Archive for the ‘Church Order & Discipline’ Category

Listen to this classic work of Presbyterian church government written by London divines at the time of the Westminster Assembly. But fair warning: not for the faint of heart! But if you’re a thinker and would like to learn as you go, let me do the reading for you. [Project in progress.]

“Arguably the best biblical defenses of presbyterian ecclesiology and explanations of its polity were produced in the seventeenth century. Among these, none has a reputation better than an English work with the Latin title Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, with the English subtitle The Divine Right of Church Government. In three successive editions, two of which were penned during the time that the Westminster Assembly met, ‘sundry’ London ministers laid out their case. In the first part of the book they demonstrate that there is a government of the church established and revealed by God. In the second part of the book they describe that government, explain its benefits to God’s people, and further develop the biblical and theological justifications for presbyterianism.

Chris Coldwell’s new edition of this classic work will prove a most welcome addition to the Presbyterian minister’s or even church member’s bookshelf. The entire book was addressed to people who were not yet persuaded regarding the merits of presbyterian church government. It hardly needs to be said that such an audience has only expanded in the Christian world and that many people could benefit from understanding a principled form of church government rather than ones where leaders (or members) make it up as they go along. This critical edition is almost a third longer than earlier abridged versions. It offers David Noe’s translations of Latin material and a thoughtful introduction. The edition also evidences Coldwell’s careful editorial work and successful sleuthing, in some cases solving puzzles that have stumped historians for centuries. Editor, subscribers, and publisher are to be thanked for this invaluable scholarly contribution.” 

— Chad Van Dixhoorn, editor of The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643–1652

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Read the entire chapter from William Cunningham’s Historical Theology: A Review of the Principal Discussions in the Christian Church Since the Apostolic Age (1863). Or, listen to the audio here.

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The following is a series of messages given to lay out the distinctives of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, a denomination organized through the instrumentality of Professor John Murray in 1965, committed to the principles of historic Scottish Presbyterianism in doctrine, worship, government, and discipline, as enshrined in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).

(Note: The title “Our Testimony” is merely thematic, and does not refer to a supplementary ecclesiastical document besides the Westminster Standards as is done among Reformed Presbyterian brethren.)

Original Series

Our Testimony, Part 1: Psalm Singing

Our Testimony, Part 2: Instruments in Worship

Our Testimony, Part 3: Presbyterianism

Our Testimony, Part 4: Holy Days, True & False

Our Testimony, Part 5: Confessionalism

Our Testimony, Part 6: Experimental Religion

Our Testimony, Part 7: The Free Offer of the Gospel

Our Testimony, Part 8: Religious Establishments #1

Our Testimony, Part 8: Religious Establishments #2

Our Testimony, Part 9: Head Coverings

Our Testimony, Part 10: Liberty of Conscience

Our Testimony, Part 11: Our Communion Practice

Our Testimony, Part 12: Frequency of Communion

Additional Messages

One Table, One Cup, One Bread

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X. Sess. 13 et ult., April 27, 1708.—Act and Recommendation concerning Ministerial Visitation of Families.

“. . . Seeing, for the faithful discharge of ministers’ work, they ought, besides what is incumbent to them in the public congregation, to take special care and inspection of the particular persons and families under their oversight and charge, in order to which, it hath been the laudable custom of this Church, at least once a year, if the largeness of the parish, bodily inability in the minister, or other such like causes, do not hinder, for ministers to visit all the families in their parish, and oftener, if the parish be small, and they be able to set about it.

“For the more uniform and successful management of which work, although in regard of the different circumstances of some parishes, families, and persons, much of this work, and the management thereof, must be left to the discretion and prudence of ministers in their respective oversights, yet these following advices are offered and overtured as helps in the management thereof, that it may not be done in a slight and overly manner.


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Here is a great article highlighting the lessons we can glean from John Knox and company on missions.

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The following is a section drawn from the Westminster Directory for Public Worship (1645).  May we be moved to respond!  “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD” (Joel 1:14).

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39077_lgWHEN some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people, or apparently imminent, or by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved; as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, publick solemn fasting (which is to continue the whole day) is a duty that God expecteth from that nation or people.

A religious fast requires total abstinence, not only from all food, (unless bodily weakness do manifestly disable from holding out till the fast be ended, in which case somewhat may be taken, yet very sparingly, to support nature, when ready to faint,) but also from all worldly labour, discourses, and thoughts, and from all bodily delights, and such like, (although at other times lawful,) rich apparel, ornaments, and such like, during the fast; and much more from whatever is in the nature or use scandalous and offensive, as gaudish attire, lascivious habits and gestures, and other vanities of either sex; which .i.we; recommend to all ministers, in their places, diligently and zealously to reprove, as at other times, so especially at a fast, without respect of persons, as there shall be occasion.

Before the publick meeting, each family and person apart are privately to use all religious care to prepare their hearts to such a solemn work, and to be early at the congregation.

So large a portion of the day as conveniently may be, is to be spent in publick reading and preaching of the word, with singing of psalms, fit to quicken affections suitable to such a duty: but especially in prayer, to this or the like effect:

“Giving glory to the great Majesty of God, the Creator, Preserver, and supreme Ruler of all the world, the better to affect us thereby with an holy reverence and awe of him; acknowledging his manifold, great, and tender mercies, especially to the church and nation, the more effectually to soften and abase our hearts before him; humbly confessing of sins of all sorts, with their several aggravations; justifying God’s righteous judgments, as being far less than our sins do deserve; yet humbly and earnestly imploring his mercy and grace for ourselves, the church and nation, for our king, and all in authority, and for all others for whom we are bound to pray, (according as the present exigent requireth,) with more special importunity and enlargement than at other times; applying by faith the promises and goodness of God for pardon, help, and deliverance from the evils felt, feared, or deserved; and for obtaining the blessings which we need and expect; together with a giving up of ourselves wholly and for ever unto the Lord.”

In all these, the ministers, who are the mouths of the people unto God, ought so to speak from their hearts, upon serious and thorough premeditation of them, that both themselves and their people may be much affected, and even melted thereby, especially with sorrow for their sins; that it may be indeed a day of deep humiliation and afflicting of the soul.

Special choice is to be made of such scriptures to be read, and of such tests for preaching, as may best work the hearts of the hearers to the special business of the day, and most dispose them to humiliation and repentance: insisting most on those particulars which each minister’s observation and experience tells him are most conducing to the edification and reformation of that congregation to which he preacheth.

Before the close of the publick duties, the minister is, in his own and the people’s name, to engage his and their hearts to be the Lord’s, with professed purpose and resolution to reform whatever is amiss among them, and more particularly such sins as they have been more remarkably guilty of; and to draw near unto God, and to walk more closely and faithfully with him in new obedience, than ever before.

He is also to admonish the people, with all importunity, that the work of that day doth not end with the publick duties of it, but that they are so to improve the remainder of the day, and of their whole life, in reinforcing upon themselves and their families in private all those godly affections and resolutions which they professed in publick, as that they may be settled in their hearts for ever, and themselves may more sensibly find that God hath smelt a sweet savour in Christ from their performances, and is pacified towards them, by answers of grace, in pardoning of sin, in removing of judgments, in averting or preventing of plagues, and in conferring of blessings, suitable to the conditions and prayers of his people, by Jesus Christ.

Besides solemn and general fasts enjoined by authority, we judge that, at other times, congregations may keep days of fasting, as divine providence shall administer unto them special occasion; and also that families may do the same, so it be not on days wherein the congregation to which they do belong is to meet for fasting, or other publick duties of worship.

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A powerful plea from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for a return to meaningful pre-membership instruction to recall the “paper currency” back to a “gold standard.”  This extract comes from his work, What is Faith?

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At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.


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Small groups are immensely popular in evangelical circles these days, and increasingly commonplace in Reformed communions.  I’m not sure how much of this is due to the influence of New Calvinism or whether it’s due to old-guard Reformed folk warming up to broader evangelicalism.  Maybe both.  Regardless of the source, it’s definitely a popular construct.   Some would even argue that it’s a staple for ordinary church life.

I’ve been back and forth on small groups for some time.  In my more skeptical moments, the following concerns have come to mind.

First, in classic Reformed ecclesiology – which in my judgment is radically biblical – where do small groups fit?   They are not the public assembly, where the believers of a local communion “come together” to observe the corporate worship of God (Acts 14:27, 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23, 26).   And you can’t assign them to the private (Mat. 6:6, 14:23) or family devotion categories (Gen. 18:19, Deut. 6:4-9), since you can’t have a small group with one person or just one family.   So if they are not in the three, traditional categories of worship/means of grace ministry (WCF 21.6), what place should they have?

I suppose an argument could be made that we can get them in the door by the body life argument.  Small groups could be seen as a manifestation of koinonia, our sharing in the common life of the Spirit.  Isn’t that Reformed?  “Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification” (WCF 26.2).   Well, I admit coming together for the Lord’s day services is not all there is to church fellowship.  There is much to be done on a smaller scale and with more intimacy.  Fine and good.  “They that feared the Lord spoke often one with another, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3:16).  But when informal, spiritual conversations transition into small groups, something changes.  It is formalized, it requires organization, structure, and facilitation if not leadership.  In short, it becomes programmatic.   So if it is programmatic, where does it fit in the apostolic program?   Is it a component of the ‘ordinary means?’

Second, there is the collective wisdom of our Reformed forbears.  While I’m no expert in 16th and 17th century church history, it does appear that the Westminster Divines discouraged small groups from having a normative place in the life of God’s people.  In fact, they appear to have been suspicious of them.  “Whatsoever have been the effects and fruits of meetings of persons of divers families in the times of corruption or trouble, (in which cases many things are commendable, which otherwise are not tolerable,) yet, when God hath blessed us with peace and purity of the gospel, such meetings of persons of divers families (except in cases mentioned in these Directions) are to be disapproved, as tending to the hinderance of the religious exercise of each family by itself, to the prejudice of the publick ministry, to the rending of the families of particular congregations, and (in progress of time) of the whole kirk. Besides many offences which may come thereby, to the hardening of the hearts of carnal men, and grief of the godly” (Directory for Family Worship, Section 7).

Third, there is the obvious susceptibility of small groups to the influence of egalitarianism, feminism, and a host of other -isms.  Clearly they are more vulnerable; and what is more, I have to wonder whether they are not in some ways the product of these extra-biblical spirits of the age.

So I ask the question – or to be more frank, I raise the doubt.   For now, at least.

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Thomas Boston wrote in his Memoirs that he had been troubled ever since beginning his ministry “with several things in our constitution [of the Church of Scotland], especially the manner of admitting to the Lord’s table, and planting of churches” (338).  Being appointed to a committee to review such matters, Boston took the opportunity to redress these problems.  The following is an overture from his pen, entitled “Of admission to the Lord’s table, and debarring from it,” contained as an appendix in his Memoirs (487-88).  While there are many contextual disconnects with our modern circumstances, there is much instructive here for the admission of new members and the role of catechesis in the process. 

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” 1. Admission to the Lord’s table, and debarring from it, being acts of church discipline and government in a particular congregation, belong to the session of the congregation, and are not to be exercised by any minister or elder by themselves, nor any society of ministers and elders in an extrajudicial capacity.

” 2. Besides the ordinary examinations in parishes, it is meet there be diets of examination particularly for non-communicants, and specially those of the younger sort. And for this end, that once every year at least, especially before the celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the congregation, ministers, from the pulpit, exhort and stir up non-communicants to serious godliness, and the use of the means of knowledge; and intimate to all such as desire to be prepared to partake of that ordinance, that they give in their names to him, and wait on the diets of catechising to be appointed for such.

” 3. The names of such as offer themselves to be instructed, in order to their being admitted to the Lord’s table, are to be kept in a roll separate from that of the whole congregation, and to be brought into the session, and read before them; that it may be recommended to all the brethren, to have a particular eye on the inrolled, each especially on those of his own district; to excite, admonish, and exhort them, to a walk becoming the gospel, and the high privilege they are aspiring to.

“4. When a non-communicant removes out of one parish into another, it were fit that he produce sufficient testimonials from the place of his former abode, before he be inrolled amongst those who have offered themselves to be instructed as above said, in the congregation to which he comes.

” 5. When one desires to be admitted to the Lord’s table, he is in due time to intimate his desire to the session, that they may maturely consider of it. But it were fit, that the party should in the first place acquaint the minister with his purpose; who, if he finds he has not made a competent proficiency by the pains taken on him, in the examinations of non-communicants, or otherwise, may advise him yet to forbear for a time.

” 6. The session entering on this affair, a strict inquiry is to be made among the members, particularly at the elder or elders of the district which the party belongs to, concerning his life and conversation; whether he be guilty of any scandal; owns, submits to, and ordinarily attends, the ordinances of Christ, the public and private worship of God; if he be of a pious and sober deportment, and reputed to be a worshipper of God in secret; and if he be the head of a family, whether he worships God in his family.

” 7. If nothing be found on that part to hinder his admission to the Lord’s table, the session convening, on a set day, in the place of public worship, and the doors being open, that all the communicants, and those who have offered themselves to he instructed as ahove said, may have access, if they please, he is, in face of session, to give proof of his knowledge of the principles of the Christian religion, and particularly of the nature, use, and ends, of the ordinance of the supper, by making a confession of his faith, either in the way of a continued discourse, or by answering questions thereupon proposed by the minister.

” 8. And here special consideration is to be had of some who are known to be serious, and willing to learn, yet are weak ; namely, that the questions be proposed to them, so as they may be answered by Yes, or No; or that the truth and error be both laid before them, and they asked, which of them they believe.

” 9. The trial being ended, the session is to judge, whether the party be endowed with competent knowledge of the principles of the Christian religion, or not.

” 10. And if they be satisfied in this also, the party is to be put explicitly to consent to the covenant (whereof he desires the seal), to be the Lord’s, live unto Him, and serve Him all the days of his life, by answering expressly the following (or the like) questions. 1. Do you believe the doctrine of the Shorter Catechism of this church, so far as you understand the same, to be the true doctrine agreeable to the holy Scriptures, and resolve, through grace, to live and die in the profession of the same?  2. Do you consent to take God in Christ to be your God, the Father to be your Father, the Son to be your Saviour, and the Holy Ghost to be your Sanctifier; and that, renouncing the devil, the world, and the flesh, you be the Lord’s for ever?  3. Do you consent to receive Christ as He is offered in the gospel, for your prophet, priest, and king; giving up yourself to Him, to be led and guided by His word and Spirit; looking for salvation only through the obedience and death of Jesus Christ, who was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; promising, in His strength, to endeavour to lead a holy life, to forsake every known sin, and to comply with every known duty?  4. Lastly, Do you promise to subject yourself to exhortation, admonition, and rebuke, and the discipline of the church, in case (which God forbid) you fall into any scandalous sin?

“11. The party having professed, consented, and promised, as above said, is to be admitted to the table of the Lord, by a sentence of the session; which is to be recorded in their register, and an extract thereof allowed to be given him, when called for.

” 12. It were fit, that the names of all those who, from time to time, are admitted to the Lord’s table, be inrolled in a bound book belonging to the session.

“13. And how often soever that ordinance be administered in a congregation, the aforesaid roll of those who have at any time been admitted, is always to be read over distinctly, in presence of the session, some competent time before, and the members required to declare, if they know anything against the life and conversation of any of them.

“14. If anything be objected, the session is to order private exhortation or admonition, or sist the accused before them, as they shall see ground, and find the matter to require. And this is to be so managed, as that the accused be sisted, as aforesaid, on report concerning the private exhortation or admonition made, before the time of the administration of the sacrament. But those who have once been orderly admitted, are at no time after to be denied the privilege they were admitted to, except in the case of scandal; for which they are to be debarred by the session, till they have removed the scandal, according to the discipline of the church: Which done, they are restored to their former church-state.”

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