“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Matt 28:18-20 ESV
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 3 ESV
One of the long-standing benefits of the Great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries is the radical turnabout in the doctrine of church authority. Before the Reformation, all authority in the Roman Church resided in the Pope and his legates. Even under the prelatic government of the Anglican Church, church authority is vested either in the King (as under Henry VIII) or, later, in the Archbishop of Canterbury. Under these arrangements, the deposit of the faith is vested in the bishops of the church, and where a bishop resides, there resides the church. But in Christ’s purely Reformed churches, all church authority is from Christ. Christ’s authority is then vested in the visible church, that is, in her members, and not in the clergy. “In other words, the source of Church power is not in the members, but in Christ.” The Apostolic Church in its early years demonstrated this vestiture of authority as taught in Scripture. Presbyterianism has since insisted on this doctrine. Presbyterian and Reformed churches enact this doctrine in their form of government and in the discipline of the church.
It is axiomatic that the Church is a theocracy under the Lord Jesus Christ, not a democracy. There can exist no democracy where all its citizens are prophets, priests, and kings, as they are in the church. The saints of God hold the deposit of the faith as prophets, make intercession and supplication to God as priests, and are seated with Christ in the heavenly places as kings. Every Christian, by definition, is “christened” by God with his Spirit for every kind of spiritual service — he is already serving as a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem, which is a theocracy.
As this teaching regarding church authority may be new to some, the following writings from Charles Hodge and A. A. Hodge, acclaimed 19th century Princeton Seminary Theology professors, should help:
The first great principle, then, of Presbyterianism is the re-assertion of the primitive doctrine that Church power belongs to the whole Church; that that power is exercised through legitimate officers, and therefore that the office of ruling elders as the representatives of the people, is not a matter of expediency, but an essential element of our system, arising out of the nature of the Church, and resting on the authority of Christ.
The church Session is charged with the oversight and responsibility of training and installing new officers. But no mere man can make a church officer of any person; this prerogative is God’s alone. Ministers are ascension gifts from Christ (Eph 4:7-13). Christ rules in his visible Church through his church officers. Only Christ’s Spirit can confer the gifts and graces requisite to church office. But the power and duty of identifying those men that are gifted and graced for these offices belong to the church members. Hodge the senior explains, distinguishing the office of the minister from that of the ruling elder:
Our first remark on this subject is that the ministry is an office, and not merely a work. An office is a station to which the incumbent must be appointed, which implies certain prerogatives, which it is the duty of those concerned to recognize and submit to. A work, on the other hand, is something which any man who has the ability may undertake. This is an obvious distinction. It is not every man who has the qualifications for a Governor of a State, who has the right to act as such. He must be regularly appointed to the post. So it is not every one who has the qualifications for the work of the ministry, who can assume the office of the ministry. He must be regularly appointed.
Our second remark is, that the office is of divine appointment, not merely in the sense in which the civil powers are ordained of God, but in the sense that ministers derive their authority from Christ, and not from the people. Christ has not only ordained that there shall be such officers in his Church—he has not only specified their duties and prerogatives—but he gives the requisite qualifications, and calls those thus qualified, and by that call gives them their official authority. The function of the Church in the premises, is not to confer the office, but to sit in judgment on the question, whether the candidate is called of God; and if satisfied on that point, to express its judgment in the public and solemn manner prescribed in Scripture.
Under Christ, the power to rule in the Church inheres in her members. In the Biblical form of church government, the elders and deacons represent the power and authority of the membership, and are not a different or higher power:
Ruling elders are declared to be the representatives of the people. They are chosen by them to act in their name in the government of the Church. The functions of these elders, therefore, determine the power of the people; for a representative is one chosen by others to do in their name what they are entitled to do in their own persons; or rather to exercise the powers which radically inhere in those for whom they act. The members of a State Legislature, or of Congress, for example, can exercise only those powers which are inherent in the people.
In contrast to prelatic forms of government, in which the deposit of the Christian faith is held not by the members but by the clergy, the Reformed and Presbyterian members require a much greater comprehension of the faith (Matt 28:19,20; Acts 20:27,28; Jude 3). Otherwise, how can the church members exercise power in a wise and godly manner? That a competent understanding of the full teaching of Christ is necessary in a presbyterian church becomes evident upon examining the kind of authority granted to her elders:
What, then, are the powers of our ruling elders?
1. As to matters of doctrine and the great office of teaching, they have an equal voice with the clergy in the formation and adoption of all symbols of faith. According to Presbyterianism, it is not competent for the clergy to frame and authoritatively set forth a creed to be embraced by the Church, and to be made a condition of either ministerial or Christian communion, without the consent of the people. Such creeds profess to express the mind of the Church. But the ministry is not the Church, and therefore cannot declare the faith of the Church without the cooperation of the Church itself. Such Confessions, at the time of the Reformation, proceeded from the whole Church; and all the Confessions now in authority, in the different branches of the great Presbyterian family, were adopted by the people, through their representatives, as the expression of their faith. So, too, in the selection of preachers of the Word—in judging of their fitness for the sacred office, in deciding whether they shall be ordained, in judging them when arraigned for heresy, the people have, in fact, an equal voice with the clergy.
2. The same thing is true as to the just liturgicum, as it is called, of the Church. The ministry cannot frame a ritual, or liturgy, or directory for public worship, enjoin its use on the people to whom they preach. All such regulations are of force only so far as the people themselves, in conjunction with their ministers, see fit to sanction and adopt them.
3. So, too, in forming a constitution, or in enacting rules of procedure, or making canons, the people do not merely passively assent, but actively cooperate. They have in all these matters, the same authority as the clergy.
4. And, finally, in the exercise of the power of the keys, in opening and shutting the door of communion with the Church, the people have a decisive voice. In all cases of discipline they are called upon to judge and to decide.
Hodge concludes that the doctrine that Christ has vested his whole Church with authority is a foundational principle of all Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. This teaching is no abstract theory, but is useful and vital to the well-being of every Presbyterian church:
There can, therefore, be no doubt that Presbyterians do carry out the principle that Church power vests in the Church itself, and that the people have a right to a substantive part in its discipline and government. In other words, we do not hold that all power vests in the clergy, and that the people have only to listen and obey.
In light of the above, consider the consequences that can result when the Church’s divine authority is ignored, usurped, abdicated, or contradicted, as in the following cases:
1. A cleric or elder teaches or practices a doctrine that contradicts an article of the church’s Confession of Faith.
2. A cleric or elder introduces a new element of worship in the church that is not agreeable to or is beside the received Confession of Faith.
3. A person refuses to submit to the leadership of his session of elders.
4. A cleric or a member teaches in the church apart from the oversight of his session of elders.
5. A group of people other than the church’s representative elders decide that a fellow believer in the church is guilty of sin. Subsequently, they themselves apply a censure of discipline, such as shunning (e.g., see Titus 3: 10,11). This would be an abuse of church authority and an usurpation of office.
6. A church takes up a service, a business, or an activity other than Christ’s Great Commission.
In the above cases, the issue may seem not to be sin against God directly. For example, in (1), any teaching that disagrees with the Church’s (avowedly fallible!) Confession of Faith may indeed be in agreement with the mind of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. No doubt the Holy Spirit is not offended by his own truth; in this respect, there is no proper sin. Nevertheless, the advocate of the new teaching has a duty to amend the Church’s Confession of Faith through means, so that the church as a whole can benefit from the new light. This must be done through her representative presbyters and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). Teaching “in a corner” and forgoing the enrichment of the whole Church would be to rob the church of her authority and vestiture of the Faith. This truth may easily be observed in cases of judicial process within our denomination, where the aggrieved accuser “is always the Presbyterian Church in America, whose honor and purity are to be maintained.” Indirectly, all sin against the Church is sin against Christ’s wisdom and propriety in the Church.
Presbyterianism insists that church authority is given to all believers as a divine right. The teaching is a preliminary principle of Biblical church government. Viewed in this light, a gifted teacher in continuing to teach a private interpretation of Scripture sins against the church by displacing her authority and establishing his own (2 Pet 1:20,21). The case becomes one of incipient prelacy. Hopefully, some Presbyterians would detect the danger and call for reform.