Concerning Presbyterian government and the rule of elders: If someone is a member of a Presbyterian church, does that person have to obey the elders in all their counsel? For example, if the session strongly recommends a person come to a fellowship meal, does that person have to now go, so that he does not break the commandment against disobeying the elders? Do elders have the right to enforce their counsel by just simply saying it is a sin to disobey elders, or must they give counsel from the law of God (so that a person obeys the law of God through heeding the counsel of elders)?
I was recently told that I was not Presbyterian because I believe that elders can command only what is commanded in Scripture and cannot demand obedience simply because they are elders. What is the teaching of the OPC?
There are a number of places in Scripture that speak of the rule of the office-bearers in Christ’s church who are called to govern, namely, ministers (pastors), together with the ruling elders. Hebrews 13:7, 17, for example, tells us to “imitate” the faith of our leaders and to “obey your leaders and submit to them.”
The question then that naturally arises is to the precise nature of the rule of elders. Is it the same, for example, as the rule of parents or that of police? While all human rule stems from the Fifth Commandment (see Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 123ff.), not all rule among humans is of the same sort. The parent, for example, has the closest rule and can forbid even that which is otherwise lawful. For example, the parent can tell a child that he or she may not have ice cream. Since having ice cream is otherwise not illegal (assuming that is has been legally procured), it is not the place of the policeman to tell someone that he or she may not have ice cream. Similarly, policemen may arrest and the courts prosecute someone for a crime for which the church believes that the person has truly repented. In such a case, a man could be executed because criminally guilty but not excommunicated because repentant.
All this is to say that the church, the family, and the state are different institutions under God, each having different officers and mechanisms of discipline. The keys belong to the church, for instance, while the sword belongs to the state and the rod belongs to the family. Parents may corporally punish their children but not with the sword - the parents may not put to death. The church may exercise the keys and keep someone from the Lord’s Table, but they may not use the rod. Our Form of Government (as part of our Book of Church Order) in Chapter 3, instructs us quite specifically as to “The Nature and Exercise of Church Power.” Permit me to insert that whole chapter here and then to call attention to some particular matters.
THE NATURE AND EXERCISE OF CHURCH POWER
1. The power which Christ has committed to his church is not vested in the special officers alone, but in the whole body. All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in due measure of each part. The power of believers in their general office includes the right to acknowledge and desire the exercise of the gifts and calling of the special offices. The regular exercise of oversight in a particular congregation is discharged by those who have been called to such work by vote of the people.
2. Those who join in exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction are the ministers of the Word or teaching elders, and other church governors, commonly called ruling elders. They alone must exercise this authority by delegation from Christ, since according to the New Testament these are the only permanent officers of the church with gifts for such rule. Ruling elders and teaching elders join in congregational, presbyterial, and synodical assemblies, for those who share gifts for rule from Christ must exercise these gifts jointly not only in the fellowship of the saints in one place but also for the edification of all the saints in larger areas so far as they are appointed thereto in an orderly manner, and are acknowledged by the saints as those set over them in the Lord.
Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.
3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, XX, 2).
4. All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.
5. Nevertheless, church government is a valid and authentic jurisdiction to which Christians are commanded to submit themselves. Therefore the decisions of church officers when properly rendered and if in accord with the Word of God “are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word” (Confession of Faith, XXXI, 2).
Please note that all church power is ministerial and declarative. This is over against the view of the Roman Catholic Church that church power is magisterial and legislative. Notice that it goes on to say that “no church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority” (see also the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20, on Christian Liberty). This means that governors in the church can only apply the commands of the Lord and may not promulgate canon law or legislate matters of wisdom, like whether one should have ice cream, take this job, or marry this person. Church governors may certainly give advice and counsel, which should always be thoughtfully weighed and seriously considered. But they may not command without explicit warrant from the Word.
All this is to say that it is never enough for the Session to say that it must be obeyed simply because it is the Session. The Session may advise with respect to its assessment of the wisdom or lack thereof in a particular situation, but it may command only with respect to applying the commandments of the Lord.
I will not presume to know precisely how that translates in your situation. I cannot answer your particular case because I have not heard both sides and attempting to provide an answer in such a situation would be unwise and wrongheaded (Prov. 18:13, 17). Perhaps the elders are instructing and applying God’s Word and you are not seeing it properly. I do not know. But I do know as to Presbyterian principles, that the nature and exercise of church power is that the elders can only command properly (with authority) with a “thus saith the Lord” from Scripture. I hope that this answer in some way proves helpful.
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