Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

III. The Government of the Church


1. THE VIEW OF QUAKERS AND DARBYITES. It is a matter of principle with the Quakers and Darbyites to reject all Church Government. According to them every external Church formation necessarily degenerates and leads to results that are contrary to the spirit of Christianity. It exalts the human element at the expense of the divine. It neglects the divinely given charisms and substitutes for them offices instituted by man, and consequently offers the Church the husk of human knowledge rather than the vital communications of the Holy Spirit. Therefore they regard it as not only unnecessary but decidedly sinful to organize the visible Church. Thus the offices fall by the way, and in public worship each simply follows the promptings of the Spirit. The tendency that becomes apparent in these sects, which gives clear evidence of the leaven of Mysticism, must be regarded as a reaction against the hierarchical organization and the formalism of the Established Church of England. In our country some of the Quakers have regularly ordained ministers and conduct their worship very much as other Churches do.

2. THE ERASTIAN SYSTEM, NAMED AFTER ERASTUS, 1524-1583. Erastians regard the Church as a society which owes its existence and form to regulations enacted by the State. The officers of the Church are merely instructors or preachers of the Word, without any right or power to rule, except that which they derive from the civil magistrates. It is the function of the State to govern the Church, to exercise discipline and to excommunicate. Church censures are civil punishments, though their application may be entrusted to the legal officers of the Church. This system has been variously applied in England, Scotland, and Germany (Lutheran Churches). It conflicts with the fundamental principle of the Headship of Jesus Christ, and does not recognize the fact that Church and State are distinct and independent in their origin, in their primary objects, in the power they exercise, and in the administration of that power.

3. THE EPISCOPALIAN SYSTEM. The Episcopalians hold that Christ, as the Head of the Church, has entrusted the government of the Church directly and exclusively to an order of prelates or bishops, as the successors of the apostles; and that He has constituted these bishops a separate, independent, and self-perpetuating order. In this system the coetus fidelium or community of believers has absolutely no share in the government of the Church. In the early centuries this was the system of the Roman Catholic Church. In England it is combined with the Erastian system. But the Bible does not warrant the existence of such a separate class of superior officers, who have the inherent right of ordination and jurisdiction, and therefore do not represent the people nor, in any sense of the word, derive their office from them. Scripture clearly shows that the apostolic office was not of a permanent nature. The apostles did form a clearly distinct and independent class, but it was not their special task to rule and administer the affairs of the churches. It was their duty to carry the gospel to unevangelized districts, to found churches, and then to appoint others from among the people for the task of ruling these churches. Before the end of the first century the Apostolate had disappeared entirely.

4. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC SYSTEM. This is the Episcopal system carried to its logical conclusion. The Roman Catholic system pretends to comprise, not only successors of the apostles, but also a successor to Peter, who is said to have had the primacy among the apostles, and whose successor is now recognized as the special representative of Christ. The Church of Rome is of the nature of an absolute monarchy, under the control of an infallible Pope, who has the right to determine and regulate the doctrine, worship, and government, of the Church. Under him there are inferior classes and orders, to whom special grace is given, and whose duty it is to govern the Church in strict accountability to their superiors and to the supreme Pontiff. The people have absolutely no voice in the government of the Church. This system also conflicts with Scripture, which recognizes no such primacy of Peter as that on which the system is built, and distinctly recognizes the voice of the people in ecclesiastical affairs. Moreover, the claim of the Roman Catholic Church, that there has been an unbroken line of succession from the time of Peter down to the present day, is contradicted by history. The papal system is, both exegetically and historically, untenable.

5. THE CONGREGATIONAL SYSTEM. This is also called the system of independency. According to it each church or congregation is a complete church, independent of every other. In such a church the governing power rests exclusively with the members of the church, who are entitled to regulate their own affairs. Officers are simply functionaries of the local church, appointed to teach and to administer the affairs of the church, and have no governing power beyond that which they possess as members of the church. If it is considered expedient that the various churches should exercise communion with one another, as is sometimes the case, this fellowship finds expression in ecclesiastical councils and in local or provincial conferences, for the consideration of their common interests. But the actions of such associated bodies are held to be strictly advisory or declarative, and are not binding on any particular church. This theory of popular government, making the office of the ministry altogether dependent on the action of the people, is certainly not in harmony with what we learn from the Word of God. Moreover, the theory that each church is independent of every other church, fails to express the unity of the Church of Christ, has a disintegrating effect, and opens the door for all kinds of arbitrariness in church government. There is no appeal from any of the decisions of the local church.

6. THE NATIONAL-CHURCH SYSTEM. This system, also called the Collegial system (which supplanted the Territorial system) was developed in Germany especially by C. M. Pfaff (1686-1780), and was later on introduced into the Netherlands. It proceeds on the assumption that the Church is a voluntary association, equal to the State. The separate churches or congregations are merely sub-divisions of the one national Church. The original power resides in a national organization, and this organization has jurisdiction over the local churches. This is just the reverse of the Presbyterian system, according to which the original power has its seat in the consistory. The Territorial system recognized the inherent right of the State to reform public worship, to decide disputes respecting doctrine and conduct, and to convene synods, while the Collegial system ascribes to the State only the right of supervision as an inherent right, and regards all other rights, which the State might exercise in Church matters, as rights which the Church by a tacit understanding or by a formal pact conferred upon the State. This system disregards altogether the autonomy of the local churches, ignores the principles of self-government and of direct responsibility to Christ, engenders formalism, and binds a professedly spiritual Church by formal and geographical lines. Such a system as this, which is akin to the Erastian system, naturally fits in best with the present-day idea of the totalitarian State.


Reformed Churches do not claim that their system of Church government is determined in every detail by the Word of God, but do assert that its fundamental principles are directly derived from Scripture. They do not claim a jus divinum for the details, but only for the general fundamental principles of the system, and are quite ready to admit that many of its particulars are determined by expediency and human wisdom. From this it follows that, while the general structure must be rigidly maintained, some of the details may be changed in the proper ecclesiastical manner for prudential reasons, such as the general profit of the churches. The following are its most fundamental principles.

1. CHRIST IS THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH AND THE SOURCE OF ALL ITS AUTHORITY. The Church of Rome considers it of the greatest importance to maintain the headship of the Pope over the Church. The Reformers maintained and defended the position, in opposition to the claims of the Papacy, that Christ is the only Head of the Church. They did not entirely avoid the danger, however, of recognizing, the one more and the other less, the supremacy of the State over the Church. Consequently the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches had to fight another battle later on, the battle for the Headship of Jesus Christ in opposition to the unwarranted encroachments of the State. This battle was fought first of all in Scotland, and later on also in The Netherlands. The very fact that it was fought against such external powers as the Papacy and the State or the King, both of whom claimed to be the head of the visible Church, clearly implies that they who were engaged in this battle were particularly interested in establishing and maintaining the position that Christ is the only lawful Head of the visible Church, and is therefore the only supreme Lawgiver and King of the Church. Naturally, they also recognized Christ as the organic Head of the invisible Church. They realized that the two could not be separated, but, since the Pope and the King could hardly claim to be the organic head of the invisible Church, this was not really the point in question. Respecting the Scottish teachers Walker says: "They meant that Christ is the real King and Head of the Church, as a visible organisation, ruling it by His statutes, and ordinances, and officers, and forces, as truly and literally as David or Solomon ruled the covenant people of old."28

The Bible teaches us that Christ is Head over all things: He is the Lord of the universe, not merely as the second person of the Trinity, but in His mediatorial capacity, Mat_28:18; Eph_1:20-22; Php_2:10-11; Rev_17:14; Rev_19:16. In a very special sense, however, He is the Head of the Church, which is His body. He stands in a vital and organic relation to it, fills it with His life, and controls it spiritually, Joh_15:1-8; Eph_1:10; Eph_2:20-22; Eph_5:30; Col_1:18; Col_1:18; Col_2:19; Col_3:11. Premillenarians claim that this is the only sense in which Christ is the Head of the Church, for they deny the very point for which our Reformed Fathers contended, namely, that Christ is the King of the Church, and therefore the only supreme authority to be recognized in it. Scripture plainly teaches, however, that Christ is the Head of the Church, not only in virtue of His vital relationship to it, but also as its Legislator and King. In the organic and vital sense He is the Head primarily, though not exclusively, of the invisible Church, which constitutes His spiritual body. But He is also the Head of the visible Church, not only in the organic sense, but also in the sense that He has authority and rule over it, Mat_16:18-19; Mat_23:8; Mat_23:10; Joh_13:13; 1Co_12:5; Eph_1:20-23; Eph_4:4-5; Eph_4:11-12; Eph_5:23-24. This Headship of Christ over the visible Church is the principal part of the dominion bestowed upon Him as the result of His sufferings. His authority is manifested in the following points: (a) He instituted the Church of the New Testament, Mat_16:18, so that it is not, as many regard it in our day, a mere voluntary society, which has its only warrant in the consent of its members. (b) He instituted the means of grace which the Church must administer, namely, the Word and the sacraments, Mat_28:19-20; Mar_16:15-16; Luk_22:17-20; 1Co_11:23-29. In these matters no one else has the right to legislate. (c) He gave to the Church its constitution and officers, and clothed them with divine authority, so that they can speak and act in His name, Mat_10:1; Mat_16:19; Joh_20:21-23; Eph_4:11-12. (d) He is ever present in the Church when it meets for worship, and speaks and acts through its officers. It is Christ as King that warrants them in speaking and acting with authority, Mat_10:40; 2Co_13:3.

2. CHRIST EXERCISES HIS AUTHORITY BY MEANS OF HIS ROYAL WORD. The reign of Christ is not in all respects similar to that of earthly kings. He does not rule the Church by force, but subjectively by His Spirit, which is operative in the Church, and objectively by the Word of God as the standard of authority. All believers are unconditionally bound to obey the word of the King. As Christ is the only sovereign Ruler of the Church, His word is the only word that is law in the absolute sense. Consequently, all despotic power is contraband in the Church. There is no ruling power independent of Christ. The Pope of Rome stands condemned in that he, while professing to be Christ's vicar on earth, virtually supplants Christ and supersedes His word by human innovations. He not only places tradition on an equal footing with Scripture, but also claims to be the infallible interpreter of both when speaking ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals. Scripture and tradition may be the mediate or remote rules of faith, the immediate rule is the teaching of the Church, which has its guarantee in papal infallibility.29The word of the Pope is the word of God. But while it is true that Christ exercises His authority in the Church through the officers, this is not to be understood in the sense that He transfers His authority to His servants. He Himself rules the Church through all the ages, but in doing this, He uses the officers of the Church as His organs. They have no absolute or independent, but only a derived and ministerial power.

3. CHRIST AS KING HAS ENDOWED THE CHURCH WITH POWER. A rather delicate question arises at this point, namely, Who are the first and proper subjects of Church power? To whom has Christ committed this power in the first instance? Roman Catholics and Episcopalians answer: to the officers as a separate class, in contradistinction from the ordinary members of the Church. This view has also been held by some eminent Presbyterian divines, such as Rutherford and Baillie. Diametrically opposed to this is the theory of the Independents, that this power is vested in the Church at large, and that the officers are merely the organs of the body as a whole. The great Puritan divine, Owen, adopts this view with some modifications. In recent years some Reformed theologians apparently favored this view, though without subscribing to the separatism of the Independents. There is another view, however, representing a mean between these two extremes, which would seem to deserve preference. According to it ecclesiastical power is committed by Christ to the Church as a whole, that is to the ordinary members and the officers alike; but in addition to that the officers receive such an additional measure of power as is required for the performance of their respective duties in the Church of Christ. They share in the original power bestowed upon the Church, and receive their authority and power as officers directly from Christ. They are representatives, but not mere deputies or delegates of the people. Older theologians often say: "All Church power, in actu primo, or fundamentally, is in the Church itself; in actu secundo, or its exercise, in them that are specially called thereto." This is substantially the view held by Voetius, Gillespie (in his work on Ceremonies), Bannerman, Porteous, Bavinck, and Vos.

4. CHRIST PROVIDED FOR THE SPECIFIC EXERCISE OF THIS POWER BY REPRESENTATIVE ORGANS. While Christ committed power to the Church as a whole, He also provided for it that this power should be exercised ordinarily and specifically by representative organs, set aside for the maintenance of doctrine, worship, and discipline. The officers of the Church are the representatives of the people chosen by popular vote. This does not mean, however, that they receive their authority from the people, for the call of the people is but the confirmation of the inner call by the Lord Himself; and it is from Him that they receive their authority and to Him that they are responsible. When they are called representatives, this is merely an indication of the fact that they were chosen to their office by the people, and does not imply that they derive their authority from them. Hence they are no deputies or tools that merely serve to carry out the wishes of the people, but rulers whose duty it is to apprehend and apply intelligently the laws of Christ. At the same time they are in duty bound to recognize the power vested in the Church as a whole by seeking its assent or consent in important matters.

5. THE POWER OF THE CHURCH RESIDES PRIMARILY IN THE GOVERNING BODY OF THE LOCAL CHURCH. It is one of the fundamental principles of Reformed or Presbyterian government, that the power or authority of the Church does not reside first of all in the most general assembly of any Church, and is only secondarily and by derivation from this assembly, vested in the governing body of the local Church; but that it has its original seat in the consistory or session of the local Church, and is by this transferred to the major assemblies, such as classes (presbyteries) and synods or general assemblies. Thus the Reformed system honors the autonomy of the local church, though it always regards this as subject to the limitations that may be put upon it as the result of its association with other churches in one denomination, and assures it the fullest right to govern its own internal affairs by means of its officers. At the same time it also maintains the right and duty of the local church to unite with other similar churches on a common confessional basis, and form a wider organization for doctrinal, judicial, and administrative purposes, with proper stipulations of mutual obligations and rights. Such a wider organization undoubtedly imposes certain limitations on the autonomy of the local churches, but also promotes the growth and welfare of the churches, guarantees the rights of the members of the Church, and serves to give fuller expression to the unity of the Church.


Different kinds of officers may be distinguished in the Church. A very general distinction is that between extraordinary and ordinary officers.


a. Apostles. Strictly speaking, this name is applicable only to the Twelve chosen by Jesus and to Paul; but it is also applied to certain apostolic men, who assisted Paul in his work, and who were endowed with apostolic gifts and graces, Act_14:4; Act_14:14; 1Co_9:5-6; 2Co_8:23; Gal_1:19 (?). The apostles had the special task of laying the foundation for the Church of all ages. It is only through their word that believers of all following ages have communion with Jesus Christ. Hence they are the apostles of the Church in the present day as well as they were the apostles of the primitive Church. They had certain special qualifications. They (a) received their commission directly from God or from Jesus Christ, Mar_3:14; Luk_6:13; Gal_1:1; (b) were witnesses of the life of Christ and especially of His resurrection, Joh_15:27; Act_1:21-22; 1Co_9:1; (c) were conscious of being inspired by the Spirit of God in all their teaching, both oral and written, Act_15:28; 1Co_2:13; 1Th_4:8; 1Jn_5:9-12; (d) had the power to perform miracles and used this on several occasions to ratify their message, 2Co_12:12; Heb_2:4; and (e) were richly blessed in their work as a sign of the divine approval of their labors, 1Co_9:1-2; 2Co_3:2-3; Gal_2:8.

b. Prophets. The New Testament also speaks of prophets, Act_11:28; Act_13:1-2; Act_15:32; 1Co_12:10; 1Co_13:2; 1Co_14:3; Eph_2:20; Eph_3:5; Eph_4:11; 1Ti_1:18; 1Ti_4:14;

Rev_11:6. Evidently the gift of speaking for the edification of the Church was highly developed in these prophets, and they were occasionally instrumental in revealing mysteries and predicting future events. The first part of this gift is permanent in the Christian Church, and was distinctly recognized by the Reformed Churches (prophesyings), but the last part of it was of a charismatic and temporary character. They differed from ordinary ministers in that they spoke under special inspiration.

c. Evangelists. In addition to apostles and prophets, evangelists are mentioned in the Bible, Act_21:8; Eph_4:11; 2Ti_4:5. Philip, Mark, Timothy, and Titus belonged to this class. Little is known about these evangelists. They accompanied and assisted the apostles, and were sometimes sent out by these on special missions. Their work was to preach and baptize, but also to ordain elders, Tit_1:5; 1Ti_5:22, and to exercise discipline, Tit_3:10. Their authority seems to have been more general and somewhat superior to that of the regular ministers.


a. Elders. Among the common officers of the Church the presbuteroi or episkopoi are first in order of importance. The former name simply means "elders," that is, older ones, and the latter, "overseers." The term presbuteroi is used in Scripture to denote old men, and to designate a class of officers somewhat similar to those who functioned in the synagogue. As a designation of office the name was gradually eclipsed and even superseded by the name episkopoi. The two terms are often used interchangeably, Act_20:17; Act_20:28; 1Ti_3:1; 1Ti_4:14; 1Ti_5:17; 1Ti_5:19; Tit_1:5; Tit_1:7; 1Pe_5:1-2. Presbuteroi are first mentioned in Act_11:30, but the office was evidently well known already when Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, and may have been in existence even before the institution of the diaconate. At least the term hoi neoteroi in Act_5:1-42 seems to point to a distinction between these and the presbuteroi. Frequent mention is made of them in the book of Acts, Act_14:23; Act_15:6, Act_15:22; Act_16:4; Act_20:17, Act_20:28; Act_21:18. Probably the presbyterial or episcopal office was first instituted in the churches of the Jews, Jas_5:14; Heb_13:7; Heb_13:17, and then, shortly after, also in those of the Gentiles. Several other names are applied to these officers, namely, proistamenoi, Rom_12:8; 1Th_5:12; kuberneseis 1Co_12:28; hegoumenoi, Heb_13:7; Heb_13:17; Heb_13:24; and poimenes, Eph_4:11. These officers clearly had the oversight of the flock that was entrusted to their care. They had to provide for it, govern it, and protect it, as the very household of God.

b. Teachers. It is clear that the elders were not originally teachers. There was no need of separate teachers at first, since there were apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Gradually, however, the didaskalia was connected more closely with the episcopal office; but even then the teachers did not at once constitute a separate class of officers. Paul's statement in Eph_4:11, that the ascended Christ also gave "pastors and teachers," mentioned as a single class, to the Church, clearly shows that these two did not constitute two different classes of officers, but one class having two related functions. 1Ti_5:17 speaks of elders who labor in the Word and in teaching, and according to Heb_13:7 the hegoumenoi were also teachers. Moreover, in 2Ti_2:2 Paul urges upon Timothy the necessity of appointing to office faithful men who shall also be able to teach others. In course of time two circumstances led to a distinction between the elders or overseers that were entrusted only with the government of the Church, and those that were also called upon to teach: (1) when the apostles died and heresies arose and increased, the task of those who were called upon to teach became more exacting and demanded special preparation, 2Ti_2:2; Tit_2:2; and (2) in view of the fact that the laborer is worthy of his hire, those who were engaged in the ministry of the Word, a comprehensive task requiring all their time, were set free from other work, in order that they might devote themselves more exclusively to the work of teaching. In all probability the aggeloi who were addressed in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, were the teachers or ministers of those churches, Rev_3:1; Rev_3:7; Rev_3:14. In Reformed circles the ministers now rule the churches together with the elders, but in addition to that administer the Word and the sacraments. Together they make the necessary regulations for the government of the Church.

c. Deacons. Besides the presbuteroi the diakonoi are mentioned in the New Testament, Php_1:1; 1Ti_3:8; 1Ti_3:10; 1Ti_3:12. According to the prevailing opinion Act_6:1-6 contains the record of the institution of the diaconate. Some modern scholars doubt this, however, and regard the office mentioned in Act_6:1-15, either as a general office in which the functions of elders and deacons were combined, or as a merely temporal office serving a special purpose. They call attention to the fact that some of the seven chosen, as Philip and Stephen, evidently engaged in teaching; and that the money collected at Antioch for the poor in Judea was delivered into the hands of the elders. No mention is made of deacons whatsoever in Act_11:30, though these, if they had existed as a separate class, would have been the natural recipients of that money. And yet in all probability Act_6:1-15 does refer to the institution of the diaconate, for: (1) The name diakonoi, which was, previous to the event narrated in Act_6:1-15, always used in the general sense of servant, subsequently began to be employed, and in course of time served exclusively, to designate those who were engaged in works of mercy and charity. The only reason that can be assigned for this is found in Act_6:1-15. (2) The seven men mentioned there were charged with the task of distributing properly the that were brought for the agapae, a ministry that is elsewhere more particularly described by the word diakonia, Act_11:29; Rom_12:7; 2Co_8:4; 2Co_9:1; 2Co_9:12-13; Rev_2:19. (3) The requirements for the office, as mentioned in Act_6:1-15, are rather exacting, and in that respect agree with the demands mentioned in 1Ti_3:8-10; 1Ti_3:12. (4) Very little can be said in favor of the pet idea of some critics that the diaconate was not developed until later, about the time when the episcopal office made its appearance.

3. THE CALLING OF THE OFFICERS AND THEIR INDUCTION INTO OFFICE. A distinction should be made between the calling of the extraordinary officers, such as apostles, and that of the ordinary officers. The former were called in an extraordinary way with an immediate calling from God, and the latter, in the ordinary manner and through the agency of the Church. We are concerned more particularly with the calling of the ordinary officers.

a. The calling of the ordinary officers. This is twofold:

(1) Internal calling. It is sometimes thought that the internal calling to an office in the Church consists in some extraordinary indication of God to the effect that one is called, — a sort of special revelation. But this is not correct. It consists rather in certain ordinary providential indications given by God, and includes especially three things: (a) the consciousness of being impelled to some special task in the Kingdom of God, by love to God and His cause; (b) the conviction that one is at least in a measure intellectually and spiritually qualified for the office sought; and (c) the experience that God is clearly paving the way to the goal.

(2) External calling. This is the call that comes to one through the instrumentality of the Church. It is not issued by the Pope (Roman Catholic), nor by a bishop or a college of bishops (Episcopalian), but by the local church. Both the officers and the ordinary members of the church have a part in it. That the officers have a guiding hand in it, but not to the exclusion of the people, is evident from such passages as ; Act_1:15-26; Act_6:2-6; Act_14:23. The people were recognized even in the choice of an apostle, according to Act_1:15-26. It would seem that in the apostolic age the officers guided the choice of the people by calling attention to the necessary qualifications that were required for the office, but allowed the people to take part in the choosing, Act_1:15-26; Act_6:1-6; 1Ti_3:2-13. Of course, in the case of Matthias God Himself made the final choice.

b. The officers' induction into office. There are especially two rites connected with this:

(1) Ordination. This presupposes the calling and examination of the candidate for office. It is an act of the classis or the presbytery (1Ti_4:14). Says Dr. Hodge: "Ordination is the solemn expression of the judgment of the Church, by those appointed to deliver such judgment, that the candidate is truly called of God to take part in this ministry, thereby authenticating to the people the divine call."30 This authentication is, under all ordinary circumstances, the necessary condition for the exercise of the ministerial office. It may briefly be called a public acknowledgement and confirmation of the candidate's calling to this office.

(2) Laying on of hands. Ordination is accompanied with the laying on of hands. Clearly, the two went hand in hand in apostolic times, Act_6:6; Act_13:3; 1Ti_4:14; 1Ti_5:22. In those early days the laying on of hands evidently implied two things: it signified that a person was set aside for a certain office, and that some special spiritual gift was conferred upon him. The Church of Rome is of the opinion that these two elements are still included in the laying on of hands, that it actually confers some spiritual grace upon the recipient, and therefore ascribes to it sacramental significance. Protestants maintain, however, that it is merely a symbolical indication of the fact that one is set aside for the ministerial office in the Church. While they regard it as a Scriptural rite and as one that is entirely appropriate, they do not regard it as absolutely essential. The Presbyterian Church makes it optional.


1. THE GOVERNING BODIES (CHURCH COURTS) IN THE REFORMED SYSTEM. Reformed Church government is characterized by a system of ecclesiastical assemblies in an ascending or a descending scale, according to the point of view from which they are considered. These are the consistory (session), the classis (presbytery), the synod(s), and (in some cases) the general assembly. The consistory consists of the minister (or, ministers) and the elders of the local church. The classis is composed of one minister and one elder of each local church within a certain district. This is somewhat different in the Presbyterian Church, however, where the presbytery includes all the ministers within its boundaries, and one elder from each of its congregations. The synod, again, consists of an equal number of ministers and elders from each classis or presbytery. And, finally, the general assembly is (in the case of the Presbyterians) composed of an equal delegation of ministers and elders from each of the presbyteries, and not, as might be expected, from each of the particular synods.


a. The representative government of the local church. Reformed churches differ, on the one hand, from all those churches in which the government is in the hands of a single prelate or presiding elder, and on the other hand, from those in which it rests with the people in general. They do not believe in any one man rule, be he an elder, a pastor, or a bishop; neither do they believe in popular government. They choose ruling elders as their representatives, and these, together with the minister(s), form a council or consistory for the government of the local church. Very likely the apostles were guided by the venerated custom of having elders in the synagogue rather than by any direct commandment, when they ordained elders in the various churches founded by them. The Jerusalem church had elders, Act_11:30. Paul and Barnabas ordained them in the churches which they organized on the first missionary journey, Act_14:23. Elders were evidently functioning at Ephesus, Act_20:17, and at Philippi, Php_1:1. The Pastoral Epistles repeatedly make mention of them, 1Ti_3:1-2; Tit_1:5; Tit_1:7. It deserves attention that they are always spoken of in the plural, 1Co_12:28; 1Ti_5:17; Heb_13:7; Heb_13:17; Heb_13:24; 1Pe_5:1. The elders are chosen by the people as men who are specially qualified to rule the Church. Scripture evidently intends that the people shall have a voice in the matter of their selection, though this was not the case in the Jewish synagogue, Act_1:21-26; Act_6:1-6; Act_14:23. In the last passage, however, the word cheirotoneo may have lost its original meaning of appointing by stretching out the hand, and may simply mean to appoint. At the same time it is perfectly evident that the Lord Himself places these rulers over the people and clothes them with the necessary authority, Mat_16:19; Joh_20:22-23; Act_1:24; Act_1:26; Act_20:28; 1Co_12:28; Eph_4:11-12; Heb_13:17. The election by the people is merely an external confirmation of the inner calling by the Lord Himself. Moreover, the elders, though representatives of the people, do not derive their authority from the people, but from the Lord of the Church. They exercise rule over the house of God in the name of the King, and are responsible only to Him.

b. The relative autonomy of the local church. Reformed Church government recognizes the autonomy of the local church. This means:

(1) That every local church is a complete church of Christ, fully equipped with everything that is required for its government. It has absolutely no need of it that any government should be imposed upon it from without. And not only that, but such an imposition would be absolutely contrary to its nature.

(2) That, though there can be a proper affiliation or consolidation of contiguous churches, there may be no union which destroys the autonomy of the local church. Hence it is better not to speak of classes and synods as higher, but to describe them as major or more general assemblies. They do not represent a higher, but the very same, power that inheres in the consistory, though exercising this on a broader scale. McGill speaks of them as higher and remoter tribunals.31

(3) That the authority and prerogatives of the major assemblies are not unlimited, but have their limitation in the rights of the sessions or consistories. They are not permitted to lord it over a local church or its members, irrespective of the constitutional rights of the consistory; nor to meddle with the internal affairs of a local church under any and all circumstances. When churches affiliate, their mutual rights and duties are circumscribed in a Church Order or Form of Government. This stipulates the rights and duties of the major assemblies, but also guarantees the rights of the local church. The idea that a classis (presbytery) or synod can simply impose whatever it pleases on a particular church is essentially Roman Catholic.

(4) That the autonomy of the local church has its limitations in the relation in which it stands to the churches with which it is affiliated, and in the general interests of the affiliated churches. The Church Order is a sort of Constitution, solemnly subscribed to by every local church, as represented by its consistory. This on the one hand guards the rights and interests of the local church, but on the other hand also, the collective rights and interests of the affiliated churches. And no single church has the right to disregard matters of mutual agreement and of common interest. The local group may be even called upon occasionally to deny itself for the far greater good of the Church in general.


a. Scripture warrant for major assemblies. Scripture does not contain an explicit command to the effect that the local churches of a district must form an organic union. Neither does it furnish us with an example of such a union. In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union. At the same time the essential nature of the Church, as described in Scripture, would seem to call for such a union. The Church is described as a spiritual organism, in which all the constituent parts are vitally related to one another. It is the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, of which He is the exalted Head. And it is but natural that this inner unity should express itself in some visible manner, and should even, as much as possible in this imperfect and sinful world, seek expression in some corresponding external organization. The Bible speaks of the Church not only as a spiritual body, but also as a tangible body, as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as a priesthood, and as a holy nation. Every one of these terms points to a visible unity. Congregationalists or Independents and Undenominationalists lose sight of this important fact. The existing divisions in the visible Church at the present time should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that there are certain passages of Scripture which seem to indicate rather clearly that, not only the invisible Church, but also the visible Church is a unity. The word ekklesia is used in the singular as an indication of the visible church in a wider sense than that of the purely local church, Act_9:31 (according to the now accepted reading), 1Co_12:28, and probably also 1Co_10:32. In the descriptions of the Church in 1Co_12:12-31 and Eph_4:4-16 the apostle also has its visible unity in mind. Moreover, there are reasons for thinking that the Church at Jerusalem and at Antioch consisted of several separate groups, which together formed a sort of unity. And, finally, Act_15:1-41 acquaints us with the example of the council of Jerusalem. This council was composed of apostles and elders, and therefore did not constitute a proper example and pattern of a classis or synod in the modern sense of the word. At the same time it was an example of a major assembly, and of one that spoke with authority and not merely in an advisory capacity.

b. The representative character of the major assemblies. In the abstract it may be said that the major assemblies might have been composed of all the representatives of all the local churches under their jurisdiction; but, on account of the number of the churches represented, such a body would in most cases prove unwieldy and inefficient. In order to keep the number of representatives down to reasonable proportions, the principle of representation is carried through also in connection with the major assemblies. Not the local churches, but the classes or presbyteries, send their representatives to Synods. This affords the gradual contraction that is necessary for a well-compacted system. The immediate representatives of the people who form the consistories or sessions, are themselves represented in classes or presbyteries; and these in turn are represented in synods or general assemblies. The more general the assembly, the more remote it is from the people; yet none of them is too remote for the expression of the unity of the Church, for the maintenance of good order, and for the general effectiveness of its work.

c. The matters that fall under their jurisdiction. The ecclesiastical character of these assemblies should always be borne in mind. It is because they are Church assemblies, that purely scientific, social, industrial, or political matters do not, as such, fall under their jurisdiction. Only ecclesiastical matters belong to their province, such as matters of doctrine or morals, of church government and discipline, and whatever pertains to the preservation of unity and good order in the Church of Jesus Christ. More particularly, they deal with (1) matters which, as to their nature, belong to the province of a minor assembly, but for some reason or other cannot be settled there; and (b) matters which, as to their nature, belong to the province of a major assembly, since they pertain to the churches in general, such as matters touching the Confession, the Church Order, or the liturgy of the Church.

d. The power and authority of these assemblies. The major assemblies do not represent a higher kind of power than is vested in the consistory or session. The Reformed churches know of no higher kind of ecclesiastical power than that which resides in the consistory. At the same time their authority is greater in degree and wider in extent than that of the consistory. Church power is represented in greater measure in the major assemblies than in the consistory, just as apostolic power was represented in greater measure in twelve than in a single apostle. Ten churches certainly have more authority than a single church; there is an accumulation of power. Moreover, the authority of the major assemblies does not apply to a single church only, but extends to all the affiliated churches. Consequently, the decisions of a major assembly carry great weight and can never be set aside at will. The assertion sometimes made that they are only of an advisory character and therefore need not be carried out, is a manifestation of the leaven of Independency. These decisions are authoritative, except in cases where they are explicitly declared to be merely advisory. They are binding on the churches as the sound interpretation and application of the law, — the law of Christ, the King of the Church. They cease to be binding only when they are shown to be contrary to the Word of God.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: What is the difference between the New Testament meaning of the word episkopos and its later connotation? Why are regular offices necessary in the Church? Does Scripture favor the idea that the people should have some part in the government of the Church? What is the chief characteristic of Prelatism? What is the Roman Catholic distinction between a hierarchy of order and a hierarchy of jurisdiction? How did the Territorial and the Collegial systems originate, and how do they differ? What system did the Arminians adopt, and how did this affect their position? What is the present form of Church government in the Lutheran Church? How does the idea that Christ is the Head of the Church only in an organic sense affect the offices and the authority of the Church? What important practical bearing does the Headship of Christ (including His kingship) have on the life, the position, and the government of the Church? Can any Church be considered autonomous in the absolute sense of the word? How do Reformed major assemblies differ from Congregational conferences and general councils?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 354-424; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Ecclesia, pp. 268-293; id., Tractaat van de Reformatie der Kerken, pp. 41-82; Vos, Geref. Dogm. V, pp. 31-39, 49-70; Hodge, Church Polity, cf. Index; Bannerman, The Church II, pp. 201-331; McGill, Church Government, pp. 143-522; McPherson, Presbyterianism; Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons, pp. 13-70; Bouwman, Geref. Kerkrecht, cf. Index; Rieker, Grundsaetze reformierter Kirchenverfassung; Hoffmann, Kirchenverfassungsrecht; Lechler, Geschichte der Presbyterial— und Synodalverfassung seit der Reformation; Morris, Ecclesiology, pp. 80-151; Hatch, The Organisation of the Early Christian Churches; Sillevis Smitt, De Organisatie van de Christelijke Kerk; Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries; J. Cunningham, The Growth of the Church, pp. 1-77; Van Dyke, The Church, Her Ministry and Sacraments, pp. 115-161; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. III, pp. 501-534; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 376-410; Wilson, Free Church Principles, pp. 1-65; Wilmers, Handbook of the Chr. Rel., pp. 77-101; Devine, The Creed Explained, pp. 302-340; Boynton, The Congregational Way; W. A. Visser 't Hooft and J. H. Oldham, The Church and its Function in Society.