Church Courts Commend, But Do Not Command

            When I awakened this morning, I had an email from a Reformed Christian friend in Dubai, UAE. He referred to Jonathan Edward’s, A History of the Work of Redemption, particularly a section concerning the success of the gospel in the ‘empire of Muscovy’ (Russia):  

I proceed now to show what success the gospel has had in these later times of the Reformed church. This success may be reduced to three heads: 1. Reformation in doctrine and worship in countries called Christian; 2. Propagation of the gospel among the heathen; 3. Revival of religion in the power and practice of it.           

1. As to the first, viz. reformation in doctrine, the most considerable success has been in the empire of Muscovy, which is a country of vast extent. [1]   

            I have not read about those reforms under Peter the Great, but I am going to pursue that study since I have made over 30 mission trips to Russia. What piqued my interest was that Edwards said that the success of the gospel is tied to “reformation in doctrine and worship.” Edwards was a Congregational minister and never had to suffer under the rigidity of a form of Presbyterianism which is Prelacy spelled small. I have written to you many times that true reformation must incorporate a return to Scripture in doctrine, worship, and polity. While many Presbyterians feel that our polity is already correct, it has been my sad experience that the practice of our polity often is scarcely distinguishable from Episcopacy. Thus, I particularly like the emphasis of the New Light or New Side Presbyterians of the 1740’s and beyond in their conflict with the Old Light or Old Side Presbyterians. Joseph Tracy in his work, The Great Awakening, wrote concerning the ecclesiastical issues between them:

The “Old Side” claimed the right to enact rules, not contrary to the laws of Christ, which would be binding on the conscience, and must be obeyed on pain of ecclesiastical censure. The “New Side” contended that church courts have no legislative power whatever; that they are authorized only to administer laws that Christ has made and that any additional laws that they may enact, are mere recommendations, which everyone is bound to observe so far as he can with a clear conscience, and no further.[2]

Every Presbyterian book of polity with which I am familiar ostensibly agrees with the New Light Presbyterian position by incorporating such words as follows concerning the power of the church courts: “The power of church courts is ministerial and declarative only.” Yet, almost every Presbyterian minister, elder, and church member I know agrees with the position of the Old Light Presbyterians in that they feel that church courts can make laws that are binding on the consciences of everyone subject to that court. “Ministerial and declarative” becomes just a shibboleth that is repeated by rote, but has no sway on their hearts, their decisions, or the way they vote. That, to me, is the one thing above all else that quenches the Spirit and hinders revival. Why do I say that? I say that because the New Light Presbyterians were very convicted about church courts having no legislative power and the greatest revival since the days of the apostles took place in their days. In other words, the New Light Presbyterians held to the regulative principle in doctrine, worship, and polity. Many pastors and churches had previously held to the regulative principle in doctrine that did not hold to that principle in worship. Many of them did great work, but revival did not come. Many other pastors and churches held to the regulative principle in both doctrine and worship, but still revival did not come. Yet, revival came when the New Lights emphasized all three—doctrine, worship, and polity.  

The New Light Presbyterians are almost alone in church history in their emphasis on Scriptural doctrine, worship, and polity. The Reformers certainly emphasized all three to a greater or lesser degree. The Old School Presbyterians of the nineteenth century emphasized all three—especially James Henley Thornwell. But those are only a few instances in the long history of the church. It takes all three for pastors and churches to be truly reformed and to see revival. Simply put, the Lord does not bless churches or denominations that substitute their will for His will. The Puritans, great as they were, did not see days of revival in no small part due to the fact that they remained in churches or denominations that were defective in one or more of those three Scriptural areas. The Puritans’ desire to reform from within proved to be a massive failure and resulted in the deaths, imprisonments, or exile of a great number of them. There was no reform of the Church of England from within and there still has not been to this day. I love the writings of the Puritans (as do many of you), but their disregard for the necessity of Scriptural polity and, to a lesser degree, Scriptural worship tainted all the great things of that movement. That certainly was not true of all Puritans because many of them were also Separatists—as I am and as Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was (who was often called the last of the Puritans). 

The problem for Presbyterians today—and for Vanguard Presbytery—is that holding that the power of church courts is ministerial and declarative only must never simply become a motto. It must be our practice. Yet, my observation is that for most people it is just a motto. It is in their polity. They read it. They say they agree with it. Then, they totally ignore it—unless it is their ox that is being gored. Why? I think the answer is because of what George Whitefield often said—‘there is a papist in every man’s heart.’ We like to rule over others and to tell them what they must do. Yet, that is not what the Scripture tells us to do.

  Presbyterians deny Scriptural polity in many ways and thus hinder the outpouring of the Spirit. Sessions of local churches will use the super session model where the whole power of the session is given to a small group of elders and/or non-ordained staff members who take final action without the prior approval of the whole court. They say this is for expediency. Expediency in one form or another is at the heart of most of the abuses of Scriptural polity. Such expediency destroys piety and the confidence of church members in their elected elders. 

Or, presbyteries are guilty of breaking the principles of Scriptural polity when they think that they can legislate and require ministers and churches to bow to their dictates. That is taking the crown off the head of Christ as the one true Head of the Church and placing it on the heads of the self-appointed ecclesiastical potentates who rule by their own authority. To my great grief, I have rarely if ever seen a presbytery that consistently bowed their knees to King Jesus and did not try to strip Him of His crown. Also, committees and commissions of presbytery and General Assembly will often make decisions for which there is no Scriptural or Constitutional authority. They decide what they want to do rather than seeking the mind of the Spirit through the Scripture. Or, a committee will act as though they have authority to take final action. Yet, their own BCO’s state very clearly that their responsibility is only to consider matters given to it by the court and recommend back to the court what action they think is best. Committees cannot mandate, require, demand, or take any action that conveys the power of force. Presbytery cannot exercise force either. The power of the church is spiritual—not civil—and does not include the power of force. The church can only speak where Scripture speaks which is declarative power. The church can only recommend and counsel which is ministerial power. The wrong view is that church courts can command. They cannot. The right view is that church courts can only commend. That is true. The difference is one vowel, but that makes all the difference. We can commend, but we cannot command. Christ alone commands. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery through the end of 2021. 

Please send any contributions for Vanguard Presbytery to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.  

[1] Edward Hickman, ed., The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 599-600. 

[2] Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the time of Edwards and Whitefield (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 62-3. 

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