What is presbyterianism by Charles Hodge

The idea behind Presbyterianism rests comfortably on top of the biblical description of covenant Theology. We will utilize this section of Semper Reformanda to post pertinent historical documents on the subject of Presbyterian doctrine and theology.



By Charles Hodge

BRETHREN: We are assembled this evening as a Presbyterian Historical Society. It has occurred to me that it would not be inappropriate to discuss the question, What is Presbyterianism? You will not expect from me an oration. My object is neither conviction nor persuasion; but exposition. I propose to occupy the hour devoted to this address in an attempt to unfold the principles of that system of Church polity which we, as Presbyterians, hold to be laid down in the word of God. Setting aside Erastianism, which teaches that the Church is only one form of the State; and Quakerism, which does not provide for the external organization of the Church, there are only four radically different theories on the subject of Church Polity.

  1. The Popish theory, which assumes that Christ, the Apostles and believers, constituted the Church while our Saviour was on earth, and 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 three-fold 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, which it is our present business to attempt to unfold. The three great negations of Presbyterianism that is, the three great errors which it denies are 1. That all church power vests in the clergy. 2. That the apostolic office is perpetual. 3. That each individual Christian congregation is independent. The affirmative statement of these principles is 1. That the people have a right to a substantive part in the government of the Church. 2. That presbyters, who minister in word and doctrine, are the highest permanent officers of the Church, and all belong to the same order. 3. That 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.
  5. The first of these principles relates to the power and rights of the people. As to the nature of Church power, it is to be remembered that the Church is a theocracy. Jesus Christ is its head. All power is derived from him. His word is our written constitution. All Church power is, therefore, properly ministerial and administrative. Everything is to be done in the name of Christ, and in accordance with his directions. The Church, however, is a self-governing society, distinct from the State, having its officers and laws, and, therefore, an administrative government of its own. The power of the Church relates, 1. To matters of doctrine. She has the 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 the 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, &c. 4. She has power to receive into fellowship, and to exclude the unworthy from her own communion.

Now, the question is, Where does this power vest? Does it, as Romanists and Prelatists affirm, belong exclusively to the clergy? Have they the right to determine for the Church what she is to believe, what she is to profess, what she is to do, and whom she is to receive as members, and whom she is to reject? Or does this power vest in the Church itself that is, in the whole body of the faithful? This, it will be perceived, is a radical questionone which touches the essence of things, and determines the destiny of men. If all Church power vests in the clergy, then the people are practically bound to passive obedience in all matters of faith and practice; for all right of private judgment is then denied. If it vests in the whole Church, then the people have a right to a substantive part in the decision of all questions relating to doctrine, worship, order, and discipline. The public assertion of this right of the people, at the time of the Reformation, roused all Europe. It was an apocalyptic trumpet, i.e. a trumpet of revelation, tuba per sepulchra sonans, calling dead souls to life; awakening them to the consciousness of power and of right; of power conveying right, and imposing the obligation to assert and exercise it. This was the end of Church tyranny in all truly Protestant countries. It was the end of the theory that the people were bound to passive submission in matters of faith and practice. It was deliverance to the captive, the opening of the prison to those who were bound; the introduction of the people of God into the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free. This is the reason why civil liberty follows religious liberty. The theory that all Church power vests in a divinely constituted hierarchy, begets the theory that all civil power vests, of divine right, in kings and nobles. And the theory that Church power vests in the Church itself, and all Church officers are servants of the Church, of necessity begets the theory that civil power vests in the people, and that civil magistrates are servants of the people. These theories God has joined together, and no man can put them asunder. It was, therefore, by an infallible instinct, the unfortunate Charles of England said, No bishop, no king; by which he meant, that if there is no despotic power in the Church, there can be no despotic power in the State; or, if there be liberty in the Church, there will be liberty in the State.

But this great Protestant and Presbyterian principle is not only a principle of liberty, it is also a principle of order. 1st. Because this power of the people is subject to the infallible authority of the word; and 2d. Because the exercise of it is in the bands of duly constituted officers. Presbyterianism does not dissolve the bands of authority, and resolve the Church into a mob. Though delivered from the autocratic authority of the hierarchy, it remains under the law to Christ. It is restricted in the exercise of its power by the word of God, which bends the reason, heart, and conscience. We only cease to be the servants of men, that we may be the servants of God. We are raised into a higher sphere, where perfect liberty is merged in absolute subjection. As the Church is the aggregate of believers, there is an intimate analogy between the experience of the individual believer, and of the Church as a whole. The believer ceases to be the servant of sin, that he may be the servant of righteousness; he is redeemed from the law, that he may be the servant of Christ. So the Church is delivered from an illegitimate authority, not that she may be lawless, but subject to an authority legitimate and divine. The Reformers, therefore, as instruments in the hands of God, in delivering the Church from bondage to prelates, did not make it a tumultuous multitude, in which every man was a law to himself, free to believe, and free to do what he pleased. The Church, in all the exercise of her power, in reference either to doctrine or discipline, acts under the written law of God, as recorded in his word.

But besides this, the power of the Church is not only thus limited and guided by the Scriptures, but the exercise of it is in the hands of legitimate officers. The Church is not a vast democracy, where everything is decided by the popular voice. God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, (i.e. of order) as in all churches of the saints. The Westminster Confession, therefore, expressing the common sentiment of Presbyterians, says: The Lord Jesus Christ, as King and Head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hands of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate. The doctrine that all civil power vests ultimately in the people, is not inconsistent with the doctrine that that power is in the hands of legitimate officers, legislative, judicial, and executive, to be exercised by them according to law. Nor is it inconsistent with the doc rive that the authority of the civil magistrate is jure divino. So the doctrine that Church power vests in the Church itself, is not inconsistent with the doctrine that there is a divinely appointed class of officers, through whom that power is to be exercised. It thus appears that the principle of liberty and the principle of order are perfectly harmonious. In denying that all Church power vests exclusively in the clergy, whom the people have nothing to do but to believe and to obey, and in affirming that it vests in the Church itself, while we assert the great principle of Christian liberty, we assert the no less important principle of evangelical order.

It is not necessary to occupy your time in quoting either from the Reformed Confessions or from standard Presbyterian writers, that the principle just stated is one of the radical principles of our system. It is enough to advert to the recognition of it involved in the office of ruling elder.

Ruling elders are declared to be the representatives of the people. They are chosen by them to act in their name in the government of the Church. The functions of these elders, therefore, determine the power of the people; for 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.

The powers, therefore, exercised by our ruling elders, are powers which belong to the lay members of the Church. What then are the powers of our ruling elders? 1. As to matters of doctrine and the great office of teaching, they have an equal voice with the clergy in the formation and adoption of all symbols of faith. According to Presbyterianism, it is not competent for the clergy to frame and authoritatively set forth a creed to be embraced by the Church, and to be made a condition of either ministerial or Christian communion, without the consent of the people. Such creeds profess to express the mind of the Church. But the ministry are not the Church, and, therefore, cannot declare the faith of the Church, without the co-operation of the Church itself. Such Confessions, at the time of the Reformation, proceeded from the whole Church. And all the Confessions now in authority in the different branches of the great Presbyterian family, were adopted by the people through their representatives, as the expression of their faith. So, too, in the selection of preachers of the word; to judging of their fitness for the sacred office, in deciding whether they shall be ordained, in judging them when arraigned for heresy, the people have, in fact, an equal vote with the clergy.1

  1. The same thing is true as to the jus liturgicum, as it is called, of the Church. The ministry cannot frame a ritual, or liturgy, or directory for public worship, and enjoin its use on the people to whom they preach. All such regulations are of force only so far as the people themselves, in conjunction with their ministers, see fit to sanction and adopt them.
  2. So too, in forming a constitution, or in enacting rules of procedure, or in making canons, the people do not merely passively assent; but actively co-operate. They have, in all these matters, the same authority as the clergy.
  3. And finally, in the exercise of the power of the keys, in opening and shutting the door of the communion with the Church, the people have a decisive voice. In all cases of discipline, they are called upon to judge and to decide.

There can, therefore, be no doubt that Presbyterians do carry out the principle that Church power vests in the Church itself, and that the people have a right to a substantive part in its discipline and government. In other words, we do not hold that all power vests in the clergy, and that the people have only to listen and obey.

But is this a scriptural principle? Is it a matter of concession and courtesy, or is it a matter of divine right? Is our office of ruling elder only one of expediency, or is it an essential element of our system, arising out of the very nature of the Church as constituted by God, and, therefore, of divine authority?

This, in the last resort, is, after all, only the question, Whether the clergy are the Church, or whether the people are the Church. If, as Louis the XIV. said of France, I am the State, the clergy can say, We are the Church, then all Church power vests in them, as all civil power vested in the French monarch. But if the people are the State, civil power vests in them; and if the people are the Church, power vests in the people. If the clergy are priests and mediators, the channel of all divine communications, and the only medium of access to God, then all power is in their hands; but if all believers are priests and kings, then they have something more to do than merely passively to submit. So abhorrent is this idea of the clergy being the Church to the consciousness of Christians, that no definition of the Church for the first fifteen centuries after Christ, was ever framed that even mentioned the clergy. This is said to have been first done by Canisius and Bellarmine.2 Romanists define the Church to be those who profess the true religion, and are subject to the Pope. Anglicans define it as those who profess the true religion, and are subject to Prelates. The Westminster Confession defines the visible Church, Those who profess the true religion, together with their children. In every Protestant symbol, Lutheran or Reformed, the Church is said to be the company of faithful men. Now, as a definition is the statement of the essential attributes or characteristics of a subject; and as, by the common consent of Protestants, the definition of the Church is complete without even mentioning the clergy, it is evidently the renunciation of the radical principles of Protestantism, and, of course, of Presbyterianism, to maintain that all Church power vests in the clergy. The first argument, therefore, in support of the doctrine that the people have a right to a substantive part in the government of the Church is derived from the fact that they, according to the Scriptures and all Protestant Confessions, constitute the Church.

  1. A second argument is this. All Church power arises from the indwelling of the Spirit; therefore those in whom the Spirit dwells are the seat of Church power. But the Spirit dwells in the whole Church, and therefore the whole Church is the seat of Church power.

The first member of this syllogism is not disputed. The ground on which Romanists hold that Church power vests in the bishops, to the exclusion of the people, is that they hold that the spirit was promised and given to the bishops as a class. When Christ breathed on his disciples, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained; and when he said, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and when he further said, He that heareth you heareth me; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the world; they hold that he gave the Holy Ghost to the apostles and to their successors in the apostleship, to continue unto the end of the world, to guide them. into the knowledge of the truth, and to constitute them the authoritative teachers and rulers of the Church. If this is true, then, of course, all Church power vests in these apostle-bishops. But on the other hand, if it is true that the Spirit dwells in the whole Church; if he guides the people as well as the clergy into the knowledge of the truth; if he animates the whole body, and makes it the representative of Christ on earth, so that they who hear the Church hear Christ, and so that what the Church binds on earth is bound in heaven, then, of course, Church power vests in the Church itself, and not exclusively in the clergy.3

If there be anything plain from the whole tenor of the New Testament, and from innumerable explicit declarations of the word of God, it is that the Spirit dwells in the whole body of Christ; that he guides all his people into the knowledge of the truth; that every believer is taught of God, and has the witness in himself, and has no need that any should teach him, but the anointing which abideth in him teacheth him all things. It is, therefore, the teaching of the Church, and not of the clergy, exclusively, which is ministerially the teaching of the Spirit, and the judgment of the Church, which is the judgment of the Spirit. It is a thoroughly antichristian doctrine that the Spirit of God, and therefore the life and governing power of the Church, resides in the ministry,, to the exclusion of the, people.

When the great promise of the Spirit was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, it was fulfilled not in reference to the apostles only. It was of the whole assembly it was said, They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Paul, in writing to the Romans, says, We being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having, therefore, gifts differing according to the grace given unto us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching. To the Corinthians he says To every one is given a manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal.. To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit. To the Ephesians he says: There is one body and one Spirit; but unto every one is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. This is the uniform representation of Scripture. The Spirit dwells in the whole Church, animates, guides, and instructs the whole. If, therefore, it be true, as all admit, that Church power goes with the Spirit, and arises out of his presence, it cannot belong exclusively to the clergy.

  1. The third argument on this subject is derived from the commission given by Christ to his Church, Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; and lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. This commission imposes a certain duty; it conveys certain powers; and it includes a great promise. The duty is to spread and to maintain the gospel in its purity over the whole earth. The powers are those required for the accomplishment of that object, i.e. the power to teach, to rule, and to exercise discipline. And the promise is the assurance of Christ’s perpetual presence and assistance. As neither the duty to extend and sustain the gospel in its purity, nor the promise of Christ’s presence is peculiar to the apostles as a class, or to the clergy as a body, but as both the duty and the promise belong to the whole Church, so also of necessity do the powers on the possession of which the obligation rests. The command, Go teach all nations, go preach the gospel to every creature, falls on the ear of the whole Church. It wakens a thrill in every heart. Every Christian feels that the command is addressed to a body of which he is a member, and that he has a personal obligation to discharge. It was not the ministry alone to whom this commission was given, and therefore it is not to them alone that the powers which it conveys belong.
  2. The right of the people to a substantive part in the government of the Church is recognized and sanctioned by the apostles in almost every conceivable way. When they thought it necessary to complete the college of apostles, after the apostasy of Judas, Peter, addressing the disciples, the number being an hundred and twenty, said, Men and brethren, of these men which have companied with us, all the time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John unto that same day he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and cast lots, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the apostles. Thus, in this most important initiatory step, the people had a decisive voice. So, when deacons were to be appointed, the whole multitude chose the seven men who were to be invested with the office. When the question arose as to the continued obligation of the Mosaic law, the authoritative decision proceeded from the whole Church. It pleased, says the sacred historian, the apostles and elders, with the whole Church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch. And they wrote letters by them after this manner: The apostles, elders, and brethren, send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch, and Syria, and Cilicia. The brethren, therefore, were associated with the ministry in the decision of this great doctrinal and practical question. Most of the apostolic epistles are addressed to churches, i.e. the saints or believers, of Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and Philippi. In these epistles, the people are assumed to be responsible for the orthodoxy of their teachers, and for the purity of church members. They are required not to believe every spirit, not to try the spirits; to sit in judgment on the question whether those who came to them as religious teachers were really sent of God. The Galatians are severely censured for giving heed to false doctrines, and are called to pronounce even an apostle anathema, if he preached another gospel. The Corinthians are censured for allowing an incestuous person to remain in their communion; they are commanded to excommunicate him, and afterwards, on his repentance, to restore him to their fellowship. These and other cases of the kind determine nothing as to the way in which the power of the people was exercised; but they prove conclusively that such power existed. The command to watch over the orthodoxy of ministers and the purity of members, was not addressed exclusively to the clergy, but to the whole Church. We believe that, as in the Synagogue, and in every well ordered society, the powers inherent in the society are exercised through appropriate organs. But the fact that these commands are addressed to the people, or to the whole Church, proves that they were responsible, and that they had a substantive part in the government of the Church. It would be absurd in other nations to address any complaints or exhortations to the people of Russia in reference to national affairs, because they have no part in the government. It would be no less absurd to address Roman Catholics as a self-governing body. But such addresses may well be made by the people of one of our States to the people of another, because the people have the power, though it is exercised through legitimate organs. While, therefore, the epistles of the apostles do not prove that the churches whom they addressed had not regular officers through whom the power of the Church was to be exercised, they abundantly prove that such power vested in the people; that they had a right and were bound to take part in the government of the Church, and in the preservation of its purity.

It was only gradually, through a course of ages, that the power thus pertaining to the people was absorbed by the clergy. The progress of this absorption kept pace with the corruption of the Church, until the entire domination of the hierarchy was finally established.

The first great principle, then, of Presbyterianism is the re-assertion of the primitive doctrine that Church power belongs to the whole Church; that that power is exercised through legitimate officers, and therefore that the office of ruling elders as the representatives of the people, is not a matter of expediency, but an essential element of our system, arising out of the nature of the Church, and resting on the authority of Christ.

  1. The second great principle of Presbyterianism is, that presbyters who minister in word and doctrine are the highest permanent officers of the Church.
  2. Our first remark on this subject is that the ministry is an office, and not merely a work. An office is a station to which the incumbent must be appointed, which implies certain prerogatives, which it is the duty of those concerned to recognize and submit to. A work, on the other hand, is something which any man who has the ability may undertake. This is an obvious distinction. It is not every man who has the qualifications for a Governor of a State, who has the right to act as such. He must be regularly appointed to the post. So it is not every one who has the qualifications for the work of the ministry, who can assume the office of the ministry. He must be regularly appointed. This is plain; (a). From the titles given to ministers in the Scriptures, which imply official station. (b) From their qualifications being specified in the word of God, and the mode of judging of those qualifications being prescribed. (c) From the express command to appoint to the office only such as, on due examination, are found competent. (d) From the record of such appointment in the word of God. (e) From the official authority ascribed to them in the Scriptures, and the command that such authority should be duly recognized. We need not further argue this point, as it is not denied, except by the Quakers, and a few such writers as Neander, who ignore all distinction between the clergy and laity, except what arises from diversity of gifts.
  3. Our second remark is, that the office is of divine appointment, not merely in the sense in which the civil powers are ordained of God, but in the sense that ministers derive their authority from Christ, and not from the people. Christ has not only ordained that there shall be such officers in his Church he has not only specified their duties and prerogatives but he gives the requisite qualifications, and calls those thus qualified, and by that call gives them their official authority. The function of the Church in the premises, is not to confer the office, but to sit in judgment on the question, whether the candidate is called of God; and if satisfied on that point, to express its judgment in the public and solemn manner prescribed in Scripture.

That ministers do thus derive their authority from Christ, follows not merely from the theocratical character of the Church, and the relation which Christ, its king, sustains to it, as the source of all authority and power, but,

(a) From the fact that it is expressly asserted, that Christ gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the edifying of the saints, and for the work of the ministry. He, and not the people, constituted or appointed the apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers.

(b) Ministers are, therefore, called the servants, the messengers, the ambassadors of Christ. They speak in Christ’s name, and by his authority. They are sent by Christ to the Church, to reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. They are indeed the servants of the Church, as labouring in her service, and as subject to her authority servants as opposed to lords but not in the sense of deriving their commission and powers from the Church.

(c) Paul exhorts the presbyters of Ephesus, To take heed to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers. To Archippus he says, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord. It was then the Holy Ghost that appointed these presbyters, and made them overseers.

(d) This is involved in the whole doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ, in which he dwells by his Spirit, giving to each member his gifts, qualifications, and functions, dividing to every one severally as he wills; and by these gifts making one an apostle, another a prophet, and another a teacher, another a worker of miracles. It is thus that the apostle reconciles the doctrine that ministers derive their authority and power from Christ, and not from the people, with the doctrine that Church powers vest ultimately in the Church as a whole. He refers to the analogy between the human body and the Church as the body of Christ. As in the human body, the soul resides not in any one part to the exclusion of the rest; and as life and power belong to it as a whole, though one part is an eye, another an ear, and another a hand; so Christ, by his Spirit, dwells in the Church, and all power belongs to the Church, though the indwelling Spirit gives to each member his function and office. So that ministers are no more appointed by the Church, than the eye by the hands and feet. This is the representation which pervades the New Testament, and necessarily supposes that the ministers of the Church are the servants of Christ, selected and appointed by him through the Holy Ghost.

  1. The third remark relates to the functions of the presbyters. (a) They are charged with the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments. They are the organs of the Church in executing the great commission to make disciples of all nations, teaching them, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. (b) They are rulers in the house of God. (c) They are invested with the power of the keys, opening and shutting the door of the Church. They are clothed with all these powers in virtue of their office. If sent where the Church does not already exist, they exercise them in gathering and founding churches. If they labour in the midst of churches already established, they exercise these powers in concert with other presbyters, and with the representatives of the people. It- is important to notice this distinction. The functions above mentioned belong to the ministerial office, and, therefore, to every minister. When alone he of necessity exercises his functions alone, in gathering and organizing churches; but when they are gathered, he is associated with other ministers, and with the representatives of the people, and, therefore, can no longer act alone in matters of government and discipline. We see this illustrated in the apostolic age. The apostles, and those ordained by them, acted in virtue of their ministerial office, singly in founding churches, but afterwards always in connection with other ministers and elders. This is, in point of fact, the theory of the ministerial office included in the whole system of Presbyterianism.

That this is the scriptural view of the presbyterial office, or that presbyters are invested with the powers above referred to, is plain,

(a) From the significant titles given to them in the word of God; they are called teachers, rulers, shepherds or pastors, stewards, overseers or bishops, builders, watchmen, ambassadors, witnesses.

(b) From the qualifications required for the office. They must be apt to teach, well instructed, able rightly to divide the word of God, sound in the faith, able to resist gainsayers, able to rule their own families; for if a man cannot rule his own house, how can he take care of the Church of God? He must have the personal qualities which give him authority. He must not be a novice, but grave, sober, temperate, vigilant, of good behaviour, and of good report.

(c) From the representations given of their duties. They are to preach the word, to feed the flock of God, to guide it as a shepherd; they are to labour for the edification of the saints; to watch for souls as those who must give an account; they must take heed to the Church to guard it against false teachers, or, as the apostle calls them, grievous wolves; they are to exercise episcopal supervision, because the Holy Ghost, as Paul said to the presbyters of Ephesus, had made them bishops, Acts xx. 28, and the Apostle Peter exhorts presbyters to feed the flock of God, taking episcopal oversight thereof, not of constraint, but willingly. They are, therefore, bishops. Every time that word, or any of its cognates, is used in the New Testament, in relation to the Christian ministry, it refers to presbyters, except in Acts i. 20, where the word bishopric is used in a quotation from the Septuagint, applied to the office of Judas.

  1. The office of presbyters is a permanent one.

This is plain: (a) Because the gift is permanent. Every office implies a gift of which it is the appointed organ. If therefore, a gift be permanent, the organ for its exercise must be permanent. The prophets of the New Testament were the recipients of occasional inspiration. As the gift of inspiration has ceased, the office of prophet has ceased. But as the gift of teaching and ruling is permanent, so also is the office of teacher and ruler.

(b) As the Church is commissioned to make disciples of all nations, to preach the gospel to every creature; as saints always need to be fed, and built up in their most holy faith, she must always have the officers which are her divinely appointed organs for the accomplishment of this work.

(c) We accordingly find that the apostles not only ordained presbyters in every city, but that they gave directions for their ordination in all subsequent time, prescribing their qualifications, and the mode of their appointment.

(d) In point of fact, they have continued to the present time. This, therefore, is not a matter open to dispute; and it is not, in fact, disputed by any with whom we are now concerned.

  1. Finally, in relation to this part of our subject, presbyters are the highest permanent officers of the Church.

(a) This may be inferred, in the first place, from the fact that there are no higher permanent functions attributed in the New Testament to the Christian ministry, than those which are therein attributed to presbyters. If they are charged with the preaching of the gospel, with the extension, continuance, and purity of the Church if they are teachers and rulers, charged with episcopal powers and oversight, what more, of a permanent character, is demanded?

  1. But, secondly, it is admitted that there were, during the apostolic age, officers of a higher grade than presbyters, viz: apostles and prophets. The latter, it is conceded, were temporary. The only question, therefore, relates to the apostles. Prelatists admit that there is no permanent class or grade of church officers intermediate between apostles and presbyters. But they teach that the apostleship was designed to be perpetual, and that prelates are the official successors of the original apostles. If this is so, if they have the office, they must have the gifts of an apostle. If they have the prerogatives, they must have the attributes of the original messengers of Christ. Even in civil government every office presumes inward qualifications. An order of nobility, without real superiority, is a mere sham. Much more is this necessary, in the living organism of the Church, in which the indwelling Spirit manifests itself as he wills. An apostle with out the word of wisdom, was a false apostle; a teacher without the word of knowledge, was no teacher; a worker of miracles without the gift of miracles, was a magician; any one pretending to speak with tongues without the gift of tongues, was a deceiver. In like manner an apostle without the gifts of an apostle, is a mere pretender. There might as well be a man without a soul.

Romanists tell us that the Pope is the vicar of Christ; that he is his successor as the universal head and ruler of the Church on earth. If this is so, he must be a Christ. If he has Christ’s prerogatives, he must have Christ’s attributes. He cannot have the one without the other. If the Pope, by divine appointment, is invested with universal dominion over the Christian world; if all his decisions as to faith and duty are infallible and authoritative; if dissent from his decisions or disobedience to his commands forfeits salvation, then is he heir to the gifts as well as to the office of Christ. If he claims the office, without having the gifts, then is he anti-christ, the man of sin, the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Romanists concede this principle. In ascribing to the Pope the prerogatives of Christ, they are forced to ascribe to him his attributes. Do they not enthrone him? Do they not kiss his feet? Do they not offer him incense? Do they not address him with blasphemous titles? Do they not pronounce anathemas against, and debar from heaven, all who do not acknowledge his authority?

This is the reason why opposition to Popery in the breasts of Protestants is a religious feeling. Caesar Augustus might rule the world; the Czar of Russia may attain to universal dominion, but such dominion would not involve the assumption of divine attributes; and therefore submission to it would not involve apostasy from God, and opposition to it would not of necessity be a religious duty. But to be the Vicar of Christ, to claim to exercise his prerogatives on earth, does involve a claim to his attributes, and therefore our opposition to Popery is opposition to a man claiming to be God.

But if this principle applies to the case of the Pope, as all Protestants admit, it must also apply to the apostleship. If any set of men claim to be apostles, if they assert the right to exercise apostolic, authority, they cannot avoid claiming the possession of apostolic endowments; and if they have not the latter, their claim to the former is an usurpation and pretence.

What, then, were the apostles? It is plain from the divine record that they were men immediately commissioned by Christ to make a full and authoritative revelation of his religion; to organize the Church; to furnish it with officers and laws, and to start it on its career of conquest through the world.

To qualify them for this work, they received, first, the word of wisdom, or a complete revelation of the doctrines of the gospel; secondly, the gift of the Holy Ghost, in such manner as to render them infallible in the communication of the truth, and in the exercise of their authority as rulers; thirdly, the gift of working miracles in confirmation of their mission, and of communicating the Holy Ghost by the imposition of their hands.

The prerogatives arising out of these gifts, were, first absolute authority in all matters of faith and practice; secondly, authority equally absolute in legislating for the Church as to its constitution and laws; thirdly, universal jurisdiction over the officers and members of the Church.

Paul, when he claimed to be an apostle, claimed this immediate commission, this revelation of the gospel, this plenary inspiration, and this absolute authority and general jurisdiction. And in support of his claims, he appeals not only to the manifest co-operation of God through the Spirit, but to the signs of an apostle, which he wrought in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds. 2 Cor. xii. 12.

It followed necessarily from the actual possession by the apostles of these gifts of revelation and inspiration, which rendered them infallible, that agreement with them in faith, and subjection to them were necessary to salvation. The apostle John, therefore, said, He that knoweth God heareth us; and he that is not of God, heareth not us. Hereby we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 1 John iv. 6. And the apostle Paul pronounced accursed even an angel should he deny the gospel which he preached, and as he preached it. The writings of the apostles, therefore, have in all ages and in every part of the Church, been regarded as infallible and authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. Now, the argument is, that if prelates are apostles, they must have apostolic gifts. They have not those gifts, therefore they are not apostles.

The first member of this syllogism can hardly need further proof. It is evident from the nature of the case, and from the Scriptures, that the prerogatives of the apostles arose out of their peculiar endowments. It was because they were inspired, and consequently infallible, that they were invested with the authority which they exercised. An uninspired apostle is as much a solecism as an uninspired prophet.

As to the second point, viz.: that prelates have not apostolic gifts, it needs no argument. They have no special revelation; they are not inspired, they have not either the power of working miracles, or of conferring miraculous gifts, and, therefore, they are not apostles.

So inseparable is the connection between an office and its gifts, that prelates, in claiming to be apostles, are forced to make a show of possessing apostolic gifts. Though not inspired individually, they claim to be inspired as a body; though not infallible singly, they claim to be infallible collectively; though they have not the power of conferring miraculous gifts, they claim the power of giving the grace of orders. These claims, however, are not less preposterous than, the assumption of personal inspiration. The historical fact, that the prelates collectively, as well as individually, are un inspired and fallible, is not less palpable than that they are mortal. Those of one age differed from those of another. Those of one Church pronounced accursed those of another Greeks against Latins, Latins against Greeks, and Anglicans against both. Besides, if prelates are apostles, then there can be no religion and no salvation among those not subject to their authority. He is not of God, said the apostle John, who heareth not us. This is a conclusion which Romanists and Anglicans admit, and boldly assert. It is, however, a complete reductio ad absurdum. It might as well be asserted that the sun never shines out of Greenland., as that there is no religion beyond the pale of prelatical churches. To maintain this position, necessitates the perversion of the very nature of religion. As faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, repentance towards God, love, and holy living, are found outside of prelatical churches, prelatists maintain that religion does not consist in these fruits of the Spirit, but in something external and formal. The assumption, therefore, that prelates are apostles, of necessity leads to the conclusion that prelates have the gifts of the apostles, and that to the conclusion that submission to their teaching and jurisdiction, is essential to salvation; and that again, to the conclusion that religion is not an inward state, but an external relation. These are not merely the logical, but the historical sequences of the theory that the apostolic office is perpetual. Wherever that theory has prevailed, it has led to making religion ceremonial, and divorcing it from piety and morality. We would beg those who love Christ more than their order, and those who believe in evangelical religion, to lay this consideration to heart. The doctrine of a perpetual apostleship in the Church, is not a mere speculative error, but one, to the last degree, destructive.

We cannot pursue this subject further. That the apostolic office is temporary, is a plain historical fact. The apostles, the twelve, stand out just as conspicuous as an isolated body in the history of the Church, without predecessors, and without successors, as Christ himself does. They disappear from history. The title; the thing itself, the gifts, the functions, all ceased when John, the last of the twelve, ascended to heaven.

If it is a fearful thing to put the Pope in the place of Christ, and to make a man our God; it is also a fearful thing to put erring men in the place of infallible apostles, and make faith in their teaching, and submission to their authority, the condition of grace and salvation.

From this awful bondage, brethren, we are free. We bow to the authority of Christ. We submit to the infallible teachings of his inspired apostles; but we deny that the infallible is continued in the fallible, or the divine in the human.

But if the apostolic office was temporary, then presbyters are the highest permanent officers of the Church, because, as is conceded by nine-tenths, perhaps by ninety-nine hundredths of prelates, the Scriptures make no mention of any permanent officers intermediate between the apostles and the presbyter-bishops of the New Testament. There is no command to appoint such officers, no record of their appointment, no specification of their qualifications, no title for them, either in the Scriptures or in ecclesiastical history. If prelates are not apostles, they are presbyters, holding their pre eminence by human, and not by divine authority.

III. As then presbyters are all of the same rank, and as they exercise their power in the government of the Church, in connection with the people, or their representatives, this of necessity gives rise to Sessions in our individual congregations, and to Presbyteries, Synods, and Assemblies, for the exercise of more extended jurisdiction. This brings into view the third great principle of Presbyterianism, the government of the Church by judicatories composed of presbyters and elders, &c. This takes for granted the unity of the Church in opposition to the theory of the Independents.

The Presbyterian doctrine on this subject is, that the Church is one in such a sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and the 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; every one 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 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 the 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.

This is the Presbyterian theory on this subject; that it is the scriptural doctrine appears, 1. From the nature of the Church. The Church is everywhere represented as one. It is one body, one family, one fold, one king dom. It is one because pervaded by one Spirit. We are all baptized into one Spirit so as to become, says the apostle, one body. This indwelling of the Spirit which thus unites all the members of Christ’s body, produces not only that subjective or inward union which manifests itself in sympathy and affection, in unity of faith and love, but also outward union and communion. It leads Christians to unite for the purposes of worship, and of mutual watch and care. It requires them to be subject one to another in the fear of the Lord. It brings them all into subjection to the word of God as the standard of faith and practice. It gives them not only an interest in each others welfare, purity, and edification, but it imposes the obligation to promote these objects. If one member suffers, all suffer with it; and if one member is honoured, all rejoice with it. All this is true, not merely of those frequenting the same place of worship, but of the universal body of believers. So that an independent church is as much a solecism as an independent Christian, or as an independent finger of the human body, or an independent branch of a tree. If the Church is a living body united to the same head, governed by the same laws, and pervaded by the same Spirit, it is impossible that one part should be independent of all the rest.

  1. All the reasons which require the subjection of a believer to the brethren of a particular church, require his subjection to all his brethren in the Lord. The ground of this obligation is not the church covenant. It is not the compact into which a number of believers enter, and which binds only those who are parties to it. Church power has a much higher source than the consent of the governed. The Church is a divinely constituted society, deriving its power from its charter. Those who join it, join it as an existing society, and a society existing with certain prerogatives and privileges, which they come to share, and not to bestow. This divinely constituted society, which every believer is bound to join, is not the local and limited association of his own neighbourhood, but the universal brotherhood of believers; and therefore all his obligations of communion and obedience terminate on the whole Church. He is bound to obey his brethren, not because he has agreed to do so, but because they are his brethren because they are temples of the Holy Ghost, enlightened, sanctified, and guided by Him. It is impossible, therefore, to limit the obedience of a Christian to the particular congregation of which he is a member, or to make one such congregation independent of all others, without utterly destroying the very nature of the Church, and tearing asunder the living members of Christ’s body. If this attempt should be fully accomplished, these separate churches would as certainly bleed to death, as a limb when severed from the body.
  2. The Church, during the apostolic age, did not consist of isolated, independent congregations, but was one body, of which the separate churches were constituent members, each subject to all the rest, or to an authority which extended over all. This appears, in the first place, from the history of the origin of those churches. The apostles were commanded to remain in Jerusalem until they received power from on high. On the day of Pentecost the promised Spirit was poured out, and they began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance. Many thousands in that city were added to the Lord, and they continued in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and prayer. They constituted the Church in Jerusalem. It was one not only spiritually, but externally, united in the same worship, and subject to the same rulers. When scattered abroad, they preached the word everywhere, and great multitudes were added to the Church. The believers in every place were associated in separate, but not independent churches, for they all remained subject to a common tribunal.

For, secondly, the apostles constituted a bond of union to the whole body of believers. There is not the slightest evidence that the apostles had different dioceses. Paul wrote with full authority to the Church in Rome before he had ever visited the imperial city. Peter addressed his epistles to the churches of Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, the very centre of Paul’s field of labour. That the apostles exercised this general jurisdiction, and were thus the bond of external union to the Church, arose, as we have seen, from the very nature of their office. Having been commissioned to found and organize the Church, and being so filled with the Spirit as to render them infallible, their word was law. Their inspiration necessarily secured this universal authority. We accordingly find that they everywhere exercised the powers not only of teachers, but also of rulers. Paul speaks of the power given to him for edification; of the things which he ordained in all the churches. His epistles are filled with such orders, which were of binding authority then as now. He threatens the Corinthians to come to them with a rod; he cut off a member of their church, whom they had neglected to discipline; and he delivered. Hymeneus and Alexander unto Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme. As a historical fact, therefore, the apostolic churches were not independent congregations, but were all subject to one common authority.

In the third place, this is further evident from the Council at Jerusalem. No thing need be assumed that is not expressly mentioned in the record. The simple facts of the case are, that 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 for that church 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, which were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. Acts xvi. 4. It matters not whether the authority of that Council was due to the inspiration of its chief members or not. It is enough that it had authority over the whole Church. The several congregations were not independent, but were united under one common tribunal.

4th. In the fourth place, we may appeal to the common consciousness of Christians, as manifested in the whole history of the Church. Everything organic has what may be called nisus formatavus; an inward force, by which it is impelled to assume the form suited to its nature. This inward impulse may, by circumstances, be impeded or misdirected, so that the normal state of a plant or animal may never be attained. Still, this force never fails to manifest its existence, nor the state to which it tends. What is thus true in nature, is no less true in the Church. There is nothing more conspicuous in her history than the law by which believers are impelled to express their inward unity by outward union. It has been manifested in all ages, and under all circumstances. It gave rise to all the early councils. It determined the idea of heresy and schism. It led to the exclusion from all churches of those who, for the denial of the common faith, were excluded from any one, and who refused to acknowledge their subjection to the Church as a whole. This feeling was clearly exhibited at the time of the Reformation. The churches then formed, ran together as naturally as drops of quicksilver; and when this union was prevented by internal or external circumstances, it was deplored as a great evil. It may do for men of the world to attribute this remarkable characteristic in the history of the Church, to the love of power, or to some other unworthy source. But it is not thus to be accounted for. It is a law of the Spirit. If what all men do, is to be referred to some abiding principle of human nature; what all Christians do, must be referred to something which belongs to them as Christians.

So deeply seated is this conviction that outward union and mutual subjection is the normal state of the Church, that it manifests itself in those whose theory leads them to deny and resist it. Their Consociations, Associations, and Advisory Councils, are so many devices to satisfy an inward craving, and to prevent the dissolution to which it is felt that absolute Independency must inevitably lead.

That then, the Church is one, in the sense that a smaller part should be subject to a larger, and a larger to the whole, is evident. 1. From its nature as being one kingdom, one family, one body, having one head, one faith, one written constitution, and actuated by one Spirit; 2d. From the command of Christ that we should obey our brethren, not because they live near to us; not because we have covenanted to obey them; but because they are our brethren, the temples and organs of the Holy Ghost; 3. From the fact that during the apostolic age the churches were not independent bodies, but subject in all matters of doctrine, order, and discipline, to a common tribunal; and 4. Because the whole history of the Church proposes that this union and the subjection is the normal state of the Church towards which it strives by an inward law of its being. If it is necessary that one Christian should be subject to other Christians; it is no less necessary that one church should be subject in the same spirit, to the same extent, and on the same grounds, to other churches.

We have now completed our exposition of Presbyterianism. It must strike every one that it is no device of man. It is not an external frame-work, having no connection with the inward life of the Church. It is a real growth. It is the outward expression of the inward law of the Church’s being. If we teach that the people should have a substantive part in the government of the Church, it is not merely because we deem it healthful and expedient, but because the Holy Ghost dwells in the people of God, and gives the ability and confers the right to govern. If we teach that presbyters are the highest permanent officers of the Church, it is because those gifts by which the apostles and prophets were raised above presbyters, have, in fact, ceased. If we teach that the separate congregations of believers are not independent, it is because the Church is, in fact, one body, all the parts of which are mutually dependent.

If this is so if there is an outward form of the Church which corresponds with its inward life, a form which is the natural expression and product of that life, then that form must be most conducive to its progress and development. Men may, by art, force a tree to grow in any fantastic shape a perverted taste may choose. But it is at the sacrifice of its vigour and productiveness. To reach its perfection, it must be left to unfold itself according to the law of its nature. It is so with the Church. If the people possess the gifts and graces which qualify and entitle them to take part in the government, then the exercise of that right tends to the development of those gifts and graces; and the denial of the right tends to their depression. In all the forms of despotism, whether civil or ecclesiastical, the people are degraded; and in all forms of scriptural liberty, they are proportionably elevated. Every system which demands intelligence tends to produce it. Every man feels that it is not only one of the greatest advantages of our republican institutions that they tend to the education and elevation of the people, but that their successful operation, demanding popular intelligence and virtue, renders it necessary that constant exertion should be directed to the attainment of that end. As republican institutions cannot exist among the ignorant and vicious, so Presbyterianism must find the people enlightened and virtuous, or make them so.

It is the combination of the principles of liberty and order in the Presbyterian system, the union of the rights of the people with subjection to legitimate authority, that has made it the parent and guardian of civil liberty in every part of the world. This, however, is merely an incidental advantage. The Church organization has higher aims. It is designed for the extension and establishment of the gospel, and for the edification of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God; and that polity must be best adapted to this end, which is most congenial with the inward nature of the Church. It is on this ground we rest our preference for Presbyterianism. We do not regard it as a skilful product of human wisdom; but as a divine institution, founded on the word of God, and as the genuine product of the inward life of the Church.




1 This point is argued at length by Turrettin, in his chapter, De Jure Vocationis. He proves that the right to call and appoint ministers belongs to the whole Church: 1. Quia data est eccclesiis potestas clavium. He quotes Tostatus, who, he says, proves by various arguments, Claves datas esse toti ecclesite, atque adeo jus illarum exercendarum ad eam primario et radicaliter pertinere, ad alios vero tantum secundario et participative. 2. Idem probatur ex jure ministerii, quod ecclesiae competit. 3. Ex jure superioritatis. Quia auctoritas et jus actionis ad superiorem, non ad inferiorem pertinet. At ecclesia est superior pastoribus, non pastures ecclesiae. 4. Ex probatione doctorum. Quia ad ilium pertinet jus vocandi, cujus est discernere doctores a seductoribus, probare sanam doctrinam, vocem Christi a voce pseudapostolorum distinguere, alienum non sequi, anathematizare eos qui aliud evangelium praedicant. 5. Ex praxi apostolorum. 6. Ex ecclesia primetiva.

Gerhard, the great Lutheran theologian of the seventeenth century, teaches the same doctrine. Tomus xii. p. 85. Cuicunque claves regni coeloruin ab ipso Christo sunt traditae, penes eum est jus vocandi ecclesioe ministros. Atqui toti ecclesiae traditae sunt a Christo claves regni coelorum. Ergo penes totam ecclesiam est jus vocandi ministros. Propositio confirmata ex definitione clavium regni coelorum. Per claves enim potestas ecclesiastica intelligitur, cujus pars est jus vocandi et constituendi ecclesiae mi nistros. He quotes Augustin, lib. I. de doctrina Christ. cap. 18: Has claves dedit ecclesiae suae, ut quee solveret in terra, soluta essent in coelos et quae ligaret in terra, ligata essent in coelo.

In the Smalcald Articles it is said: Ad haec necesse est fateri, quod claves non ad personam unius certi hominis, sed ad ecclesiam pertineant, ut multa elarissima et firmissima argumenta testantur. Nam Christus de clavibus dicens, Matt. xviii. addit: ubi cunque duo vel tres consenserint super terram etc Tribuit igitur principaliter claves ecclesim, et immediate; sicut et ob earn causam ecclesia principaliter habet, jus vocationis. Hase, Libri Symbolici, p. 345. Ubicunque est ecciesia, ibi est jus administrandi evangelii. Quare necesse est, ecclesiam retinere jus vocandi et ordinandi ministros. Et hoc jus est donum proprie datum ecclesi, quod nulla humana auctoritas ecclesive eripere potest.Ibid. p. 353.


2 Sherlock on the Nature of the Church, p. 36.


3 Certe ex pastorum superbia nata est haec tyrannis, ut quac ad communem totius ecclesiae statum pertinent, excluso populo, paucoru.m arbitrio, ne dicam libidini, subjecta sint.Calvin on Acts xv. 22.