Assemblies for Church Government
18. Christ hath instituted a government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church. To that end, the apostles did immediately receive the keys from the hand of Jesus Christ, and did use and exercise them in all the churches of the world upon all occasions. And Christ hath since continually furnished some in his church with gifts for government, and with commission to exercise the same, when called thereunto, and has promised his presence to be with them to the end of the world. The Scripture doth hold out an assembly of elders in a church, which assembly consisteth of ministers of the word, and elders who labor not in the word and doctrine, who are to join with the ministers in the government of the church. And to take away all occasion of tyranny, Christ wills that they should rule with mutual consent and equality of power, every one according to his functions. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical and synodical.
19. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that the several assemblies before mentioned have power to convene, and call before them any person within their several bounds whom the ecclesiastical business which is before them doth concern, either as a party, or a witness, or otherwise, and to examine them according to the nature of the business. They have power to hear and determine such causes and differences as do orderly come before them. It is lawful, and agreeable to the word of God, that all the said assemblies have some power to dispense church censures. It pertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline maintained, and the church property distributed without corruption.
20. It is most expedient that, in these meetings, one whose office is to labor in the word and doctrine, do moderate in their proceedings, who is to vote as well as the rest of the members; to begin and end every meeting with prayer; to propose questions, gather the votes, pronounce the resolves; but not to do any act of government, unless in and jointly with the assembly whereof he is moderator. All the members of these assemblies, respectively, are to attend on the appointed days of their meetings, or to send the reason of their absence, to be judged by the assembly where they ought to meet. The final resolutions shall be by the major part of the votes of those members who are present. An assembly may appoint committees of its number for the more careful and minute consideration of these portions of business which seem to require such appointment, it being understood that the committees are to report to the assembly, who will record their own judgment upon the subjects of the several reports. No judicatory shall appoint a commission to determine judicially any case whatever.
21. An assembly appoints a clerk, whose duty it is to write regular minutes of the assembly’s procedure, to engross the same in a permanent record, and to take charge of all assembly papers, books and documents. Before proceeding to any other business, an assembly ought, at each meeting, to hear the minutes of last sederunt read; and the judgment of the assembly, approving of said minutes or correcting them, ought to be recorded. The approval or correcting of the minutes does not imply any power to alter the actions of the meeting; the only question is the correctness of the minute as a true account of what was done. The clerk should be cautious in giving extracts from the records without the authority of the court. It is needful that an accurate roll of the members of an assembly be kept by the clerk, and that it be corrected regularly on the occurrence of changes.
22. The ruling officers of a particular congregation, namely the pastor or pastors and the ruling elders, constitute the session. They have power, authoritatively, to call before them any member of the congregation, as they shall see just occasion. To inquire into the knowledge and spiritual estate of the several members of the congregation. To admonish and rebuke. Which three branches are proved by Hebrews 12:17 and I Thessalonians 5:12-13.
23. Authoritative suspension from the Lord’s table of a person not cast out of the church is agreeable to the Scripture: First, because the ordinance itself must not be profaned. Secondly, because we are charged to withdraw from those that walk disorderly. Thirdly, Because of the great sin and danger, both to him that comes unworthily, and also to the whole church. The ruling officers of a particular congregation have power authoritatively to suspend from the Lord’s table a person not cast out of the church: First, Because those who have authority to judge of, and admit, such as are fit to receive the sacrament, have authority to keep back such as shall be found unworthy. Secondly, Because it is an ecclesiastical business of ordinary practice belonging to that congregation.
24. Every session has a right and is bound to elect one of the ruling elders belonging to their number, as a representative to the superior judicatures of the bounds. The minister of the word cannot be liable to the censure of the session, but to the superior judicatures of the church. The session do not stand to the pastor or minister in the relation of his spiritual rulers. He is not responsible to the session for the discharge of his own functions, although, if he seem to neglect these, or to encroach upon the session’s functions, they can petition the presbytery against his procedure. The minister is specially responsible to the presbytery for the mode in which all the parts of public worship are conducted. It is the function of the session, with concurrence of the minister, to fix the times and hours of public worship on the Lord’s Day, to appoint fast days, and to authorize the administration of the sacraments. When there are more fixed ministers than one in a congregation, it is expedient that they moderate by course in that eldership.
25. The session is legally convened by authority of the moderator, or by command of a superior court, either through public intimation from the pulpit, or through personal citation to all the individual members. Two members of session form a sufficient quorum to enable the meeting to proceed to business, provided one of the members have the status of ordained minister. The meetings of session are not usually open to the public, or even to the congregation. The session clerk is not at liberty, in any instance whatever, to give extracts from the minutes without the sanction of the session. No congregational meeting which can be recognized as valid for ecclesiastical acts can be held, except by the authority of the session, or of a superior court; and at every such meeting the minister of the congregation, if present, must preside.
26. No one can be admitted to the privilege of the Lord’s Supper, without satisfying the session that he possesses these qualifications, viz.: (1.) A confession of faith in accordance with the word of God and the standards of the church. (2.) A life and conversation becoming the gospel, in so far as can be outwardly seen. (3.) A competent knowledge of religious truth, and of the nature and meaning of Christian ordinances. It is the approved practice for the minister to exhort the applicants with respect to all the more hidden qualifications which the word of God requires, and of which they themselves alone can judge. It is necessary that an accurate roll of the members of the congregation be kept by the session clerk among the sessional documents.
The Deacons’ Council
27. The pastor or pastors of each congregation, along with the ruling elders and the deacons, constitute the deacons’ council. The higher office scripturally includes the lower. The pastor and ruling elders are, therefore, not excluded from the exercise of the deacon’s function. The deacons’ council attend to the temporal wants of the poor connected with the congregation. The session may entrust the deacons’ council with charge of the whole property belonging to the congregation, making the distribution of all the congregational funds subject to the regulation of the deacons’ council, in the exercise of their allowed discretion.
28. The deacon’s council is convened by citation from the pulpit, or by personal notice to the members. It is called by authority of the minister, or at the requisition of any two members. The minister in a congregation always presides in the deacons’ council when he is present. In his absence any other member of the court may be chosen to preside. The quorum of deacons’ council is the same as that of the session, except that the presence of a pastor as one of the quorum is not necessary. Every meeting of deacons’ council is both opened and closed with prayer. The deacons’ council are required to appoint a clerk. The clerk is required to keep a separate record for the minutes of its procedure, and to take charge of such papers, books and documents as are not entrusted to the custody of a treasurer. Before proceeding to other business, the deacon’s council ought, at each meeting, to hear the minutes of last sederunt read; and the judgment of the deacons’ council approving of the minutes or correcting them, ought to be recorded. After each change in the membership of the deacons’ council, a revised roll of the members ought to be recorded in the minute. Any member of a deacons’ council may enter his dissent from any part of their procedure of which he disapproves. And his dissent must be dealt with in the same manner as a simple dissent is dealt with by a session.
29. When congregations are divided and fixed, they need all mutual help one from another, both in regard of their intrinsical weakness and mutual dependence, and also in regard of enemies from without.
30. The Scripture doth hold forth that many particular congregations may be under one presbyterial government. The presbytery is the radical court of the church, or that from which the whole Presbyterian government derives its form. A classical presbytery is made up of ministers of the word, and other ruling officers belonging unto several neighboring congregations, and doth ordinarily consist of all the pastors and teachers belonging to the several congregations so associated, and of one of the other ruling officers, at the least, from every of these congregations, to be sent by their respective presbyteries. An equal number of the elders of each session shall be eligible to participate in the deliberations and actions of the presbytery, the number being in no case larger than the number of elders on the session which is numerically the least. All ministers of the word shall be members of a presbytery. Professors of Theology, for the training of the ministry, are appointed by the highest court of the church; no one can be appointed a Professor of Theology who is not a minister of the Presbyterian Reformed Church.
31. It belongeth unto classical presbyteries, to consider of, to debate, and to resolve, according to God’s word, such cases of conscience, and other difficulties in doctrine, as are brought unto them out of their association, according as they shall find needful for the good of the churches. To examine and censure, according to the word, any erroneous doctrines which have been either publicly, or privately, vented within their association, to the corrupting of the judgments of men; and to endeavor the converting of any in error or schism. To put a stop to schismatical contentions. To take cognizance of causes omitted or neglected in particular congregations, and to receive appeals from them. To dispense censures in cases within their cognizance by admonition, suspension, or excommunication. To examine, ordain and admit ministers for the congregations respectively therein associated. It is held to be the duty of presbyteries to deal with the members in a friendly manner with respect to their shortcomings, so as to avert, by timely admonition, the necessity of more formal procedure at a future date. It is the duty of the brethren to stir one another up in the common faith.
32. In the event of a vacancy in the pastoral office of a congregation, a minister who is a member of presbytery is appointed by the presbytery to act as moderator of session; and in the event of there being no ruling elders, or only one, the presbytery may appoint one or more assessors from their own body to act as members of session, until a new election of a ruling elder or of ruling elders shall have taken place. The interim moderator possesses the authority and executes all the functions of the stated pastor; he is to preside at all congregational meetings that may be held during the vacancy. It is the duty of the presbytery to see that ordinances are duly administered and discipline upheld in any congregation that may be vacant, and to carry out the laws of the church as to filling up the vacancy.
33. A minister who wishes to resign his pastoral charge, from ill-health, old age, or other circumstances not affecting his ministerial character, must tender his resignation to the presbytery under whose jurisdiction he is placed. The presbytery deal with him as to the reasons of the proposed resignation. If the presbytery find the alleged reasons unsatisfactory, or if any circumstance or public report be made known to them which requires investigation, they cannot accept of the resignation until it be ascertained that there is no ground for bringing their brother under the censures of the church. But if nothing objectionable appear with respect to his procedure, and they find him continuing to be conscientiously persuaded that it is his duty to follow out his intention, it is their duty to accept of his resignation, and to take immediate steps for declaring the pastoral charge of his congregation vacant.
34. It is desirable that presbyteries examine by visitation into the state of every congregation within their bounds once, at least, in five years. The object of presbyterial visitation is to strengthen the hands of the ministers, elders, and deacons, and to give the benefit of special advice and counsel to the congregation as well as to the office-bearers; presbyteries are to have special regard to the work of the minister and office-bearers and the spiritual state of the membership. Apart from this general system of presbyterial visitation, it is competent, and may sometimes be extremely desirable, for a presbytery to appoint a special visitation of a particular congregation, when circumstances calling for such visitation have been forced upon their notice.
35. After a presbytery has formed an opinion in favor of the formation or admission of a congregation, it shall record and transmit its opinion, along with a full statement of the case, for the consideration of the highest court of the church, which alone shall have the power of sanctioning a formation or admission. The ruling elders and deacons of a congregation seeking admission shall be examined by the presbytery as to their qualifications in doctrine and life. When the highest court of the church has determined to admit a congregation to the Presbyterian Reformed Church, the presbytery shall demand of the congregation’s ruling elders and deacons the questions in the formula of subscription for office bearers, set forth in the Basis of Union.
36. The Scripture doth hold out another sort of assemblies for the government of the church, beside classical and congregational, all which we call synodical. These assemblies have ecclesiastical power and authority to judge and determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience, according to the word. They may also lawfully excommunicate, and dispense other church censures. Synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national and ecumenical. The provincial and national assemblies are made up of the ministers of the word belonging to the presbyteries of the bounds, and one of the ruling elders of each session of the bounds. Ecumenical assemblies were appointed and called together specially when a great schism or controversy in doctrine did arise in the church, and were convened at the command of the godly emperors, for the avoiding of schism within the universal church of God.