Why the CRC Needs to Consider the Broader Reformed Polity
bu Stephen Terpstra
The Synod of Dort stands as a singularly critical moment in our history. The only difficulty with that is that the church in the Netherlands had not had a Synod since 1586 in the Hague, and for political reasons would not gain permission to have another Synod for over 200 years. Dort’s Church Order became set in stone not for its superiority, but for lack of development for political ends. When the CRCNA was formed from immigrants from the Netherlands, they began with a Church Order that had sat essentially untouched since Dort. In the early 19th Century, William of Orange was installed as King William by the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat. He passed a law in 1816 reorganizing the church for the first time since Dort, making it more hierarchical. This led to a significant spit in the church in what is called the Afscheding in 1834. It was many of these congregations and ministers that immigrated to the United States in the coming decades which formed the roots of the CRCNA. For political and experiential rather than theological reasons, they adopted the most congregational interpretation of Dort in our own Church Order as they organized themselves in 1857 as the True Dutch Reformed Church.
George Gillespie and the Westminster Assembly
It is for this reason that it is important for us to look beyond ourselves and weigh the biblical evidence carefully. Reformed church orders also developed in France and Geneva and Scotland, and through the Scottish delegation to the Assembly at Westminster in 1643. They took the same theology and ecclesiology, and the Calvin-approved church orders, and further developed them in an intense debate over an extended time. Their view is best articulated by the Westminster Divine George Gillespie, who is worth examining as we think through our own issues.
Born in 1613 into a pastor’s family in Scotland, Gillespie studied at the University of St Andrews before taking up work as a domestic chaplain. His first work appeared at the very moment Scotland was in uproar over the liturgy forced on the people by King Charles I and the Privy Council in 1637. Ordained in 1638, Gillespie’s work at the Glasgow Assembly proved his worth. Installed as a minister of Edinburgh in 1642, he was summoned to be part of the Scottish delegation to the Westminster Assembly, arriving in the late summer of 1643. The youngest member of the Assembly, Gillespie was an active member and frequent speaker, particularly in the debates against the Erastians. His refutation of the learned Selden regarding church discipline was a turning point in early debates. He worked on the committee appointed “to prepare and arrange the main propositions which were to be examined” for a new confession of faith for the churches. After returning to Scotland in 1647, Gillespie exerted himself to the utmost, his health quickly declining. He was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of the Scottish churches in 1648, using his last strength to defend the church against political incursions. He passed away on December 17, 1648 at just 36 years of age.
Gillespie’s work concerning the government of the church in the relationship between the local, regional and national church deserves attention. Gillespie was well aware of the Synod of Dort’s Church Order, as well as its twin in Scotland’s Church Order that John Knox had written and under which he grew up. Gillespie’s arguments had a significant impact on the debates in both Scotland and at the Westminster Assembly, and continue to be important in the larger Presbyterian/Reformed world. He wrote much on the topic: Dispute against the English Popish Ceremonies in 1637; An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland in 1641; Aaron’s Rod Blossoming in 1646; and Hundred and Eleven Propositions in 1647. Gillespie’s mature view higher assemblies’ authority was the one most widely adopted, remaining the most practical polity for Reformed Churches today.
Gillespie’s views begin with his view of the local church’s connection with the broader church. From the church in Jerusalem and the first synod held there, he concludes that given their numbers, there must have been many congregations meeting at diverse places, and yet the New Testament speaks of the church there in the singular. The church may be described as one church, though it met in multiple locations, each with their own minister. From this he concludes that there is warrant from the apostles for the Presbyterial system, for though there were many gatherings of worship there was one church governed by one common presbytery. Therefore, he concludes that “there was anciently a Presbytery in every city which did indeed choose one of their number to preside among them, and he was called the Bishop.”
Gillespie argues that this association of churches is not only permissible but necessary. He says the association is necessary, “1) From Christ’s institution in Matthew 18:17, 2) From the apostolic pattern, many congregations did then associate in Jerusalem, 3) From the general rules of scripture, two are better than one, 4) From the light of nature, 5) From the law of necessity, as in cases of appeals, 6) If altogether association were left arbitrary, then we should have many who would affect an absoluteness in their own congregation, and despise the fellowship of their brethren.” This argument is critical to all else he will say. If congregations are fully independent and self-sufficient on their own, then any broader organization would be merely convenient or helpful, but not necessary or obligatory.
Gillespie’s own thinking on this topic developed over time. “Scottish views of church government were far more congregational at the time than they would be three years later at the Westminster Assembly.” Gillespie’s thinking solidified into a balanced view of the church where each layer represents part of the authority which Christ gave to the church, each with its own use and sphere. This development from a more reactionary quasi-congregationalism to a balanced Presbyterianism is critical to the mature view which became widely adopted.
Role and Authority of Classes and Synods
For Gillespie, the Presbytery and Synod have similar functions in their power of Jurisdiction, the one simply being of broader concern than the other. The Synod exercises its power “in matters which are common to a whole province, or nation.” What are these common matters? He describes them as four keys of the kingdom of heaven. First, the key of doctrine; second, the key of order; third, the key of discipline; and fourth, the key of ordination.
The first task of the broader church is the key of doctrine. Since the church is the “public witness, notifier and keeper of truth,” it must ensure faithfulness in all articles of faith and worship. The church must “apply and interpret the articles of faith and duties of worship which God has set before us in his written word.” This particularly includes the issue of drawing up creeds and catechisms. It also includes guarding the church from “heresy, schism, obstinacy, contempt, and scandal.” Not that every minor issue could possibly be debated by the entire church, but particularly “the chief and most weighty controversies of the orthodox faith, or of the most hard and unusual cases of conscience.” Broader assemblies are tasked with articulating and defending the doctrines of the faith for the churches.
Second, Presbyteries and Synods are to arrange for the external circumstances of the worship of God. Gillespie constrains the conditions under which the broader church has authority to prescribe laws for worship. Though the Church is forbidden to add to God’s commands concerning his worship and service, for the sake of order some consistency must be arranged regarding the circumstances of worship. In respect of local churches, such ordinances should be accompanied with good reason and warrant. He makes clear that there is need for the broader church to lay down good order in the administration of these principals for general use in the local church. Though some circumstances are bound to particular times and places, worship should be consistent across individual churches and be edifying for the people.
Third, Presbyteries and Synods are responsible for church discipline. Gillespie draws particularly upon Matthew 18 in his argument for the place of the church in the exercise of discipline. This is not to say that discipline cannot and should not be done at the local level, but that for the protection of all that this should be supervised by the wider bodies, granting especially the right of appeal. He argues for the necessity of church discipline in guarding the Lord’s Supper. He acknowledges that “excommunication ought not to be processed unto expect when extreme necessity constraineth.” But what if a church exercises discipline wrongly, or even maliciously, where a man “had perhaps the same men both his adversaries and judges.” A court of appeal is critical in such cases. So, Gillespie concludes that, “particular churches must be subordinate to classical presbyteries and synods” to protect the church from injustice, sin and scandal.
Finally, Presbyteries and Synods are responsible for the key of ordination. Gillespie says “ordination is an act of a presbytery.” This was a significant issue. The Prelatic argument was that ordination rested in the Bishop, while the Congregational argument was that ordination rested in the local congregation. Here the Presbyterian system comes into sharp clarity: the church considered in its whole, with congregations in covenant relationship with one-another, is where the central authority lies. Authority is not in an individual, nor is it by democracy; the church is neither top down nor bottom up, but the church is the broad body of faithful Christians as it is in visible union in a region or nation. This “power given to the general church visible,” is enacted by elders as acknowledged and authorized visible representatives of the kingly, priestly, and prophetic offices of Christ. These elders represent that authority not only locally, but also in their ordained role in Presbyteries and Synods.
Gillespie’s mature view sees the authority of Christ given to the church as being seated in the office-bearers Christ appoints. These office-bearers exist both locally, regionally and nationally, with an important role at all three levels. Though each particular eldership has real and natural authority, for Gillespie that local power is in cooperation with, and in subordination and subjection to the classis, and the classis to the national synod. The church exists at every level, is represented at every level, but its broader representation holds more weight and not only may, but must decide and enforce the will of the overall body.