Biblical Church Government, Part 2


Some Christians are bored with any discussion of church government. They think, "Who cares? What difference does it make? Let's get on with ministry." And last week I spent quite a bit of time demonstrating that there are enormous ramifications to a church's views and practice of government. We compared church government to four types of civil government. By now I think you would recognize that a "who cares" attitude is not safe. It would be like saying, "What difference does it make if I live in China, Angola or America, so long as I can have my home, have a family and have a nice job?" Very soon you will find that a form of government makes a big difference on whether you own a home, have family freedoms or have a nice job. Ideas have consequences. And we pointed out that the ideas we have on ecclesiology or church government have enormous consequences. And I won't review those today.

But we also saw that Presbyterianism takes the best from the other three forms of government and with the checks and balances in Roman numeral II (that we will look at today), makes a system that produces the ultimate in liberties. It borrows a little from democracy. We looked at passages like Acts 6:5,6 and Acts 14:23 to show that the congregation has the right to vote for officers. And we looked at passages that indicate that elders at Presbytery and General Assembly vote on policy. And so, even though most principles of democracy are rejected by Presbyterians, we do agree with them on the Biblical right for each family to vote for representatives. So that is one form of government that we borrow from. Presbyterianism (as well as the American republic) also borrows a little from Oligarchy. Oligarchy is the rule of a few unelected leaders. We don't agree with the unelected part, and there are a few other weaknesses of Oligarchy that we reject. But the concept of a plurality of elders to try court cases and to give advice and consent are a part of Presbyterianism. In fact, older Presbyterians saw quite a distinction between the executive office (what the pastor did) and the judicial branch (what the elders did). They did not believe in a legislative branch because they believed that God alone made law, and so there was no need for legislation. But the session, Presbytery and General Assembly are all called Courts. They are courts of appeal.

And maybe this is as good a point as any to at least mention the controversy in Presbyterianism over whether there is a two or a three office view. Most older Presbyterians held to a three office view of pastor, elders and deacons. Dabney and Thornwell were two Southern theologians who popularized the two office view, which I hold to. But you know, when it comes down to practical function, it really doesn't matter much whether you hold to two offices that contain three orders (as Dabney did) or whether you hold to three offices and three orders. Both sides of the Hodge/Dabney debate agreed with the next point.

And that is that Presbyterianism even borrows a tiny idea from monarchy: the idea that vision and day by day leadership require an individual. Court functions always require a group, but jobs (the carrying out of church policy or the executive function) require one person to head up on any level of government. Sessions maybe meet once a month to provide oversight, advice and consent, but church ministries need leadership every day, and leaders within the church are theoretically freed from the micromanaging of an oligarchy. And whether it is the three office view of Charles Hodge or the two office view of Dabney and Thornwell (which I hold to), this principle is essential. And so in this church we have individuals who head up various ministries, but who would be accountable and would report. The Presbytery committee that oversees me and acts as a session, gives me a great deal of latitude in how I run ministries, but I am accountable to them. And so it is the relationship of accountability that I think is so key. In the PCA ruling elders are members of the local church, whereas teaching elders are members of Presbytery. It's one of the many checks and balances against the tyranny of either monarchy, oligarchy or democracy.

I'm going to skip over most of the rest of Roman numeral I because I consider Roman numeral II to be very critical. So today's outline is a bit of an expansion of last week's Roman numeral II.

Types of Church Government (last sermon)

The Extent of Church Authority

Christ is the only sovereign head of the church (Eph. 1:20-23; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), and His Word alone can be the authority of the church

There are six kinds of powers that you will find discussed in any textbook on the US Constitution, and if you do a study of those powers, you will find that they originated in 18^th^ century Presbyterianism. But before we get to those six powers, I think it is important to discuss two foundational principles.

The first principle is essential to all the rest of the points that deal with the extent of church authority. Point a) says, "Christ is the only sovereign head of the church (Eph. 1:20-23; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), and His Word alone can be the authority of the church." A 51% vote of the church is not sovereign; the board of elders are not sovereign; the pastor is not sovereign. Ephesians 5:23 says, Christ is head of the church.

What does that mean? Well, in part it means that the church derives its power and authority from Christ alone, and neither congregation nor bishop nor oligarchy can grant power to the church that Christ Himself has not granted. The state may not grant powers to the church that Christ has not granted. You have no authority from Christ to give away your powers (and we will be seeing in a moment that Christ has given the congregation as a whole some powers. In 1 Corinthians 4:6, Paul says, "that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written." What is written in the Bible is the highest authority. All lawful acts of a church are the acts of Christ Himself. But no act is lawful unless it is clearly grounded in Scripture. Paul commands the church, "that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written."

That means that every feature of our Constitution and Book of Church order must be regulated by the Bible. Let me quote from our Book of Church order where it comments on Christ alone being King of the Church. It says

Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.

In Morton Smith's commentary to the PCA Book of Church Order he says, "Other forms of church government may be able to say that they are not forbidden in so many words, but it is explicitly the Presbyterian form of government that claims to be a jus divinum."

Jus divinum means divine law. Our position is that if we can't find it in Scripture, we can't do it. And we will comment more on that under the various types of powers. But this is the implication Paul makes of the headship of Christ. We may not go beyond what is written. Christ and His Word are king. This is contrary to all those forms of government who say that the Bible doesn't give us a form of government; that it is simply pragmatic – what works best. We say, "No. We won't use anything that cannot be said to originate in Christ the head."

But let's look at another way in which the exclusive headship of Christ is denied in the church today. When churches get incorporated (or become legal corporations), they are introducing an authority over the church that is not only unbiblical, it is even hostile to Christ nowadays. And yet, there has been a mad rush of churches to get incorporated over the past 50 years. It used to be illegal in most states of the union. Now everyone is trying to get on the bandwagon and I think it is almost 80% of the churches with memberships over 100 that have become state churches. That is precisely what incorporation does to the church. It places the church under the jurisdiction of the state, and makes it a state church. Several court cases could be cited, but let me give you the Matthews versus Adams case of 1988. The court said:

Appellants appeal on the basis that the circuit court had no authority over them because they are a recognized religious organization, a church. On first reflection they appeared to be correct but upon a closer study of the complaint and the judgment we are of the opinion that this is not an improper interference by the government into a church, or ecclesiastical matter. [And here comes the reason: listen to this closely. The court said] "When the members of the church decided to incorporate their body under the laws of the state of Florida they submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of the state court in all matters of a corporate nature…""

We are talking about jurisdiction here. Does the state have jurisdiction over any aspect of church government? And we say, "No." And the founding fathers of America to a man, whether orthodox Christians or Deists would have all said, "No. The state government does not have jurisdiction over church government."

And before I expand on that, let me clarify something. I don't have the same problem with a business getting incorporated because a business is not placing the family government under state jurisdiction, nor is it placing church government under state jurisdiction. As individuals we are all under state jurisdiction. That's not a problem. It is the separation of governments that is the issue. This is a technical problem only for church and family governments when they function as governments, not when I as a father function simply as an individual. I wear different hats. I wear the hat of a citizen who is subject to the state, of an officer of the church who is not subject to the state, and as an officer of the family, who is not subject to the state in how I run my family. So like I say, I don't have the same problems with business corporations that I do with church corporations. And a state church is a denial of the sovereign and exclusive headship of Christ. It introduces another that calls himself sovereign – the sovereign state.

The last quote I gave showed that churches voluntarily apply for the government to have jurisdiction. In fact, the IRS code says that churches are automatically exempt by the Constitution from taxation or government oversight if they do not apply for 501(c)3 status. They are automatically exempt. So why do churches bother to apply? It used to be to gain extra benefits. Now it seems that there are more liabilities than benefits. But that court case said that it is totally voluntary for the church to subject itself to the jurisdiction of the state. It was not under the state's jurisdiction previously. Some church law lawyers have argued that this does not give jurisdiction to the church as a church, but only to the church as a corporation. That is nice in theory, but the reality is that the corporation overlaps virtually everything that the church as church has and does. And there have been numerous court cases that have interfered with such things as the incorporated church's right to preach on certain things. In 11 Corpus Juris, Charities #103 the law says that the officers of the church can be removed by the state.

Let me read you a little dialogue that went on between Everett Sileven and the judge who was trying his case here in Nebraska. And I am getting this from Michael Gilstrap's essay in Christianity and Civilization vol 3.1

At one point the judge leaned over his bench and remarked to Rev. Sileven, "I don't understand why you won't submit your school to licensure. Don't you realize that everything in your church is licensed from the building to the hymbooks?"

Rev. Sileven replied, "What do you mean?"

The judge answered, "Isn't the Faith Baptist Church incorporated?"

"Well, yes…" Sileven answered.

"As a corporation," said the judge, "every possession of Faith Baptist Church is licensed by the state of Nebraska. We control it all, and that is the reason we can require you to submit your school to licensure!"

If you think this is just an odd tyrannical judge, I would encourage you to read the book, In Caesar's Grip, by Peter Kershaw, where numerous cases are studied, where the law itself is studied, the history of incorporation going back to the Romans, and why incorporation was illegal in most states of the union until the last century. It is still illegal in Virginia because their interpretation is that it violates the US Constitution. And I would agree with them.

In the early church Christians were prepared to die rather than affirm Caesar's lordship over the church and be licensed by the state. It's a jurisdictional issue. And by the way, the early church didn't have a problem affirming Ceasar's lawful authority over them as individuals. They were quite prepared to call him lord in that capacity. But they refused to subject the church and Christianity to the state licet or license. If Caesar was lord over them as citizens, no problem; lord over their Christianity, no way. Rome gave full freedom of religion so long as religions would license themselves under Rome's authority. And every time a church gets incorporated, it is gladly asking for what saints of old died to avoid.

In the Matthews versus Adams case, the court said, "When the members of the church decided to incorporate their body under the laws of the state of Florida they submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of the state ..." This is not a peripheral issue. This strikes at the headship of Christ and of the separation of governments, and within governments, the separation of powers. Indeed, eventually it removes all power from the church and grants it to the state. If you look in your catechism excerpts, take a look at #214. "What is the name given to that opinion, which maintains that the church possesses no power, and that the office of its rulers consists solely in instruction and persuading the people? [Answer] It is called Erastianism from Erastus, its author, a physician, who lived in the sixteenth century." This was the view of the Anglican church that the Westminster Confession was written against. And it is always the logical end result of a state church because Christ is not the head of the church in any meaningful way.

Robert Shaw, in his exposition of the Westminster Confession, said:

Christ is the sole and exclusive Head of the Church, whether consideration as visible or invisible. His authority alone is to be acknowledged by the church, as her supreme law-giver… Christ has not delegated His authority either to popes or princes; and though He is now in heaven as to His bodily presence, yet He needs no deputy to act for Him to the Church below… daring encroachments have often been made upon this royal prerogative of Christ, both by ecclesiastical and civil powers.2

And so as Joe Morecraft says, "Civil constitutions have no power in the courts of the church. Ecclesiastical constitutions have no authority in the civil government." Christ is Lord of the State and He is Lord of the Church, but to prevent tyranny, he has kept those governments jurisdictionally separate, with limited, delegated, enumerated powers.

A Church Constitution Acts as a Limiting Federal (Covenantal) Document (Neh. 9:38-10:39)

And by far the most important concept was enumerated powers. Enumerated powers means that a government only has those powers which are specifically numbered out in the constitution. But before we can get to that, we need to deal with the legitimacy of even having a constitution. There are churches like the Evangelical Covenant who say, "No creed but the bible." But that is totally impossible. Every church has a creed, whether it is written or not. The moment a teacher opens his mouth and starts to teach doctrine, he is establishing a creed. I talked with one of the pastors who has "no creed but the bible" and asked him if their pastors believe such and such. He said "No." I asked if they believed another doctrine, and he said "Yes." He knows what Reformed people believe, so I asked him if I would be acceptable as a minister in that denomination. And he said "No. We are self-consciously pietistic." And when I said "It sounds like you have a Creed after all", he smiled and admitted that there is an informal creed. But all denominations do. The question is, "Is the tradition of doctrine Biblical or unbiblical?"

Christ and the apostles were not opposed to a tradition of teaching. In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul says, Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. As already mentioned in this sermon, Paul had already told them that they were to learn from his example (which is a tradition) not to go beyond what is written. His tradition was an exclusively Biblical tradition, whereas the Pharisees had a Creed that had added all sorts of man-made doctrines. Jesus said, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men… Jesus was opposed to Jewish Talmudic tradition because it introduced a new authority that was not in the bible. We are opposed to Roman Catholic tradition for the same reason. It is not restricted to Scripture.

Now listen to the contrast between the intolerance for unbiblical traditions and biblical traditions.

2Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. The epistle was the Scripture and the oral was the teaching done in the church based upon the Scripture. They were to hold to both.

2Thessalonians 3:6 But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.

When Paul taught in the congregations, he based everything upon the Bible – but it was a systematizing of Biblical truth; it was a tradition or a body of doctrine that was being handed on. So right from the Beginning the church had a Bible, and had a Creed which summarized the Biblical teachings. Actually, this goes back to the covenantalism of the Old Testament where church communities would on occasion write up a covenant document with theological and moral commitments and would have the people sign those commitments. What was going on in Nehemiah 9:38-10:39 was a small summary of Biblical truths and commandments that they were committing themselves to. It was a Creed. That is called covenantalism or federalism. We use the term federal government all the time without realizing that it means covenanted government, with the constitution of course being the covenant which spelled out the responsibilities of the new federated or federal government. Any covenant in the bible was a written document just our USA Constitution is or like our PCA Constitution is.

In your worship notes you will see a small portion of a catechism on Presbyterian principles. It was written in 1843 by Rev. Thomas Smyth, a very influential and famous writer on ecclesiology. And let me quote from several sections so that you can get a feel for the difference between our treatment of the Church Constitution and our treatment of the bible. People have sometimes asked why we don't make the Bible our Constitution. And the reason is simple: a Constitution can be amended, the bible can't. The Constitution is a temporal covenantal compact, the Bible is not. Third, the Bible deals with so many other issues, that the sections relevant to government need to be brought out or people could easily become ignorant of them simply because they don't read or don't know how to systematize these truths in their heads. And so it is essential to have a federal document (which is simply another way of saying that it is essential to be in covenant with each other). Every time you hear the term federal government, I hope you remember that it means covenanted government, and that the US is bound by covenant theology and will be judged for breaking that covenant if they do not repent. Look at question 237.

  1. Has the church the right to draw up summaries of Christian doctrines; as, for instance, confessions of faith and catechisms?
    In order to exhibit to the world her views of the Scriptures; to oppose prevailing heresies and errors; to instruct her children and people; to determine the sentiments of candidates for admission into the ministry; and to secure harmony and uniformity in her public ministry; it is the privilege and duty of every church, to draw up such summaries of Christian doctrine."

If you want proof texts, you can look at 1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6 where Paul distinguishes between the bible and the traditions of his teachings of the Bible. Or you can look at Old Testament covenant documents.

But look at questions 238-243.

  1. What authority do these summaries possess, in themselves considered?
    They have, in themselves considered, no more authority than any other human compositions.

  2. From what, then, is their authority derived?
    The authority of such summaries is derived solely from their conformity to the Scriptures.

  3. Are such summaries to be regarded as infallibly correct?
    No; the only infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture, is Scripture itself.

  4. Does our confession of faith claim any other power over those who receive it?
    No; for it is stated in that confession that all synods or councils, since the apostles' time, may err, and many have erred; therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help to both.

  5. Can you state any other declaration which that confession makes of the same significance?
    Yes; it declares, that "it belongeth to synods and councils ministerially, (that is, as [a] minister of God's word,) to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience;" and that their "decrees and determination, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission.

  6. How, then, do you reconcile the authority claimed for these standards, with that supreme authority which is ascribed to the word of God?
    No individual is compelled to receive these standards, contrary to his own voluntary choice; and in submitting himself to the authority of the church, every individual declares that he receives the standards, because, after full examination, he believes them to contain the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures. [a little bit later you will see that it is officers who receive these standards, and members who learn from them, but don't necessarily agree with them.]

If you turn back to number 222, I want to read two more catechism questions related to liberty of conscience.

  1. Can church officers enact any thing, contrary, or in addition, to the word of God, and make it binding on the conscience?
    No; God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.

  2. Is it proper for any ecclesiastical officers to require implicit faith [and let me explain that implicit faith is unquestioning faith based on the authority of the church or church officer rather than believing it because it's been proved from the bible. So going on. "implicit faith"] in anything for which no scriptural warrant can be given; or an absolute obedience to mere ecclesiastical decrees without such plain warrant?
    No; this is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also."

That was a lot of stuff to read, but I thought it was important for you to see that even though officers are limited by the Confession, we do not treat it as an infallible document. Only the bible is infallible. But it is to the best of our understanding, the best summary of Biblical doctrine, and as long as we are officers, we are either vowed to submit to it or to seek to change the Constitution in Biblical ways. We are a Constitutional church, just as Ezra's church was a constitutional church with signed commitments.

Enumerated powers (1 Cor. 4:6; Deut. 12:32; 2 Cor. 10:13-16)

Well, with that as a background, let's look at these powers that are found in our constitution. Just as our founding American father's intended the Constitution to be a short list of what powers the federal government had, Presbyterianism taught that the church cannot have even an inkling of any authority that God had not explicitly laid down in the bible. So our Book of Church Order has sought to pull the various things that a deacon (for example) is authorized by God to do, and what an elder is authorized to do, and what a teaching elder is authorized to do, and what a local church versus a Presbytery or General Assembly can do. We call this the process of enumerated powers. The powers are all listed out in the Constitution and we cannot go beyond those.

Again, commenting on the introduction to our denomination's Book of Church Order, Morton Smith says,

As already noted the Book here affirms that the "regulative principle" applies to doctrine, government, discipline and worship. [You are all familiar with the regulative principle of worship, right? That teaches that we may only worship God as God has ordained in the bible, and if we add anything to worship that is not in the Bible, we are engaging in worship that is displeasing to Christ. Let me keep reading: "As already noted the Book here affirms the "regulative principle" applies to doctrine, government, discipline and worship.] Christ as King has given His Word concerning each of these areas to the Church, and nothing is to be added or taken from His Word. The Church should always be most careful as to how it frames the rules and guidelines for each of these areas, that they are in accord with the inspired Word of God at every point.

And I cannot emphasize too much the importance of enumerated powers. Our US federal government has become unfederal because 90% of what it is doing is unfederal and uncovenanted; the covenant documents do not authorize them to engage in these things. You will look in vain in the Constitution for the agencies, boards and departments that have been established in the last 50 years. They are utterly unconstitutional. Why? Because they are not enumerated. The courts have come up with a new power called implied powers, but implied powers are the opposite of enumerated powers. And unfortunately, even conservatives frequently run roughshod over the Constitution. And if our Church Constitution becomes as meaningless as the American one has, everything is up for grabs. None of the other limits on power have any meaning. So don't think this is unimportant.

Limited powers (2 Corinthians 10:13-16)

The second term related to power is limited powers. The only one who has all authority (or unlimited authority) is Jesus. In Matthew 28:18 Jesus says, "All authority has been given to me, in heaven and on earth." No one else has ever had that, though many have tried to act like it. Even the apostle Paul says, we, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us. He said that even he had only limited authority. That was 2 Corinthians 10:13. Now there are tons of Scriptures that deal with limits on powers – things like "in the mouth of two or three witnesses," that we don't have time to get into.

And I won't even take the time to read the catechisms on the first three pages of your handouts (201-215), but Smyth has some wonderfully concise ways of speaking of these limits. But in a nutshell, we can say that our power as officers is not legislative, it is ministerial. We minister God's Word, we don't make law. And so over and over Paul spoke of officers of the church as being ministers; they are servants of Christ ministering His word. There is no legislative branch in the church. Let me repeat that. Our power is not legislative, it is ministerial. Which means that I can't add an 11^th^ commandment to the Bible. And if I did I would hope that you would bring charges against me in Presbytery. Christ spoke His harshest words against the Pharisees who failed to see the limits to their authority, and who were constantly adding their new laws and traditions.

Delegated powers (with Christ – John 12:49; 14:10; with apostles Luke 9,10; 2 Cor. 13:10; with officers – Heb. 13:17; Tit. 1:9-10; 2 Tim.; with congregation – 1 Cor. 4:6)

But you can see how this ties in so closely with delegated powers – the third kind of power. And in this case, it's not the people who delegate the powers. It is Christ Himself. He is the one that has all authority, and He is the one who must give all authority. And so in Luke 9 and 10 you find Jesus giving authority to His disciples. And in John 12:49 Jesus says that even His authority is delegated from the Father. For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. John 14:10 says, The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. And we need to take a cue from that. The words that we speak must not be on our own authority as church officers, but must be the Words of Christ. One old Presbyterian said, "In Christ's church, Christ's voice alone is to be heard." You can ignore my mere opinions because my opinions do not carry authority, but you cannot ignore what I say if it is Biblical because it is Christ's authority speaking. "In Christ's church, Christ's voice alone is to be heard." That's why I keep telling you, "Don't believe it because Phil Kayser says it. Be Bereans. Only believe what I preach if you can see that the Scriptures teach it." Romans 13 says, there is no authority if not from God… That was applied especially to the state, but it echoes the same sentiment in the church. 2 Corinthians 13:10 says that Paul is working according to the authority which the Lord has given me… And you can see some other samples of delegated authority to officers and congregation in your outline.

But the interesting thing about the flow of authority is that it isn't from the General Assembly to Presbytery to the local congregations. Christ grants His authority directly to the local church. And nothing gets to Presbytery or General Assembly that does not come through the local church. So it's not enough to talk about delegation from Christ. We need to also see where the delegation of authority went to from there. Acts 15 – it went from the local church, to the Presbytery and then to the GA. Then from the GA the decision was binding on the whole church. But this is why the PCA speaks of itself as a grass roots denomination. It does not want anything initiated from GA. All initiatives come from the churches then through Presbytery and then to the General Assembly. That too is a biblical check and balance. Delegated powers.

Separation of powers (2 Cor. 10:13-16; Acts 13; 15; 3 John 9-10; etc.)

Another type of power that you hear about in discussions of the constitution are separation of powers. D. James Kennedy said, "Representative government, separation of powers, our federal (which means "covenantal") system, and religious liberty are a few of the legacies we enjoy today from John Knox." John Knox of course being the popularizer of Presbyterianism.

And I guess I should mention that separation of powers works a little differently in the church than in the state, but the reason is the same: not all power should reside in any one position. Now here is where the power of the people comes into play. In Morton Smith's Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, he says, "the Church derives its power from a higher source than the members of the Church. It is not just a voluntary society to whom submission is a matter of individual option. The power of the Church comes from Christ. This authority is not vested in the rulers, so that they are unaccountable to the people, nor in the ruled, so that the rulers are merely committeemen; but it is invested in the whole Church – both the rulers and the ruled. The Church thus vested is a spiritual commonwealth… it is neither a monarchy or oligarchy, nor a democracy, but a commonwealth." And then he goes on to talk first of the powers of the people, then the powers of the session, then the powers of Presbytery and General Assembly.

What powers do the people have in Scripture? Let me list several. The power to vote for representatives; the power to recall them from office if they are ruling in breach of the Constitution. That is a very important power, yet it is so infrequently used. You might liken it to the power of impeachment, but it is different. It is the power of recall. Another power that you as citizens of the church have is the power of appeal to Presbytery and to General Assembly. Let's say that a session makes a decision that you believe to be unconstitutional, or they issue a judgment in a court case that is tyrannical. You have the right of either protest or appeal. Another power is the power of ministry and the exercise of your gifts. We strongly believe that the pastor is not the only minister. Family ministry is key to the expansion of Christ's kingdom, and that is a power that Christ has given to you.

Another power is the power of secession. And I consider these powers to be very important to wield should there be tyranny or heresy or injustice in a church court. It is also important that the congregation not give up its rights to select a pastor by allowing the session to call a pastor without congregational involvement. One other function of the congregation that relates to its right to select pastors or to ask pastors to step down is the right to determine the pastor's salary in our Book of Church Order. The session and/or the deacons can make recommendations, but only the congregation can vote to approve or disapprove. The General Assembly said that this power was included because a session could fire a pastor without congregational approval simply by making his salary $1. So, though a congregation may not vote on any other area of budget, they must vote on a pastor's salary (at least in the PCA). Those are the powers of the congregation, and there is a strict separation between these powers granted by Christ to you and those granted to the session.

Amongst elders (that's the session) there is also a separation of powers between the ruling elders who are members of the church and the pastor who is not a member of the church. You may not have realized that, but I am a member of Presbytery, not a member of Dominion Covenant Church. My wife and children are members here, but I am not. And the reason again is to protect the separation of powers between the pastor who ministers the Word and the elders who rule in other clearly articulated areas. In churches where the pastor is a member locally, there can be enormous pressure to compromise the preaching. But here the pastor is caught between – there is a balance of pressures.

In a 1997 article in the Chalcedon Report, Jack Kettler also articulates a separation of jurisdictions between local church, Presbytery and General Assembly. He said, "This doctrine of the separation of powers is clearly seen in Reformed church polity (government). For example, there are three layers of church courts: the first being the session of the local church, the second being the Presbytery or regional church court, and third the General Assembly, the highest court of appeal."

Why is this important? Again, it prevents tyranny. One Roman Catholic scholar bemoans the fact that the Roman Catholic church does not have these separation of powers. Let me read a statement by John Langan, a Roman Catholic scholar. He said:

[T]he absence of any significant separation [of powers in the Church's legal system] creates a situation in which the guardians are in effect asked to be their own guardians, in which those who are most likely to be responsible for violations of rights are asked to assume the task of protecting rights.3

This may seem kind of complicated to you, but believe me, these limits of ecclesiastical power are essential.

Concurrent Powers (Ex. 24:11; 1 Pet 5:5; Acts 20:11,17-38; etc.)

Concurrent powers are powers that two branches of government have at the same time. One example in the United States of America that is highly unfortunate is taxation. Both states and Federal government have the power of taxation. And so taxation is a concurrent power in both governments.

But within the church there are legitimate powers that are concurrently held by more than one branch. For example, the right to administer the sacraments is given to local church government, Presbytery and to General Assembly. That is a concurrent power. The rights of discipline are concurrent, and when someone is disciplined in one PCA church, all other churches are bound to accept that discipline. Other concurrent powers would be the right to select your own officers. While we can send delegates to Presbytery, we can't choose who the officers of Presbytery will be, even if we gave a million dollars to Presbytery. Presbytery has just as much right to select their own officers as we do ours. So those are some examples of concurrent powers.

Exclusive Powers (2 Tim. 4:5; 2 Cor. 10:13-16; 2 Chron. 26:18; etc., etc.)

The last kind of power is exclusive powers. In the PCA there are certain things that only a pastor can do; there are certain things that only a congregation can do; there are other things that a pastor may not do on his own, but only the session meeting as a whole can do. There are powers exclusive to Presbytery, and powers exclusive to General Assembly. And those are all laid out in the constitution.

This has been a little bit more of a technical sermon than some; not as exciting. But the liberties that flow from these concepts are indeed exciting. And I trust that this little exercise will have given you an appreciation for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in church government. Amen.


  1. Christianity and Civilization, vol 3, pp. 272-273.

  2. Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 268-269.

  3. John Langan, S.J., "Can There Be a Human Rights Problem in the Church?" The Jurist, v. 46 (1986:1), 14-42, at 18.

Biblical Church Government, Part 2 is part of the Foundations series published on September 28, 2003

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