Chapter 7
How Does God Keep Me?

We have seen something of what it means to trust in Jesus alone as Savior, and of what it means to live for him. Now we come to the final question in the form for public profession of faith in which we learn see God's provision for my safekeeping through the government of the Church. Here is the vow:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?

In order to understand what is involved in this vow, we first need to have some understanding of the Presbyterian form of church government. The term is derived from the Greek word "presbuteros" (presbuteroV), meaning elders, and is used to denote church government by elders. These elders govern in a system of church assemblies, namely, session, presbytery and general assembly. The elders of a local church are collectively called "the session". Elders who come together, by delegation, from a number of churches in a given region are called a "presbytery." Finally, elders are delegated by several presbyteries to the largest assembly of elders called the "general assembly." It is not correct, in our view, to speak of "higher" and "lower" assemblies of the church (as many commonly do). The correct distinction is not one of higher/lower, but rather larger/smaller. Since all authority really belongs to Christ, the only king and head of the Church, no church assembly is higher and no church assembly can have any ultimate or final authority. No, ultimate or final authority belongs to the Lord alone, and this—in turn—means that the Bible alone is the supreme standard for the church's faith and life.

Some churches are congregational in government. Churches with this form of government do not recognize any governing authority except what exists in the local church. The great weakness in this form of government is that there is no right of appeal against decisions made in a local church if they are unbiblical. We believe this conflicts with the clear teaching of Acts chapter 15. This portion of the Bible proves that there was the right of appeal in the apostolic church. The general assembly had the authority to settle matters which could not settled in the local church.

There are also hierarchical churches. In this form of church government many congregations are bound together under the authority of an ascending series of officers, such as priests, bishops, archbishops, etc. It will be evident that the authority of the local church, in this form of government, is drastically reduced. Since all decisions come from the top down—in this type of government—there is no right of appeal. For example, to whom would a Roman Catholic appeal against a decision of the Pope?

The Presbyterian form of church government is the only system that safeguards these two important principles: (1) each part of the church is in due subjection, in the Lord, to the whole church; yet (2) no part of the church is given supremacy over any other. The following chart will illustrate the six principles of church government—clearly revealed in the Bible—as they are, or are not, honored in the three types of government.

We show this in diagram 10, below.

Biblical Principles

Cong.

Heir.

Pres.

1. Christ alone is head of the Church (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18)

Yes

No

Yes

2. Elders are chosen by the people (Acts 6:1-11)

Yes

No

Yes

3. All elders/bishops are equal (Tit. 1:5, 7; Acts 20:17, 28)

Yes

No

Yes

4. Each church has at least two elders (Acts 14:23)

No

No

Yes

5. Elders/bishops are ordained by presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14)

No

No

Yes

6. The right of appeal (from smaller to wider assembly—Acts 15)  

No

No

Yes

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is Presbyterian in its form of government. In doctrine it Catholic faith because it still believes—and teaches—the doctrines expressed in the great ecumenical creeds. The word "ecumenical" means "universally accepted." This is also the original meaning of the word "catholic." What is commonly called "the Apostles' Creed" is the best known example of an ecumenical confession. (2) Our church is also Protestant. In the sixteenth century there was a massive division in the Western Christian church. In this division the Protestants did—while the Roman Catholics did not—hold to certain Biblical doctrines such as these: (a) the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, (b) the priesthood of all believers, and (c) justification by faith alone. One could put it this way: the Protestants said "the Bible only" (as the final authority for faith and duty), "Christ only" (as mediator between God and man), and "faith only" (that is, we are not righteous by our own works, but are made righteous by Jesus through faith). (3) Our church is also Reformed, rather than Lutheran or Arminian. Diagram 6 (in lesson 4) will indicate the differences between these systems of teaching, and should be reviewed at this time. It is only in the Reformed system of teaching that a consistent application of Catholic, and Protestant, principles can be found today. We do not mean, by this, that we think of our church as "the one true church." The Orthodox Presbyterian Church makes no such claim. It is, in fact, willing to admit that it falls short of what it ought to be. What we are talking about here is not churches, but systems of teaching. It should not be forgotten that many denominations in America originally held to Reformed teaching. Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed churches all held—originally, and to a large extent—to the type of doctrinal teaching we are referring to in this section of our study.

A person taking the fourth vow, then, agrees to submit to the teaching authority of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Such a person knows in advance, in other words, that the instruction will be of the character outlined above. It therefore follows that no person who is already convinced that Reformed teaching is wrong could take this fourth vow with integrity. The very least that is essential is that the person taking this vow will be humble (not claiming to know it all, already), and therefore willing to receive further instruction out of the Bible. This does not mean that we, in taking this vow, make an absolute promise in advance to agree with anything and everything we may later be taught. That is why the right of appeal is there—and that is why it is so precious. If we become convinced that the church is wrong in what it is teaching at some point, we can then go to the session—and if this does not bring the needed correction—to the presbytery, and even to the General Assembly. This can be done by any member of the church, and it actually has been done. But what is important to stress here is that we are—as this fourth vow shows—a confessional church. This means that we do not think of Christian profession in a purely individualistic manner.

In I Corinthians 12:12-31 there is a beautiful description of the principle of corporate relationships and responsibilities. The church is compared to a human body. As in the body, so in the church, no member can "go it alone." Thus, in our church, if you become a problem member (like an injured finger would be on the body) the elders of the church will come to you to exhort and admonish you. They will talk to you about your wrong ideas, or your wrong actions. And one of the things you promise, when you say "yes" to the fourth vow, is that you will always welcome this expression of care by the church, and submit to it. This is exactly what our Lord himself commanded (Mt. 18:15-20). It is sad to note that sometimes in our church people who make this promise later on decide that they do not like what is involved. When they are visited by the elders they act as if the elders have no business to come and exhort and admonish them. Now it may be, in a given instance, that the elders are wrong in what they do, or in the way they do it. Yet even in such an instance we should be willing to receive them with deference and honor, being thankful that we are part of a church that cares. And that is not all, because they are also required to listen to us when we turn to the Bible to show them our concern. And then—don't forget—if it ever becomes necessary, we have the right of appeal. So our attitude should always be this: "as long as the elders come to me in the name of Christ, and with the Bible as their only final authority, I will always honor them and receive them. This I solemnly promise, not to men, but to God." The is what God himself requires of us, when He says: "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account" (Heb. 13:17).

Questions

  1. What does the word Presbyterian mean?
  2. What is the relationship between a session and a presbytery?
  3. What is the distinctive feature of congregational church government?
  4. What is the distinctive feature of hierarchical church government?
  5. What are the two vital things safeguarded by Presbyterian government?
  6. How many of the six biblical principles of church government can you write out from memory?
  7. What are some of the principles for the sake of which Protestantism arose?
  8. What do we mean when we say the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is Catholic? Protestant? and Reformed?
  9. If it is not right to say "our's is the only true Church," why is it right to say "the Reformed Faith is the one true faith"?
  10. In your own words, what is the main difference between the Reformed Faith and the Catholic/Arminian type of teaching?
  11. Can a person take the fourth vow if there are still things in the Reformed Faith about which full understanding and conviction has not been reached?
  12. Should a person take the fourth vow if one is already convinced the Reformed Faith is not Biblical?
  13. What should a church member do if he (or she) later on becomes convinced there is something wrong in what the church is teaching?
  14. Quote a phrase from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 which shows that no Christian is allowed to be autonomous.
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