Church Government in the Writings of George Gillespie



An Ecclesiastical Republic: Church Government in the Writings of George Gillespie

by W. D. J. McKay (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1997). 269-275.

Having reviewed the whole sweep of Gillespie´s teaching on church government, we may draw together by way of review some of the leading issues and questions which have emerged.

We note first what may be regarded as a tension within Gillespie´s defence of his Presbyterian ecclesiology, a tension between the establishment of the broad outlines of Presbyterian polity and a justification of the details of the Scottish version of this form of government.

On the one hand he seems to be content to prove, at least to his own satisfaction, that the basic biblical pattern of church government was rule by ministers and ruling elders in a series of graded courts with increasing authority. This we would consider the minimum requirement for a system to be termed “˜Presbyterian´. He is willing to admit that in some settings a Congregational polity could be made to work, but in his view the New Testament Church was Presbyterian.

There is, however, a willingness to be flexible on a number of issues. One striking example in his discussion of ruling elders in An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland is his readiness to accept either term eldership or ordination for life, together with a refusal either to accept or reject remuneration for ruling elders.1 Following his method with regard to other issues, he might well have argued that no biblical example of elders being given a period of intermission in their service can be found. This kind of argument from silence is one which he clearly is not afraid of using elsewhere, and by this means he comes to the conclusion that term eldership is indefensible. Arguments both exegetical and historical are entirely absent. What was the Jewish practice with regard to elders? (Gillespie mentions only Levites). What of elders in the New Testament Church? It would seem that Gillespie does not consider the issue to be of sufficient importance to discuss it in detail.

On the other hand. Gillespie often seeks to defend the structure of Presbyterianism in great detail and to provide copious evidence in support of many of its practices. We may note in this regard how Gillespie spends considerable time defending the institution of presbyteries, 2 and then goes on to cover much the same ground in justifying the establishment of synods which exercise authority over presbyteries, taking even more space in so doing. 3 Evidently the precise pattern is of such significance to Gillespie that it must be defended thoroughly. In the example given, this leads him to use texts such as Acts 15 to defend both presbyteries and synods successively. This is a tactic used also by the Westminster divines, and one which may not commend Gillespie´s case to the unconvinced, but it does serve to show how concerned he is at this point to deal with details.

Other examples of such defence in detail could easily be provided, touching on areas such as the election of ministers, ordination and the nature of the Lord´s Supper. Enough has been said to show, however, that in considering many aspects of church government Gillespie is not satisfied to establish the broad outline, leaving the detail to be filled in according to the requirements of different settings and generations. He plainly believes that much more is needed.

It does appear that there is a tension in Gillespie´s overall aims in dealing with ecclesiology. No doubt debates with opponents contributed to the particular emphases which are evident in his writings, as in the exchange of pamphlets with Thomas Coleman which necessitated very close exegesis of biblical material on the Kingship of Christ. This however, does not provide a full explanation, and indeed it seems to us that the tension cannot be resolved completely.

Consideration of Gillespie´s view of church government has involved extensive engagement with the biblical text, both Old Testament and New Testament. In all of his writing he devotes considerable space to exegesis of single verses and extended passages of Scripture. This is of course to be expected since the chief authority to which he appeals in defending his position is the Bible. His aim in writing is always to produce express scriptural warrant for the practice of the Reformed Churches, especially the Church of Scotland, since he is arguing that Presbyterianism has behind it the authority of Divine Right. As has been noted previously, Gillespie and the other Scots Commissioners could not accept the view of those members of the Westminster Assembly who were willing to endorse a Presbyterian system on prudential grounds.

The way in which Gillespie uses biblical texts, however, does not always convince even those who share his ecclesiology. On numerous occasions we have questioned whether Gillespie exegetes his material accurately, suggesting that sometimes he is guilty of eisegesis. In interpreting Scripture it is essential to let the text speak for itself, without imposing a meaning derived from other considerations. Whilst it is impossible to approach a text without some presuppositions””the exegete whose mind is a tabula rasa is a mythical figure””nevertheless one must do everything possible to prevent those presuppositions colouring the exegesis unfairly. It does not seem to us that Gillespie has always avoided this hermeneutical pitfall.

Much of his exegesis is in our opinion accurate and acceptable, but at many points he draws from a text much more than is really there. To take one example, he finds in Matthew 18:15-20 (including the words “˜where two or three are gathered together in my name…´) proof of ecclesiastical discipline by a body of representative elders, 4 and hence support for Presbyterian polity. In our own exegesis of the passage we indicated that, although the situation may be as Gillespie describes it, this can be established only on the basis of other texts dealing with government by elders. By itself Matthew 18 is not proof of Gillespie´s position.

It is evident that in some of his exegetical work Gillespie approaches the text presupposing the Presbyterian system of government. He expects to find “˜classical presbyteries´ operating in, for example, the Book of Acts and not surprisingly that is what his exegesis uncovers. Thus the situation obtaining in Jerusalem after the Day of Pentecost, as described by Gillespie, bears an uncanny resemblance to seventeenth-century Presbyterian Edinburgh or Glasgow. At times Gillespie succumbs to the danger of deciding in advance what a text can say regarding church government with the result that differences between the New Testament situation and Gillespie´s own day are smoothed over.

It is because of this failing that he takes more out of some texts than is warranted and uses proof texts that in and of themselves do not support one particular ecclesiology. As we noted with regard to Matthew 18, Jesus´ words can be cited in support of Presbyterian, Congregational and Anglican polities, depending on one´s presuppositions, leading to the conclusion that the issue must be decided on other grounds. It is one thing to say that the passage is to be understood in terms of the eldership exercising discipline and an entirely different one to claim that it is proof of such a procedure.

Gillespie is not alone, however, in allowing his ecclesiology to exercise undue influence on his exegesis of Scripture. In the debates which raged over issues of church government in the seventeenth century evidence of eisegesis could be produced from all parties. Thus, for example, the arguments of William Prynne about church discipline, with which Gillespie disagreed so strongly, are no more grounded in the texts than are those of Gillespie. The same may be said of some of the passages in Acts over which Presbyterians and Independents argued. Some texts clearly are being pressed into service for which they were not designed. All sides came to the biblical material with assumptions about what they would find there and at times the text was not allowed to call those assumptions into question. As a result patterns of ecclesiology were brought out of some texts simply because those patterns had already been read into them. Whilst appeal was constantly made to Scripture, all too often the exegete had already decided what Scripture could or would say.

With reference to several of the issues which Gillespie discusses we have suggested that some of these exegetical problems arise because of the polemical context of the times. All sides in the ecclesiological debates were striving to see their particular polity either enforced or tolerated, and so the stakes were high. When this factor is allied with the importance already attached to matters of church government by the theologians concerned, we may well understand the passions aroused by these debates. All sides were concerned to show that their ecclesiology was fully consonant with Scripture and to demolish the arguments of opponents.

As a result little ground could be given or appear to be given to opposing views when a text was being exegeted. In Gillespie´s case all the material examined had to be shown to give explicit support to the Scottish model of Presbyterianism, especially in respect of texts cited by opponents in support of their positions. The tendency was thus to polarize positions and leave little scope for rapprochement or compromise. Rigid stances were adopted in the heat of battle which might have mellowed in less troubled times. In the records of the Westminster Assembly debates there is evidence at times of a willingness to acknowledge value in opponents´ positions but a closer approach proved impossible.

Along with Scripture as his supreme court of appeal, Gillespie makes use of several other lines of argument which we have sought to assess. He draws, for example, on Natural Law, reason and analogies with the structure of civil government.

[McKay deals with Gillespie´s use of Natural Law here and analogies to civil government]
The question marks which have been placed against some of Gillespie´s arguments for Presbyterianism do not mean, however, that his case may be dismissed. It is our view that when strained exegesis and other weaknesses in argumentation are discounted, a sound case remains for the general principles of Presbyterian church government.

We begin from the presupposition that Scripture is a sufficient guide for the Church in establishing the fundamentals of its polity, with details of implementation left to be determined in varying contexts. We thus take issue with those who hold that no one polity can be deduced from the biblical material and also with those who consider the form of church government a matter of indifference.

According to the evidence, government in the New Testament Church was in the hands of elders chosen by each congregation. All elders exercised pastoral oversight of the people of God whilst some had particular responsibility for the ministry of the Word in preaching and teaching (see Chapters 4 and 5). Linked with the ministry of the Word was the ministry of the Sacraments (Chapter 4). Discipline in general and in particular in connection with the Lord´s Supper was in the hands of the eldership (Chapter 6). Elders were set apart for their work by ordination. This leadership by elders was not thought to be in conflict with the priesthood of all believers.

Church government, however, did not end with the local congregation. Assemblies of elders representing more than one congregation came together to exercise authority over a number of congregations, whether within a city or in a larger geographical area. These assemblies were more than deliberative or advisory bodies: their decisions were authoritative (Chapter 3). Whether there was more than one level of higher authority we cannot tell. There may well have been variations in the practice of different parts of the Church.

Within this broad framework there is scope for considerable diversity in implementing the basic principles, especially with regard to higher assemblies. As we have noted on a number of occasions, the details of the Scottish model of Presbyterianism cannot be supported from the New Testament evidence. Indeed in some respects the New Testament Church appears to have been rather more “˜Congregational´ than Gillespie and his supporters would have been willing to accept. The structure of church government was broadly “˜Presbyterian´, but many details are left to the Church to decide according to circumstances, and no strict uniformity can be expected. In Gillespie´s own phrase, “˜individua sunt infinita´ 6 Thus there is ample scope for debate within the Presbyterian family and in dialogue with other traditions regarding matters of ecclesiology.

1. G. Gillespie, An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland, (1641), Part1, cpt 14, p. 38.

2. See e.g. Assertion 2:3.

3. Assertion 2:5-10.

4. G. Gillespie, Aaron´s Rod Blossoming, (1646), Part 3, cpts 3-6.

6. G. Gillespie, An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland, (1641), p. 53.