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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Alan D. Strange

Chapter I
Christ, the King and Head of the Church

1. Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government is, whose name is called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and justice, from henceforth even forever, having all power given unto him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come, and put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all; he being ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things, received gifts for his church and gave offices necessary for the building of his church, for making disciples of all nations and perfecting his saints.

Comment: The Lord Jesus Christ is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the ruler of all creation. He is particularly the king and head of the church. Those outside the church do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord, even though he is. He bears moreover a particular headship, or rule, over those who acknowledge him as Lord. One may think of it this way: Christ is Lord of all and Savior of those who bow to him as such; this stands in contrast to those who teach that Jesus is Savior of all and Lord of those who acknowledge him as such. A short sentence summary of this section might be that the resurrected Christ, having all power, is head of his church, which he rules through the gifts and callings that he gives to it, gathering and perfecting that church even to the end of the age.

This assertion at the very beginning of FG 1 of the lordship of Christ makes it clear that he is the focus and source of the church’s life, particularly in his resurrection and ascension, which makes patent his triumph over sin and death, including fulfilling all righteousness and satisfying divine justice, both defeating all his and our enemies and giving all needed gifts to the church to carry out her calling in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20).[1] This grand, glorious sentence typically begins Presbyterian church orders, [2] going back to the Westminster Assembly of Divines and the “Preface” in The Form of Presbyterial Church Government (1645).[3] This long sentence cites or echoes various passages of Scripture (Isa. 9, Matt. 28, Eph. 1:20–23 and 4:10–12 ) that set forth the character of our king, Jesus Christ, and the spiritual nature of the character and rule of his kingdom. The language of this section is so exalted as to need no further comment but rather calls forth admiration and adoration of our Lord Jesus Christ, the focal point of the church’s mission in and to the world.

2. There is therefore but one King and Head of the church, the only Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, who rules in his church by his Word and Spirit. His mediatorial office includes all the offices in his church. It belongs to his majesty from his throne of glory not only to rule his church directly but also to use the ministry of men in ruling and teaching his church through his Word and Spirit, thus exercising through men his own authority and enforcing his own laws. The authority of all such ministerial office rests upon his appointment, who has ordained government in his church, revealed its nature to us in his Word, and promised his presence in the midst of his church as this government is exercised in his name.

Comment: The head and king of the church is no earthly person, no pope in Rome, no executive presbyter in Philadelphia or elsewhere. The sole supreme governor of the church is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. Before the twelfth century the occupant of the papal throne, the Bishop of Rome, styled himself as the “Vicar of St. Peter” (the one “sent” in Peter’s place); by the time of Pope Innocent III (r. 1160-1216), the Roman pontiff had gone further and had claimed himself instead to be “Vicar of Christ,” the one sent to minister in place of Christ. [4] This audacious claim of the pope to be “the Vicar of Christ” continues to this day and highlights one of Rome’s ongoing problems: the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly her pope, claims to be the sent one of Christ, when, in fact, the Holy Spirit is that one; the Holy Spirit is the Vicar of Christ, the one sent to minister in place of the ascended Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church, in other words, tends in practice to replace the Holy Spirit with itself, seeing itself as the agent bestowing God’s grace in the world.[5] This section of the FG restores and testifies to the biblical truth that there is but one head of the church, King Jesus, and only one mediator between God and man, not a sacerdotal intercessor—the church and her priesthood— which dispenses grace. The agent of Christ who dispenses grace (to whom it belongs) is the Holy Spirit. Jesus retains rule in his church, governing either directly from his throne of glory or through the ministry of men, by his Word and Spirit. This rule then is not by a mere man, a pope, who pretends, as vicar, to rule in Christ’s name; rather this rule is by his Spirit, in and by God’s Word. Note that in the FG and elsewhere the rule of Christ is always said to be through Word and Spirit, properly coupled together as they always are in the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches: this is because the Word without the Spirit is rationalism (or dead orthodoxy), and the Spirit without the Word is mysticism.

The Lord does, to be sure, rule the church through the ministry of men, through the agency of established offices. Jesus Christ, however, retains headship, ceding it to no earthly vicar and governs his church by men gifted and called to minister the Word in and by the power of the Holy Spirit and by others (ruling elders) who join ministers in the governance of the church.

The church is the place that his grace is ordinarily conveyed to us, though it is not the church itself that grants the grace. It is the Holy Spirit who does, through the agency of the Word, as ministered by those appointed thereunto. The Spirit, who is sovereign, giving grace irresistibly to God’s own, is the only one who makes the means of grace efficacious. The means are never ex opere operato, which the Roman Catholic Church teaches about its sacraments, meaning that they are efficacious by their mere administration to all who receive them, insofar as the recipients do not positively refuse the grace offered. Contrariwise, we, as Protestants, believe that the means of grace are efficacious only when and as the Holy Spirit makes them so.[6]

Presbyterians, then, acknowledge the legitimacy of the church and church office, but not in place of the Holy Spirit. Rather, the minister, particularly, through his preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, together with leading in prayer, offers all this as means of grace made effectual to God’s people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Note that Rome does not call its sacraments “means” but views them as (idolatrous) ends in themselves, bestowing grace upon all who receive them and not requiring faith of the recipient. This “magical” view of the priesthood doling out God’s grace, however, does not cause us to reject church office. Unlike certain Anabaptists and other sectarians, we affirm church office, a rather remarkable retention on the part of the Reformers in light of Roman Catholic abuse of office; unlike Rome, we do not so identify office with effectual ministration that we allow office (and the church) to replace the Holy Spirit. Rather officers are to act faithfully and to wait upon the Spirit working in and through the Word and Sacraments for the blessing that he alone can bring.

The last sentence of this section can also be taken to highlight the glorious reality that Christ is the ultimate office-bearer in the church. We often speak about the question of the number of offices in the church, particularly whether ministers and elders hold the same office, which will be subsequently treated at some length. [7] This sentence suggests that all the offices of the church find their focus in Christ—both the extraordinary and ordinary offices of apostles, prophets, ministers, elders, and deacons—who is the great office-holder; thus, all the merely human office-holders carry out their offices by Christ’s appointment and empowerment. Christ is the ultimate minister, elder, and deacon; and all ministers, elders, and deacons have warrant for all that they are and do because they do such in the name of and on behalf of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Christ orders his church by the rule of his Word; the pattern of officers, ordinances, government, and discipline set forth in Scripture is therefore to be observed as the instruction of the Lord. Church government must conform to the scriptural pattern and follow the specific provisions revealed in the New Testament. In those circumstances not specifically ordered by Scripture the church must observe the general rules of the Word. Among the biblical admonitions applicable to all circumstances are those requiring that all things must be done decently, in order, and for edification. A particular form of church government is bound to set forth what Christ requires for the order of his church and to arrange particular circumstances only in the manner, to the degree, and for the purposes that the Lord of the church has appointed in Scripture. The Presbyterian form of government seeks to fulfill these scriptural requirements for the glory of Christ, the edification of the church, and the enlargement of that spiritual liberty in which Christ has set us free. Nevertheless, while such scriptural government is necessary for the perfection of church order, it is not essential to the existence of the church visible.

Comment: Christ has not left his church without direction for her well-being, ordering his church by the rule of his Word.[8] We need not consult our own resources to “figure out” how the church should be ordered. Rather, God has given us in his Word the guidance that we need to set up proper order for the church. To be sure, as noted in the introductory materials, the Word of God contains principles that we flesh out in our church order, not a detailed blueprint. Having said that, the Word does contain the pattern, as our FG has it here, of officers, ordinances, government, and discipline.

This pattern is elucidated in the Book of Church Order, at least as we have agreed to act together, especially in what pertains, for our purposes in this commentary, to her government (and in the following commentary, her discipline). We should act in accordance with the Word in all necessary cases, even when we have not (or not yet) agreed and expressed such in our church order as pertains to government. The Word itself does not specifically address, or order, every conceivable situation of government, at least it does not do so in respect to all the details and circumstances. On such occasions, and in such situations, we should act nonetheless in keeping with the general rules or principles that pertain to the ordering of the church. We must always act decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40): that injunction applies first and foremost to worship specifically (particularly in what we have come to call “the regulative principle of worship”), but it also applies more broadly to all that we do in the government and discipline of the church.

Christ has given us a Presbyterian government for the good of the church in every respect. We do not, however, place Presbyterian government at the center of the church’s being in the same way that we do the doctrine that we confess (contained in Westminster Standards). We do not thereby unchurch all but Presbyterians. Rather, we understand that Presbyterianism pertains to the perfection of church order and is not essential to its existence. The church can exist without Presbyterianism; one needs Presbyterianism, however, to have the church as Christ has called it to be.

Note the blessings that embracing this biblical pattern of Presbyterian church government brings. It maximally makes for the glory of Christ because it is the government that Christ has given to his church and intends her to have. When we most glorify Christ, we ourselves are best built up in our most holy faith. So Presbyterian government, that which most glorifies Christ, at the same time most builds us up, making the best use of all of God’s people, whether they hold the general office of believer or, in addition to that, the special offices of minister, elder, and deacon.

Because Presbyterianism is the form established by Christ in his Word, it also promotes the spiritual liberty of his people; it frees God’s people equally from the tyranny of Episcopacy and Congregationalism. Episcopacy denies the proper role of the people in their own governance (as Presbyterians have through their representatives in the ruling eldership), and Congregationalism lays burdens on all the people that they are not gifted and called to bear. True biblical Presbyterianism renders God’s people most free, because following God’s Word, in and by his Spirit, always yields the greatest liberty and blessing.[9]

4. Jesus Christ, having ascended into heaven, abides in his church by the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. Through his Spirit he has given his Word revealing his ordinances; through the Spirit also he exerts his saving and governing power in the teaching of his Word and the administration of his ordinances. Only by the gifts and calling of the Spirit are men endued and qualified for office in Christ's church.

Comment: Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father and is thus no longer physically present. But we are not thereby bereft of his presence, or that of his Father. Rather, the Father and Son have come to us by the Holy Spirit (John 14:23). At and after Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the church in New Covenant manifestation, application, and power.[10] Our Lord promised his disciples in the Great Commission that he would be with them even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He then went back to heaven. How then is he with us, though he is now on high? He (together with the Father) is with us in and by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45b). [11] The Holy Spirit uses those means that Christ ordained in the Great Commission and on the night that he was betrayed when he ordained the Holy Supper. Those means are called means of grace because through them the Spirit conveys God’s grace to whom it belongs, to his own, even to the end of the world.

Chapter II
The Church

1. Jesus Christ, being now exalted far above all principality and power, has erected in this world a kingdom, which is his church.

Comment: There are various ways theologically of speaking of kingdoms. The Bible sometimes speaks of a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness: Augustine’s two cities correspond to this.[12] One may also speak of the civil sphere, or kingdom, and the ecclesiastical one, the church. It is this last notion that is in view here. The church is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), but one that has a heavenly origin and will eventuate in a new heavens and earth.

2. The universal church visible consists of all those persons, in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and promise submission to his commandments.

Comment: The church, as seen above, is a kingdom not of this world, a communion of saints. It is, in its essence, invisible. We confess this over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that identifies the church with the visible church. But such an invisible, spiritual entity always manifests itself in this world in a visible organization. We believe that the church is both an organism and an organization, an institution. That the church always manifests itself visibly stands over against the Anabaptist and similar views that would reduce the church to a communion of saints and deny the proper efficacy, by God’s Spirit, of its ministry, oracles, and ordinances. This church, which is catholic (universal), exists throughout the world, consisting of all those that profess faith in Christ and their children.

Unlike the baptistic churches, which recognize as members only those who profess faith in Christ, the Presbyterian church contains both those who profess faith and their  baptized covenant children, who have not (yet) professed faith. Such baptized children are properly regarded as members of the church. They become members with all the rights and privileges of membership, including admission to the Lord’s Table upon a credible profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. In accordance with the teaching of Scripture, the many members of this church universal are to be organized in local and regional churches, confessing a common faith and submitting to a common form of government.

Comment: The church extends from its most far-flung manifestation, the church universal across the world, to every local or regional manifestation of such. So, the universal church makes itself visible throughout the world in every nation, or people-group, in regional churches (governed by presbyteries), and local churches (governed by sessions). What binds all these many parts into one church is the confession of a common faith (expressed for us in the Ecumenical Creeds and the Westminster Standards) and submission to a common form of government (the sort expressed in our BCO). This broader worldwide connection expresses itself in ecumenical bodies of which the OPC is a part, like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) and the International Council of Reformed Churches (ICRC).

4. The work of the church, in fellowship with and obedience to Christ, is divine worship, mutual edification, and gospel witness. The means appointed by Christ through which the church does this work include the confession of the name of Christ before men; the exercise of fellowship in encouraging one another; the reading, teaching, and preaching of the Word of God; praying; singing; fasting; administering baptism and the Lord's Supper; collecting and distributing offerings; showing mercy; exercising discipline; and blessing the people.

Comment: The church is in union and communion with its Savior and with each other. As such we are in fellowship with our Savior and each other as well as called to submit to our Lord and to each other, as appropriate to our station and calling. In that mutual fellowship and obedience, we conduct the work of the church. Central to that work is divine worship, publicly, privately, and secretly. The public exercise of worship is of first importance here and works both to gather and perfect the saints, which is to say, mutual upbuilding of the body and gospel witness both to the church and to the world.

This work is carried on through the means appointed by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, including all listed herein: confessing Christ before men, both by profession of faith and corporate recitation of the church’s creeds and confessions; the mutual encouragement that is part and parcel of body life; all the proper uses of the Word of God, especially its preaching; praying without ceasing by all saints for all sorts of persons; singing psalms and hymns unto the Lord; proper fasting, both upon personal practice and when called to by proper parties; a proper administration of the sacraments of initiation (baptism) and continuation (Lord’s Supper); the receiving and distribution in all the proper ways from the giving of God’s people; showing kindness and care for one another, especially in personal needs; placing oneself under the due authority of the church and the church censuring the sinful and impenitent; and, lastly, the minister of the gospel pronouncing, on God’s behalf, his blessing upon his people.

Endnotes

[1] The sorts of considerations contained in the beginning of the OPC FG are still, along with clearly liberal commitments, present in the PCUSA Book of Order 2019–2021 (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, 2019), 1–15, the first section entitled “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.”

[2] This stands in contradistinction to Reformed church orders, which typically begin, as do the Church Orders of the RCA, CRCNA, and URCNA, with “Ecclesiastical Offices” or “Assemblies.” The RCUS Constitution begins with a section on “Members” and “Congregations” before proceeding to “Offices.” Reformed church orders, then, tend not to begin with great statements of polity principles as do the Presbyterian orders but proceed rather to practicalities right away. Even the Church Order of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, which denomination is a hybrid Reformed/Presbyterian body, begins with “Offices.” Many of these denominations have church order commentaries; see especially for the RCNZ, D. G. Vanderpyl, Church Order Commentary of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (np: National Publishing Committee of the RCNZ, 1992).  

[3] The Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order (BOCO) begins with the same sentence as does this FG. For commentary on the BOCO, which will also serve analogously for assistance in interpreting our own FG and BD, see Morton H. Smith, Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, Sixth Edition (Taylors, SC: Presbyterian Press of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 2007), 15–16 passim.

[4] R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin, 1990), 104–105.

[5] This is a Reformed assessment of the effects of the various doctrinal aberrations of the Roman Catholic Church. Nothing said herein should be taken as a personal attack on Roman Catholics but rather as a criticism of the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which may be seen in its most positive light as presented by that church itself in 1992, in the pontificate of John Paul II: Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori, 1994).

[6] Alan D. Strange, “Sacraments, the Spirit, and Human Inability,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 12 (2001): 223–246.

[7] Alan D. Strange, “Do the Minister and the Elder Hold the Same Office?” in Ordained Servant: A Journal for Church Officers 22 (2013): 25–32.

[8] This is an affirmation in our FG of jus divinum (or “divine right”) Presbyterianism: the conviction that not only does God’s Word furnish us with Reformed doctrine, but it also sets forth a pattern of Reformed, i.e., Presbyterian, church government. For a classic historical statement of this at the time of the Westminster Assembly. see Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, or The Divine Right of Church Government, by sundry Ministers of London (c. 1646; repr., Dallas: Naphtali, 1995).

[9] Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is It? An Inquiry at the Oracles of God as to Whether Any Existing Form of Church Government is of Divine Right (Belfast, UK: C. Aitchison, 1869) remains perhaps the best treatment of the biblical warrant for Presbyterian government over against the leading contenders.

[10] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit in Contours of Christian Theology, Gerald Bray, series editor (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 35–56.

[11] Richard B. Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: Studies in New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) furnished us broadly with Gaffin’s view on the non-repeatability and significance of Pentecost as does these articles of Dr. Gaffin on the relation between Christ and his Spirit: “Challenges of the Charismatic Movement to the Reformed Tradition, Part 1,” Ordained Servant 7:3 (Jul. 1998): 48–57 and “Challenges of the Charismatic Movement to the Reformed Tradition, Part 2,” Ordained Servant 7:4 (Oct. 1998): 69–74.

[12] Saint Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans In Seven Volumes in the Loeb Classical Library (413–426 AD; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, June 2020.

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