The purpose of the two articles on this page is to illustrate why Reformed Baptists are not Presbyterian in their church government. It is often necessary to explain how we can be both �Reformed� and �Baptist�. The best response is that we see ourselves as more fully reformed than our Presbyterian brethren when it comes to matters of church organisation and government. Establishing Presbyterianism from scripture is most often attempted by citing Acts 15. I hope to indicate with the following articles how weak this argument is.
What Council of
Suppose the visit of Paul, Barnabas and the others from the church at
First we have the cause for complaint from
Acts 15.1,2 �And certain men which came down from
15:2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to
Suppose the Apostle Paul made the journey to
18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more,
that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
The meeting of the church at
There were still Apostles in the
And there were erring members -with the same Judaising attitudes as caused the problem in
Now read the account of the elders� meeting (one church, remember) in which the elders and Paul�s came together to consider this matter and to reason. The verb translated �disputation� is suzhthsis, from suzhtev; mutual questioning, i.e. discussion: disputation, reasoning.
15:6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter
Note the Apostle Peter�s contribution vv 7-11.
15:7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.
15:8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;
15:9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
15:10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
15:11 But we believe that through the grace of the LORD Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.
Next read Barnabas and the Apostle Paul�s contribution.
Acts 15:12 Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.
Finally the Pastor�s resolution.
When all had said there piece (note the absence of debate or �dispute� in the negative sense), the Pastor makes his response TO HIS OWN CHURCH, where he is the governmental authority under Christ, even though Apostles are present. His ruling on this issue is:
15:19 �Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 15:20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 15:21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.�
The Apostles endorse the decision of the church leadership and send men and encouraging letters to
15:22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to
15:23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and� elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.
15:24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
15:25 It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
15:26 Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.
15:28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;
15:29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
15:30 So when they were dismissed, they came to
The reaction of the
A longer presentation of this argument follows, taken from �The Battle For the Church 1577-1644� by David Gay, pub. Barchus.
�As for the Presbyterian's second claim ‑ that churches should be organised into groups, and ruled by a series of ecclesiastical courts ‑‑ they offer but one attempted scriptural proof ‑ namely Acts 15, which they call a record of the Council of Jerusalem. They say that several churches sent delegates to a Council in Jerusalern to debate a doctrinal issue and formulate bind ing decrees for all the churches which were represented, and this is the standing pattern for all churches for all time.
But this is wrong. Acts 15 does not speak of a synod or Council. What happened is this. Some teachers, who were members of the church in
When Paul and Barnabas reached
Not a Council
There was no gathering of representatives from various churches at
As for the letter which conveyed the decision, it must be remembered that the apostles were still alive and resident in
Of course, Acts 15 shows that whilst churches are independent, they are not isolated or insular. On the particular issue of the day,
Despite this clear teaching in Acts 15, Bannerman, however, asserted that besides the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, 'there were also repre�sentatives from the churches of Syria and Cilicia, commissioned to go up to Jerusalem on the same errand'. Where did he find any evidence for that statement? What other churches? What commissioned representatives? A few sentences later Bannerman drew back somewhat. Instead of being certain that these representatives were present lie wrote, 'We have deputies ... it would seem, from
In any case Bannerman proved too much by his speculations. If he was right, and the churches he mentioned were represented at
Berkhof, once again, was much more restrained, and rightly so. He said, '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'. Exact�ly so. Why could the case not rest there? But even Berkhof could not resist the temptation to go on to speculate. He said that it 'would seem ... it is but natural that this inner unity should express itself in some visible man�iier, and should even, as much as possible ... seek expression in some corresponding external organisation ... Every one of these terms points to a visible unity ... Certain passages of Scripture which seem to indicate ... 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'. Pretty vague stuff this! But, even though there is no scriptural example nor any scriptural command for these courts, Pres�byterians think they are the standing order for church life!
On Acts 15, Berkhof frankly and honestly admitted, 'This ... did not constitute a proper example and pattern of a classis or synod in the mod�ern sense of the word'. Why go on with it, in that case? But he did. He then developed the 'modern sense of the word' in three paragraphs. He spoke of the representative nature of synods, the way they should be organised, wliat they deal with, their power and authority, and similar matters. What biblical texts did he supply to support his case? None whatsoever! Not one! Even so ‑ and without a shred of scriptural warrant ‑ Berkhof was pre�pared to conclude that the highest ecclesiastical courts have authority over all the churches, they carry great weight and must not be set aside except on the rnost telling of grounds. 'They are binding on the churches as the sound interpretation and application of the law,' he said. What a stagger�ing claim!
This is not a theoretical debate. The outcome of setting up nonscriptural bodies and organisations to govern the churches is always diabolical. Presbyterians of the 16th and 17th centuries believed that the decisions of ecclesiastical courts were binding on all the churches, their members and their officers. The consequences would be far‑reaching as we shall see. There are Presbyterians who continue to believe the same today.
Those who hold to this notion of federations and a system of formal connections between churches argue that separate, independent churches are weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In time of persecution or apostasy, the enemy ‑ Satan ‑ needs only to attack the central authority, the central theological seminary, or the highest ecclesiastical court of the federated Church, and he has captured the entire set‑up. He only needs to poison the central spring, and all the waters will be lethal. At any rate that is what has happened down the centuries. History is littered with the ruins of apostate federations. In a barrel, one rotten apple will corrupt the lot by contact! However, if the adversary has to try to grapple with a host of scattered, unknown, unlinked churches, he has a real fight on his hands. He has got to find them all first! Of course, independent churches can be guilty of apostasy, but at least they have the power in their own hands to resist, they have not delegated it to a higher court. And if other churches should fall, that has no automatic effect on the next. But whatever else is said about it, the separation of the churches is the scriptural way. And that should be the end of the matter.
In this connection, a highly significant and relevant passage is Revelation 2 and 3, concerning 'the seven churches' (Rev. 1:20). By this late stage of the canon of Scripture, the New Testament system of church order was well established. What do we find? Whilst it is always dangerous to argue from silence ‑ though Presbyterians are fond of it, as we shall see ‑ certain points stand out. The seven churches were located close together in one region, yet they are called seven churches, not seven congregations which form one church. Furthermore, there is no hint whatsoever of any organisation linking them together. There is not a vestige of support for the idea of one common government over the seven, separate churches. There is no association spoken of. On the contrary, each church is commended for any good within it, each church is responsible for its own faults, accountable for its own failures, and responsible to reform itself under Christ ‑ all without any outside interference whatsoever. What is more, each church is autonomous. It has the full powers necessary to reform itself.
Reader, you will see that the attempted scriptural defence of the Presbyterian system in these matters is largely drawn from the early chapters of Acts. These chapters, as noted earlier, deal with extraordinary apostolic circumstances which had an overwhelming effect on church organisation and government in those days. But the ordinary New Testament church order is made very clear in the later books. There (he proper administration of the Lord's supper, the recognition of elders and deacons, and all other church matters, are dealt with in plain instructions. Why is it not possible for the Presbyterians to establish their system from the letters to Timothy and Titus? Why are there no plain passages dealing with synods, church courts, congregations and all the rest of it? We are not left to establish the principles of eldership by inference, are we? Therefore why should we have to do it in the case of synods? The truth is, whilst there is a large amount of New Testament material dealing with the rule, order and practice of local, separate, independent churches ‑ there is nothing whatsoever which deals with the government of several churches that are combined into one church. What is more, though Bannerman might speak of the 'simplicity' of the Presbyterian system, it is evident that it is extremely complicated, and largely speculative. Oh! for the simplicity of the New Testament.
Is there any significance in the unforced admission by Berkhof, 'It seems rather peculiar that practically all the outstanding Presbyterian dogmaticians of our country, such as the two Hodges, H.B. Smith, Shedd, and Dabney, have no separate locus on the church in their dogmatical works and, in fact, devote very little attention to it'? Presbyterians ought to think about that!
To sum up: The introduction of Presbyterianism, whilst it was a huge improvement upon the Papal system did not get as close to the New Testament as mainstream Anabaptism did.�
From David Gay �Battle For the Church 1577-1644� pp54-59.
Published in the UK by Brachus, ISBN-0 9529982 0 3.
Edward T Hiscox �Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches.� Pub Kregel
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