both as a body and as individuals may properly fulfill their duties.
However, while bound to exercise their authority to the best of their ability the officers must not do so for their own honour or pleasure but for the honour of Christ by the edification and strengthening of the church. They must endeavour unflinchingly to see that the members of the church act in accordance with the law of Christ, and that the church as a whole conforms to the commands of its sovereign ruler. But in all this they must on no account attempt to enforce rules and regulations which are not Scriptural; and if they should attempt to impose on the church as matters of conscience merely man-made ordinances they are guilty of arrogating to themselves a position equal to that of Christ, and of denying that He alone is Lord of the conscience and ruler of the church. Their duties are simply those of under-shepherds, appointed by the great chief-shepherd to rule over and protect the flock for Him.
From the earliest days of the organization of the church although not always the same there has always been some form of government. In the pre-Christian era the teaching of church was in the form of types, symbols and prophecies of the coming Christ, and with this there went an appropriate form of church government. As the Old Testament church with its symbols and prophecies formed the basis, foundation and source for the clearer knowledge of the New Testament church, so Old Testament church government formed the basis and source of organization in the New Testament. Therefore, if we would understand properly the form of government established by the apostles we must turn first to the Old Testament for its organization was that upon which the later church built its form of government.
The Old Testament church was intimately connected with the nation of Israel, the whole nation being really the “visible church,” Jehovah ruling both church and nation as one (cf. Rom. 9: 6, 7). This is what is meant when we say that Israel was a theocracy. Moreover when God organized the people as a political unit and as the church. He appointed one of the political divisions of the nation, the tribe of Levi, to be the spiritual leader by bestowing upon the men of that tribe, direction of the religious life of the nation (Exod. 28: 1). They were spiritual leaders of the people and the advisers of the rulers. They conducted the services of the tabernacle, and later of the temple; they offered the sacrifices typical of the coming Christ; they controlled the religious ritual of the people; and were the nation’s instructors in the Law of God. Thus, by the command of God they ruled the church in order that His people should be faithful and obedient to His will.
The direction of the church, however, was not entirely in the hands of the Levitical priesthood. From time to time, as the need arose, God called men to the office and work of prophets. Some of them, like Moses, were of the tribe of Levi, but many more came from other families. Their work was that of bringing special revelations from God to His people, especially when the priesthood became corrupt and the people, the visible church, had turned away from the divine law. They were messengers extraordinary sent to the church, when the duly-appointed governors and rulers of the church had failed in their duties. They warned and exhorted the people to return to their obedience, using threats and promises to give further power to their words. In this they not infrequently foretold events which were to take place, doing it, not to satisfy curiosity, but to drive home their message. Yet they were unsuccessful, and as the people drifted farther and farther away, God spoke more and more plainly concerning the terrible punishment awaiting the disobedient, and the rewards of those who were truly obeying His commands. Thus with increasing sternness the prophets rebuked the sins of Israel and the Levitical priesthood, while at the same time they proclaimed the coming of the promised Messiah who was to save the people from their sins.
A third element in the government of the Old Testament church was that of the elders. These were men, considered wise, discreet and capable of ruling, who were given a voice in the government of the nation as early as the days of Moses. This position they continued to hold throughout the subsequent history of Israel, and after the return of the nation from captivity in Babylon, they became even more important. As they had considerable to do with governing, the nation while in exile, they continued to hold their positions of influence even after their return. Throughout Judea, Esra, the leader of those who came back, set up centers for instructing the people in the law of God, and wherever Jews went thereafter the same type of organization was employed. The centers were called “synagogues” (a gathering place) and were governed by a number of eiders who were all equal, their work consisting not only in the maintenance of the building of the synagogue and in seeing that the reading of the law properly was executed, but also in the settling of civil disputes between Jews according to the Law of Moses, and in general ruling the Jewish community. Under the direction of the elders were also other officers, the most important being the deacons who cared for the poor of the congregation.
Thus with the return from captivity the synagogues, and not the temple became the center of Jewish religious life; for although the temple was rebuilt and Jews resorted thither at certain feasts, yet the synagogues scattered throughout Judea, Asia Minor and Europe were the main means of cultivating Jewish piety. Their services held three times a week consisted in the singing of psalms, the reading of Scripture, and exhortation in which anyone who wished to speak might do so, always, of course, under the supervision of the elders. By this means the Jews became well-instructed in the doctrines of their religion, for wherever there was a Jewish community, whether in Palestine, Egypt, Rome or even far-away Gaul, there was also a synagogue which under the direction of its elders was instructing the people.
Thus by the time of the coming of Christ, wherever one might go in Europe, Africa or the Near East, he would find a very definite church organization among the Jews. Prophets for four hundred years had been unknown in the nation, the Temple with its Levitical priesthood while still functioning was becoming less and less important except as a sign of Jewish unity, and as the object of periodic pilgrimages, but the synagogues on the other hand were very much alive proclaiming the message of salvation to both Jew and Gentile alike. Thus for the organization of the New Testament church, with its clearer message of salvation through Christ, they were the logical starting point. To a consideration of their influence on the government of the Early Church we shall devote the next chapter.
2. The Government of the Apostolic Church:
The purpose for which Christ came to this earth as the Incarnate Son of God was that of fulfilling the plan of God for the salvation of His people. He came to fulfill the law perfectly and to assume the punishment due them for their sins, that they might no longer have to pay the penalty and that they might be accounted as having obeyed perfectly the whole law. Christ accomplished His purpose in His threefold office of prophet, priest and king, and forty days after His resurrection from the grave. He ascended on high where He took His place on the right hand of God the Father. Yet throughout His thirty-three years on earth, with all His teaching and instruction, He actually gave little information concerning the organization which was to be formed by His followers for the purpose of proclaiming to the world the knowledge of His saving work.
All together, the total number of disciples which He left behind to preach the Gospel amounted to no more than a mere 120. This seems all too few to accomplish the work of preaching “the gospel to every creature”; but of the 120, twelve were apostles (Acts 1:15). These twelve men had been especially called by the Lord Jesus at the beginning of His ministry on earth; they had continued with Him throughout it (Acts 1: 22); they had witnessed His ministry. His crucifixion, His death, burial and resurrection. Only Judas Iscariot had failed to continue unto the end, but his place was taken by Matthias while the Apostle Paul was later given a special commission. These chosen men, the apostles, were the foundation of the future church, their importance consisting not in their education, wisdom, nor riches, but in the fact that they had been called by Christ to organize and establish the church to carry on its divinely appointed task of spreading the Gospel.
To do this work of organization, the apostles were given special authority by Christ. He was the only true source of their authority, as he is the only true source of any authority, being King and Lord of the Church. Therefore, it was upon the faithful apostles that Christ founded His Church. (Matt. 16: 18; 18: 18; Jno. 29: 23); and to accomplish this work they were given special endowments of the Holy Spirit. This is shown by the fact that their
writings form practically the whole of the New Testament, those which were not actually written by them being based upon their teachings. Thus in a two-fold way they were the originators of the visible organization of the church: they actually brought it into existence, and they wrote the Scripture which are the final authority in any matter pertaining either to church work or life.
Some may think, at this point, that we are accepting the Roman Catholic position, but we would hasten to point out that there is no evidence that Christ or the apostles believed that they could transfer their apostolic authority to another. With the deaths of the apostles the most glorious and powerful age of the church came to an end which
means that many of the characteristics of the apostolic church, such as speaking in tongues, healing,
etc., also ceased. Henceforth the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were to be the means used by God to speak to His church. For this reason, therefore, if we would model our church organization and government upon that which seems to be closest to the revealed will of God, we must turn to a study of the apostolic form of church government.
Like the apostles we find that in the early church there were two other types of officials who were merely temporary. In the first place there were the prophets who received revelations from the Lord on particular subjects, and for special purposes, their work being much the same as that of the prophets of the Old Testament. (Acts 11: 29; 21: 19; 13: 1; 15: 36). With the close of the canon of the New Testament and the end of the apostolic age these also disappeared. At the same time there disappeared another group, the evangelists, who were apostolic helpers and delegates, sent to various churches to perform special duties. They were apostolic missionaries, unattached to any particular congregation, but commissioned to whatever group of believers had need of their services. (1 Tim. 1: 3; 3: 14; 2Tim. 4: 9; Tit. 1:5; 3: 21; 1 Pet. 5: 12). Thus it is natural that when the apostles died, their work came to an end.
These, however, did not make up the full complement of officers of the apostolic church, for we find that there were two groups who were to be permanently in charge of the activities of the organized Christian communities. These were the elders and the deacons.
As we pointed out in our first discussion, the Jewish synagogue organization was in existence all over Europe, Asia and Africa so that whenever missionaries such as the Apostle Paul were preaching the Gospel they naturally went first to the Jewish place of worship. They did this in the first place because they themselves were Jews, and so would have a natural contact in the community. Then too, they had a ready-made congregation to which they
could preach, and which would understand more easily because of its thorough training in the doctrines of the Old Testament. But most important of all, in those very synagogues were people waiting anxiously for the coming of the Messiah. These people were true members of the church of the Old Testament, so it was only natural that the Gospel should go first to the Jew and then to the Greek. True it is, that the New Testament Church was separated from the Jewish organization at Pentecost, but many in the synagogues of Asia Minor, Europe and Africa had never heard of Christ although like Simeon they looked for His coming. Therefore, it is not surprising that the apostles and their missionaries usually commenced their work in the synagogues, and that in organizing the Christian congregations, they followed the system already known to the Jewish members of the New Testament Church.
On this account, the governors of the Christian congregations were the elders, as they had been in the synagogue. There has been considerable discussion in times past over the nature of the office of elder, but there really seems to be little obscurity concerning it, for the title “elder” was adopted from Jewish usage, while that of “bishop” which was applied to the same man, was adopted from the Greek work meaning “overseer.” The former title referred to his dignity, the latter to his work. The application of the two titles to the same man appears very clearly in various passages of Scripture. (Acts 20: 17, 28; I Tim. 3: 1-13; 5: 17-19; Tit. 1: 5-7; I Pet. 5: 1, 22). The apostles apparently made no distinction between one elder or bishop and another, for they were all equal and were to act together as a governing board of the church. Their authority rested not on conquest, but on the calling of Christ, the head of the church, which was given at first through the choice and ordination by the apostles, and then by the vote of the congregation and ordination by fellow-presbyters as in the case of Matthias (Acts I). Thus they were responsible to Christ for the governing of the church, for overseeing of the public worship of God, for ordaining new elders when they were needed, and for disciplining members of the church who were living in sin.
Though all the elders were equal, they did not always perform the same duties. At the beginning of the organization of the apostolic church it had been the custom to follow synagogue usage by allowing anyone who had the permission of the elders, to speak. In some churches, however, trouble arose because of lack of control which resulted in a disorderly service (I Cor. 14). This doubtless increased with increasing numbers in the church, particularly when some became members by making a false profession. Therefore before long we find reference to "pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4: 11), who from their titles while continuing as members of the board of elders seem to have been set apart to the members of the church. This is borne out by I Tim. 5: 17 in which we are told that certain elders were appointed to teach the individual congregations, while others, perhaps not able to speak in public, contented themselves with aiding in the general direction of the work of the church. It must be remembered, however, that whether they taught or not, all the elders were equal in the government of the church, and in the supervision of the doctrine and life of the members of the congregation.
The other class of church officials was that of the deacons. These men were first appointed in the church at Jerusalem for the purpose of attending to the work of administering charity to the poor of the congregation. Like the elders they were elected and ordained, and were required to be both well instructed in doctrine, and of exemplary life before they could be appointed to the office. (I Tim. 3: 8, 9; Acts 6). In establishing this office, again the apostles simply followed the synagogue organization for it had similar functionaries. The example of Jerusalem was soon followed in other congregations, so that we find throughout the church deacons administering the temporal possessions of the different bodies of Christians. (Phil. 1:1). Some deacons such as Stephen and Philip also did some preaching as evangelists outside the church, but this was not part of their office. Rather they did it in the capacity of Christians who had special gifts which they could use in bringing the Gospel to those who knew it not. Like the deacons of the synagogue also, these officials were under the authority of the elders, being usually named after them when the two offices are mentioned together. (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3: 1, 8).
Both elders and deacons were continually admonished to realize that their master was Christ Jesus, and that as under-shepherds they were to rule over the flock in love and meekness, in order that they might perform their duties acceptably in the sight of God.
Hitherto we have been thinking of the church in terms of one congregation; but since the dispersion of the church by the persecution under Saul of Tarsus, the small group at Jerusalem had been spread abroad preaching the Word. The result was that throughout the country, in different towns and districts local groups were formed to carry on the Christian worship and teaching as had been done in Jerusalem. These groups met in the houses of individuals who had already believed or who were at that time brought to a saving knowledge of Christ. On the other hand when missionaries, perhaps some of the exiles from Jerusalem, who had commenced their preaching in synagogues were forced out through Jewish opposition, they too would hold their services in the home of some member of the newly formed congregation. Thus we find that the first congregations met together in private homes. As the numbers of Christians increased, however, they soon had to divide up due to lack of room, or because the members coming from widely separated parts of a city or district found it difficult to meet in one place. This led to the establishment of a number of congregations within one area, each having its own elders and deacons to direct and govern its activities. (Rom. 16: 3-5; I Cor. 16: 19; Col. 4: 15).
In spite of the fact that the church thus became divided into separate groups, there was no desire to establish congregations which were independent of each other. The unity of the church was to be maintained, but it was to be a unity of doctrine, belief and action, rather than of geographical location. Therefore, if the facts given in Acts 15 are taken as indications, it seems that the elders of the various congregations in one city or district would consult together and act in concert to clear up any matter of doctrinal importance, or any problem of church government (Acts. 15: 20, 17). The best known example of this is given to us in the meeting of the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem with the representatives of the Church at Antioch to discuss the relation of circumcision to Christian faith. The church as a whole, led by the apostles, decided the matter for the congregation at Antioch. Apparently this method was followed later on, for it was realized that no congregation could live to itself. As all Christians are one in Christ, the various congregations had to work together in the unity of the Spirit and doctrine in order to forward the proclamation of the Gospel.
One of the most important works of the rulers of the church was that of enforcing discipline. This is different from the general oversight of the church service and the administration of the material possessions of the church. Due to the fact that no Christian is made perfect in this life so that he lives without either known or unknown sin, it is necessary that those who openly disobey the law of God, and refuse to repent must be punished. In this way the righteousness of the law of Christ is vindicated and the erring member of the church is brought back to the fold. This disciplinary action was not, of course, exercised in the case of every little fault of each member of the church. It would be impossible to do so. The intention was, rather, to restrain those who were living in open and known sin. Such discipline was exercised by Peter in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon the Sorcerer, and by Paul in the case of Simon Bar-Jesus. Death was the penalty for Ananias and his wife, while blindness came to the other two, the punishment being particularly drastic that it might be a warning to the church throughout all ages. However, the usual method of dealing with persistent sinners was that outlined by Christ (Matt. 18: 15-17), viz. admonition, rebuke and excommunication. The sinning one was to be shown his fault and asked to repent; if he would not hearken he was to be warned of the consequences of such obduracy; and finally if he did not then submit he was to be separated from the body of Christians as being no true believer. (I Cor. 5: 1-5). It was in this way that the rulers of the church were to maintain its purity, bring erring members to repentance, and vindicate the authority and righteousness of the law of Christ.
Thus in concluding our study of the government of the apostolic church we find that there was bequeathed to the church of succeeding days, two orders or classes of rulers: elders and deacons. They were to see to the proper conduct of the services of worship, to administer the temporal goods of the church, and to maintain purity of life and doctrine among the members. Their positions were obtained through the voices of the members’ church, but they acted as the ministers of Christ in performing their duties in the various congregations. Moreover, the various groups of individual churches worked together and in unity, the representatives of the different units of the church being the elders who met together to aid each other in governing their own congregations, and in deciding common problems.
Throughout the following eighteen hundred years, the form of church government has varied considerably until today we have many different types and patterns set before us. Yet as we shall see in our subsequent discussions of the problem, variations from the general doctrine of the apostolic church, from Scriptural teachings, always brought with it variations in the form of church government. The closer a church’s doctrine was to that of the Scriptures, the closer was its form of church policy likely to be to the Scriptural form; the farther away its doctrine, the farther away its form of government. Therefore, it is only to be expected that as throughout history our knowledge of the teachings of the Word of God has increased, our knowledge of the proper form of church government has increased, likewise until in our own day we should be in a better position than ever to see the true method of governing the Christian Church. To this development our following studies will be devoted.
3. The Rise of the Monarchical Bishop:
In our study of the government of the church in Apostolic times we came to the conclusion that the apostolic organization was the model upon which church government should be based. The apostles were appointed to found the church, and for that purpose they were given, through the Holy Spirit, revelations to direct their work. In these they were not only instructed concerning the person and work of Christ, but were also shown the form of government to be followed by the organized church. For this reason their form of organization should have
been authoritative for all time, the church being perpetually governed by elders and deacons popularly elected by the body of professing believers. But in spite of this, the apostolic method of directing the work of the church did not last long, for within two hundred years, much of the apostolic form of government had been altered.
When we turn to an examination of the form of church organization current between 250 and 300 A. D., we find that three radical changes had taken place in the preceding one hundred and fifty years. In the first place there was a very distinct division between the clergy and the laity. The clergy, no longer merely elders in the church, but now priests, had virtually become the church, controlling and governing it without much consideration of the laity which was contrary to the practice both of the synagogue and the apostolic church. The second difference was that the clergy had themselves become separated into various groups, divided into so-called minor and major orders. The minor orders were those of acolyte, reader and others, held by men who did the minor work in the church. The major orders were those of deacon, who now did much more than merely take aid to the poor, of presbytery who was now regarded as a priest similar to that of the Old Testament; and finally of bishop who possessed the sole power to ordain deacons and presbyters, and who governed the church, often consisting of a number of congregations, in one city or district, as a monarch. This rise of the bishop is really the third change, and the most important for from it came a long train of evil consequences which are still troubling the church today.
This change, however, did not come all at once. It was quite gradual as is shown by our information concerning the development of the post-apostolic church. Our earliest sources are from the period around 100-130 A.D., and are the letters of three men, Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, and a book called The Didache (Teaching) of the Twelve Apostles. The last named, written about 100, speaks of the election of bishops and deacons, without making any distinction between bishops and presbyters. These men were to do the preaching and teaching. It also mentions prophets and apostles, but apparently they were very uncommon, for the references to them are mostly contained in tests which are to be given to those claiming these offices, in order to see if they are what they claim to be. Apparently prophets and apostles were little known in the church by 100, the only offices really considered being those of bishop (presbyter) and deacon. The same is true both of the letters of Clement (96 A.D.) and Polycarp (115 A.D.). Clement wrote to the church in Corinth from the church in Rome in order to give certain advice, while Polycarp did the same to the Philippians from the church in Smyrna. Neither professes, however, to have any particular rule over the congregation for which they were writing, but stated specifically that they were merely representing them. In his letter, Clement actually refers to the two orders which were to govern the church: the presbyters and deacons. Neither of these men gives any sign of claiming to be bishops as the word was used two hundred years later. They seem to have been rather, simply empowered for the time being to act as the representatives of their respective churches, perhaps because at the time they may have been the presidents or chairmen of the groups of elders in their cities.
That such a chairman should be appointed was very natural. After all, when a number of men are appointed to govern any organization they must always have a chairman in order that all discussion and decisions may be carried out properly and in order. Therefore, it is only reasonable to believe that the elders of the church in a given locality would appoint one of their own number as chairman to direct their meetings, and perhaps to deal
with matters of the church when the elders could not be assembled conveniently. Yet there was no idea that the chairman was superior to the other elders, nor that he was of a different order from them. He was merely an official elected temporarily to aid in carrying on the work of the church.
This view has apparently one piece of evidence against it, for Ignatius of Antioch, the great authority always quoted by Romanists and prelatists, lays considerable emphasis on the place of the bishop. However, there are two considerations which may take away some of his importance for those who would insist on the New Testament origin of episcopacy. In the first place it may be that some of his statements concerning the power and authority of the bishop were added by the hand of someone else at a considerably later date. Then in the second place when one examines his letters closely he does not appear to make so much difference between presbyters and bishops as one might at first think. Therefore, his letters do not seem to prove as much as some would have us believe. But even if all the statements in them were proven authentic, and even if these statements set the bishop up as the superior of the presbyters, it would prove only that this situation existed in the church at Antioch. Moreover, Ignatius’ continual emphasis on the place and importance of the bishop would seem to imply that it was something of comparatively recent origin. It may be, indeed, that he was the one who commenced this attempt to elevate the office of bishop to such great eminence, for in his letters he appears both bombastic and fanatical. In fact he carried his fanaticism to such a point that he seems to have practically forced the Romans to persecute him in order that he might die for his faith. The testimony of such a man does not seem to outweigh the evidence of the other sources, especially since his represents by one city, while the others come from such widely distant points as Rome, Smyrna in Asia Minor, and perhaps Palestine.
That we should reject Ignatius receives further support from the writings of Justin Martyr, about 160 A.D. He states that the church services were conducted by one known as “the president”, who was probably the chairman of the board of elders. It would seem, however, from the fact that he conducted the services, and blessed the elements of the eucharist, very much as a priest, that even “the president” was coming to be regarded as having a separate office. This would then explain the fact that by 200 the episcopal office was separated from that of the presbyters, and the bishop was ruling over them as their superior. This fact is found in the writings of Irenaeus (200) who even goes so far as to call Clement of Rome, the third bishop of that church, which title Clement himself does not seem to have claimed. From this time on, the rise of the bishop became even more rapid, so that by 300 the New Testament form of church government had practically disappeared. Cyprian of Carthage no longer refers to presbyters, but to priests and bishops, the latter of whom had special ordination accompanied by special rites. No longer was the church in the simple form which it held originally, but was now a definitely episcopalian institution governed not by elders and deacons, but by bishops and priests.
But why did this change take place? To the discussion of this problem we will devote the rest of this study; and in doing so we must remember first of all, that the form of any organization is largely dependent upon its purpose and life. One does not organize a band of robbers on the lines of a ladies’ sewing circle. In the same way the form of the apostolic church's organization was in accord with the work given to the church: the proclamation of the Word of God, and with the life of the church, as that of the body of the elect. God appointed for it the type of organization which would enable it to accomplish its work with the maximum efficiency. Therefore, it would seem that the change from The New Testament form of government by 250 denoted a change both in the idea of the purpose, and in the life of the church. In other words a fall from the New Testament doctrine and life had caused a decline from the New Testament form of church organization.
The first, and perhaps the most important cause of this change was the rise of heresy. Indeed it was so prevalent that the period is known as that of the apologists, for nearly all Christian writing of this period was for the purpose of refuting the many varied heresies which were appearing. Yet this heresy definitely affected the church and its views and in so doing affected the form of church government.
Though the heresies were many, they all seem to have agreed on the central doctrine that the Bible was not the final authority, but that there was a secret tradition which had been handed down from the apostles, and only those who knew it could understand Christianity. When this so-called “secret tradition,” was made known, however, it had much in it that was contrary to apostolic teaching. This resulted in divisions in the church and conflicts between different regions. For this reason the church needed someone with authority to define the teaching of the apostles which was already known. But instead of relying solely on the Scriptures men began to think of the church at large as the repository of Christian truth; and the leading man in each group of elders would be the natural one to express the church's views. Thus by 200 A.D. Irenaeus was maintaining that the final authority was the tradition handed down through successive bishops. The place of Scripture was apparently ignored. In this way the presidents of the elders, who not infrequently became permanent “overseers” were soon regarded as being the guardians of apostolic tradition, and the heirs of apostolic powers.
This view of the bishop received further support from another error. Because of the growing tendency to depend upon human tradition, rather than upon the Scriptures, heresies began to arise which declared that man had some part in the accomplishing of his own salvation. This was to be washed out not only by the atonement through Christ, but also by ascetic practices such as refusing to eat certain meats, etc., and by performing certain rites. Although the church supposedly rejected these ideas, it was nevertheless much influenced by them, for it began to develop the idea that baptism and the Lord’s Supper had some magical power to take away sin. Even Justin Martyr seems to have had the idea that the bread and wine of the Communion became the body and blood of Christ which had some special efficacy. The result of this was that the elders soon became much more than mere rulers of the church, appearing instead, as priests with special powers to perform the miracles of the Eucharist and Baptism. And these powers were received not by the election of the people, and the ordination by the rest of the presbytery, but by the laying on of the hands of overseer of the elders, the bishop, the possessor of apostolic authority and power. Thus as the bishop’s power increased, he insisted more and more that only through Episcopal ordination could one receive the apostolic power to perform the sacraments. In this way error gave strength to episcopal claims.
Another cause of the rise of the office of bishop during this era was persecution. The church was not only opposed by heresy, but the government sometimes persecuted the Christians, occasionally even unto death. When such times of tribulation came upon the church, the bishop, was often looked to as the leader and rallying point of the church. This was especially true in the days of the greater persecutions from 200-310, for the bishop’s authority had already been considerably developed by this time. A man of ability and strength of character, could in such a situation perhaps, give considerable aid, even persuading the authorities to relax their harshness. This would most certainly increase his authority. Moreover, if he himself suffered, perhaps was killed, he would be regarded as a martyr, and in the case of his death, his successor would inherit much of his prestige.
A third cause to which we can in part attribute the development of episcopacy was the fact that the church was growing in wealth; and this was administered by the bishop. Originally the temporal possessions of the church had been under the elders as a whole, but soon the president of the elders seems to have gained control and as bishop he ruled absolutely. He supervised the distribution of charity, and took care of the buildings, etc., of the church within his district. This gave him enormous power and authority for many of the Christians who were poor would be quite willing to acknowledge his greatest claims to if he supplied their needs.
Finally there was the question of personal ambition. Even in those days there were men in the church who desired to rule solely because of a lust for power. Therefore, one who succeeded in obtaining the office of elder and who had the ambition to rule, especially as the church was growing rich, would strive to gain the presidency or bishopric. In the early days if he were appointed president, he would endeavour to continue in office as long as possible, and then pass it on to a friend or relative. But whether early or late in the period, if an ambitious man gained the office of overseer of the elders, he would undoubtedly assert his authority to the utmost, and emphasize the place and power of the bishop.
Thus by 300 A.D., the apostolic form of church government had virtually disappeared. Instead of
the church being governed by popularly elected elders and deacons ordained by the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, it was ruled by monarchical bishops, usually one to each city or district, who claimed to hold apostolic powers and authority as the rulers and directors of the church. The church had begun to forsake New Testament doctrine, and this resulted in an abandonment of the New Testament form of church government.
4. New Testament Principles of Church Government vs. State Control:
From the earliest days of the Christian Church the right of the state to interfere in its government
has been a burning question which is by no means settled even yet. While many a battle was waged over this problem during the Middle Ages, with the Reformation the problem became even more acute.
Luther gave the civil government more or less control over the church. Calvin, however, was very determined in his resistance to the attempts of the Genevan city fathers to interfere in the church as a civil government. The state and the church, he believed, were two separate and independent organizations which while perhaps overlapping in membership, had two entirely different functions. Any influence which they exerted on each other was to be entirely of an unofficial or moral nature. The church was to be independent of the state and entirely self-governing. Yet right at this point Calvin was unfaithful to his principles and appears as a true man of his own times. He believed that it was the state's duty to support the church and also to protect it from attack by inflicting civil penalties amounting even to capital punishment, on those who desired to pervert or subvert the authorized theological teachings. It was these latter views which caused so much sorrow in later years.
But in spite of his theories, the practical influence of the civil governments in the Reformation gave them much more power than that approved by Calvin. In most cases the Reformation would not have come about had it not been for the protection offered by the civil governments. It was the Elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse who protected Luther and his movement from destruction by the Catholic princes. It was the nobles of Scotland which gave Knox his opportunity; Elizabeth of England and William of Orange who protected Protestantism against the attack of Spain. In His providence God gave protectors for the church —and it was the civil government.
Yet why did the governments support the movement? Seldom was the motive a religious one, although on occasion a prince such as Edward VI of England might have a conscientious conviction that Protestantism was right and Romanism wrong. More often, however, the motive for a prince’s supporting the Reformation was selfish. Elizabeth protected the Reformation in order to keep her throne. The Scots nobles supported Presbyterianism principally in order to obtain possession of the large properties in the hands of the Roman church. The German princes followed Luther because it would help them to free themselves from the control of the pope and the emperor. Besides, men in all countries believed that such a movement meant freedom from church taxes and dues, an aim most heartily approved of by all.
Thus the states usually had ulterior motives for their Protestant fervour. This, however, was not all. When a Protestant church was actually established the government usually attempted to keep control of it. The church was to be made an instrument of the government which would use it for civil purposes. An attempt to put such an idea
into practice was usually facilitated by the fact that the state had taken over all or most of the Roman
Church's lands. These had formed the only means of supporting the Catholic clergy, and as the people
had not become used to voluntary giving as a means of supporting the proclamation of the Gospel, the
new church was thus entirely dependent upon the state for its physical existence. Moreover, since
the states were the means of preserving the Protestant churches from extinction, from the first they had much to say concerning the form of the nation's church government. This was particularly true where the central power was strong. Where there was a centralized government as in England or in some of the German principalities, the tendency was towards a centralized form of church organization. Elizabeth had little interest in doctrine, but she did care much for her own authority. Therefore Episcopacy and not presbytery was the English form of church government, since the queen had the power to appoint the bishops. Her successor, James I, declared that without the episcopate the monarchy could not endure. On the other hand, where there was a weaker form of civil government or where it was decentralized, the tendency was for the church to set its own organization. This was usually a rather democratic type based more or less upon the “Presbyterian” system of Calvin.
Thus by 1600 there were two definite types of Protestant church organization in Europe. One —the episcopalian—frequently dominated by the civil authorities, has remained in much the same condition down to the present day. The other —presbyterian or democratic—although at first confused by Calvin's views on state support contained within itself the seeds which were eventually to appear as a church altogether separated from the state. It is to this form of organization, and its three centuries of warfare that we owe our own religious liberties to-day. To this struggle between state and presbytery since 1600 we shall now turn our attention.
Since 1600 in different countries and at different times the conflict between state and church has taken various forms. It would seem that each century and each country has had its own particular phase of the conflict. For this reason we shall endeavour to touch only the most outstanding examples of conflict between presbytery and civil
In the seventeenth century most men throughout the countries of the Reformation believed that the church and state should be linked very closely together. But at this point there was a difference of opinion. Some said that the state had the right to prescribe the form of government it thought best and most effective, while others, usually the Presbyterians, believed that the state must follow the commands of Scripture. In Germany and England during the sixteenth century the former view was predominant, while in Scotland and Holland the latter held sway. The seventeenth century saw open conflict between the two views.
The German and English reformations largely came from above, the Scottish and Dutch from below. Thus when conflict came between king and parliament in England, it was not surprising to find the king advocating episcopacy while the parliament supported presbytery. With the defeat and eventual execution of Charles I, parliament endeavoured to organize a presbyterian form of government for both England and Scotland. This was
done under the guidance of the Westminster Assembly of Divines who not only drew up the Confession of Faith and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms, but also a form of government. The presbyterian form of organization in England, however, lasted but a very short time.
The first blow against it was struck by Cromwell’s army. This body was largely under the influence of men who believed in independentism or Congregationalism, each church to be absolutely self-governing, self-supporting and not connected with any other congregations, although supervised by the government. Cromwell practically abolished parliament, and with it the presbyteries.
When later by the Restoration of 1660 Charles II came to the throne he reestablished episcopacy in England. He even tried to force it on Scotland, but the Covenanters resisted his efforts unto death. The persecution of the presbyterians in Scotland was carried on with cruelty and relentlessness, but it accomplished little. The last Stuart king was finally forced to flee from the country in 1688 and William, Prince of Orange, and his wife Mary succeeded to the throne. By the Revolutionary Settlement which established William and Mary as king
and queen, episcopacy was permanently set up in England while presbytery, albeit very half-heartedly, was made the form of Scottish ecclesiastical government. Yet even then in Scotland the state continued to claim control over the church, so the struggle was by no means over.
The first round of the fight between the state and New Testament principle of church government had resulted in the predominance of the state. In England and Germany episcopacy guaranteed that the state would rule, while even in Scotland and the Netherlands although the churches were presbyterian they were apparently willing to submit.
There was practically no attempt in the Church of England to shake government domination, but hardly had presbyterianism been established in Scotland before trouble appeared. The eighteenth century was the period of the rise of rationalism which attempted to subject every thought to reason. This resulted in a decline in a belief in the doctrines of Christianity, and also a weakening in religious interest generally. Consequently indifference led to
toleration for various churches throughout Great Britain, and presbyterianism was even permitted in
England. But this indifference had also disastrous effects. In 1712 an act was passed by parliament permitting "patrons" (either the great landlords or the crown possessing the right to appoint ministers to congregations) to force Presbyterian ministers on hostile churches. As this was contrary to the whole idea of Presbyterian government a number of ministers refused to submit to such an arrangement. These were forced to leave the church, both during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The final secession took place in 1 843 under Thos. Chalmers who organized the Free Church of Scotland, while the groups who had left earlier came together in the United Presbyterian Church (1847). By these losses the Church of Scotland found itself deprived of the services of some of the most outstanding ministers of its communion. Most of these men were of the group known as “evangelicals” indicating their desire to remain loyal to the doctrines of the Gospel and to have no dealings with modern infidelity. Largely because of this they had refused to allow the church to come under the control of a religiously indifferent state. The autonomy of the church, they believed, had to be preserved.
The same thing took place in the Netherlands where, after the Napoleonic Wars, the King attempted to dominate the church by insisting that the state appoint all the ministers. Immediately opposition appeared under the leadership of Groen van Prinstern, de Coc and others who were forced to leave the state church on this account. They organized the “Christian Reformed Church.” Then some years later a group who had remained in the state church in an endeavour to reform it, also left because of the desire for independence. These were led by Abraham Kuiper, later to be Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
The movements in Scotland and Holland were the preludes to the endeavours of the nineteenth century governments to control the church. The years following the Napoleonic Wars saw two very definite movements in the Church, both arising out of the eighteenth century. The first was what we today call “modernism,” and the other was the attempt to make the church into a mere department of the state. Modernism's great desire has always been to destroy doctrine —particularly Scriptural doctrine. Therefore, modernism has always favoured state control of the church and uniformity. Thus it was not surprising that the first real move in this direction took place in Germany, modernism’s home and native land. Both Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Prussia were forced to unite because the state felt that it would be easier to control in this way. Opposition arose here also, among the “evangelicals” and non-conforming Lutheran and Reformed churches were formed, on the principle that the church must exist absolutely independent of state control.
Thus it was that not until three hundred years after, that the principles enunciated by Calvin were properly recognized. This was to a large extent due to the actual failure of Calvin himself to work out his principles consistently in practice. However, by 1859 it was almost universally recognized that the church to perform its duties properly had to remain separate from the state.
One of the reasons for this was the growth of the democratic form of political government which continued more or less dominant down to the years following the great war. However, with the rise of the totalitarian state matters again changed. The church was thought to be a part of the government and Hitler and Mussolini have consistently endeavoured to force the church into acceptance of state control. That they have not succeeded is witnessed by the fact that there are 4000 German pastors today in concentration camps.
But all the interference of the state in the church. is not limited to the dictatorships. Even in democratic countries the state sometimes attempts to force its will upon the church, or attempts to make its ministers civil officials. We have examples of such state action even in our own land. In 1925 the Canadian parliament passed a law which commanded the union of the Presbyterian, the Congregational and the Methodist churches, and the non-concurring minority which might refuse would have received very short shrift had it not been for certain modifying clauses introduced by the Senate. We also have an example of the state using the ministers and the sacraments of the church for civil purposes in the Province of Quebec. This results very frequently in people desiring to have their children baptized for no other purpose than that of obtaining their civil registration.
Christians must therefore be continually on their guard lest there be an attempt to bring the church under the control of the state. If the state should ever succeed there will be an inevitable decline of the church. History shows that in such a situation state-dominated men are appointed to positions and congregations not because of merit, but because of political influence. Corruption of all kinds enters into a church, and before long the only way to reform it is by secession or revolt —and that is the action of desperation.
It thus behooves all those who love the Scriptures to be ever watchful in order that the New Testament principles of a free church may be maintained. If this is done, there will not only be a free church, but also a free country for where such a church is, men have usually been free politically.
5. The Importance of New Testament Principles of Church Government:
During the past months we have been studying the development of Presbyterian church government through the centuries. We saw first of all, the form the church possessed in New Testament times. Then from that starting point we examined the changes introduced into the New Testament organization until there developed out of what had been Christian democracy, a papal dictatorship. But with the rise of the papacy to its greatest height there arose also a movement of opposition. Men began to demand a return to the apostolic teaching both in doctrine and government. This resulted in the Reformation which brought a revival of apostolic principles in the appearance of Presbyterianism. Since that time there has had to be a continual battle in order to maintain the proper form of church organization. The state, episcopacy, bureaucracy and individualism have all done their best to destroy what is essential to presbyterianism; and they are still doing it today.
In closing this series we must ask ourselves the reasons for following the example of the early church. Why should its form of government be our model? Yet before we can answer this question it would be well for us to obtain some idea of the .reasons for which men deny the authority of the New Testament practice. Why do some feel that its organization has no importance for us? The first reason for the rejection of the Biblical form of ecclesiastical organization is the rejection of the Scriptures themselves. This has taken place a number of times during the history of the Christian Church. Sometimes there has been a direct attack on the Scriptures, while at other times they have been merely ignored, or made of none effect through the traditions of men. But however it is done, the neglect of the Scriptures means a decline of the New Testament form of the church. This was true during the Middle Ages when the papacy was supreme, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the state was trying to dominate, and it is true today when bureaucracy is developing.
Why this should be so, is easy to understand. When men begin to deny the authority of the Bible, they will soon forget its precepts and example. The Biblical programme will soon be neglected. Moreover, since the Bible’s principles make for a church which is truly spiritual, those who are not really Christians will dislike, not only its views of doctrine, but also of church government. They will favour the erection of an episcopacy, the interference of the state or the creation of a supreme bureaucratic board of governors in the name of worldly “efficiency.” For purely business reasons, they will reject the original form of organization in favour of their own.
Another cause of the denial of the Scriptural form of church government is that men often desire to gain control for themselves. It may be that it is powerful and influential, so that whoever can gain control will be able to exercise great influence over its own members, and through them over many others also. For this reason Hitler has tried to dominate the German church. There are many other reasons which could also be enumerated, but whatever they are, if those who have the desire are successful there can be only one result. The church will be subjected to the dictatorship of some one particular individual or group. This brings about the destruction both of its democratic character and of its unity. If the would-be dictator is strong enough he may be able to force his will upon the church, creating a despotism. If, on the other hand, he cannot control the whole church, he will cause a division, either being put out of the church himself, or forcing a group which will not obey him to leave.
The fundamental reason for the development of such a situation is either ignorance of or a denial of the Kingship of Christ over the church. There is a refusal to accept the fact that the church can have no absolute ruler on earth. Christ is pushed aside by human ambition in order to make His Kingdom one of this world.
Against such destruction of the New Testament form of church organization, Presbyterianism has always set its face. The example of the apostolic church must be adhered to as far as is humanly possible.
The principal reason for this insistence is that it is the example given in the Scriptures. Above all other groups the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have upheld the Bible as the only rule of faith and conduct. They have insisted that the Scriptures are the one standard by which the correctness of anything in the matter of church doctrine or government may be judged. Since the early church was established by the apostles, the special representatives of Christ, their example in this regard is to be taken as authoritative. Thus the action of the early church should be final.
In holding this view, Presbyterians are basing their views on the great fundamental but oft neglected doctrine of the Kingship of Christ. As has been pointed out in earlier articles, those who hold to New Testament principles, deny that there can be any human head of the church. Christ alone holds that position. It was for this view that the Scottish Covenanters fought against the state on behalf of “the Crown Rights of Christ.” Because of the same desire to honour Christ have many others down to the present day resisted, even unto death, any attempt to establish human authority over the church.
Christ rules the church not through any appointed earthly “vicar” as claimed by the papacy. He directs it by means of the Holy Spirit who guides “it into all truth.” This does not mean that the ecclesiastical organization is infallible. It means that the Holy Spirit watches over and guides it so that at least a part of the visible church remains true to the kingship of Christ and to His rule. Through the general action of all true believers Christ reigns over His people, directing them and leading them. This of necessity makes the church democratic. All the people are to have their say, not just one man or a few at the top. To this end presbyteries, synods and general assemblies have been created to govern the church. No group or court is the supreme ruler of the ecclesiastical organization. No moderator is the “head of the church.” The final court of the church is the presbytery which most closely represents the whole church. In this way Christ's headship is acknowledged. This is the very heart of Presbyterianism.
While the doctrinal basis of Presbyterian church government is of the utmost importance, it is not the only reason for following apostolic precept and example. Presbyterianism is extremely practical. In these days of efficient dictatorship it is well to remember this fact.
In the first place, it is the only form of church government which guarantees real freedom. It is the only antidote to the rise of an oligarchy. History shows that episcopacy or state domination usually results in the government of the church falling into the hands of a few men who rule according to their own will. This was true, for instance, of the situation in England and Scotland during the seventeenth century. A few of the clergy, led at first by Archbishop Laud and later by others, tried to rule the church as they pleased. They attempted to force all to conform to their rules and regulations. In England they used the Court of High Commission to force submission upon an unwilling people, some of whom at first fled the country, while others took part in a revolt which cost Laud his head. Later in the century much the same thing was tried again, particularly in Scotland. Many were martyred for their refusal to submit, but finally James II was forced from the throne by popular opposition, and in Scotland at least, Presbyterianism was restored. Where New Testament principles are followed, oligarchy cannot exist.
The New Testament example also provides a good antidote to ecclesiastical dictatorship. We see all around us today the great conflict between dictatorship and democracy. But wherever it is recognized that Christ is the head of the church who speaks through the general voice of His people, dictatorship cannot rear its head. Christ's headship and human dictatorship are absolutely incompatible.
This provision for freedom from oligarchy and dictatorship means the maximum freedom for the individual. It recognizes the fact that the individual after all is directly responsible to God. He is not under any arbitrary human rule, but under the law of Christ —the perfect law. If he expresses opinions which are heretical or immoral he cannot be punished, except according to the law of the church. In its courts he is given every right of appeal, having ultimately the liberty to appear before the representatives of the whole church. He is not subject to the whim of a dictator whether of a large church or a single congregation. The law provides him with the maximum freedom commensurate with the freedom of his fellow Christians, and above all with the crown rights of Christ. And judgment must be given by his equals in the church.
The Presbyterian form of organization also guarantees true unity. Dictatorship whether by a group or an individual must be content with outward uniformity. It can try to make men's minds conform to the set pattern, but all it can guarantee is that outward actions shall be uniform. This is slavery, not unity, so that even if apparent unity is forced upon a church through totalitarian methods it eventually fails by forcing rebellion. As at the time of the Reformation this usually results in division.
Congregationalism has the same effect. It lays too much stress on individual or local differences. Not infrequently dictatorship is involved here also. Some group or individual gains great influence over a particular congregation, and when his or their views are not followed by the rest of the church the congregation pulls out and becomes an independent body. Under extraordinary cases this may be permissible, but usually it is bad, and rises from motives of pride more than anything else. Where the New Testament example is no longer followed, the unity of the church is destroyed.
The Presbyterian system, on the contrary, while giving due consideration to local peculiarities emphasizes the need for unity on the great basic doctrines and commands of Christ, the head of the church. This is clearly shown by a Presbyterian creed such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. Thus the proper emphasis is laid on unity, all those in agreement on basic principles being united in faith and mutual Christian love.
Finally the New Testament form of church government gives the opportunity for reform. No church long remains free from error either in doctrine or practice. Therefore, it is most important that machinery of reform be always available. Where there is dictatorship or sectionalism this is impossible. Throughout history we can see that reform has always been stifled where Presbyterianism has been curbed. But where it has had full sway, there has often been the possibility of inaugurating reforms which have restored a decadent church before a disruption took place.
Even in our own church at the last General Assembly we have been given an example of the possibilities of initiating reform. The lamentable condition of our colleges was brought to the church’s notice; and in spite of the objections of some who would make themselves rulers over the church an investigation was set on foot. It is to be hoped that it will be carried through with foresight and a true sense of responsibility to Christ. But at least the Presbyterian form of government made it possible to bring the matter before the church for action. Reform now waits on the willingness of the church to do what is needful.
Thus from the point of view both of principle and practice, the New Testament form of church
government as formulated in Presbyterianism shows its superiority to all others. We who are Presbyterians should rejoice in our heritage, for it gives us not only the true Christian form of organization, but also provides us with the freest and most democratic ecclesiastical government possible. We must, therefore, strive to maintain if with all our power, being continually on our guard against those who would take from us the right to be called Presbyterians.