Of the Divine Right of Synods, or Synodal Assemblies.
Thus far of the ruling assemblies, which are styled presbyterial; next come into consideration those greater assemblies, which are usually called synodal, or synods, or councils. They are so called from their convening, or coming together: or rather from their calling together. Both names, viz. synod and council, are of such latitude of signification, as that they may be applied to any public convention of people: but in the common ordinary use of these words, they are appropriated to large ecclesiastical assemblies, above classical presbyteries in number and power. These synodal assemblies are made up, (as occasion and the necessity of the church shall require.) 1. Either of presbyters, sent from the several classical presbyteries within a province, hence called provincial synods: 2. Or of presbyters, sent from the several provincial synods within a nation, hence called national synods: 3. Or of presbyters, delegated or sent from the several national churches throughout the Christian world, hence called ecumenical synods, or universal and general councils.
Touching the divine warrant of synods, and their power in church affairs, much need not be said, seeing divers learned authors have so fully stated and handled this matter.113 Yet, that the reader may have a short view hereof, and not be left wholly unsatisfied, these two things shall briefly be opened and insisted upon, viz: 1. Certain considerations shall be propounded, tending to clear the state of the question about the divine right of synods, and their power. 2. The proposition itself, with some few arguments adduced, for the proof thereof.
For the former, viz: The true stating of this question about the divine right of synods, and of their power, well weigh these few considerations.
1. Synods differ in some respects from classical presbyteries, handled in Chap. XIII., though the nature and kind of their power be the same for substance. For, 1. Synods are more large extensive assemblies than classical presbyteries, the members of presbyteries being sent only from several single congregations, the members of synods being delegated from several presbyteries, and proportionably their power is extended also. 2. The exercise of government by presbyteries, is the common ordinary way of government held forth in Scripture. By synods it is more rare and extraordinary, at least in great part, as in case of extraordinary causes that fall out: as, for choosing an apostle, Acts i., healing of scandals, &c., Acts xv.
2. All synods are of the same nature and kind, whether provincial, national, or ecumenical, though they differ as lesser and greater, in respect of extent, from one another, (the provincial having as full power within their bounds, as the national or ecumenical within theirs.) So that the proving of the divine right of synods indefinitely and in general, doth prove also the divine right of provincial, national, and ecumenical synods in particular: for, greater and lesser do not vary the species or kind. What is true of ecclesiastical synods in general, agrees to every such synod in particular.
Object. But why hath not the Scripture determined these assemblies in particular?
Ans. 1. It is not necessary the Scripture should in every case descend to particulars. In things of one and the same kind, general rules may serve for all particulars; especially seeing particulars are so innumerable, what volumes would have contained all particulars? 2. All churches and seasons are not capable of synods provincial or national: for, in an island there may be no more Christians than to make up one single congregation, or one classical presbytery. Or in a nation, the Christian congregations may be so few, or so dispersed, or so involved in persecution, that they cannot convene in synods, &c.
3. The power of synods contended for, is, 1. Not civil; they have no power to take cognizance of civil causes, as such; not to inflict any civil punishments; as fines, imprisonments, confiscations, banishments, death, (these being proper to the civil magistrate:) but merely spiritual; they judge only in ecclesiastical causes, in a spiritual manner, by spiritual censures, to spiritual ends, as did that synod, Acts xv. 2. Not corruptive, privative, or destructive to the power of classical presbyteries, or single congregations; but rather perfective and conservative thereunto. As suppose a single congregation should elect a minister unsound in judgment, or scandalous in conversation, the synod may annul and make void that election, and direct them to make a better choice, or appoint them a minister themselves; hereby this liberty of election is not at all infringed or violated, but for their own advantage regulated, &c. 3. Not absolute, and infallible; but limited and fallible: any synod or council may err, being constituted of men that are weak, frail, ignorant in part, &c., and therefore all their decrees and determinations are to be examined by the touchstone of the Scriptures, nor are they further to be embraced, or counted obligatory, than they are consonant thereunto, Isa. viii. 20. Hence there is liberty of appeal, as from congregational elderships to the classical presbytery, and from thence to the provincial synod, so from the provincial to the national assembly, &c. 4. Finally, the power of synods is not only persuasive and consultative, (as some think,) able to give grave advice, and to use forcible persuasions in any case, which if accepted and followed, well; if rejected and declined, there is no further remedy, but a new non-communion instead of a divine church censure: but it is a proper authoritative juridical power, which all within their bounds are obliged reverently to esteem, and dutifully to submit unto, so far as agreeable to the word of Christ.
4. Finally, this authoritative juridical power of synods is threefold, viz. doctrinal, regulating, and censuring. 1. Doctrinal, in reference to matters of faith, and divine worship; not to coin new articles of faith, or devise new acts of divine worship: but to explain and apply those articles of faith and rules of worship which are laid down in the word, and declare the contrary errors, heresies, corruptions. Hence the Church is styled, the pillar and ground of truth, 1 Tim. iii. 15. Thus to the Jewish Church were committed of trust the oracles of God, Rom. iii. 2. 2. Regulating, in reference to external order and polity, in matters prudential and circumstantial, which are determinate according to the true light of nature, and the general rules of Scripture, such as are in 1 Cor. x. 31, 32; Rom. xiv.; 1 Cor. xiv. 26, 40, &c.; not according to any arbitrary power of men. 3. Censuring power, in reference to error, heresy, schism, obstinacy, contempt, or scandal, and the repressing thereof; which power is put forth merely in spiritual censures, as admonition, excommunication, deposition, &c. And these censures exercised, not in a lordly, domineering, prelatical way: but in an humble, sober, grave, yet authoritative way, necessary both for preservation of soundness of doctrine, and incorruptness of conversation; and for extirpation of the contrary. This is the power which belongs to synods. Thus much for clearing the right state of this question.
II. For the second thing, viz. the proposition itself, and the confirmation thereof, take it briefly in these terms.
Jesus Christ our Mediator hath laid down in his word sufficient ground and warrant for juridical synods, and their authority, for governing of his Church now under the New Testament. Many arguments might be produced for proof of this proposition: as, 1. From the light of nature. 2. From the words of the law, Deut. xvii. 8, 12, compared with 2 Chron. xix. 8, 11; Ps. cxxii. 4, 5, holding forth an ecclesiastical Sanhedrin in the Church of the Jews, superior to other courts. 3. From the words of Christ, Matt, xviii. 15-21. 4. From the unity of the visible Church of Christ now under the New Testament. 5. From the primitive apostolical pattern laid down, Acts xv., &c., and from divers other considerations; but for brevity’s sake, only the two last arguments shall be a little insisted upon.
Argum. I. The unity or oneness of the visible Church of Christ now under the New Testament, laid down in Scripture, gives us a notable foundation for church government by juridical synods. For, 1. That Jesus Christ our Mediator hath one general, visible Church on earth now under the New Testament, hath been already proved, Part 2, Chap. VIII. 2. That in this Church there is a government settled by divine right, is evidenced, Part 1, Chap. I. 3. That all Christ’s ordinances, and particularly church government, primarily belong to the whole general Church visible, for her edification, (secondarily to particular churches and single congregations, as parts or members of the whole,) hath been manifested, Part 2, Chap. VIII. Now, there being one general visible Church, having a government set in it of divine right, and that government belonging primarily to the whole body of Christ; secondarily, to the parts or members thereof; must it not necessarily follow, that the more generally and extensively Christ’s ordinance of church government is managed in greater and more general assemblies, the more fully the perfection and end of the government, viz. the edification of the whole body of Christ, is attained; and on the contrary, the more particularly and singly church government is exercised, as in presbyteries, or single congregational elderships, the more imperfect it is, and the less it attains to the principal end: consequently, if there be a divine warrant for church government by single congregational elderships, is it not much more for church government by presbyteries, and synods, or councils, wherein more complete provision is made for the edification of the general Church or body of Jesus Christ?
Argum. II. The primitive apostolical practice in the first and purest ages of the Church after Christ, may further evidence with great strength the divine warrant for church government by juridical synods or councils. Let this be the position:
Jesus Christ our Mediator hath laid down in his word a pattern of a juridical synod, consisting of governing officers of divers presbyterial churches, for a rule to the Church of Christ in all succeeding ages.
For proof hereof take these two assertions: 1. That Jesus Christ hath laid down in his word a pattern of a juridical synod. 2. That this juridical synod is for a rule to the churches of Christ in all succeeding ages.
That Jesus Christ hath laid down in his word a pattern of a synod, yea, of a juridical synod, consisting of governing officers of divers presbyterial churches, is manifest, Acts xv. and xvi., where are plainly set forth: 1. The occasion of the synod. 2. The proper members of the synod. 3. The equal power and authority exercised by all those members. 4. The way and method of ordinary synodal proceeding. 5. The juridical acts of power put forth by the synod; with the issue and consequent of all upon the churches.
First, Here was a proper ground and occasion for a juridical synod. For thus the text expressly declareth, that “certain men which came down from Judea, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved; when therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question,” Acts xv. 1, 2, compared with ver. 5—”But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses;” and with ver. 23, 24—”The apostles, and elders, and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles, in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia: Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us, have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised and keep the law.” In which passages these things are evident:
1. That false doctrine, destructive to the doctrine of Christ in his gospel, did arise in the Church, viz: That circumcision and keeping of the ceremonial law of Moses was necessary to salvation, ver. 1, 5, 24; and this false doctrine promoted with lying, as if the apostles and elders of Jerusalem had sent forth the false teachers with directions to preach so, as their apology (“to whom we gave no such commandment,” ver. 24) seems to import. Here is corruption both in doctrine and manners fit for a synod to take cognizance of.
2. That this corrupt doctrine was vented by certain that came down from Judea. It is evident, it was by certain of the sect of the Pharisees that believed; as Paul and Barnabas make the narrative to the church at Jerusalem, ver. 5, therefore the false teachers coming from Judea (where the Churches of Christ were first of all planted, and whence the church plantation spread) published their doctrines with more credit to their errors and danger to the churches; and so both the churches of Judea whence they came, and of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, whither they came, were interested in the business.
3. That the said false teachers by the leaven of their doctrine troubled them with words, subverting the souls of the brethren, both at Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, ver. 23, 24; here was the disturbance and scandal of divers churches: compare ver. 39 with 41.
4. That Paul and Barnabas at Antioch had no small dissension and dispute against the false teachers, ver. 1, 2, that so (if possible) they might be convinced, and the Church’s peace preserved, without craving further assistance in a solemn synod.
5. That after these disputes, and for the better settling of all the churches about this matter, (which these disputes could not effect,) they decreed (or ordained) that Paul and Barnabas, and some others of themselves, should go up to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem about this question, ver. 2. Here was an authoritative mission of delegated officers from the presbyterial church at Antioch, and from other churches of Syria and Cilicia also, ver. 23, 41, to a synodal assembly with the presbyterial church at Jerusalem.
Secondly, Here were proper members of a synod convened to consider of this question, viz. the officers and delegates of divers presbyterial churches: of the presbyterial church at Jerusalem, the apostles and elders, Acts xv. 6: of the presbyterial church at Antioch, Paul, Barnabas, and others; compare verse 2 and 12. And besides these, there were brethren from other churches, present as members of the synod; as may appear by these two considerations, viz:
1. Partly, because it is called “The whole multitude,” ver. 12; “The apostles and elders with the whole church,” ver. 22; “The apostles, and elders, and brethren,” ver. 23. This whole multitude, whole church, and brethren, distinct from the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem, cannot be the company of all the faithful at Jerusalem, for (as hath been evidenced, Chap. XIV., Position 2,) they were too many to meet in one house. But it was the synodal multitude, the synodal church, consisting of apostles, and elders, and brethren; which brethren seem to be such as were sent from several churches, as Judas and Silas, ver. 24, who were assistants to the apostles and evangelists—Judas, Acts xv. 22, 32; Silas, Acts xv. 32, 40, and xvi. 19, and xvii. 4, 14, 15, and xviii. 5. Some think Titus was of this synod also.
2. Partly because the brethren of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, were troubled with this question, ver. 23, 24. Therefore it cannot be reasonably imagined, but all those places sought out for a remedy; and to that end, severally and respectively sent their delegates to the synod at Jerusalem: else they had been very regardless of their own church peace and welfare. And the epistle of the synod was directed to them all by name, ver. 23; and so did formally bind them all, having men of their own members of the synod, which decrees did but materially, and from the nature of the thing, bind the other churches at Lystra and Iconium, Acts xvi. 4. Now, if there were delegates but from two presbyterial churches, they were sufficient to constitute a synod; and this justifies delegates from ten or twenty churches, proportionably, when there shall be like just and necessary occasion.
Thirdly, Here all the members of the synod, as they were convened by like ordinary authority, so they acted by like ordinary and equal power in the whole business laid before them; which shows it was an ordinary, not an extraordinary synod. For though apostles and evangelists, who had power over all churches, were members of the synod, as well as ordinary elders; yet they acted not in this synod by a transcendent, infallible, apostolical power, but by an ordinary power, as elders. This is evident,
1. Because the Apostle Paul, and Barnabas his colleague, (called a prophet and teacher, Acts xiii. 1, 2, and an apostle, Acts xiv. 14,) were sent as members to this synod, by order and determination of the church of Antioch, and they submitted themselves to that determination, Acts xv. 2, 3; which they could not have submitted unto as apostles, but as ordinary elders and members of the presbytery at Antioch: they that send, being greater than those that are sent by them. Upon which ground it is a good argument which is urged against Peter’s primacy over the rest of the apostles, because the college of apostles at Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria, having received the faith, Acts viii. 14.
2. Because the manner of proceeding in this synod convened, was not extraordinary and apostolical, as when they acted by an immediate infallible inspiration of the Spirit, in penning the Holy Scriptures, (without all disputing, examining, or judging of the matter that they wrote, so far as we can read,) 2 Tim. iii. 16,17; 2 Pet. i. 20, 21; but ordinary, presbyterial, and synodal; by ordinary helps and means, (as afterwards shall appear more fully;) stating the question, proving and evidencing from Scripture what was the good and acceptable will of God concerning the present controversy, and upon evidence of Scripture concluding, It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, Acts xv. 28; which words, any assembly, having like clear evidence of Scripture for their determination, may without presumption use, as well as this synod did.114
3. Because the elders and brethren (who are as authoritatively members of the synod as the apostles) did in all points as authoritatively act as the apostles themselves. For, 1. Certain other of the church of Antioch, as well as Paul and Barnabas, were sent as delegates from the church of Antioch, Acts xv. 2. 2. They were all sent as well to the elders, as to the apostles at Jerusalem, about this matter, ver. 2. 3. They were received at Jerusalem, as well by the elders, as the apostles, and reported their case to them both, ver. 4. 4. The elders, as well as the apostles, met together to consider thereof, ver. 6. 5. The letters containing the synodal decrees and determinations, were written in the name of the elders and brethren, as well as in the name of the apostles, ver. 23. 6. The elders and brethren, as well as theapostles, blame the false teachers for troubling of the Church, subverting of souls; declaring, that they gave the false teachers no such commandment to preach any such doctrine, ver. 24. 7. The elders and brethren, as well as the apostles, say, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us,” ver. 28. 8. The elders and brethren, as well as the apostles, did impose upon the churches “no other burden than these necessary things,” ver. 28. 9. The elders, as well as the apostles, being assembled, “thought good to send chosen men of themselves,” viz. Judas and Silas, with Paul and Barnabas, to Antioch, to deliver the synodal decrees to them, and to tell them the same things by mouth, ver. 22, 25, 27. 10. And the decrees are said to be ordained as well by the elders, as by the apostles at Jerusalem, Acts xvi. 4. So that through this whole synodal transaction, the elders are declared in the text to go on in a full authoritative course of judgment with the apostles, from point to point. And therefore in this synod, the apostles acted as ordinary elders, not as extraordinary officers.
Fourthly. Here was the ordinary way and method of synodal proceedings by the apostles, elders, and brethren, when they were convened unanimously, ver. 25. For,
1. They proceeded deliberatively, by discourses and disputes, deliberating about the true state of the question, and the remedy of the scandal. This is laid down, 1. More generally, “and when there had been much disputing,” ver. 7. 2. More particularly, how they proceeded when they drew towards a synodal determination, Peter speaks of the Gentiles’ conversion, and clears the doctrine of justification “by faith without the works of the law,” ver. 7-12. Then Barnabas and Paul confirm the conversion of the Gentiles, “declaring the signs and wonders wrought by them among the Gentiles,” ver. 12. After them James speaks, approving what Peter had spoken touching the conversion of the Gentiles, confirming it by Scripture; and further adds (which Peter did but hint, ver. 10, and Paul and Barnabas did not so much as touch upon) a remedy against the present scandal, ver. 13-22. Here is now an ordinary way of proceeding by debates, disputes, allegations of Scripture, and mutual suffrages. What needed all this, if this had been a transcendent, extraordinary, and not an ordinary synod?
2. They proceeded after all their deliberative inquiries and disputes decisively to conclude and determine the matter, ver. 20-30. The result of the synod (as there is evident) is threefold. 1. To set down in writing their decrees and determinations. 2. To signify those decrees in an epistle to the brethren at Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. 3. To send these letters by some from among themselves, viz. Judas and Silas, together with Paul and Barnabas, to all the churches that were offended or endangered, that both by written decrees and word of mouth, the churches might be established in faith and peace.
Fifthly, Here were several authoritative and juridical acts of power, put forth in this synod, according to the exigency of the present distempers of the churches. This appears plainly,
1. By the proceedings of the synod in accommodating a suitable and proportionable remedy to every malady at that time distempering the Church, viz. a triple medicine for a threefold disease.
1. Against the heresy broached, viz. that they must be circumcised and keep the ceremonial “law of Moses, or else they could not be saved,” Acts xv. 2. The synod put forth a doctrinal power, in confutation of the heresy, and clear vindication of the truth, about the great point of “justification by faith without the works of the law,” Acts xv. 7-23; and (Independents themselves being judges) a doctrinal decision of matters of faith by a lawful synod, far surpasseth the doctrinal determination of any single teacher, or of the presbytery of any single congregation; and is to be reverently received of the churches as a binding ordinance of Christ.
2. Against the schism, occasioned by the doctrine of the false teachers that troubled the Church, Acts xv. 1, 2, the synod put forth a censuring power, stigmatizing the false teachers with the infamous brands of troubling the Church with words, subverting of souls, and (tacitly, as some conceive from that expression, “Unto whom we gave no such commandment,” ver. 24) of belying the apostles and elders of Jerusalem, as if they had sent them abroad to preach this doctrine.
Object. But the synod proceeded not properly to censure the false teachers by any ecclesiastical admonition, or excommunication; therefore the power exercised in the synod was only doctrinal, and not properly juridical.
Ans. 1. They censured them in some degree, and that with a mark of infamy, ver. 24, as was manifested. And this was not only a warning and hint to the churches, to note such false teachers, avoid them, and withdraw from them, compare Rom. xvi. 17, 18, with 1 Tim. vi. 3-5; but also was a virtual admonition to the false teachers themselves, while their doctrines and ways were so expressly condemned. 2. They proceeded not to present excommunication, it is granted; nor was it at first dash seasonable, prudent, or needful. But the synod knew well, that if these false teachers, after this synodal mark of disgrace set upon them, should still persist in their course, incurably and incorrigibly obstinate, they might in due time be excommunicated by course; it being a clear case in itself that such heretics or schismatics, as otherwise cannot be reduced, are not to be suffered, but to be cast out of the churches. “An heretic, after once or twice admonition, reject,” Tit. iii. 10, 11; see Rev. ii. 2, 14, 20.
3. Against the scandal of the weak Jews, and their heart-estrangement from the Gentiles, who neglected their ceremonial observances, as also against the scandal of the Gentiles, who were much troubled and offended at the urging of circumcision, and the keeping of the law as necessary to salvation, ver. 1, 2, 19, 24, the synod put forth an ordering or regulating power, framing practical rules or constitutions for the healing of the scandal, and for prevention of the spreading of it, commanding the brethren of the several churches to abstain from divers things that might any way occasion the same: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to impose” (or lay) “upon you no further burden than these necessary things,” Acts xv. 28, 29. Here is burden and necessary things, (so judged to be necessary for those times, and that state of the Church,) and imposing of these upon the churches: will not this amount to a plain ordering power and authority? Especially considering that the word to impose, or lay on, when it is used of the judgment, act, or sentence of an assembly, ordinarily signifies an authoritative judgment, or decree, as, “Why tempt ye God, to lay, or impose, a yoke upon the neck of the disciples?” Acts xv. 10. Thus some in the synod endeavored to carry the synod with themselves, authoritatively to have imposed the ceremonies upon the churches; whom Peter thus withstands. So, “They bind heavy burdens, and hard to be borne, and impose them upon men’s shoulders,” Matt, xxiii. 4: and this laying on of burdens by the Pharisees, was not by a bare doctrinal declaring, but by an authoritative commanding, as seems by that, “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” Matt. xv. 9.
2. By the title or denomination given to the synodal results contained in their letters sent to the brethren. They are styled, “The decrees ordained, or judged,” Acts xvi. 4. Here are plainly juridical authoritative constitutions. For it is very observable,
That wheresoever the words translated decree or decrees are found in the New Testament, thereby are denoted, laws, statutes, or decrees: as “Decrees of Cæsar,” Acts xvii. 7: “A decree from Cæsar,” Luke ii. 1: Moses’ ceremonial law, “The hand-writing to ordinances,” Col. ii. 14: “The law of commandments in ordinances,” Eph. ii. 15: and this word is found used only in these five places in the whole New Testament: and the Septuagint interpreters often use the word in the Old Testament to this purpose; for laws, Dan. vi. 8; for decrees, Dan. ii. 13, and iii. 10, 29, and iv. 3, and vi. 9.
And the other word translated ordained, when applied to an assembly by the Septuagint, is used for a judgment of authority, as, “And what was decreed against her,” Esth. ii. 1; and so a word derived from it, signifies a decree, Dan. iv. 14, 21.
In this sense also the word is sometimes used in the New Testament, when applied to assemblies; as, “Take ye him, and judge him according to your law,” John xviii. 31; “Whom we laid hold upon, and would have judged according to our law,” Acts xxiv. 6.
Now, if there be so much power and authority engraven upon these two words severally, how strongly do they hold forth authority, when they are applied to any thing jointly, as here to the synodal decisions!
3. By the consequent of these synodal proceedings, viz. the cheerful submission of the churches thereunto. This appears both in the church of Antioch, where the troubles first were raised by the false teachers; where, “when the epistle” of the synod “was read, they rejoiced for the consolation,” Acts xv. 30, 31; and Judas and Silas exhorted and confirmed the brethren by word of mouth, according to the synod’s direction, ver. 32; and in other churches, to which Paul and Timothy delivered the “decrees ordained by the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem; and so were the churches confirmed in the faith, and abounded in number daily,” Acts xvi. 4, 5; whence we have these evidences of the churches’ submission to the synodal decrees: 1. The decrees are counted by the churches a consolation. 2. They were so welcome to them, that they rejoiced for the consolation. 3. They were hereby notably confirmed in the faith, against the false doctrines broached among them. 4. The churches abounded in number daily, the scandal and stumbling-blocks that troubled the Church being removed out of the way. How should such effects so quickly have followed upon the publication of the synodal decrees, in the several churches, had not the churches looked upon that synod as vested with juridical power and authority for composing and imposing of these their determinations?
That this juridical synod is for a rule to the churches of Christ in all succeeding ages, there need no new considerations for proof hereof; only let the reader please to look back to Position iv. of the last chapter, where the substance of those considerations which urge the pattern of presbyteries and presbyterial government for a rule to succeeding churches, is applicable (by change of terms) to the pattern of juridical synods.115
Of the subordination of particular churches to greater assemblies for their authoritative and judicial determination of causes ecclesiastical, and the divine right thereof.
The divine right of ecclesiastical assemblies, congregational, classical, and synodal, and of their power for church government, being thus evidenced by the Scriptures, now in the last place take a few words briefly touching the subordination of the lesser to the greater assemblies, and the divine warrant thereof. In asserting the subordination of particular churches to higher assemblies, whether classical or synodal,
1. It is not denied, but particular churches have within themselves power of discipline entirely, so far as any cause in debate particularly and peculiarly concerneth themselves, and not others.
2. It is granted, that where there is no consociation, or neighborhood of single churches, whereby they may mutually aid one another, there a single congregation must not be denied entire jurisdiction; but this falls not within the compass of ordinary rules of church government left us by Christ. If there be but one congregation in a kingdom or province, that particular congregation may do much by itself alone, which it ought not to do where there are neighboring and adjacent churches that might associate therewith for mutual assistance.
3. It is granted, that every single congregation hath equal power, one as much as another, and that there is no subordination of one to another; according to that common and known axiom, An equal hath no power or rule over an equal. Subordination prelatical, which is of one or more parishes to the prelate and his cathedral, is denied; all particular churches being collateral, and of the same authority.
4. It is granted, that classical or synodal authority cannot be by Scripture introduced over a particular church in a privative or destructive way to that power which God hath bestowed upon it; but contrarily it is affirmed, that all the power of assemblies, which are above particular congregations, is cumulative and perfective to the power of those inferior congregations.
5. It is granted, that the highest ecclesiastical assembly in the world cannot require from the lowest a subordination absolute, and at their own mere will and pleasure, but only in some respect; subordination absolute being only to the law of God laid down in Scripture. We detest popish tyranny, which claims a power of giving their will for a law. ‘Tis subjection in the Lord that is pleaded for: the straightest rule in the world, unless the holy Scripture, we affirm to be a rule to be regulated; peace being only in walking according to Scripture canon, Gal. vi. ver. 16.
6. Nor is it the question whether friendly, consultative, fraternal, Christian advice or direction, be either to be desired or bestowed by neighboring churches, either apart or in their synodal meetings, for the mutual benefit of one another, by reason of that holy profession in which they are all conjoined and knit together: for this will be granted on all hands, though when it is obtained, it will not amount to a sufficient remedy in many cases.
But this is that which we maintain, viz. that the law of God holdeth forth a subordination of a particular church to greater assemblies, consisting of divers choice members, taken out of several single congregations: which assemblies have authoritative power and ecclesiastical jurisdiction over that particular church, by way of giving sentence in and deciding of causes ecclesiastical. For confirmation of this assertion, thus:
Argum. I. The light of nature may be alleged to prove, that there ought to be this subordination: this is warranted not only by God’s positive law, but even by nature’s law. The church is a company of people who are not outlawed by nature. The visible church being an ecclesiastical polity, and the perfection of all polity, doth comprehend in it whatsoever is excellent in all other bodies political. The church must resemble the commonwealth’s government in things common to both, and which have the same use in both. The law of nature directs unto diversities of courts in the commonwealth, and the greater to have authority over the lesser. The church is not only to be considered as employed in holy services, or as having assemblies exercised in spiritual things, and after a spiritual manner, but it is also to be considered as consisting of companies and societies of men to be regularly ordered, and so far nature agreeth to it, that it should have divers sorts of assemblies, and the lower subordinate to the higher. That particular parts should be subject to the whole for the good of the whole, is found necessary both in bodies natural and politic. Is the foot to be lanced? though it have a particular use of its own, and a peculiar employment, yet it is to be ordered by the eye, the hand, and the rest. Kingdoms have their several cities and towns, which all have their governments apart by themselves; yet for the preservation of the whole, all join together in the Parliament. Armies and navies have their several companies and ships, yet in any danger every particular company and ship is ordered by the counsels and directions of the officers and guides of the whole army or navy. The Church is spiritual, but yet a kingdom, a body, an army, &c. D. Ames himself affirms that the light of nature requires that particular churches ought to combine in synods for things of greater moment. The God of nature and reason hath not left in his word a government against the light of nature and right reason. Appeals are of divine and natural right, and certainly very necessary in every society, because of the iniquity and ignorance of judges. That they are so, the practices of all ages and nations sufficiently testify.
Argum. II. The Jewish church government affords a second argument. If in that they had synagogues in every city, which were subordinate to the supreme ecclesiastical court at Jerusalem, then there ought to be a subordination of particular churches among us to higher assemblies; but so it was among them: therefore,
That the subordination was among them of the particular synagogues to the assembly at Jerusalem, is clear—Deut. xvii. 8, 12; 2 Chron. xix. 8, 11; Exod. xviii. 22, 26.
That therefore it ought to be so among us, is as plain: for the dangers and difficulties that they were involved in without a government, and for which God caused that government to be set up among them, are as great if not greater among us, and therefore why should we want the same means of prevention and cure? Are not we in greater danger of heresies now in the time of the New Testament, the churches therein being thereby to be exercised by way of trial, as the apostle foretells, 1 Cor. xi. 19? Doth not ungodliness in these last times abound, according to the same apostle’s prediction? Is there not now a more free and permitted intercourse of society with infidels than in those times?
Nor are the exceptions against this argument of any strength: as, 1. That arguments for the form of church government must yet be fetched from the Jewish Church; the government of the Jews was ceremonial and typical, and Christians must not Judaize, nor use that Judaical compound of subordination of churches: the Mosaical polity is abrogated now under the New Testament. Not to tell those that make this exception, 1. That none argue so much from the Jewish government as themselves for the power of congregations, both in ordination and excommunication, because the people of Israel laid hands on the Levites, and all Israel were to remove the unclean; 2. We answer, the laws of the Jewish church, whether ceremonial or judicial, so far are in force, even at this day, as they were grounded upon common equity, the principles of reason and nature, and were serving to the maintenance of the moral law. ‘Tis of especial right, that the party unjustly aggrieved should have redress, that the adverse party should not be sole judge and party too, that judgment ought not to be rashly or partially passed upon any. The Jewish polity is only abrogated in regard of what was in it of particular right, not of common right: so far as there was in their laws either a typicalness proper to their church, or a peculiarness of respect to their state in that land of promise given unto them. Whatsoever was in their laws of moral concernment or general equity, is still obliging; whatsoever the Jewish Church had not as Jewish, but as it was a political church, or an ecclesiastical republic, (among which is the subordination of ecclesiastical courts to be reckoned,) doth belong to the Christian Church: that all judgments were to be determined by an high-priest, was typical of Christ’s supremacy in judicature; but that there were gradual judicatories for the ease of an oppressed or grieved party, there can be no ceremony or type in this. This was not learned by Moses in the pattern of the Mount, but was taught by the light of nature to Jethro, Exod. xviii. 22, and by him given in advice to Moses. This did not belong unto the peculiar dispensation of the Jews, but unto the good order of the church.
To conclude our answer to this exception, if the benefit of appeals be not as free to us as to the Jews, the yoke of the gospel should be more intolerable than the yoke of the law; the poor afflicted Christian might groan and cry under an unjust and tyrannical eldership, and no ecclesiastical judicatory to relieve him; whereas the poor oppressed Jew might appeal to the Sanhedrin: certainly this is contrary to that prophecy of Christ, Psal. lxxii. 12, 14.
Argum. III. A third argument to prove the subordination of particular congregations, is taken from the institution of our Saviour Christ, of gradual appeals, Matt, xviii. 17, 18, where our Saviour hath appointed a particular member of a church (if scandalous) to be gradually dealt withal; first to be reproved in private, then to be admonished before two or three witnesses, and last of all to be complained of to the church: whence we thus argue:
If Christ hath instituted that the offence of an obstinate brother should be complained of to the church; then much more is it intended that the obstinacy of a great number, suppose of a whole church, should be brought before a higher assembly: but the former is true, therefore the latter. The consequence, wherein the strength of the argument lies, is proved several ways.
1. From the rule of proportion: by what proportion one or two are subject to a particular church, by the same proportion is that church subject to a provincial or a national assembly; and by the same proportion that one congregation is governed by the particular eldership representing it, by the same proportion are ten or twelve congregations governed by a classical presbytery representing them all.
2. From the sufficiency of that remedy that Christ here prescribes for those emergent exigencies under which the Church may lie; since, therefore, offences may as well arise between two persons in the same congregation, Christ hath appointed that particular congregations, as well as members, shall have liberty to complain and appeal to a more general judgment for redress: the salve here prescribed by Christ is equal to the sore; if the sore of scandal may overspread whole churches, as well as particular persons, then certainly the salve of appeals and subordination is here also appointed. If a man be scandalized by the neighbor-church, to whom shall he complain? The church offending must not be both judge and party.
3. From that ecclesiastical communion that is between churches and churches in one and the same province or nation, whereby churches are joined and united together in doctrine and discipline into one body, as well as divers particular persons in a particular congregation; since, therefore, scandals may be committed among them that are in that holy communion one with another, most unworthy of and destructive to that sacred league, certainly those scandals should be redressed by a superior judicatory, as well as offences between brother and brother.
4. He that careth for a part of a church must much more care for the whole; he whose love extends itself to regard the conversion of one, is certainly very careful of the spiritual welfare of many, the edification of a whole church; the influence of Christ’s love being poured upon the whole body, bride and spouse, by order of nature, before it redound to the benefit of a finger or toe, viz. some one single person or other. Nor are the exceptions against this institution of gradual appeals of any moment.
The grand one, and that makes directly against our position is, that our Saviour would have the controversy between brother and brother to be terminated in a peculiar church, and that its judgment should be ultimately requested, he saith, Tell the church, not churches. The subordination here appointed by Christ is of fewer to more, but still within the same church, not without it. To which we answer, our Saviour means not by church only one single particular congregation, but also several, combined in their officers, as appears by these following reasons.
1. A particular church in sundry cases cannot decide the difference, or heal the distemper our Saviour prescribes against; as when a particular church is divided into two parts, both in opposition one to the other; or when one church is at variance with another; if Christ here limits only to a particular church, how shall such distempers be remedied?
2. When Christ bids tell the church, he speaks in allusion to the Jewish Church, which was represented not only by parts in the single synagogue or congregation, but wholly in their sanhedrin, consisting of select persons, appointed by God, for deciding controversies incident to their particular congregations, and their members. So that we may thus reason: the subordination here established by Christ is so far to be extended in the Christian Church, as in the Church of the Jews, for Christ alludeth to the Jewish practice; but in the Jewish Church there was a subordination of fewer to more, not only within the same synagogue or congregation, but within the whole nation, for all synagogues were under the great council at Jerusalem. Now that Christ gives here the same rule that was of old given to the Jews for church government, is clear, 1. From the censure of the obstinate, who was to be reputed a heathen and a publican; wherein is a manifest allusion to the present estate of the Church of the Jews; and, 2. From the familiarity and plainness of Christ’s speech, Tell the church, which church could not have been understood by the disciples had not Christ spoken of the Jewish judicatory; besides which they knew none for such offences as Christ spake of to them, there being no particular church which had given its name to Christ: as also, 3. From his citing the words of that text, Deut. xix. 15, where the witnesses and offenders were, by way of further appeal, to stand before the Lord, before the priests for judgment, ver. 17.
3. It is plain that our Saviour intended a liberty of going beyond a particular congregation for determining cases of controversy, from the reason of that subordination which Christ enjoins, of one to two or three, and of them to the church. The reason of that gradual progress there set down, was because in the increase of numbers and greatness of assemblies, more wisdom, judgment, and gravity is supposed to be, than in the admonitions of a few and smaller number; now, then, this power of right admonition increaseth with the number of admonishers, as well without as within the same congregation; if ten go beyond two in wisdom and gravity, forty will go beyond ten, and be more likely to win upon the offender, and regain him.
Argum. IV. A fourth argument is taken from the pattern of the apostolical churches, Acts xv.
The church of Antioch (though presbyterial, as was proved Chapter XIII., Position II.) was subordinate to the synod at Jerusalem; therefore a particular church is subordinate to higher assemblies, &c.
If a synodal decree did bind them in those times, then may it bind particular churches now, and these ought even still to be subject to synods.
The consequence is undeniable, unless we hold that what the synod there imposed was unjust, or that we have now less need of those remedies than they had; nay, since the apostles (who were assisted with an extraordinary spirit of inspiration) would nevertheless in a doubtful business have synodal conventions for determining of controversies, much more ought we to do so whose gifts are far inferior to theirs; and unless it had been in their determination to leave us their example of a synodal way of church government for our pattern, they had not wanted the meeting together of so many with them for decision of the doubt, whose doctrine was infallible, and of itself, without an assembly, to be believed.
The exceptions against this pattern of church polity are of no validity, e.g.
1. This was no synod. First, that it was no synod appears, in that we read of no word of a synod. Secondly, no commissioners from Syria and Cilicia, which churches should have sent their delegates, had they been a synod, and had their decrees been to have bound in a synodal way. Thirdly, all the believers had voices here.
2. If it were a synod, yet it is no pattern for us, in regard it was consisting of members guided by an infallible and apostolical spirit.
We answer, 1. Here is the thing synod, though not the word, which is a meeting consisting of the deputies of many single churches.
2. That Jerusalem and Antioch had their commissioners there, is evident; and by consequence many single churches had their commissioners, for there were many single congregations at Jerusalem and Antioch, as hath been proved, Chapter XIII., Position II.; that these met together, the word used, verse 6, they came together, evidenceth, and verse 25. For the churches of Syria and Cilicia not sending their commissioners, it follows not that because they are not named, therefore they were not there; and if they were not there, thereforethey ought not to have been: but it is rather thought Syria and Cilicia had commissioners there, in regard the synodal decrees are directed to them as well as others, and the decrees bound them, which they could not do as formal Scripture; for the words, it seemeth good to us, and their submitting the matter to disputation, argue the contrary; therefore as synodal decrees, which inasmuch as they bound those churches, they either were present, or were obliged to be present by their commissioners.
3. To that exception, that the multitude of believers had voices there, and therefore it is not one of our synods, ver. 22—
We answer, it can nowise be proved that every particular believer had a suffrage in the assembly.
Eminent divines116 understand by multitude and church, the multitude and whole church of apostles and elders, who are said to be gathered together, verse 6, to consider of the matter; besides which no other multitude is said to be gathered together, while the matter was in debate; yet we shall not deny even to other members the liberty of their consent and approbation, and freedom to examine all determinations by the rule of God’s word: but the ordaining and forming those decrees is here evinced to be by the apostles and elders, when as they are called their decrees, Acts xvi. 4,6.
3. Those only had definitive votes, who met together synodically to consider of the question; but they were only the apostles and elders, Acts xv. 6. That the epistle is sent in the name of all, is granted; because it was sent by common consent, and withal thereby was added some more weight to the message.
4. Further, if the believers of Jerusalem voted in that assembly, by what authority was it? How could they impose a burden upon, and command decrees unto the churches of Syria and Cilicia, and other churches, who, according to our brethren’s opinion, were not only absent in their commissioners, but independent in their power?
To the exception, that other synods may not pretend to the privileges of that, since its decrees were indited by the Holy Ghost; and therefore no pattern for our imitation—
Ans. The decrees of this assembly did oblige, as synodal decrees, not as apostolical and canonical Scripture: this appears several ways:
1. The apostles, in framing these canons, did proceed in a way synodal and ecclesiastical, and far different from that which they used in dictating of Scripture, and publishing divine truths; their decrees were brought forth by much disputation, human disquisition, but divine oracles are published without human reasonings, from the immediate inditing of the Spirit, 2 Pet. i. 2.
2. Besides the apostles, there were here commissioned elders and other brethren, men of ordinary rank, not divinely and infallibly inspired. The apostles in the penning of Scripture consult not with elders and brethren, (as our opposites here say they did:) our brethren make mandates of ordinary believers divine and canonical Scripture.
3. Divine writ is published only in the name of the Lord; but these in the name of man also, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us,” Acts xv. 28.
4. Canonical and apostolical writing of new Scripture shall not continue till Christ’s coming, because the canon is complete, Rev. xxii. 18, 19, &c.; but thus to decree through the assistance of the Holy Ghost, who remaineth with the Church to the end, and to be directed by Scripture, shall still continue. Therefore this decreeing is not as the inditing of the Holy Scripture. The minor is clear both from Christ’s promise, “Where two or three are met together,” Matt. xvii. 18-20; Matt. viii. 20; as also by the Spirit’s inspiring those councils of Nice of old, and Dort of late: Therefore the apostles here laid aside their apostolical extraordinary power, descending to the places of ordinary pastors, to give them examples in future ages.
To conclude, it is plain, that all the essentials in this assembly were synodal, as whether we consider: 1. The occasion of the meeting, a controversy; 2. The deputation of commissioners from particular churches, for the deciding of that controversy; or 3. The convention of those that were deputed; or 4. The discussion of the question, they being so convened; or 5. The determination of the question so discussed; or 6. The imposition of the thing so determined; or 7. The subjection to the thing so imposed.
1 Tim. i. 17
TO THE IMMORTAL GOD ALONE BE GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER.