Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One Gigantic Kirk-Session

1. All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. A person charged with an offense may be required to appear only before the assembly having jurisdiction over him, but any member of the church may be called by any assembly to give testimony.

2. Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.  (OPC Book of Church Order - Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies")

CHRIST hath instituted a government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church: to that purpose, the apostles did immediately receive the keys from the hand of Jesus Christ, and did use and exercise them in all the churches of the world upon all occasions.

And Christ hath since continually furnished some in his church with gifts of government, and with commission to execute the same, when called thereunto.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical.  (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)

In the biblical, presbyterian form of church government, there is only one church.  This church is made up of all those who have made a credible profession of the true religion throughout all the world and their children, together with all the officers (elders and deacons) whom God has given to serve and to shepherd them.

Although there is only one church, it is evident that the church contains too many members and is spread out too far apart for the entire church to function as one organized body in all its functions at all times.  (For example, just imagine trying to bring the entire worldwide church together in a single place for public worship on the Lord's Day!)  Therefore, the one church is divided into subgroups which allow it to carry out its functions more efficiently.

IT is lawful and expedient that there be fixed congregations, that is, a certain company of Christians to meet in one assembly ordinarily for publick worship. When believers multiply to such a number, that they cannot conveniently meet in one place, it is lawful and expedient that they should be divided into distinct and fixed congregations, for the better administration of such ordinances as belong unto them, and the discharge of mutual duties.

The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.

First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.

Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.

Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.

In this company some must be set apart to bear office.  (Form of Presbyterial Church-Government)

As the church is divided up into smaller subgroups of members and officers, this leads to the situation described in the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, where the church is "governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical."  At the smallest level, we have the local congregation, with its members and officers.  Each congregation has officers who are appointed specifically to bear rule over that congregation.  Presbyterians typically call these officers the "kirk-session" or the "session."  Therefore, not all church officers have jurisdiction over every congregation.  This would cause confusion and disorder.  Officers should focus primarily and immediately on their own peculiar charges.

However, the fact that we must thus subdivide the membership and rule of the church for logistical purposes does not negate the fact that there is only one worldwide church.  Members have more immediate fellowship with other members in their own congregations, but they are still united in formal communion with all the other members of the church scattered throughout all of the congregations.

Likewise, although elders have immediate and primary charge over their own congregations, yet they are still part of a larger ruling body of elders who are over the entire church.  This is manifest by the fact that they are not to function in complete isolation from each other.  They are to come together in larger governing bodies, such as regional presbyteries, to share rule over the broader church.  The most comprehensive, and thus the highest, governing body in the church is the general assembly, or the ecumenical council, which is the body of all the elders engaging in rule over the entire worldwide church.

Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.  (The Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland)

Or, to put it another way, the entire church is governed by one gigantic kirk-session, which breaks up into smaller sub-group kirk-sessions.

As the OPC Book of Church Order indicates, the purpose of the eldership, and of all its assemblies, is "to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church."  Thus, if members engage in erroneous opinions or sinful practices, the congregational session is to discipline them.  If the members believe this discipline to be unjust, they can appeal their case to a larger or higher governing body, such as a regional presbytery, which can affirm or overturn the decision of the session.  If an elder on a particular session engages in erroneous teachings or sinful practices, he can be disciplined by the session acting as a whole.  If an entire session goes astray, it can be disciplined by a regional presbytery, etc.  In all of these ways, the unity and purity of the church are preserved in a logistically efficient manner.


I have put forward the above facts in order to shed further light on an argument I have made a number of times previously in other articles (such as here and here).  My argument is that in a presbyterian system of church government, when two or more denominations are separated from each other, the implication is that these denominations are rejecting each others' de jure authority as churches.  More specifically, they are rejecting the legitimacy and authority of each others' church courts (assemblies).  Therefore, the very idea that there can be multiple de jure denominations (which is held by many professing presbyterians today) is inherently un-presbyterian.

The basis for this claim should be evident from what has been said above.  There is only one church.  There is one worldwide body of elders who have oversight over the church.  By virtue of being a de jure officer in the church, each elder has authority that the other elders must recognize.  He cannot be excluded from exercising that authority in the assemblies of the church.  Modern Presbyterians understand this well with regard to the level of sessions or regional presbyteries.  They all recognize that the following scenario, for example, is unjust and unbiblical.

Bob, Steve, John, and Dave are elders on a local session.  They are meeting together this evening for a session meeting.  Bob, Steve, and John are there, but Dave is absent.  "Where's Dave?" asks Bob.  "Oh, I didn't invite him to come to the meeting tonight," responds Steve.  "Why not?" asks Bob.  "Well, I think he's a bit weak in some areas of doctrine and practice, so I don't think we should allow him to exercise authority on the session."

What's wrong with this scenario?  The problem is that Dave has already been recognized as an elder on the session!  His de jure legitimacy and authority as an elder has already been granted.  It would be perfectly fine for the session to decide not to ordain a particular person to office--that is, to refrain from granting de jure authority as an elder to him--on the grounds of errors or weaknesses in doctrine or practice.  However, it is quite another thing to treat a recognized de jure officer as if he has no authority by excluding him from participation in the governing assembly.  This is to act unjustly, by treating him as if he does not possess an authority which he does in fact possess.

We could portray a similar scenario at the presbytery level:

Sessions A, B, C, and D are all part of a regional presbytery, which is currently meeting.  A, B, and C are present, but D's representatives are absent.  "Where are the representatives from Session D?" asks the moderator of the presbytery.  "Oh, we decided not to invite them," responds the stated clerk.  "They're a bit shaky in doctrine and practice in some ares, and we don't trust them to exercise authority in the presbytery."

Of course, this scenario involves the same problem as the previous one.  It is fine and good for a presbytery to decide not to receive a particular congregation and its local session into the presbytery--thus giving that session authority in the presbytery--on the grounds of problems in doctrine or practice.  However, it is quite another thing to have already granted de jure status to a particular session and then treat them as if they have no de jure authority by not allowing them to exercise their rightful authority in the appropriate manner as a part of the regional presbytery.

Modern professing presbyterians typically get these two kinds of scenarios.  But many start having problems when we begin dealing with different denominations.  Perhaps the best way to bring this out is to portray another scenario involving a general assembly meeting.

Denomination I is having a general assembly meeting.  The general assembly is the highest assembly recognized by Denomination I, and thus represents the whole church.  One of the commissioners raises his hand.  "Yes, what is it?" responds to assembly moderator.  (Yes, if this were real, it would be much more formal.)  "Where are the representatives from Denomination II?" asks the commissioner.  "We didn't invite them," replies the moderator.  "We do not grant them the right to exercise authority in this assembly.  There are doctrinal and practical concerns we have about them that keep us from uniting with them at this time."  "So we don't accept their de jure authority?" asks the commissioner.  "Oh yes, we definitely grant the de jure authority of their church courts," replies the moderator.  "They certainly have true authority to function as officers and assemblies in the church.  We simply don't invite them to exercise their authority in our general assembly."  "But," protests the commissioner, "there is only one church!  If Denomination II's church courts have de jure legitimacy and authority, then we must be able to join with them in exercising joint authority in an assembly in which we both share.  If we make this current assembly our highest assembly, and yet exclude them from it, we have excluded them from sharing with us in the overall rule of the whole church, which is their right as de jure officers and assemblies."

The commissioner is surely right.  All legitimate, active church officers and assemblies, by right, have the authority to participate together in a common assembly over the rule of the whole church.  One section of the one church of Christ has no right to refuse to join in a common assembly with any other section of the one church.  If two denominations refuse to join in a common governing assembly, it can only mean one of three things:  1. They have abandoned the presbyterian form of church government and thus the biblical unity of the church.  2. They have decided to be unjust by refusing to treat each other as their respective proper legitimacy and authority would dictate.  3. They do not grant to each other de jure legitimacy and authority as active officers and assemblies in the church.  There are no other possibilities.  Thus, the idea that there can be multiple, independent de jure denominations is incompatible with presbyterianism.

We can show this in another way as well.  As we have seen, the job of the eldership of the church is to guard the purity, peace, and progress of the church.  Church courts are to discipline members, officers, and lower courts which engage in erroneous opinions or sinful practices.  Although there is some confusion about how to do this in some modern Reformed circles due to the influence of latitudinarianism in much of the modern church (see here), most modern Reformed churches understand this task to a significant degree.  For example, if a local session in a Reformed denomination were to embrace credo-baptism, it would typically be disciplined by the presbytery exercising oversight over it.  This makes sense, because there is only one church, only one body.  Church shepherds are not to be concerned solely for doctrinal and practical integrity within their own immediate congregations, for "there should be no schism in the body; but . . . the members should have the same care one for another.  And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor. 12:25-26).  And "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (Galatians 5:9).

And yet this same care is not shown across denominational lines.  For example, the RPCNA practices exclusive psalmody.  They believe this to be required by the biblical doctrine of the regulative principle of worship.  Within the RPCNA, this practice is enforced.  If a session were to embrace uninspired hymn-singing in public worship, its overseeing presbytery would discipline it.  However, the RPCNA church courts never attempt to enforce discipline against other denominations that don't practice exclusive psalmody.  Why is this?  If the RPCNA and, say, the OPC, both possess de jure legitimacy and authority, then the RPCNA general assembly ought to call for a formal trial of the general assembly of the OPC over exclusive psalmody to take place within the over-arching assembly that binds both denominations together.  But, of course, there is no such assembly.  Either this means that the RPCNA and the OPC do not recognize each others' de jure legitimacy and authority, or it means that they have decided to be unjust or to abandon pure presbyterian church government.  The fact that they allow each other to embrace doctrinal and practical positions that they themselves reject (and enforce discipline against in their own assemblies) shows that they do not accept each others' full de jure legitimacy and authority within a presbyterian context.

For more, see here and here.

UPDATE 7/25/13:  To put the above argument very succinctly:

When a person becomes an elder in the church, he does not just become an elder over a particular congregation.  He joins a worldwide body of elders who govern the entire worldwide church.  Therefore, he has an inherent right to participate in the general assembly, the over-arching governing body of the church (though this may be by means of representation, as particular sessions send representatives to presbytery, presbytery sends representatives to the national assembly, etc.).  And this over-arching governing body has the task of preserving the unity, peace, and purity of the entire worldwide church--though it does this to a great degree by means of smaller divisions of itself such as national assemblies, regional presbyteries, and local congregational sessions.

Therefore, to refuse to have all elders and governing assemblies in the church represented in the highest governing body of the church, or to have two highest governing bodies that are independent of each other, is un-presbyterian.  But that is what denominationalism does.

UPDATE 8/12/13:  The OPC Form of Government, Chapter III, articulates a beautiful description of the collegiate nature of church authority in presbyterianism.  No room for multiple independent denominations here!  De jure officers do not function independently, but exercise their rule jointly as part of an eldership ruling over the entire church.  Therefore, to exclude certain men (such as officers from other denominations) from having a place at the table in the governance of the whole church is to treat them as having no de jure authority as officers in the church.

Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.

No comments: