Is Church Government Worth Suffering For?
Few people want to hear about church government today, let alone suffer for it. Of all principles and truths it is perhaps one that people are least likely to want to suffer for. They may even think that Scripture doesn’t really require anything very clear about how the church should be ordered. They just think of it as a kind of administration and that there are many ways of “doing church”. We need to consider the matter more carefully, however. To be punished for resisting state control over the church would be to suffer for church government, for instance. Is that worth suffering for? Perhaps, at face value, this issue seems very remote from Christ and the main things. But it does in fact concern us with Christ Himself.
Thousands of Covenanters suffered torture, banishment, imprisonment, loss of goods and execution. Why? For liberty? Yes, in an indirect sense. Certainly for Christ but in relation to a specific matter. The reason they suffered these things was their steadfastness on a matter of church government. George Gillespie was one of many who had in earlier decades suffered for church government. Many had suffered more than he, including imprisonment and loss of possessions. In this updated extract, Gillespie shows that the question of whether the state should control the church is not a side issue. It concerns the glory and authority of Christ Himself. This was the key controversy he was seeking to help resolve.
Christ Himself Suffered for Church Government
This controversy highly concerns Jesus Christ Himself in His glory, royal prerogative, and kingdom which He has and exercises as Mediator and Head of His Church. The crown of Jesus Christ or any part, privilege, or piece of that must be a noble and excellent subject. This truth that Jesus Christ is a king, and has a kingdom and government in His Church, distinct from the kingdoms of this world and from the civil government, has a commendation above all other truths. Christ Himself suffered to the death for it and sealed this truth with His blood.
For it may be observed from the story of His passion, this was the only point of His accusation which He Himself confessed and owned. It was aggravated, prosecuted, and driven home most by the Jews and prevailed most with Pilate as the cause for condemning Him to die. It was mentioned also in the superscription or sign written on His cross. Although in reference to God and providing satisfaction to divine justice for our sins, His death was a price of redemption, yet in reference to men who did persecute, accuse, and condemn Him, His death was a martyr’s testimony to seal such a truth.
This kingly office of Jesus Christ (as well as His prophetic office) is not only administered and exercised inwardly and invisibly by the working of His Spirit in the souls of particular individuals. It is also exercised outwardly and visibly in the Church, as a visible body politic, in which He has appointed His own officers, ambassadors, courts, laws, ordinances and censures. All these are to be administered ministerially in His own name as the only king and head of the Church.
Herod and Pilate (like many princes, potentates, and states) looked on this with so much fear and jealousy, as another government co-ordinate with civil government. But what was dark on their side has been light on the other side to those servants of Jesus Christ who have stood, contended, and sometimes suffered much for the ordinance of Church government and discipline which they looked on as a part of Christ’s kingdom. John Welsh (of Ayr, my countryman of precious memory) suffered much for the same truth and was ready to seal it with his blood.
It is indeed no new thing for the most faithful ministers of Jesus Christ to be reproached and accused of being guilty of Treason. This was not only the lot of David Calderwood, Welsh and those that suffered with him but of John Knox before them. Likewise many martyrs, confessors and the apostles themselves. Yet (if we will judge righteous judgement, and weigh things in a just balance) we do not rob the government of that which is their’s, by giving to Christ that which is Christ’s.
We desire to hold up the honour and greatness, power and authority of government against all that despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities. We hold that it is proper for kings, princes and governors to be called lords over their subjects over whom they exercise civil government. But only Christ may be called Lord and Master in the spiritual government of the Church. All bear office in it ought not to usurp dominion, nor be called lords, but only ministers, disciples and servants. We acknowledge and affirm that civil Government in empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities is ordained by God for His own glory and for the great good of mankind. Any who are enemies to civil government are enemies to mankind and the revealed will of God. Such persons as are placed in authority are to be be loved, honoured, feared, and held in the greatest respect and esteem because they are the lieutenants of God, in whose seat God Himself sits and judges.
The Lord guide you and all His people in ways of truth and peace, holiness and righteousness. The Lord grant that this controversy may (I trust it shall) have a happy end to the glory of God, to the embracing and exalting of Jesus Christ in His kingly office, to the ordering of His house according to His own will, to keeping the ordinances pure, to the advancing of holiness, and shaming of profaneness. And finally to the peace, quiet, wellbeing, comfort, and happiness of the churches of Christ.
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