In his great work, The Apostolic Church” Which Is It?, Thomas Witherow makes the following observations concerning the form of church government known as Independency:
It is difficult to ascertain the particulars of ecclesiastical order approved by Independents, inasmuch as we are not aware that they have embedded their views of what the Scriptures teach on the subject in any common formula, and as every congregation, standing apart from every other, may differ sometimes widely on important points. We are, therefore, left to discover their views of Church polity from the general practices known to exist among them, and from the principles advocated by their most eminent writers. (Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which Is It?, London and Edinburgh: The Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1967, 62).
A friend of mine often said concerning the three different views of church government that they were as follows: the efficient form of church government (Episcopalian); the pragmatic form of church government (Independency); and the Scriptural form of church government (Presbyterian). In our day, there are pastors and churches that have become so disturbed by the tendency of Presbyterian churches to become more and more hierarchical that they have opted for Independency as the antidote to that problem. There are several concerns with that line of thinking.
First, as Witherow rightly states, there are no principles that have ever been written down in a Book of Church Order for Independency. There are writers who express their views. There are congregations that have their own practices. There are no uniformly accepted principles of church government among Independents. Is that because the Scripture does not give us any such principles? Does that mean that the Scripture is silent concerning the matters of church discipline; of ordination; of the terms of membership in the visible church; of the people who are eligible to partake of the sacraments; of the necessity of membership in the visible church; and of many other such questions? That cannot be right because Christ and the Apostles gave very specific directions concerning such matters. The Scripture is not silent.
Second, as is often the case when people take extreme positions, the more they try to move away from the errors of one position, the more they actually move closer to those same errors. Efficient and pragmatic are actually synonyms. The Episcopal and Independent forms of church government are actually close relatives. They belong to the same family. They are both efficient and pragmatic. They simplify the process of church government by placing decisions in the hands of a few people or, perhaps, even one. Episcopacy is the control of the church by prelates, but so is Independency. Independency often fails to have a plurality of elders and, therefore, those congregations become ruled by the pastor. Many larger Presbyterian churches have opted for that form of church government at the local congregation level with their executive sessions (composed of the pastor or pastors; a few elders only; and, some full-time, unordained staff members). Such church government is certainly efficient and pragmatic, but it is not Scriptural.
Third, Independency essentially makes the same error as those Christians who claim (without Scriptural authority) that the Bible does not require membership in the visible church. The position of Independents is this: we are a true church of Christ and we do not need a formalized relationship with any other congregation. The misguided Christian who is not a member of the visible church says this: I am a true Christian and I do not need to join a visible church in order to be so. It is the same argument and it is wrong in both instances. If those positions were right, then Christ and the Apostles wasted a lot of time in the Bible giving minute directions concerning a believer’s profession of faith before “many witnesses”; in writing letters to particular churches; in telling Timothy to remember the gift that was bestowed on him by the laying on of hands by the presbytery; in giving directions on electing officers to the visible church; in giving directions concerning church members; in threatening to remove the candlesticks of those churches who refused to exercise discipline; and, in giving directions for both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, there are members of the visible church that are not true members of the invisible church. That is acknowledged by all. Yet, that fact does not make the visible church irrelevant or membership in it unimportant. Both the visible church and the invisible church are taught in Scripture. It is good to hold onto one thing without letting go of the other.
Fourth, Independency has no way of correcting the errors of a particular congregation. There is no right of appeal to a wider body that can exercise wise counsel and give advice to both sides in a dispute or a matter of discipline. That is a grave weakness of that system. That also tends to make the ruler or rulers of that congregation more and more domineering in their decisions. Acts 15:1-29 would never have happened if Independency was the correct form of church government. In such a situation, the Church at Antioch would simply have said to James and the other apostles and elders in Jerusalem something like this: “Thanks for letting us know of your concern about our receiving Gentiles into church membership without them first being circumcised. We will take your advice under consideration. Please do not contact us any further concerning this matter over which you have no oversight.” Instead, Paul and Barnabas and the Church at Antioch recognized the spiritual connection with the Church in Jerusalem. Thus, there was the first general council of the visible church that took place. That is the Scriptural way of handling such matters.
Fifth, Independency is not capable of protecting the orthodoxy of the visible church. Presbyterianism has certainly often failed to do so as well. There are reasons for that failure that we have tried to address in forming Vanguard Presbyterian Church. Of course, the main problem is the unwillingness to exercise discipline—both positively and negatively. Ministers and churches are allowed to unite with a denomination or remain in good standing with the same that take many exceptions to the doctrinal standards. The denomination does nothing about these matters on the mistaken view that doing nothing is the loving thing. As I have written before, I have observed two ironclad rules in the modern church. First, the more serious the problem, the less serious the church takes it. Second, the less serious the problem, the more serious the church takes it. Congregations and denominations will rally around a saint (or, especially a minister) who has fallen into notorious sin or even heresy, but just let a minister accidentally fail to say hello to an elder’s wife one day and see what happens. The latter becomes a scandal while the former is nursed and protected.
Sixth, there are many Independents in spirit in every denomination—congregations, ministers, church members. They take the position that what the denomination does is somewhat irrelevant—that it does not affect them in any way. Their congregation, their minister, their personal spirituality is not affected by what the denomination does. If the denomination has become woke, no worries. They are not woke. So there is no problem in their minds. And that is why the modern Church is so weak and powerless.
What we need are churches that will reform according to the Scripture and get their principles of church government from that scared book. We are striving to do that in Vanguard Presbyterian Church.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL
www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.com Please make any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.