"The erring and scandalous churches are in a hard condition, if they cannot be edified by the power of jurisdiction in presbyteries."
Samuel Rutherford, Due Right of Presbyteries, p. 379
One of the arguments he has recently made to support his view is that wherever the invisible church exists, the visible church also exists; and wherever the visible church exists, there is full de jure legitimacy and authority. Here is his position stated in his own words in three different quotations:
In other words Christ has one church on earth, made up of true believers, which is manifested in the world. To this church He has granted the keys of the kingdom, of the preaching of the gospel and church discipline. Where there are true believers, these keys are possessed.
And, they are so intimately connected, the invisible and visible church, both being ways of viewing the same church, that wherever you have the invisible church, there is also the visible church. (Although, her visibility may be impaired, imperfect, and unsettled, she has all the rights and powers of the keys of the kingdom simply by virtue of being the true Church of Jesus Christ, and ought to exercise them fully.)
You are separating what must be distinguished, but never separated. That is, the invisible church and the visible church. The Reformers and their children were zealous to argue contra Rome, that wherever true faith in Christ exists, there true church power to minister and discipline also exists. The two ought to be distinguished, but cannot be separated.
Let's be clear about what my friend is saying. He is saying that wherever there are a group of true believers who have the essentials of the gospel, the essentials of the sacraments, and the essentials of church discipline (and by "essentials" here we mean there can be significant error in faith and practice, but there is enough truth there that salvation is possible), there is there a full de jure church with full legitimacy and authority in its officers and courts.
But what about a situation where this body of Christians, this church, has fallen into significant error in doctrine or practice, or has engaged in schismatic behavior, has been disciplined by a presbytery, has not repented, and has therefore had its authority revoked by the presbytery? Wouldn't we have in this case a church that is still a true church de facto (because we can hope that salvation is attainable and is actually attained there) and yet not a church de jure, because it has had its authority lawfully revoked by a lawful presbytery? No, says my friend. The church still possesses full de jure authority in this case. It must necessarily always possess such authority so long as it continues to function as a church and hold to the essentials of the gospel, sacraments, etc.
There is a serious problem with this view. It overthrows the presbyterian system of church government, because it fundamentally undermines the possibility and authority of church discipline beyond the congregational level. In presbyterianism, congregations are not independent. They are parts of larger groups of churches usually called presbyteries, which are themselves parts of larger groups of churches that function authoritatively together in synods, the highest of these synods being the ecumenical council, which consists of the universal eldership of the entire catholic church ruling over the entire church. Presbyteries and synods have authority over the congregations under their jurisdiction, including the authority to discipline the courts and officers of these congregations when they fall into error in doctrine and practice, just as local congregational sessions have authority to discipline individual elders or members. If necessary, such as when a member or an elder refuses to repent under lesser discipline, a congregational session can (and sometimes has the duty to) go so far as to revoke the authority of the elder or excommunicate the elder or the member. Likewise, presbyteries and synods can, and sometimes must, go so far as to revoke the authority of particular congregational sessions.
What my friend is saying is that presbyteries and synods can't do that. So long as the church can claim to hold to the "essentials" of doctrine, sacraments, and discipline, it can do whatever it wants--engage in any error it wants, any unlawful practice it wants, be as schismatic as it wants (such as by refusing altogether and outright to pay any attention to higher presbyteries or synods)--and it still retains full authority as a church. Presbyteries and synods have no power to revoke their authority for these actions. On the contrary, they have a moral obligation to recognize the full legitimacy and authority of their session and, in a presbyterian system (though semi-congregationalists deny this implication because they deny the presbyterian idea of the indivisibility of the church), to remain in full denominational unity with them with all that that entails.
This clearly fundamentally undermines the jurisdictional power of presbyteries and synods, and so guts the church of essential components of the authority Christ has given to it. As Samuel Rutherford remarked in our introductory quotation, this inability of presbyteries and synods to edify the church by means of proper discipline over congregations leaves those churches in a hard condition, a condition where they are free of much of the accountability God requires and thus bereft of an important means of sanctification God intended for them to have.
My friend would grant that if a church ceases to be a church de facto at all, by ceasing to hold enough truth to allow the possibility of salvation to occur there, it also loses its de jure authority, and presumably the presbytery can then officially revoke its authority. Perhaps, then, it turns out that the real problem here is latitudinarianism. Perhaps we could say that my friend refuses to recognize the authority of presbyeries and synods to revoke the authority of an erring church which still teaches the "essentials" not because he does not grant the power of these higher councils to discipline congregational churches, but because he feels that discipline in such cases would be unjust, since such churches do not deserve discipline. Presumably, then, members would not deserve discipline either for anything other than abandoning the "essentials" of Christianity. I believe that this is itself a significant error, for Christ has given to his church the mandate not just to teach and enforce the "essentials" of salvation but everything that he has commanded. (I deal with this issue more fully here.) And we still have the characteristic semi-congregationalist error of dividing the de jure church. If all of these de facto true churches--my friend would include Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and perhaps a number of other sorts of churches in this category--have full de jure legitimacy and authority, why are they sinfully dividing Christ by remaining denominationally separate from each other? Because they have different doctrines? But Christ never gave authority to the church to rend his body into pieces on the grounds of doctrinal differences. There is one body, and it is always a sin to divide it. What Christ did give authority to the church to do is to discipline erring members and churches, even to the point, if necessary, of cutting them off from the body until they repent--thus preserving the unity of the body. Churches cut off from de jure recognition may still be true de facto churches, in which salvation can be attained. But it is not within the purview of the formal power of the church to try to judge motives--whether, say, a baptist is rebelling against the command of God that children should be baptized with more or less innocent motives--but rather to apply discipline to actually observed outward disobedient actions. Informally, we can exercise a judgment of charity about many people in these kinds of circumstances, but such a judgment cannot be made the basis of a formal judgment of a church court. (Again, I have dealt with this in more detail here.)
If we are to preserve the full meaning of presbyterian church government, we cannot do otherwise than to acknowledge that erring churches are under the authority of higher councils, that they can be disciplined by those councils for errors in faith and practice or for schismatic behavior, and that denominational separation implies mutual rejection of de jure legitimacy and authority.