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

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 31

Of Synods and Councils

SECTION I: For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils:[1] and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies;[2] and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. [3]

1. Acts 15:2, 4, 6
2. Acts 15:1-35
3. Acts 15:1-35; 20:17

As we have seen in the last chapter, a11 Church power is vested by Christ in the Church as a whole -- not as a mob, but as an organized body. As organized, the Church consists of presbyters or bishops and the people, and the people as represented by lay or ruling elders. This necessarily gives origin to the session or parochial presbytery, consisting of the bishop or pastor, and the ruling elders or representatives of the people. In this body the entire ecclesiastical power of the whole congregation is vested. It admits candidates to sealing ordinances, exercises pastoral care and discipline over the members, provides for the instruction of the flock, and regulates public worship.

In the Episcopal Church this governing power vests with the rector. In the Congregational Churches it is exercised immediately by the whole body of the brotherhood in person. In the Presbyterian Church it vests with pastor and people -- the people, however, acting only through their permanent representatives, the ruling elders.

But the third great principle of Presbyterianism, as stated in the preceding chapter, is, that the whole Church of Christ on earth "is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and a larger to the whole. It has one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The principles of government laid down in the Scriptures bind the whole Church. The terms of admission and the legitimate grounds of exclusion are everywhere the same. The same qualifications are everywhere to be demanded for admission to the sacred office, and the same grounds for deposition. Every man who is properly received as a member of a particular church becomes a member of the Church universal; every one rightfully excluded from a particular church is excluded from the whole Church: everyone rightfully ordained to the ministry in one church is a minister of the universal Church; and when rightfully deposed in one he ceases to be a minister in any. Hence, while every particular church has a right to manage its own affairs and administer its own discipline, it cannot be independent and irresponsible in the exercise of that right. As its members are the members of the Church universal, and those whom it excommunicates are, according to the Scriptural theory, delivered unto Satan and cut off from the communion of the saints, the acts of a particular church become the acts of the whole Church, and therefore the whole has a right to see that they are performed according to the law of Christ. Hence, on the one hand, the right of appeal; and, on the other, the right of review and control."

The principle contained in the above statement was certainly acted upon in the apostolic age, and it has been practically recognized and acted upon with more or less fidelity in all branches of the Christian Church ever since.

" A controversy having arisen in the church at Antioch concerning the Mosaic law, instead of settling it among themselves as an independent body, they referred the case to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem; and there it was authoritatively decided (not by the apostles alone, but ' by the apostles and elders, with the whole church,' Acts xv. 22) -- not for that church (Antioch) only, but for all others. Paul, therefore, in his next missionary journey, as he passed through the cities, ' delivered to them,' it is said, ' the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.' Acts xvi. 4." Hence, in carrying these principles into effect, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church provides for the erection and operation of a regularly graduated series of ecclesiastical councils.

1. Every particular congregation is governed, as we have seen, by a Session or Parochial Presbytery, consisting of its pastor and the ruling elders as the representatives of the people. The whole governmental power of that particular church vests in that session, and all trials for, e discipline of any of its members must originate there. Its decisions are final with respect to the matters subject to its jurisdiction, except when, after having been regularly carried up by appeal, they have been reversed by a superior court.

2. There is the Classical Presbytery, which consists of all the pastors or bishops and the churches in a city or neighbourhood who can conveniently meet together and unite in the exercise of ecclesiastical government. The churches appear in the Presbytery by representatives from the sessions of particular churches, so regulated that the number of lay representatives shall exactly equal the number of pastors; and these representatives of the people in all respects exercise equal power with the pastors. All the powers of these bodies vest in them as bodies, and not in the members severally. Whatever they are competent to decide or to execute can be done only by the members jointly while in session, and not at all by them separately, or even jointly in any other capacity. Ordained ministers are not members of particular churches, but belong in the first instance to the Presbytery. The Presbytery, therefore, in the first instance, examines and decides upon the qualifications of candidates and licenses and ordains them; and in the case of the discipline of a minister the process originates in the Presbytery, to which alone the pastor is directly responsible. A licentiate is in no sense or degree a minister, He is purely a layman -- i.e., a private member of a particular church -- taken under care of a Presbytery experimentally, and as a part of his trials or tests temporarily allowed to preach before the people, that they may pass their final judgment upon his qualifications and acceptability as a candidate for the ministry.

3. Synods are only large Presbyteries, consisting of all the Presbyteries in full of a province.

4. The General Assembly of the whole Church, which, like all the other bodies, consists of an equal number of pastors and of the representatives of the people, of necessity is composed of the representatives of the constituent Presbyteries, instead of the Presbyteries themselves in full.

In virtue of the principle of APPEAL, any question originating in a church session, or in any other subordinate court, may be carried up in succession through all the series to the General Assembly, whose decisions when once made are final.

In virtue of the principle of REVIEW AND CONTROL, each church court of every grade above a church session has the right, and is under obligation, to review "the records of the proceedings of the judicatory next below;" and of course to judge of those proceedings, and secure their correction when wrong. And each court, including the church session, is an executive as well as a judicial body; and therefore has an inherent right of supervision and of governmental control over the entire field subject to its jurisdiction. Hence a superior judicatory, in default of the proper action of the inferior judicatory to which the case more immediately belongs, may inaugurate investigation and apply discipline immediately in the case of any person within its legitimate bounds.

SECTION II: It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.[4]

4. Acts 15:15, 19, 24, 27-31; 16:4; Matt. 18:17-20

SECTION III: All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.[5]

5. Eph. 2:20; Acts 17:11; I Cor. 2:5; II Cor. 1:24; cf. Isa. 8:19-20; Matt. 15:9

SECTION IV: Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.[6]

6. Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36; Matt. 22:21

These sections state -- 1. The different subjects which come before these Church courts for decision. 2. The grounds upon which, and the conditions under which, their decisions are to be regarded as requiring submission, and the extent to which that submission is to be carried.

1. Negatively. Synods and councils have no right whatever to intermeddle with any affair which concerns the commonwealth; and they have no right to presume to give advice to, or to attempt to influence, the officers of the civil government in their action as civil officers, except (1.) in extraordinary cases, where the interests of the Church are immediately concerned, by the way of humble petition, or (2.) by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

2. Negatively. The powers of synods and councils are purely ministerial and declarative; i.e., relate simply to the declaration and execution of the will of Christ. They are therefore wholly judicial and. executive, and in no instance legislative.

3. Positively. It belongs to synods and councils at proper times (1.) To form creeds and confessions of faith, and to adopt a constitution for the government of the Church. (2.) To determine particular controversies of faith and cases of conscience. (3.) To prescribe regulations for the public worship of God, and for the government of the Church. (4.) To take up and issue all cases of discipline; and, in the case of the superior courts, to receive appeals and complaints in all cases of maladministration in the case of individual officers or subordinate courts, and authoritatively to determine the same.

4. Positively. While ecclesiastical courts have no right to handle or advise upon matters which belong to the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate, they, on the other hand, evidently possess an inalienable right of teaching church members their duty with respect to the civil powers, and of enforcing the performance of it as a religious obligation. "The powers that be are ordained of God......Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake." Rom. xiii. 1 -- 7. That is, obedience to the civil authorities is a religious duty, and may be taught and enforced by Church courts upon Church members.

5. Negatively. All synods and councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both. That is, these synods and councils, consisting of uninspired men, have no power to bind the conscience, and their authority cannot exclude the right, nor excuse the obligation, of private judgment. If their judgments are unwise, but not directly opposed to the will of God, the private member should submit for peace' sake. If their decisions are opposed plainly to the Word of God, the private member should disregard them and take the penalty.

6. Positively. But in every case in which the decrees of these ecclesiastical courts are consonant to the Word of God, they are to be received by all subject to the jurisdiction of said court, not only because of the fact that they do agree with the Word of God, but also because of the proper authority of the court itself as a court of Jesus Christ, appointed by him, and therefore ministerially representing him in all of its legitimate actions.

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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