“It is set forth as a distinguishing feature of the purpose of redemption, that it is to save not merely myriads of men as individual men, but myriads of sinners, as composing a Mediatorial body, of which the Mediator shall be the head; a Mediatorial Kingdom, whose government shall be upon His shoulders forever; a Church, the Lamb’s Bride, of which He shall be the Husband; a bride whose beautiful portrait was graven upon the palms of his hands, and whose walls were continually before him, when in the counsels of eternity he undertook her redemption. The mission of Messiah, undertaken in the covenant of eternity, was not merely that of a teaching Prophet and an atoning Priest, but of a ruling King as well. His work was not to enunciate simply a doctrine concerning God and man’s relations to God, as some Socrates, for the founding of a school; nor even merely to atone for sinners as a ministering priest at the altar; it was, as the result of all, and the reward of all, to found a community, to organize a government, and administer therein as a perpetual king.” (Stuart Robinson, The Church of God an Essential Element of the Gospel, 34)
Last week I had the privilege of teaching on the subject of homosexuality and how Christians should think about and respond to it Biblically. If you haven’t read The Gospel and Sexual Orientation (the study committee report of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America) or The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (the conversion story of Rosaria Butterfield) or God and the Gay Christian? (Al Mohler’s response to Matthew Vines’ book claiming one can be a Christian and believe in/be in same sex relationships), I highly recommend you do so. There are other good resources out there, but these are a great place to start.
In this post, I want to think briefly about what the posture of Christians should be toward homosexuality and avowed homosexuals. Four things come to mind:
1. Humility - Paul writes in I Corinthians 6:9-11, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” This passage reminds us that homosexuality is a sin, but also that it is not the unforgivable sin – nor is it the only sin! To be sure, Paul in Romans 1 is clear that homosexuality is unnatural – that is, contrary to the way God designed humans to have sex by nature, one man and one woman. But all sin is unnatural in that it is contrary to the way God created us to live. All of us have sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God. The Christian is one who has been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus and in the Spirit of God. We were enslaved to sin just like the unrepentant homosexual is enslaved to sin, just like the unrepentant greedy man or drunkard is enslaved to sin. And God rescued us by His grace. Of what do we have to boast, if salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone? It is so easy for Christians to fall into the trap of the prideful Pharisee in Luke 18 – “At least I’m not as bad as those homosexuals.” Yet we were, Paul is saying, and it’s only by the grace of God that we are no longer found in the category of the “unrighteous.” The Scriptures are also clear that even as Christians, though we are forgiven and justified and regenerated, we continue to struggle with sin. By nature we are as bad as the worst sinner; the seeds of every sin are found in our heart, and it is only by the grace of God that we do not commit as much sin as we might. The temptations homosexuals face and embrace, though perhaps different than ours, are not foreign to our heart. So we take a posture of humility, not pride; apprehension, not condescension.
2. Compassion and Love – In Mark 10:21, we read that Jesus looked at the rich young ruler in all his sinful, idolatrous pride, and loved him – even though He knew the man would reject His call to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. In Matthew 9:36-37, Jesus looked at the crowds, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and He had compassion for them. Ought not this same love and compassion mark the followers of Christ, as we see people rejecting Him, as we see people enslaved and damaged by their sin and the misery it brings into their lives? It is easy to grow belligerent and hostile toward homosexuals, especially when one sees the cultural conquest the homosexual community has achieved. Christians feel attacked, and tend to lash out on the defensive. Yet even when we are called to defend the truth as it is found in Scripture, we must do it with gentleness and reverence/respect (I Peter. 3:15). We must speak loving words, perform loving actions, think loving thoughts, feel compassion for those who might even hate us. Certainly it is how our Savior would treat them.
3. Fearlessness – Even as we humbly and lovingly approach those who believe that sex between two men or two women (or even between more than two people, or with animals, etc.), we must fearlessly and boldly proclaim the truth of God’s word and the standard of sexuality that He has declared there and placed into our very humanity. Too often Christians equate humility with docility, compassion with fear or quietness. But we must not be afraid to speak the truth in love. We must not fear to be persecuted for standing up for the Bible. We must boldly engage in conversations, relationships, discussions, arguments for the sake of Christ and the salvation of the lost. How many Christians even have a homosexual friend? Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in ministry, even if it takes time and effort and costs you much. Jesus is with you, fear not!
4. Distress and Torment – One passage that is often unknown or overlooked in this whole discussion is II Peter 2:6-10, “If He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority.” We increasingly live in the world righteous Lot inhabited, and we ought to take a cue from righteous Lot’s response to the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah: oppressed/distressed and torment. I think sometimes we believe such responses are not right or good or worthy of a Christian. Yet Peter tells us that being distressed and feeling oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men, feeling our soul tormented by lawless deeds, is a mark of the righteous man or woman. If/as homosexuality becomes the norm in America, and the Christian stance becomes unwelcome and blameworthy and even punishable by law, we should feel much distress and torment. Yet we must also know and believe what Peter teaches, that God knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment. Judgment belongs to the Lord. “What do I have to do with judging outsiders?…God judges those outside” (I Corinthians 5:12).
This fourfold posture is an awkward one to be sure – humility, love, boldness, torment. We are to hold ourselves in different directions, it seems. Yet by the grace of Christ we will be able to maintain this posture, as individuals, as families, and as the church, for His glory, the salvation of the lost, and the edification of His people.
Two weeks ago, we went to Starkville for Elizabeth’s aunt’s funeral service. Aunt Lucy had lived a difficult life, yet her hope and trust were in the Lord Jesus Christ. My mother-in-law, Mary Frances Smith, wrote the following eulogy for her sister. It is not only a beautiful retelling of Lucy’s life, but also a powerful illustration of how God works through suffering to remind us that we all need the grace of the gospel, even (especially!) in those moments when we don’t think we do. And it reminds us how much those with special needs have to teach us.
Lucy’s name means LIGHT. Lucy taught us things we did not even want to learn, took us to places we did not want to go and helped us see things we would not have seen. Lucy showed us this life on earth is not “IT”… It is not Heaven here and now. We live in a broken world. Some things will never be fixed, made right or whole as we desire them to be.
From the very beginning, Lucy had labels attached. Some of these were: cerebral palsy, autism, early childhood schizophrenia, manic depressive, schizophrenia, different, a square peg for a round hole. She hated not fitting in. Lucy had a deep desire to be normal, whole, accepted, well, significant. She had dreams, aspirations never met. She had God given abilities but also God given limitations.
Lucy made us yearn for Heaven where all tears will be wiped away, death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…(Rev. 21:4). Lucy showed us that the “Infinite God is personal” (see Paul Miller, A Praying Life, p. 114, 122).
Sometime during Lucy’s moving in and out of mental hospitals, God gave her a regenerate heart. God showed Lucy that she was a sinner. She needed Him. She prayed and asked Jesus to be her Savior. She knew we could not get to Heaven apart from trusting that Jesus had died on the cross for our sins. Change occurred. She loved Jesus and she knew Jesus loved her. She got a new label: “Child of God,” very loved by Him, very special.
Lucy did not get well, her situation did not change but God entered into to her circumstances. He used the afflictions, pain, suffering to change her and us too. The Holy Spirit lavished her with The Father’s love. God provided her with gifts.
God gave Lucy the gift of her Mother…A faithful mother whose love would not quit, even when Lucy was very difficult to love, even when in the worst of times Lucy threatened Mother’s life. Mother loved her and loved her well to the very end. Mother gave her a few new labels: “#1, best friend, companion, best part of my day.”
God gave Lucy the gift of Art. This was a way for Lucy to relate, communicate with others, to become significant. She got a new label: “Artist.” At first the art was a thing of pride and competition for Lucy. At the end, art was a joy, a tool for showing love and giving to others.
God gave Lucy the gift of Serving. This Church [First Presbyterian Church in Starkville] allowed her to help in the kitchen working with others to prepare for Church meals. She became a great worker. She had never been willing or able to help like this before. This work gave her such joy! She got several new titles: “Servant, best ice tea maker.”
God gave Lucy the gift of you [the saints of FPC Starkville]. All the kindness and love you gave her made a difference!
God gave her the gift of Mental Illness. Lucy came to the place where she could say that she was grateful to God for what He had done for her in her mental illness. This need and weakness had driven her to God. She said that if she had been able to follow her own plans, she would not have known Jesus. She gave herself a new label: “Winner of the High Prize.” John Piper writes, “The best gift God can give us is himself.”
Lucy also taught us that perseverance and courage are necessary. Lucy suffered from isolation and a life time of mental illness. While she was at Whitfield, good behavior was rewarded with cigarettes. Smoking had a calming effect on her and she became a chain smoker, years and years of chain smoking. Cancer came, then surgery to remove the larynx. She never smoked another cigarette. Radiation followed surgery. For the second time in her life, Lucy had to learn to talk, this time without vocal cords. She excelled in this and therapist and doctors gave her another label: “Best ‘no larynx talker’ we have ever heard.”
The cancer never returned; however, Lucy began to suffer from the effects of radiation. A benign tumor grew on her spinal cord and her neck bones became soft. Her neck could no longer hold up her head. Major surgery was done to remove the tumor and stabilize her head. Then more surgery was needed. She developed COPD. When we were there for the surgeries, we saw her faith and felt God’s grace. At times, I felt like I was on holy ground. God brought doctors, nurses, perfect strangers to bless her, pray for her, encourage her, love her. It was a blessing to just stand nearby and get some of the spillover.
Lucy lost the ability to live independently. It was a severe loss. She lost the ability to serve at Church and even attend Church, another deep loss. She moved to Starkville Manor and praise God, she loved it there! She loved the people, the patients, the staff, the visitors and volunteers who came to cheer and comfort. Lucy found a new way to serve. She sat by the front door and punched in the key code to open the door to let people enter and exit. She got a new label: “Door Opener, helper.” She could love and be loved for it. While living there, she was named “Queen of Starkville Manor” at a valentine celebration, another label: Queen
Lucy was losing her ability to speak. She could not make people understand her. She became a note writer. This is a note Lucy wrote and left at Mother’s house last week. Her note reads: “I did my breathing treatment, the(n) exercised, the(n) took a pill for pain, then I came over here—At last I feel so so much better you have to hang in there & don’t give in to it.”
Personally, Lucy let me see that I am a very great sinner and desperately need a very great Savior! Lucy needed to be loved. She needed a very loving sister. There were many periods in my life when I did not love Lucy like God wanted me to love her. I found it difficult to love and accept her. So, Lucy showed me up for who I am. I am the broken one, the mess, with wrong values, priorities, and ways of seeing things. My label: GUILTY!
But God! Like Lucy, I am a child of God and He is teaching me what to do with my guilt. I have named my sin and I have asked God to forgive me for not always loving Lucy as He wanted me to, for not respecting her dignity, for not seeing her as He does. I have confessed that my sin might have contributed to her brokenness. God is teaching me not to carry that guilt around but to hope in His Word and promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). I am believing that Jesus’ blood really does atone for this sin. He has removed that burden of sin from me.
When writing this, I realized that I needed Lucy! I needed to be her sister. I needed to have my face right up there in it all, all the brokenness, suffering, pain, mess, all the grace, the sweet gifts, all the love and blessings. I needed her help to see it all, so that it would break open my hard heart, so that God could help me see my need for Jesus. I need for Him to change me. I am so grateful for the dear Savior Lucy and I have. Tender mercies!! New label: Precious sister.
God wanted to teach us…take us places…help us see things we would not have seen. Lucy’s name means light. Like the moon, Lucy did not make the light. She just reflected the light, the light of Christ, the light of life (John 8:12). Can you imagine the light Lucy is reflecting now as she is in His presence (Rev. 21:23-25)!!!
At its first General Assembly in December 1861, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (at that time known as the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, and the direct ancestor of the Presbyterian Church in America, in which denomination I minister) heard a report from its Committee on Foreign Missions. This paragraph is an incredible statement of the necessity, glory, and power of missions in the life of the church. It should stir the heart of every believer in Jesus Christ, motivating us to pray, give and go so that His gospel reign might be known among the nations:
Finally, the General Assembly desires distinctly and deliberately to inscribe on our church’s banner as she now first unfurls it to the world, in immediate connection with the Headship of her Lord, His last command: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature;” regarding this as the great end of her organization, and obedience to it as the indispensable condition of her Lord’s promised presence, and as one great comprehensive object a proper conception of whose vast magnitude and grandeur is the only thing which in connection with the love of Christ can ever sufficiently arouse her energies and develop her resources, so as to cause her to carry on with the vigor and efficiency which true fealty to her Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to her internal growth and home prosperity. The claims of this cause ought therefore to be kept constantly before the minds of our people and pressed upon their consciences – and every minister owes it to his people and to a perishing world to give such instruction on this subject as he is able; and to this end the monthly concert ought to be devoutly observed by every church on the first Sabbath of each month for the purpose of missionary instruction as well as prayer, and it would be well to accompany their prayers with their offerings. To the same end the Assembly earnestly enjoins upon all our ministers and ruling elders and deacons and Sabbath school teachers, and especially upon parents, particular attention to our precious youth in training them to feel a deep interest in this work, and not only to form habits of systematic benevolence, but to feel and respond to the claims of Jesus upon them for personal service in the field. And should a Sabbath school paper be established, they recommend that at least page be exclusively devoted to this subject.
One sentence in that statement is confusing yet so significant: “[The missionary command of Jesus is] one great comprehensive object a proper conception of whose vast magnitude and grandeur is the only thing which in connection with the love of Christ can ever sufficiently arouse her energies and develop her resources, so as to cause her to carry on with the vigor and efficiency which true fealty to her Lord demands, those other agencies necessary to her internal growth and home prosperity.” Our forefathers are declaring that the work of missions (foreign missions in particular!) is a comprehensive object, aim, & purpose of the church, and that it is only as we properly conceive of its vast magnitude and grandeur, and as our hearts are filled with the love of Christ (both His love for us and our love for Him!), that our efforts and resources (of people and money) will be sufficiently aroused to carry on vigorously and efficiently the work of the church at home, unto our growth and spiritual prosperity. Do we believe this? Do we believe that advancing the cause of Christ around the globe is this important? Do we believe that it has this sort of an effect on our people at home, and even that it alone has this sort of an effect? Our Presbyterian ancestors did, and their missionary commitment both at home and abroad demonstrated this belief. Pastors, do we keep the cause of missions before our people constantly? Do we pray with our people to this end? Do we teach our children to love missions? May the Lord continue to grant us a heart for his work among the nations, for Christ Jesus is the only door to the Father, the sure door to the Father, and the life-giving door to the Father (John 10:1-10).
In 1789, at its first General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America wrote a letter to the new President of the United States of America, George Washington, congratulating him on his inauguration and expressing their prayers to God for him as he began his labors. Their view of his Christian faith and piety, as well as their obligations to the state, is significant.
Tuesday, May 26, 1789
First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
To the President of the United States,
Sir – the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, embrace the earliest opportunity in their power, to testify the lively and unfeigned pleasure which they, with the rest of their fellow-citizens, feel, on your appointment to the first office in the nation.
We adore Almighty God, the author of every perfect gift, who hath endued you with such a rare and happy assemblage of talents, as hath rendered you equally necessary to your country in war and in peace. Your military achievements insured safety and glory to America, in the late arduous conflict for freedom; while your disinterested conduct, and uniformly just discernment of the public interest, gained you the entire confidence of the people: And in the present interesting period of public affairs, the influence of your personal character moderates the divisions of political parties, and promises a permanent establishment of the civil government.
From a retirement more glorious than thrones and scepters, you have been called to your present elevated station, by the advice of a great and a free people; and with an unanimity of suffrage that has few, if any, examples in history. A man more ambitious of fame, or less devoted to his country, would have refused an office in which his honours could not be augmented, and where they might possibly be subject to a reverse. We are happy that God has inclined your heart to give yourself once more to the public. And we derive a favourable presage of the event, from the zeal of all classes of the people, and their confidence in your virtues; as well as from the knowledge and dignity with which the federal councils are filled. But we derive a presage, even more flattering, from the piety of your character. Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity; and religion is the surest basis of virtue. We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief magistrate, a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the Christian religion; who has commenced his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of piety; and who, in his private conduct, adorns the doctrines of the gospel of Christ; and on the most public and solemn occasions, devoutly acknowledges the government of Divine Providence.
The example of distinguished characters will ever possess a powerful and extensive influence on the public mind; and when we see in such a conspicuous station, the amiable example of piety to God, of benevolence to men, and of a pure and virtuous patriotism, we naturally hope that it will diffuse its influence; and that, eventually, the most happy consequences will result from it. To the force of imitation we will endeavour to add the wholesome instructions of religion. We shall consider ourselves as doing an acceptable service to God, in our profession, when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government. In these pious labours, we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren of other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic; shall receive encouragement from every wise and good citizen; and, above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.
We pray Almighty God to have you always in his holy keeping. May he prolong your valuable life, an ornament and a blessing to your country, and at last bestow on you the glorious reward of a faithful servant.
Signed by order of the General Assembly,
John Rodgers, Moderator.
Philadelphia, May 26th, 1789
The following year, President Washington wrote the Assembly back. His humility, as well as his understanding of what promotes the happiness of a country, are noteworthy.
To the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Gentlemen, I received with great sensibility the testimonial given by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, of the lively and unfeigned pleasure experienced by them on my appointment to the first office in the nation.
Although it will be my endeavour to avoid being elated by the too favourable opinion which your kindness for me may have induced you to express of the importance of my former conduct, and the effect of my future services; yet, conscious of the disinterestedness of my motives, it is not necessary for me to conceal the satisfaction I have felt upon finding that my compliance with the call of my country, and my dependence on the assistance of heaven to support me in my arduous undertaking, have, so far as I can learn, met the universal approbation of my countrymen. While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon heaven as the source of all public and private blessings, I will observe, that the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy, seems in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and confirming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will all be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the benevolence of their actions. For no man who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.
I desire you to accept my acknowledgements for your laudable endeavours to render men sober, honest, and good citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government; as well as your prayers to Almighty God for his blessings on our common country, and the humble instrument which he has been pleased to make use of in the administration of its government.
We may not ever again be able to correspond with a ruler in this manner, but let us continue to pray for our president and his officials, according to God’s word in I Timothy 2:1ff.. Let us continue to strive to work to see the people of God be the best citizens they can be (per Jeremiah 29). And let us pray that Biblical piety will once again mark our leaders, as it did in some during the early days of our country. We don’t need the latter to occur for the first two to be our duty.
(Taken from the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1789-1790)
William O. Brackett, Jr., in two articles in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society entitled “The Rise and Development of the New School in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to the Reunion of 1869″ (Vol. 13, No. 3 (September, 1928), pp. 117-140; and Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 1928), pp. 145-174), argues that denominations often pass through five stages/phases of development: 1) revival; 2) increased membership and demand for ministers; 3) disagreement as to the education of ministers and the standards of doctrine and church polity; 4) division; and, finally, 5) reunion in the face of common spiritual need, followed by renewed spiritual interest and revival. He illustrates this process with the schism between the New Side and Old Side of the pre-Revolutionary Presbyterian Church in 1741, as well as the Old School-New School split in the Presbyterian Church in 1837.
If the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) follows a similar trend, then it seems we have been in the third stage for some time now, and we shouldn’t be surprised if some sort of division happens in the next decade or so. There have been individual teaching elders and churches that have left the PCA over the years, to the right and to the left, but to this point we’ve been able to stave off any large scale separation over issues such as women’s ordination, views of creation, subscription to the Westminster Standards, or discipline (or the lack thereof). At some point, however, the center will possibly not be able to hold, and churches will be forced to decide to which side/school they belong. By God’s grace this will not happen, but if history and the depravity of man is any guide, we shouldn’t be caught unawares by the processes of division that might occur (and indeed are already occurring). If we do divide, let us not lose heart, but take comfort in the fact that the last stage of denomination development is reunion!
You’ve likely heard about the “five points of Calvinism.” Well, in this address given on October 12, 1883, Thomas Dwight Witherspoon (a 19th century Presbyterian who pastored in Oxford, MS, and Memphis, TN) notes five distinctive aspects of Presbyterian church government (also known as “polity”) – you might call them the “five points of Presbyterianism.” Whether you are already a Presbyterian and need a refresher, or are wondering whether you might want to become a Presbyterian, you need to know what we believe the Bible teaches about how Jesus runs His church.
- “Church power is vested not in officers of any grade or rank, but in the whole corporate body of believers.” Christ has not vested power in a single officer (contra Romanism), or in the clergy or a subset of the clergy (contra Episcopalianism), but in the people – so that no man can hold office apart from the people of God calling him to off. “Here, then,” Witherspoon writes, “is a grand, fundamental difference between the Presbyterian Church and all those churches that are prelatical or hierarchical in form, in that ours is a government in which Christ rules through the voice of his people, his whole redeemed people, and not through any privileged class, any spiritual nobility, or aristocracy of grace.”
- “This power, though vested in the people, is not administered by them immediately, but through a body of officers chosen by them, and commissioned as their representatives to bear rule in Christ’s name.” Presbyterian government is a republic, not a democracy. The people call the elders at the outset (acknowledging the internal call by the Spirit of God), but the elders rule and make decisions. If the first principle sets our church over against hierarchical polities, this second principle “separates us from all churches that are congregational in form.”
- “The whole administration of government in the Church has been committed to a single order of officers, all of whom, though having in some respects different functions to perform, are of co-ordinate and equal authority in the Church.” According to the Scripture, Presbyterians recognize two ordinary officers in the church: elders and deacons. But deacons do not rule in the Lord’s house; they are not overseers of the flock – rather, they minister to the temporal, outward needs of the people of God, showing mercy to the needy and handling the “secular” concerns of the church. Elders are the pastors of the flock, stewards and overseers of the sheep. There are two types (Witherspoon uses the word “classes,” the PCA uses the word “orders”) of elder: some rule, and some rule and are set apart by the Church to devote the whole of their life to teaching and preaching. But as Witherspoon notes, “whilst this ministry of the Word entitles them to special honor, it confers not higher rank and invests with no superior authority. The minister in our church courts has no more authority than the ruling elder, so that we not have in the Presbyterian Church the ‘parity of the clergy,’ of which we hear so much, but the parity of the eldership, of the ruling elder with the teaching elder, a principle not to be found under any other form of church government.”
- “These Presbyters rule not singly but jointly in regularly-constituted assemblies or courts.” To be sure, there are functions that elders perform individually (“severally” is the fancy word), yet all judicial functions are administered only by the court as a whole, which cannot transact business unless a quorum of both types of elders are present. There is no possibility of one man usurping power in the Presbyterian church, for no one man exercises authority on his own.
- “These church courts are so subordinated to one another that a question of government or discipline may be carried by appeal or complaint or review from a lower to a higher court, representing a larger number of congregations, until every part of the Church is, through this due subordination, brought immediately under the supervision and control of the whole.” This right appeal – from Session to Presbytery (then in some Presbyterian denominations, to Synod) to General Assembly – binds the whole church together “in a unity of mutual oversight, government, and control.”
Witherspoon goes on to discuss some of the excellencies of this Scriptural form of church government. His entire address is worth the read. I thank God for this form of government He has laid down in His word, and I wish that every Christian embraced it whole-heartedly. However, one of the beauties of Presbyterianism that Witherspoon doesn’t mention, but James Henley Thornwell does, is that we make a distinction “between the Church in its essential elements and the mode of its external manifestation” – and so “the Presbyterian Standards avoid the narrow and exclusive spirit which would limit God’s covenant to their own little household; they can find members of Christ’s Church beyond their own doors. By contending, at the same time, that Christ has prescribed the model in conformity with which His people should be governed, they avoid the licentiousness which would give to man the same power and discretion in fixing ecclesiastical, which may be lawfully claimed in settling civil, constitutions. They are, consequently, neither bigots on the one hand nor libertines on the other. They embrace in charity all who love Christ, and they testify in faithfulness against all who pervert the order of His house.” (Collected Writings, Volume 4, p. 21). May the Lord continue to help us reject both these extremes and live out our Presbyterian convictions to His glory.