Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Westminster Standards on the Nature of the Church, with Commentary

Below are important texts from the Westminster Confession of Faith (taken from a Wikisource version on a Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License) on the nature of the church, as well as the entire text of the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government from the website of the Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics.  I have provided some informal commentary on various parts of these texts, written inline with red ink.  (Yes, I am a school teacher.)  The goal is to examine what the Westminster Standards have to say and what they imply about the nature, authority, and unity of the church, with a focus on some major issues of theoretical and practical importance that are especially relevant today.

Westminster Confession of Faith 25, 26, 30, 31

Of the Church.

The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

What exactly does the Confession mean when it says the visible church is made up of "all those throughout the world that profess the true religion," etc.?  Does this mean that whenever someone stands up and says, "I profess Christianity!", that there we have the visible church?  No, I don't think so.  The Standards talk about true and false doctrine, as well as true and false churches.  So a profession of the true religion that would qualify here would have to involve not just a profession of the word "Christianity," but also a profession to believe at least the fundamental doctrines that make true Christianity what it is--or, to put it another way, the essential doctrines of Christianity, those doctrines without which we simply don't have the fundamental core of what Christianity is and salvation cannot be attained.  Presumably also, such a profession must be fundamentally credible--in the sense of not being clearly and blatantly contradicted by one's actual practice in life.

So what doctrines are necessary to make up a credible "profession of the true religion"?  At this point, I think we need to introduce a distinction between a formal profession of faith and an informal profession of faith.  I say we need to introduce such a distinction because I think that there are going to be different qualifications depending on whether the profession is intended to be a formal profession made before the ordained elders of the church, submitted for their formal evaluation, or an informal profession made to anyone in general and intended only for informal evaluation.  Christ has commanded his church to teach "all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20).  He has commanded the church to withdraw fellowship from those who "walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15, Titus 3:10-11, etc.)  The church, therefore, should not connive at any evident sin or error in a person's life, but should call for all men to repent of their sins and errors.  It follows that men should be held to the entirety of biblical teaching.  It should be taken into account that they are at different levels of maturity and understanding, but no one should be let off the hook of obedience to the clear teachings of Scripture on the grounds of something like "liberty of conscience," which is an entirely unbiblical notion as it is used in this context.  Later on, in the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (FPCG), as we will see, the concept of a credible "profession of faith" is clarified to mean a profession of faith "according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles."  In short, all members of the church should be held to all that Scripture commands, as that is summarized in the church's creeds and confessions.  A man who professes credo-baptism, for example, should not be allowed to be or remain a member of the church in full communion until he repents of his sin and error in holding that view.

However, I believe that Scripture allows us to have hope that even those who, to some degree (certainly not unlimited), in some matters, hold to certain erroneous positions and practices can still be truly regenerate Christians--members of the invisible church.  (See, for example, Acts 18:26 and 2 Chronicles 30:18-19).  It is not the church's job to judge motives and determine whether or not a particular individual is regenerate, despite his erroneous opinions and practices; it must rather judge him on his outward actions and outward conformity to the commands of Christ.  However, on an informal level, we can have hope, rooted in a judgment of charity, that some such people are our regenerate brothers.  In this context, we can speak of an informal "profession of the true religion" less rigorous than a formal profession, which is required to include only those opinions and practices that must be there for regeneration to be believed or hoped to be present.  (I have dealt with this concept, and this distinction, further here, here, and here.)

Our formal vs. informal distinction is also important for another reason.  We must distinguish between those who make an informal profession of faith which might be accepted informally and be the basis of informal Christian fellowship and those who make a formal profession of faith before a formal body of elders for the purposes of being received formally into the visible church as a member.  The visibility of the church has a number of dimensions.  There is an informal dimension to it, as professing believers gather and have fellowship informally.  There is also a formal dimension, as believers are formally united in a visible, formal governmental structure under a recognized body of elders.  Believers who are members of such a formal structure do not only engage in informal fellowship; they also acknowledge each other formally as fellow-members of the church, united in formal worship and the official receiving of the sacraments and formal discipline, etc.  (We can see this structural dimension of the church discussed below in various passages of the Confession as well as in detail in the FPCG.)  In an informal context, a "profession of the true religion" may involve nothing more than someone telling us, with some credibility, that they are a Christian believer.  But on a formal level, there must be a formal submission of such a profession, "according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles," before an official body of elders who can then formally approve the professor's qualifications to be considered a member of the visible church.

In order to facilitate the use of language in distinguishing between the visible church as viewed informally and as viewed formally in these and other respects, I have adopted the language of the visible church de facto to refer to the church viewed informally and the visible church de jure to refer to the church as viewed formally. 

The Confession says that out of the visible church there is "no ordinary possibility of salvation."  I think that this statement can be taken formally and informally as well.  If we are referring to the formal church, there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of it because being a member of the formal church is required by God in his Word.  It is not optional.  If anyone is saved outside of it, he is saved in an extraordinary manner, just as someone who is saved apart from being baptized or partaking of the Lord's Supper.  I do not think the Confession here intends to assert that people outside the formal structure of the church cannot be regenerate.  As Augustine famously remarked, "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within."  What it does suggest is that such people are saved, if they are saved, in an irregular and extraordinary fashion.  Surely such people cannot be regenerate if they are habitually living outside the formal church even though they know they should be inside it.  But I do not know of grounds to suppose that people cannot be caught up in confusion on this subject to such a degree that the refusal to join the formal church need not be considered consciously, willfully malicious in nature.

If we take the Confession's phrase to refer to the informal or de facto church, it would mean that no one can be saved, ordinarily, without professing the essentials of the true religion.  It is obvious why that would be the case. 

III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

The visible church is not supposed to be just an amorphous group of Christians having fellowship with each other.  The church has a definite structure instituted by Christ, and that structure includes ruling officers placed over Christians who function as leaders, teachers, judges, etc.  It also includes particular Scriptures that are officially preached, and official ordinances and sacraments appointed by Christ to be carried out within the formal structure of the church under the official rulers (elders) of the church.  As we noted above, while the visible church de facto may exist outside of the God-ordained formal structures, the visible church de jure is defined by those structures.  As we will see further below, the elders of the church have the authority and duty to discipline members and elders in the church, even to the point of putting them out of the fellowship of the formal church for serious and publicly-observable unrepentant sins.  The formal governing structures and ordinances Christ has given to the church are means by which his grace calls unbelievers to faith and sanctifies believers, although this is not to say that the grace of Christ is bound by these means and cannot and never does work outside of their boundaries, as we saw above.

IV. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

We see here that the visibility of the church admits of degrees.  There have been times (are we in one now?) when the true church was in such a sorry state that its visible manifestation in the world was very clouded, yet never wholly extinguished.  Particular churches themselves can be more or less visible, in the sense that they can be more or less pure in their carrying out of Christ's commands.

Again, we must remember the distinction between the church viewed formally and the church viewed informally.  Speaking of the church viewed informally or de facto, we can say that "particular churches" simply means any group of people anywhere functioning as a church (with some attempt at preaching, fulfilling ordinances, worshiping God, etc.), whether formally constituted or not, so long as the essentials of the gospel (those things absolutely necessary to salvation under the view of a judgment of charity) are present.  Speaking formally, however, "particular churches" refers to formally constituted bodies of Christians, holding faithfully to all of the clear teachings of Scripture, under the oversight of formally recognized elders, in communion with the rest of the catholic church.  We will see below that particular churches are not to be independent of each other, but are to exist throughout the world in formal unity under mutually-binding councils.  Just as an individual in a church can be formally cut off from the church through discipline, so a particular church can be cut off from the catholic church by means of discipline from a higher church court if it embraces error or unrepentant sinful practices (more on this below).  Even in a formal sense, particular churches can be more or less pure, but the leeway given will be much less than would be granted informally, just as is the case with individuals as well.  It is not enough for a particular church to profess the bare essentials of what is necessary to be regenerated; it must profess and basically practice all that Scripture clearly requires.  Although, of course, it will not do so perfectly, it cannot engage unrepentantly in rebellion against the clear teachings of Scripture in any area, or it will be justly subject to discipline, even, if necessary, to the point of being cut off from the formal catholic church.

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.

Many of my comments above could be reiterated here as well.

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

In the presbyterian form of church government (which is embraced by the Standards), there is no one person on earth who functions as the head of the church.  Rather, the church is governed by concentric circles of councils which broaden out from the congregational session all the way to an ecumenical council of the whole catholic church.  (See below for more on this.)

Of the Communion of Saints.

All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.

II. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.

Here we have emphasized the absolute necessity for the church to dwell together in unity.  All true Christians and all true churches are to maintain full communion and fellowship with each other.  Schism within the Body of Christ is never justified.  It is always a sin for Christians to exist in separation from each other or for true churches to exist in separation from each other.

The duty of fellowship must be applied both formally and informally.  Whenever, with a judgment of charity based on a reasonable hope, we are able to acknowledge a person or a group of persons informally as true manifestations of the visible Body of Christ, we ought to maintain informal fellowship with such.  On the formal level, when true de jure churches formally recognize each other as de jure churches, they are obligated to maintain formal unity with each other.  Such unity involves fellowship in the Word and sacraments, universal recognition of the members and officers of particular congregations, and the unity of the elders of the church in binding ecclesiastical assemblies all the way from the congregational to the ecumenical level of the church.  It is always a sin for de jure churches to be out of fellowship with each other, such as by being divided into separated denominations.  When two churches are out of formal, denominational fellowship with each other, the implicit implication is that they are rejecting each other as true de jure churches.  Such separated churches may still, in a judgment of charity, hope that the Body of Christ is manifested in the separated bodies, but they have rejected each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches.  They are rather viewing each other as schismatic sects on a formal level.

III. This communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of His Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor doth their communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety which each man hath in his goods and possessions.

Of Church Censures.

The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

II. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

III. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

IV. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church, according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.

Here we see what we have spoken of earlier--the power of discipline that Christ has given to his church.  Individual Christians don't just get to decide for themselves if they are inside or outside of the formal church.  Their membership and good standing must be approved by the official elders of the church, and if they are delinquent in doctrine or life, they can and should be disciplined, even, if necessary, to the point of being excommunicated from the church--that is, removed from the formal fellowship of the church.

These paragraphs emphasize the importance of church discipline.  It is a means of sanctification for believers; it is for the honor of Christ; and it also protects the church by treating and even cutting off diseased members who are likely to infect others if left alone.

Of course, church discipline applies to the elders of the church as well, and even to church courts (made up of a plurality of elders).

Note that when the church exercises discipline, it is not merely expressing its opinion; it is exercising God-given keys.  When the church's discipline is lawfully carried out according to God's Word, God himself ratifies that discipline.  "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," etc.

Of Synods and Councils.

For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.

II. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.

III. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set, down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.

Here we begin to see the presbyterian nature of the church emerge more explicitly.  The congregational form of government says that the board of elders in a local congregation have the power of the keys, but there are no higher councils that can exercise this power.  In presbyterianism, however, the elders of all the churches form a universal eldership over the entire catholic church.  Although the ordinary, immediate focus of their activity is on the congregational and sometimes the classical level (the classical level refers to what are commonly called "presbyteries"), they have the power, when necessary, to come together and form larger and thus higher councils over wider regions of the church--such as provincial councils, national councils, and ecumenical councils.  These higher councils or synods have authority over all the church courts, elders, and members who fall within their jurisdiction, and they have the responsibility to ensure order and discipline in faith and life at the lower levels.

We see here, again, why it is essential to the nature of "particular churches" on a formal level to remain in communion with each other in one catholic church.  When churches are denominationally separate from each other, they refuse to submit to each other in mutually-binding higher councils as God's Word ordains, and thus treat each other as being outside the formal government of the catholic church.

IV. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice; but are to be used as an help in both.

V. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

Form of Presbyterial Church-Government

Of the Church.

THERE is one general church visible, held forth in the New Testament.

The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of the New Testament, are given by Jesus Christ to the general church visible, for the gathering and perfecting of it in this life, until his second coming.

Here we see the presbyterian emphasis on the formal unity of the one catholic church.  Although, for logistical purposes, the church is divided up into smaller groups and congregations, ultimately there is only one Body of Christ into which all members are baptized and over which the universal eldership of the church rules.  The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God are given first of all to this catholic church, and only secondarily are they applied in particular smaller groups and congregations as logistics demands.

Particular visible churches, members of the general church, are also held forth in the New Testament. Particular churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz. of such as, being of age, professed faith in Christ, and obedience unto Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ and his apostles; and of their children.

As we have seen, particular churches are made up of those who "profess the true religion" formally before an official body of elders and who are then received formally into the church, as well as the children of such.  Although on an informal level, we can, with a judgment of charity, have a hope for the regenerate state of many of those who profess at least the core teachings of the gospel, whether they are inside or outside the formal church, yet on a formal level, a profession of the true religion involves a profession of faith in Christ and obedience unto him according to the rules Christ has commanded the church to enforce, and that profession will be accepted or rejected by the elders of the church according to its credibility, and the status of membership can be removed by proper church discipline.

And the particular churches, as well, are such not only by making an informal profession of the core of the gospel, but by making a profession of obedience to Christ in communion formally with the rest of the catholic church, and their status as particular churches can be formally removed by the discipline of higher councils if they are delinquent in faith or life.

Of the Officers of the Church.

THE officers which Christ hath appointed for the edification of his church, and the perfecting of the saints, are, some extraordinary, as apostles, evangelists, and prophets, which are ceased.
Others ordinary and perpetual, as pastors, teachers, and other church-governors, and deacons.


THE pastor is an ordinary and perpetual officer in the church, prophesying of the time of the gospel.

First, it belongs to his office,

To pray for and with his flock, as the mouth of the people unto God, Acts vi. 2, 3, 4, and xx. 36, where preaching and prayer are joined as several parts of the same office. The office of the elder (that is, the pastor) is to pray for the sick, even in private, to which a blessing is especially promised; much more therefore ought he to perform this in the publick execution of his office, as a part thereof.

To read the Scriptures publickly; for the proof of which,
1. That the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were trusted with the publick reading of the word is proved.

2. That the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the law, proved, Isa. lxvi. 21. Matt. xxiii. 34. where our Saviour entitleth the officers of the New Testament, whom he will send forth, by the same names of the teachers of the Old.

Which propositions prove, that therefore (the duty being of a moral nature) it followeth by just consequence, that the publick reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor's office.

To feed the flock, by preaching of the word, according to which he is to teach, convince, reprove, exhort, and comfort.

To catechise, which is a plain laying down the first principles of the oracles of God, or of the doctrine of Christ, and is a part of preaching.

To dispense other divine mysteries.

To administer the sacraments.

To bless the people from God, Numb. vi. 23, 24, 25, 26. Compared with Rev. i.4, 5, ( where the same blessings, and persons from whom they come, are expressly mentioned,) Isa. lxvi. 21, where, under the names of Priests and Levites to be continued under the gospel, are meant evangelical pastors, who therefore are by office to bless the people.

To take care of the poor.

And he hath also a ruling power over the flock as a pastor.

Teacher or Doctor.

THE scripture doth hold out the name and title of teacher, as well as of the pastor.

Who is also a minister of the word, as well as the pastor, and hath power of administration of the sacraments.

The Lord having given different gifts, and divers exercises according to these gifts, in the ministry of the word; though these different gifts may meet in, and accordingly be exercised by, one and the same minister; yet, where be several ministers in the same congregation, they may be designed to several employments, according to the different gifts in which each of them doth most excel. And he that doth more excel in exposition of scripture, in teaching sound doctrine, and in convincing gainsayers, than he doth in application, and is accordingly employed therein, may be called a teacher, or doctor, (the places alleged by the notation of the word do prove the proposition.) Nevertheless, where is but one minister in a particular congregation, he is to perform, as far as he is able, the whole work of the ministry.

A teacher, or doctor, is of most excellent use in schools and universities; as of old in the schools of the prophets, and at Jerusalem, where Gamaliel and others taught as doctors.

Other Church-Governors.

AS there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church; so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church, beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church. Which officers reformed churches commonly call Elders.


THE scripture doth hold out deacons as distinct officers in the church.

Whose office is perpetual. To whose office it belongs not to preach the word, or administer the sacraments, but to take special care in distributing to the necessities of the poor.

Of Particular Congregations.

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.

Here we see again that there is one Body of Christ on the earth, not many bodies of Christ.  The division of the church into distinct congregations is not owing to differences in faith or practice, as if in toleration to that which is contrary to Christ's Word, but is purely for logistical purposes, due to the impossibility of uniting a large worldwide group of people into one congregation, to meet for worship in one place, etc.  Thus, the division is normally to take place according to the "bounds of their dwellings"--that is, where the members live.  In other words, it makes sense to divide the church up regionally.  Such a division is most practical, and it also avoids a show of "respect of persons" which might exist if it looked like the church was dividing up in order to create little cliques of people who have the same personalities, the same ages, the same tastes and preferences, etc.

Of the Officers of a particular Congregation.

FOR officers in a single congregation, there ought to be one at the least, both to labour in the word and doctrine, and to rule.

It is also requisite that there should be others to join in government.

And likewise it is requisite that there be others to take special care for the relief of the poor.

The number of each of which is to be proportioned according to the condition of the congregation.

These officers are to meet together at convenient and set times, for the well ordering of the affairs of that congregation, each according to his office.

It is most expedient that, in these meetings, one whose office is to labour in the word and doctrine, do moderate in their proceedings.

Of the Ordinances in a particular Congregation.

THE ordinances in a single congregation are, prayer, thanksgiving, and singing of psalms, the word read, (although there follow no immediate explication of what is read,) the word expounded and applied, catechising, the sacraments administered, collection made for the poor, dismissing the people with a blessing.

Here, the Westminster Divines remark on what sorts of things are commanded to be done as part of the service or worship of each congregation.

Of Church-Government, and the several sorts of Assemblies for the same.

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.

Of the power in common of all these Assemblies.

IT is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convent, and call before them, any person within their several bounds, whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern.

They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church-censures.

Here we see the presbyterian nature of the church in full force.  Christ has given the keys of governance to a universal body of elders.  As the churches are divided up, for logistical purposes, into smaller groups, so the elders are spread out and given peculiar charges in all the different congregations.  And yet their being a part of one universal eldership is manifest by their ability (and sometimes duty) to meet together to form wider governing councils which exercise the authority of the keys over wider parts of the catholic church.  Here we see again that the biblical, presbyterian system calls for one worldwide, visible, formal catholic church.  All the rulers and members of the church form one body and are to be united to each other in full formal unity.  There is no room for denominational separation within the true de jure catholic church.

Of Congregational Assemblies, that is, the Meeting of the ruling Officers of a particular Congregation, for the Government thereof.

THE ruling officers of a particular congregation have power, authoritatively, to call before them any member of the congregation, as they shall see just occasion.

To enquire into the knowledge and spiritual estate of the several members of the congregation.

To admonish and rebuke.

Which three branches are proved by Heb. xiii. 17; 1 Thess. v. 12, 13; Ezek. xxxiv. 4.

Authoritative suspension from the Lord's table, of a person not yet cast out of the church, is agreeable to the scripture:

First, Because the ordinance itself must not be profaned.

Secondly, Because we are charged to withdraw from those that walk disorderly.

Thirdly, Because of the great sin and danger, both to him that comes unworthily, and also to the whole church. And there was power and authority, under the Old Testament, to keep unclean persons from holy things.

The like power and authority, by way of analogy, continues under the New Testament.

The ruling officers of a particular congregation have power authoritatively to suspend from the Lord's table a person not yet cast out of the church:

First, Because those who have authority to judge of, and admit, such as are fit to receive the sacrament, have authority to keep back such as shall be found unworthy.

Secondly, Because it is an ecclesiastical business of ordinary practice belonging to that congregation.

When congregations are divided and fixed, they need all mutual help one from another, both in regard of their intrinsical weaknesses and mutual dependence, as also in regard of enemies from without.

In this section, we have seen the authority of the congregational session asserted in its discipline of members.  The last paragraph points forward to the next few sections which show how particular churches are not left alone and independent, but are united together under the governance and discipline of wider governing bodies.  I am reminded here of a quotation from Samuel Rutherford, in his Due Right of Presbyteries, p. 379, where he says:  "The erring and scandalous churches are in a hard condition, if they cannot be edified by the power of jurisdiction in presbyteries."

Of Classical Assemblies.

THE scripture doth hold out a presbytery in a church.

A presbytery consisteth of ministers of the word, and such other publick officers as are agreeable to and warranted by the word of God to be church-governors, to join with the ministers in the government of the church.

The scripture doth hold forth, that many particular congregations may be under one presbyterial government.

This proposition is proved by instances:

I. First, Of the church of Jerusalem, which consisted of more congregations than one, and all these congregations were under one presbyterial government.

This appeareth thus:

First, The church of Jerusalem consisted of more congregations than one, as is manifest:

1st, By the multitude of believers mentioned, in divers [places], both before the dispersion of the believers there, by means of the persecution, and also after the dispersion.

2dly, By the many apostles and other preachers in the church of Jerusalem. And if there were but one congregation there, then each apostle preached but seldom; which will not consist with Acts vi. 2.

3dly, The diversity of languages among the believers, mentioned both in the second and sixth chapters of the Acts, doth argue more congregations than one in that church.

Secondly, All those congregations were under one presbyterial government; because,

1st, They were one church.

2dly, The elders of the church are mentioned.

3dly, The apostles did the ordinary acts of presbyters, as presbyters in that kirk; which proveth a presbyterial church before the dispersion, Acts vi.

4thly, The several congregations in Jerusalem being one church, the elders of that church are mentioned as meeting together for acts of government; which proves that those several congregations were under one presbyterial government.

And whether these congregations were fixed or not fixed, in regard of officers or members, it is all one as to the truth of the proposition.

Nor doth there appear any material difference betwixt the several congregations in Jerusalem, and the many congregations now in the ordinary condition of the church, as to the point of fixedness required of officers or members.

Thirdly, Therefore the scripture doth hold forth, that many congregations may be under one presbyterial government.

II. Secondly, By the instance of the church of Ephesus; for,

First, That there were more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus, appears by Acts xx. 31, where is mention of Paul's continuance at Ephesus in preaching for the space of three years; and Acts xix. 18,19,20, where the special effect of the word is mentioned; and ver. 10. and 17. of the same chapter, where is a distinction of Jews and Greeks; and 1 Cor. xvi. 8,9, where is a reason of Paul's stay at Ephesus until Pentecost; and ver. 19, where is mention of a particular church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, then at Ephesus, as appears, Acts xviii. 19,24,26. All which laid together, doth prove that the multitude of believers did make more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus.

Secondly, That there were many elders over these many congregations, as one flock, appeareth.

Thirdly, That these many congregations were one church, and that they were under one presbyterial government, appeareth.

Of Synodical Assemblies.

THE scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call Synodical.

Pastors and teachers, and other church-governors, (as also other fit persons, when it shall be deemed expedient,) are members of those assemblies which we call Synodical, where they have a lawful calling thereunto.

Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and oecumenical.

It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the church.

Here we have the various patterns of synodical assemblies laid out, as we have discussed them before.  There is a subordination of lower councils to higher councils.  Just as members and individual elders can be disciplined by a congregational session, so congregational sessions and presbyteries can be disciplined by provincial or national synods, any lower synod can be disciplined by the ecumenical council, etc.

Lower councils, as would be expected, will normally meet and act more frequently than higher councils, as they will more efficiently deal with immediate matters of ruling and discipline. 

Of Ordination of Ministers.

UNDER the head of Ordination of Ministers is to be considered, either the doctrine of ordination, or the power of it.

Touching the Doctrine of Ordination.

NO man ought to take upon him the office of a minister of the word without a lawful calling.

Ordination is always to be continued in the church.

Ordination is the solemn setting apart of a person to some publick church office.

Every minister of the word is to be ordained by imposition of hands, and prayer, with fasting, by those preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong.

Looking at the church informally, we may sometimes see men who have apparently teaching and/or ruling gifts from God using them informally for the edification of believers.  However, on a formal level, it is not enough for a person to decide for himself that he has a gift for teaching or ruling.  He must also be approved as having such gifts by the appointed leaders of the church--the presbytery (meaning, in this case, a body of established elders)--and he must be lawfully and formally ordained to ecclesiastical office.  His authority can fail to be granted, or it can be revoked, by the power of the presbytery.  If a minister/teacher/elder falls into sin or error, or if he takes up a schismatic attitude or position and refuses to act in communion with the rest of the catholic church, he can have his authority removed--just as it was authorized--by the presbytery, or by the higher councils of the church.  He may still be regenerate.  He may still profess the core ideas of the gospel.  He may still have and even attempt to exercise teaching and ruling gifts.  But if his authority is lawfully and biblically not granted or revoked by the presbytery, he has no right to claim de jure legitimacy and authority as an elder in the church.

It is agreeable to the word of God, and very expedient, that such as are to be ordained ministers, be designed to some particular church, or other ministerial charge.

Here we see the logistical necessity of dividing the church up into smaller groups and congregations.  Although ministers/elders are part of a universal eldership ruling over the entire catholic church (and thus can come together in wider councils), yet it is not expedient for all ministers/elders to be appointed immediately as catholic officers to rule over the entire catholic church.  It is appropriate for them normally to be appointed to some particular charge where they will focus most of their energies, though still retaining a care and orientation towards the entire catholic church.

He that is to be ordained minister, must be duly qualified, both for life and ministerial abilities, according to the rules of the apostle.

Ministers/elders are not merely to be approved because they profess the central, core ideas of the gospel.  They are to be evaluated according to their fidelity to the entire counsel of God's Word--all the rules of the apostles.  If they are not faithful to the whole counsel of God, they are not fit for office.  If they are already officers, they can be lawfully disciplined for failing to remain faithful to all of God's Word.

He is to be examined and approved by those by whom he is to be ordained.

No man is to be ordained a minister for a particular congregation, if they of that congregation can shew just cause of exception against him.

Touching the Power of Ordination.

ORDINATION is the act of a presbytery.

The power of ordering the whole work of ordination is in the whole presbytery, which, when it is over more congregations than one, whether these congregations be fixed or not fixed, in regard of officers or members, it is indifferent as to the point of ordination.

It is very requisite, that no single congregation, that can conveniently associate, do assume to itself all and sole power in ordination:

1. Because there is no example in scripture that any single congregation, which might conveniently associate, did assume to itself all and sole power in ordination; neither is there any rule which may warrant such a practice.

2. Because there is in scripture example of an ordination in a presbytery over divers congregations; as in the church of Jerusalem, where were many congregations: these many congregations were under one presbytery, and this presbytery did ordain.

The preaching presbyters orderly associated, either in cities or neighbouring villages, are those to whom the imposition of hands doth appertain, for those congregations within their bounds respectively.

Concerning the Doctrinal Part of Ordination of Ministers.

1. No man ought to take upon him the office of a minister of the word without a lawful calling.

2. Ordination is always to be continued in the church.

3. Ordination is the solemn setting apart of a person to some publick church office.

4. Every minister of the word is to be ordained by imposition of hands, and prayer, with fasting, by these preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong.

5. The power of ordering the whole work of ordination is in the whole presbytery, which, when it is over more congregations than one, whether those congregations be fixed or not fixed, in regard of officers or members, it is indifferent as to the point of ordination.

6. It is agreeable to the word, and very expedient, that such as are to be ordained ministers be designed to some particular church, or other ministerial charge.

7. He that is to be ordained minister, must be duly qualified, both for life and ministerial abilities, according to the rules of the apostle.

8. He is to be examined and approved by those by whom he is to be ordained.

9. No man is to be ordained a minister for a particular congregation, if they of that congregation can shew just cause of exception against him.

10. Preaching presbyters orderly associated, either in cities or neighbouring villages, are those to whom the imposition of hands doth appertain, for those congregations within their bounds respectively.

11. In extraordinary cases, something extraordinary may be done, until a settled order may be had, yet keeping as near as possibly may be to the rule.

12. There is at this time (as we humbly conceive) an extraordinary occasion for a way of ordination for the present supply of ministers.

The Directory for the Ordination of Ministers.

IT being manifest by the word of God, that no man ought to take upon him the office of a minister of the gospel, until he be lawfully called and ordained thereunto; and that the work of ordination is to be performed with all due care, wisdom, gravity, and solemnity, we humbly tender these directions, as requisite to be observed.

1. He that is to be ordained, being either nominated by the people, or otherwise commended to the presbytery, for any place, must address himself to the presbytery, and bring with him a testimonial of his taking the covenant of the three kingdoms; of his diligence and proficiency in his studies; what degrees he hath taken in the university, and what hath been the time of his abode there; and withal of his age, which is to be twenty four years; but especially of his life and conversation.

Interestingly, a potential minister is to be examined partly according to whether or not he has taken "the covenant of the three kingdoms."  That would be the Solemn League and Covenant.  This is a clear illustration of the fact that it is not enough for ordination that a man profess the core essentials of the gospel--that is, those things that are absolutely necessary to consider a person regenerate even with an informal judgment of charity.  He must show faithfulness to the whole counsel of God.  The minister would be required to testify to his submission to the creeds and catechisms of the church, for they are the church's expression of the main points of what the Bible teaches.

2. Which being considered by the presbytery, they are to proceed to enquire touching the grace of God in him, and whether he be of such holiness of life as is requisite in a minister of the gospel; and to examine him touching his learning and sufficiency, and touching the evidences of his calling to the holy ministry; and, in particular, his fair and direct calling to that place.

The Rules for Examination are these:

(1.) That the party examined be dealt withal in a brotherly way, with mildness of spirit, and with special respect to the gravity, modesty, and quality of every one.

(2.) He shall be examined touching his skill in the original tongues, and his trial to be made by reading the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and rendering some portion of some into Latin; and if he be defective in them, enquiry shall be made more strictly after his other learning, and whether he hath skill in logick and philosophy.

"[W]hether he hath skill in logick and philosophy."  Oh, if only that were as much practiced today!  It is not enough to be well versed in the Bible and theology.  We all (and especially teachers and rulers in the church) need to be well versed in the basics of logical and critical thinking, and in the principles of metaphysics, epistemology, etc.

(3.) What authors in divinity he hath read, and is best acquainted with; and trial shall be made in his knowledge of the grounds of religion, and of his ability to defend the orthodox doctrine contained in them against all unsound and erroneous opinions, especially these of the present age; of his skill in the sense and meaning of such places of scripture as shall be proposed unto him, in cases of conscience, and in the chronology of the scripture, and the ecclesiastical history.

Proficiency in apologetics, ecclesiastical history, etc.  How wonderful!

(4.) If he hath not before preached in publick with approbation of such as are able to judge, he shall, at a competent time assigned him, expound before the presbytery such a place of scripture as shall be given him.

(5.) He shall also, within a competent time, frame a discourse in Latin upon such a common-place or controversy in divinity as shall be assigned to him, and exhibit to the presbytery such theses as express the sum thereof, and maintain a dispute upon them.

(6.) He shall preach before the people,÷the presbytery, or some of the ministers of the word appointed by them, being present.

(7.) The proportion of his gifts in relation to the place unto which he is called shall be considered.

(8.) Beside the trial of his gifts in preaching, he shall undergo an examination in the premises two several days, and more, if the presbytery shall judge it necessary.

(9.) And as for him that hath formerly been ordained a minister, and is to be removed to another charge, he shall bring a testimonial of his ordination, and of his abilities and conversation, whereupon his fitness for that place shall be tried by his preaching there, and (if it shall be judged necessary) by a further examination of him."

3. In all which he being approved, he is to be sent to the church where he is to serve, there to preach three several days and to converse with the people, that they may have trial of his gifts for their edification, and may have time and occasion to enquire into, and the better to know, his life and conversation.

4. In the last of these three days appointed for the trial of his gifts in preaching, there shall be sent from the presbytery to the congregation a publick intimation in writing, which shall be publickly read before the people, and after affixed to the church-door, to signify that such a day a competent number of the members of that congregation, nominated by themselves, shall appear before the presbytery, to give their consent and approbation to such a man to be their minister; or otherwise, to put in, with all Christian discretion and meekness, what exceptions they have against him. And if, upon the day appointed, there be no just exception against him, but the people give their consent, then the presbytery shall proceed to ordination.

5. Upon the day appointed for ordination, which is to be performed in that church where he that is to be ordained is to serve, a solemn fast shall be kept by the congregation, that they may the more earnestly join in prayer for a blessing upon the ordinances of Christ, and the labours of his servant for their good. The presbytery shall come to the place, or at least three or four ministers of the word shall be sent thither from the presbytery; of which one appointed by the presbytery shall preach to the people concerning the office and duty of ministers of Christ, and how the people ought to receive them for their work's sake.

6. After the sermon, the minister who hath preached shall, in the face of the congregation, demand of him who is now to be ordained, concerning how faith in Christ Jesus, and his persuasion of the truth of the reformed religion, according to the scriptures; his sincere intentions and ends in desiring to enter into this calling; his diligence in praying, reading, meditation, preaching, ministering the sacraments, discipline, and doing all ministerial duties towards his charge; his zeal and faithfulness in maintaining the truth of the gospel, and unity of the church, against error and schism; his care that himself and his family may be unblameable, and examples to the flock; his willingness and humility, in meekness of spirit, to submit unto the admonitions of his brethren, and discipline of the church; and his resolution to continue in his duty against all trouble and persecution.

"[H]is zeal and faithfulness in maintaining the truth of the gospel, and unity of the church, against error and schism."  "[H]is willingness and humility, in meekness of spirit, to submit unto the admonition of his brethren, and discipline of the church."

7. In all which having declared himself, professed his willingness, and promised his endeavours, by the help of God; the minister likewise shall demand of the people concerning their willingness to receive and acknowledge him as the minister of Christ; and to obey and submit unto him, as having rule over them in the Lord; and to maintain, encourage, and assist him in all the parts of his office.

8. Which being mutually promised by the people, the presbytery, or the ministers sent from them for ordination, shall solemnly set him apart to the office and work of the ministry, by laying their hands on him, which is to be accompanied with a short prayer or blessing, to this effect:

"Thankfully acknowledging the great mercy of God in sending Jesus Christ for the redemption of his people; and for his ascension to the right hand of God the Father, and thence pouring out his Spirit, and giving gifts to men, apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors, and teachers; for the gathering and building up of his church; and for fitting and inclining this man to this great work: to entreat him to fit him with his Holy Spirit, to give him (who in his name we thus set apart to this holy service) to fulfil the work of his ministry in all things, that he may both save himself, and his people committed to his charge."

9. This or the like form of prayer and blessing being ended, let the minister who preached briefly exhort him to consider of the greatness of his office and work, the danger of negligence both to himself and his people, the blessing which will accompany his faithfulness in this life, and that to come; and withal exhort the people to carry themselves to him, as to their minister in the Lord, according to their solemn promise made before. And so by prayer commending both him and his flock to the grace of God, after singing of a psalm, let the assembly be dismissed with a blessing.

10. If a minister be designed to a congregation, who hath been formerly ordained presbyter according to the form of ordination which hath been in the church of England, which we hold for substance to be valid, and not to be disclaimed by any who have received it; then, there being a cautious proceeding in matters of examination, let him be admitted without any new ordination.

11. And in case any person already ordained minister in Scotland, or in any other reformed church, be designed to another congregation in England, he is to bring from that church to the presbytery here, within which that congregation is, a sufficient testimonial of his ordination, of his life and conversation while he lived with them, and of the causes of his removal; and to undergo such a trial of his fitness and sufficiency, and to have the same course held with him in other particulars, as is set down in the rule immediately going before, touching examination and admission.

12. That records be carefully kept in the several presbyteries, of the names of the persons ordained, with their testimonials, the time and place of their ordination, of the presbyters who did impose hands upon them, and of the charge to which they are appointed.

13. That no money or gift, of what kind soever, shall be received from the person to be ordained, or from any on his behalf, for ordination, or ought else belonging to it, by any of the presbytery, or any appertaining to any of them, upon what pretence soever.

Thus far of ordinary Rules, and course of Ordination, in the ordinary way; that which concerns the extraordinary way, requisite to be now practised, followeth.

1. In these present exigencies, while we cannot have any presbyteries formed up to their whole power and work, and that many ministers are to be ordained for the service of the armies and navy, and to many congregations where there is no minister at all; and where (by reason of the publick troubles) the people cannot either themselves enquire and find out one who may be a faithful minister for them, or have any with safety sent unto them, for such a solemn trial as was before mentioned in the ordinary rules; especially, when there can be no presbytery near unto them, to whom they may address themselves, or which may come or send to them a fit man to be ordained in that congregation, and for that people; and yet notwithstanding, it is requisite that ministers be ordained for them by some, who, being set apart themselves for the work of the ministry, have power to join in the setting apart others, who are found fit and worthy. In those cases, until, by God's blessing, the aforesaid difficulties may be in some good measure removed, let some godly ministers, in or about the city of London, be designed by publick authority, who, being associated, may ordain ministers for the city and the vicinity, keeping as near to the ordinary rules fore-mentioned as possibly they may; and let this association be for no other intent or purpose, but only for the work of ordination.

2. Let the like association be made by the same authority in great towns, and the neighbouring parishes in the several counties, which are at the present quiet and undisturbed, to do the like for the parts adjacent.

3. Let such as are chosen, or appointed for the service of the armies or navy, be ordained, as aforesaid, by the associated ministers of London, or some others in the country.

4. Let them do the like, when any man shall duly and lawfully be recommended to them for the ministry of any congregation, who cannot enjoy liberty to have a trial of his parts and abilities, and desire the help of such ministers so associated, for the better furnishing of them with such a person as by them shall be judged fit for the service of that church and people.

Extraordinary situations sometimes arise.  See here for one example of such a situation (one that has been a real issue for the church in recent times).

Here is the summary of what we have seen, at least in the points particularly of interest in the current commentary:

There is one Body of Christ in the world.  This one visible catholic church can be spoken of formally or informally.  Informally, whenever, by means of an informal judgment of charity, we have warrant to be hopeful that the Spirit of Christ is manifest, we are bound to maintain as much as reasonably possible an informal fellowship with all such believers and groups of believers.

However, the church is called not only to informal visible unity, but to formal visible unity.  The entire catholic church throughout the world is to maintain formal, denominational unity.  The keys of the kingdom (the authority of ecclesiastical governance) have been given to all the elders of the church as they function collegially as a universal body of elders over the whole church.  For logistical purposes, the catholic church is divided into distinct congregations which have over them elders particularly appointed to their oversight, and yet there is still formal unity throughout the world.  Although elders function primarily as sessions or presbyteries over local congregations or groups of local congregations, they are able (and sometimes it is their duty) to manifest their unity by joining together in wider councils which have authority over wider parts of the church.

The elders of the church are to teach the flock, govern them, and discipline them.  Particular congregations are made up of those who have made a formal profession of the true religion according to the rules of the Word of God and whose profession has been lawfully accepted by the elders of the church and they formally received into membership.  Members can be disciplined by the elders if found delinquent in doctrine or life, even, if necessary, to the point of being excluded from the formal fellowship of the church if they are unrepentant in their sins or errors.  Likewise, individual elders can be disciplined by the larger body of elders, even to the point of having their authority as elders revoked.  Likewise, bodies of elders can be disciplined by larger bodies of elders (such as sessions being disciplined by presbyteries, or presbyteries being disciplined by provincial synods), even to the point of having their authority removed if necessary.  In this way, the church is able to use the keys given to her by Christ to protect the church from sin, heresy, and schism.

Because the Body of Christ is called to be one in all the world, and to manifest that oneness formally, denominational separation between true de jure churches is always impermissible.  It is sinful schism of Christ's body.  Whenever there is denominational separation between churches, there is an implicit charge of schism from one church to another, and the churches are refusing to recognizing each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches (though not necessarily their de facto being as informal manifestations of the Body of Christ).  That is the implication of denominational separation within the biblical and presbyterian system set forth in the Standards.  There is no room within the principles of the Standards for multiple, independent de jure denominations.  Such a thing cannot be justified.

For further biblical argumentation establishing the view of the Standards on the presbyterian nature of the church, see here.  For more, see here and in general here

UPDATE 9/29/14:  It should be noted that the Westminster Standards do not seem to discuss explicitly the distinction between the church de facto and the church de jure.  That is, they do not discuss the question of how much the church might exist in fact outside of the legal and formal structures of the church.  The need to discuss this question only arises once we add to the mix the conviction--not discussed in the Standards--that there can be truly regenerate Christians and manifestations of Christianity outside the legal structure of the church (due to errors that cannot be tolerated within those legal structures).  For more on this, see here.

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