There is no shortage of books and conferences and blogs and even movements on the church. But how often do we hear talk of church polity? If anything, many avoid the topic. After all, church government is said to divide Christians, not unite them. Why pay any heed to it at all? Is it that important for the average Christian and for Christian discipleship? If so, how? Does the Bible speak decisively in this area? And if we think it does, how firmly should we hold our convictions when other Christians disagree? But if the gospel is about being governed by Jesus, maybe church government matters more than we like to tell ourselves. Far from being a luxury, or a fundamental threat, or even a boring technicality, the running of the local church in my life is the very place where I get to experience the good news of Christ Jesus’s shepherding care over me. In this updated extract, some of the members of the Westminster Assembly show how every aspect of church government is spiritual – and therefore deserves our thankful respect.
The power or authority of church government is a spiritual power. It is not so perfectly and completely spiritual as Christ’s supreme government, for He alone has absolute and immediate power and authority over our very spirits and consciences, ruling us by the invisible influence of His Spirit and grace as He pleases (John 3:8; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 2:20). But church government is purely, properly, and merely spiritual enough that it really, essentially and specifically differs from civil government, and is contradistinguished from the civil, secular, and political power in the hand of the civil magistrate. The power of church government is properly, purely, merely spiritual, in its rule, fountain, matter, form, subject, object, end, and all.
The rule-book of church government is spiritual
What reveals and regulates church government is not any principles of state-policy, parliamentary rolls, nor any human statutes, laws, ordinances, edicts, decrees, traditions, or precepts whatsoever. By human policies, cities, provinces, kingdoms, empires may be happily governed, but not Christ’s church. It is in the Holy Scriptures—that perfect divine canon—that the Lord Christ has revealed sufficiently how His own house, His church, shall be ruled (1 Tim. 3:14–15) and how all His ordinances (Word, sacraments, censures, etc.), shall be dispensed (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This Scripture is “divinely breathed,” or “inspired” by God—holy men writing not according to the fallible will of man, but the infallible acting of the Holy Ghost (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21).
The fountain of church government is spiritual
The fountain or derivation of this power, from whence it originally flows, is not from any magistrate, prince or potentate in the world, and not from any man on earth, or the will of man. Instead it comes only from Jesus Christ our Mediator, Himself being the sole first receptacle of all power from the Father (Matt. 28:18; John 5:22), and consequently, the very fountain of all power and authority to His church (Matt. 28:18–20; John 20:21–23; Matt. 16:19 and 18:18–20; 2 Cor. 10:8).
The matter of church government is spiritual
Church government is called the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” not the keys of the kingdoms of earth (Matt. 16:19). As Christ professed, His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36). When someone requested that Christ would speak to his brother to divide the inheritance with him, Christ utterly disclaimed all such worldly, earthly power, saying, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (Luke 12:13–14).
The kinds of these heavenly spiritual keys are doctrine and discipline. The acts of them are binding or loosing. So whether you consider them in their kinds or their acts, the keys are wholly spiritual.
- The doctrine which is preached is not human, but divine. It is revealed in the Scriptures by the Spirit of God, and covering the most sublime spiritual mysteries of religion (2 Pet. 1; 2 Tim. 3:16–17).
- The seals administered [i.e., by the sacraments] are not worldly seals confirming and testifying any earthly privileges, liberties, interests, or authority. Rather they are spiritual, sealing (for example) the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11), and the death and blood of Jesus Christ, with all its spiritual virtue and efficacy unto His members (Rom. 5:6; Gal. 3:1; 1 Cor. 10:16–17; 11:23– 24).
- The censures dispensed are not pecuniary, corporal or capital, such as taxes, fines, confiscations, imprisonments, whippings, flogging, stigmatizing, or taking away of limb or life. Church government takes nothing to do with anything like that, but leaves it all to those who wield the civil sword. Instead the censures are spiritual—they only concern the soul and conscience. For example, they include admonishing the unruly and disorderly (Matt. 18:18–19), excluding the incorrigible and obstinate from the spiritual fellowship of the saints (Matt. 18:18–19; 1 Cor. 5), and receiving the penitent back again into the spiritual communion of the faithful (2 Cor. 2). The binding and loosing, which are the chief acts of the keys, are interpreted spiritually by our Saviour to be the remitting and retaining of sins (Matt. 18:18–19; John 20:21–23).
The manner of church government is spiritual
Not only the matter but also the manner and the form of church government is spiritual This power is to be exercised, not in a natural manner, or in the name of any earthly magistrate, court, parliament, prince, or potentate whatever (like all secular civil power is). Nor is it even done in the name of saints, ministers or the churches. Rather church power is exercised in a spiritual manner in the name of the Lord Jesus, from whom alone all His officers receive their commissions. The Word is to be preached in His name (Acts 17:18), the sacraments are to be dispensed in His name (Matt. 28:19; Acts 19:5), and censures are to be applied in His name (1 Cor. 5:4, etc.).
The ones who exercise church government are spiritual
Those who are entrusted with the power of church government are not any civil, political, or secular magistrate. Rather they are spiritual officers, in offices which Christ has Himself instituted and bestowed upon His church, such as apostles, pastors, teachers, elders (Eph. 4:7–11). These are the only ones to whom He has given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19; Matt 18:18–19; Matt 28:18–19; John 20:21– 23; 2 Cor. 10:8). These are the ones whom He has made governments in His church (1 Cor. 12:28). These are the ones to whom He wishes us to give obedience and subjection (Heb. 13:17) and double honour (1 Tim. 5:17).
The objects of church government are spiritual
The objects about which this power is to be put forth and exercised are not about things, actions, or civil persons, as such, but things and actions which are spiritual and ecclesiastical, as such. Church power will deal with injurious actions, not as they are considered as trespasses against any statute or political law, but to the extent that they are scandalous to our brothers or to the church of God. For example, the incestuous person was cast out of the church because he was a wicked person himself, and because he was likely to leaven others by his bad example (1 Cor. 5:13, 16). Thus, the persons whom the church may judge are not the people of the world, outside the church, but those who are within the church (1 Cor. 5:12).
The purpose of church government is spiritual
This power is spiritual in its target, aim, and purpose. The Scripture frequently inculcates this. A brother is to be admonished either privately or publicly, not so that we may achieve our private interests, advantages, etc., but so as to gain our brother—so that his soul and conscience would be won round to God and to his duty, and so that he would be reformed (Matt. 18:15). The incestuous person is to be delivered to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved on the day of our Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Indeed, the whole authority given to church guides from the Lord was given to this end—for the edification of the church, not for destruction (2 Cor. 10:8 and 13:10). All these, and the like, are spiritual ends.
Thus, the power of church government is wholly and entirely a spiritual power, whether we consider its rule, root, matter, form, subject, object, or end. So that in this regard it is really and specifically distinct from all civil power, and in no regard encroaches upon, or can be prejudicial unto the magistrate’s authority, as that is properly and only political.
This has been extracted from a pastoral book on church government called Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: The Divine Right of Church Government which has recently been republished.
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