The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 30

Of Church Censures

SECTION I:  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.[1]

1. Isa. 9:6-7; Col. 1:18; I Tim. 5:17; I Thess. 5:12; Acts 20:17, 28; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; Eph. 4:11-12; I Cor. 12:28; Matt. 28:18-20; John 18:36

THE principle designated Erastianism, which has been practically embodied in all the State Churches of the 0ld World, includes the following elements: -- 1. That the Church is an organ of the State to accomplish one of its general functions; and consequently that there is no government of the Church independent of that of the State, but that its officers, its laws, and their administration, are in all things subject to the civil government. 2. That all the subjects of the State are, ipso facto, members of the Church, and entitled to all its ordinances. 3. That the duties and prerogatives of church officers include simply the functions of teaching and administering the ordinances, and do not include discipline, because, according to this view, to exclude a man from church ordinances is to deny him his civil rights as a citizen.

In opposition to this doctrine, our Confession in this section teaches --

1. That our Lord Jesus Christ, as mediatorial King, has appointed a government for his Church; and --

2. That this church government is distinct in all respects from the civil government.

1. Christ the God-man, as mediatorial King, by his inspired apostles and their writings appointed a government for his Church; and by his providence and Spirit he continues graciously to administer it to the end of time. Hence the Church is a Theocratic kingdom. All authority and power descends, and does not ascend. Pastors and elders teach and rule in the name of God, and not of man. It is the commission of Christ, and not of the Church, that the minister carries with him, and by authority of which he acts. The Church only witnesses to the genuineness of this commission, and sees that it is faithfully discharged by the bearer of it. Hence all the power of church officers, either in their several or collective capacity, is ministerial and declarative. They have only to define what Christ has taught, to carry that teaching to all men, and to execute the laws he has given, and to administer the penalties he has designated, according to his will and in his name.

2. This Theocratic government of the Church which Christ has established is entirely independent of the civil government. To very many in Europe it appeared impossible that two independent governments should exercise jurisdiction at the same time over the same subjects without constant collision. But the experience of the dissenting bodies and free churches of Great Britain, and of all the churches in America, abundantly proves that there is no danger of interference whatever, when both the Church and the State confine themselves to their respective provinces. The persons subject to the jurisdiction of the government of the Church are also subject to the jurisdiction of the government of the State; but the ends, the laws, the methods and the sanctions of the two are so different, that the one never can any more interfere with the other than waves of colour can interfere with vibrations of sound.

While all Christians, with the exception of the Erastians, agree with the two principles taught in this section as thus generally stated, they differ very much as to the human agents with whom Christ has deposited this power, and whom he uses as his instruments in administering it. There are four radically different theories on this subject: -- "(1.) The Popish theory, which assumes that Christ, the apostles, and believers constituted the Church while our Saviour was on earth, and that this organization was designed to be perpetual. After the ascension of our Lord, Peter became his vicar, and took his place as the visible head of the Church. This primacy of Peter, as the universal bishop, is continued in his successors, the bishops of Rome; and the apostleship is perpetuated in the order of prelates. As in the primitive Church no one could be an apostle who was not subject to Christ, so now no one can be a prelate who is not subject to the Pope. And as then no one could be a Christian who was not subject to Christ, and the apostles, so now no one can be a Christian who is not subject to the Pope and the prelates. This is the Romish theory of the Church: A vicar of Christ, a perpetual college of apostles, and the people subject to their infallible control.

"(2.) The Prelatical theory assumes the perpetuity of the apostleship as the governing power in the Church, which therefore consists of those who profess the true religion and are subject to apostle-bishops. This is the Anglican or High Church form of this theory. In its Low Church form the prelatical theory simply teaches that there was originally a threefold order in the ministry, and that there should be now. But it does not affirm that mode of organization to be essential.

" (3.) The Independent or Congregational theory includes two principles: first, that the governing and executive power in the Church is in the brotherhood; and secondly, that the church organization is complete in each worshipping assembly, which is independent of every other.

" (4.) The fourth theory is the Presbyterian...... This includes the following affirmative statement: (a.) The people have a right to a substantive part in the government of the Church. (b.) Presbyters, who labour in word and doctrine, are the highest permanent officers of the Church, and all belong to the same order. (c.) The outward and visible Church is, or should be, one, in the sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and a larger to the whole. It is not holding one of these principles that makes a man a Presbyterian, but his holding them all." Christ has in fact vested all ecclesiastical power in the Church as a whole, none of its members being excluded; yet not in the Church as a mob, but as an organized body consisting of members, their representative ruling elders, and ministers or bishops. Elders or bishops were ordained by the apostles, have always continued in the Church, and were designed to be perpetuated as the highest class of officers in the Church. 1 Tim. iii. 1; Eph. iv. 11, 12. All Church power vests, then, jointly in the lay and clerical elements, in the ministers together with the people.

" Ruling elders are properly the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, chosen by them for the purpose of exercising government and discipline in conjunction with pastors or ministers." "The powers, therefore, exercised by our ruling elders are powers which belong to the lay members of the Church." " They are chosen by them to act in their name in the government of the Church. 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."

SECTION 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.[2]

2. Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; John 20:21-23; II Cor. 2:6-8

SECTION III: Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor 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.[3]

3. I Cor. 5:1-13; 11:27-34; I Tim. 1:20; 5:20; Matt. 7:6; Jude 1:23

SECTION 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.[4]

4. I Thess. 5:12; II Thess. 3:6, 14-15; I Cor. 5:4-5, 13; Matt. 18:17; Titus 3:10

These sections teach --

1. As to the nature and extent of the power conferred upon the Church of admitting and excluding from the fold, and of disciplining its members.

2. As to the ends of this discipline.

3.. As to the methods through which it should be administered.

1. All Church power must be exercised in an orderly manner through the officers spoken of above, freely chosen for this purpose by the brethren; and it relates --" (1.) To matters of doctrine. She has a right to set forth a public declaration of the truths which she believes, and which are to be acknowledged. by all who enter her communion. That is, she has a right to frame creeds or confessions of faith, as her testimony for the truth and her protest against error. And as she has been commissioned to teach all nations, she has the right of selecting teachers, of judging of their fitness, of ordaining and sending them forth into the field, and of recalling and deposing them when unfaithful. (2.) The Church has power to set down rules for the ordering of public worship. (3.) She has power to make rules for her own government; such as every Church has in its book of discipline, constitution or canons, etc. (4.) She has power to receive into fellowship, and to exclude the unworthy from her own communion."

This last power is commonly styled "the power of the keys;" i.e., of operating and closing the doors of the Church, of admitting or excluding from sealing ordinances. Matt. xvi. 19. In view of two unquestionable facts -- (a.) to forgive sin is an incommunicable attribute of God and Christ; (b.) God has given to no class of men the faculty of absolutely discriminating the good from the bad -- it follows that the Church power of opening and shutting, of binding and loosing, spoken of in Matt. xvi. 19 and in the second section of this chapter, is purely ministerial and declarative. Church censures declare simply what is, to the best of their knowledge, in the opinion of the Church officers pronouncing them, the mind and will of Christ in the case. And they have direct binding effect only in so far as the relation of the person censured to the visible Church is concerned. They can have effect upon the relations of the censured to God and to Christ only in so far as they represent the will of Christ in the case, and because they do.

2. The ends of Church discipline are declared. to be -- (1.) The purity of the Church, and hence the glory and approbation of God. (2.) The recovery of the erring brother himself. (3.) The force of example to deter others from like sin. (4.) The exhibition of righteousness and fidelity to principle presented to the world without.

3. The better to attain all these ends, for which the discipline is intended, the Church officers should --

(1.) Proceed in a regular order to administer discipline, using, according to their character, first all means of moral reclamation before they proceed to absolute exclusion. The proper method of procedure, under all circumstances, is plainly stated in the "Book of Discipline," which forms part of the Confession of Faith of our Church. The successive stages of discipline there unfolded are -- (a.) private admonition, (b.) public admonition, (c.) suspension, (d.) excommunication.

(2.) The discipline should be wisely and justly proportioned "to the nature of the crime and demerit of the person."

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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