Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Authority of Synods

The Westminster Confession of Faith 31:3 states that: "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both." Although this is largely a refutation of the Romanist claim for the infallibility of councils, which may easily be disproved by reference to history as well as to the Word of God, it has relevance for the authority of synods and supreme courts of a Church. We know of no Protestant who has claimed infallibility for a Church Court, the issue really relates to the authority of the courts. Church courts can claim a ministerial power under Christ and his Word but not an absolute authority.

Private judgement and the decisions of synods

George Gillespie commissioner to the Westminster Assembly spoke of the fallibility of councils/synods in the following way. "We say that congregations ought, indeed, to be subject to presbyteries and synods, yet not absolutely, but in the Lord, and in things lawful; and to this purpose the constitution of presbyteries and synods are to be examined by the judgment of Christian discretion; for a synod is judex judicandus and regula regulata, so that it ought not to be blindly obeyed, whether the ordinance be convenient or inconvenient." An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland in the points of Ruling Elders, and of the Authority of Presbyteries and Synods. (Edinburgh: for James Bryson, 1641). pp. 127-128. See also, Works: A Presbyterian's Armoury, edited by William M Hetherington (Edinburgh: Robert Ogle and Oliver and Boyd, 1844-46), p. 44.

Private judgement and conscience must be informed and ruled by the word of God. Samuel Rutherford also makes this clear in 'A Free Disputation against the Pretended Liberty of Conscience': "The imposing of synods is conditional not absolute as Libertines suppose, for after Synods impose, if believers after trying and due examining, shall find that truly and really the decrees are beside or contrary to the Word of Truth, the imposing neither is a just imposing, nor any imposing at all" (p.41). Thus the right of private judgement, the trying of Synod judgements by individuals is preserved as in WCF 20:2 "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, in matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also." The same view can be identified as part of the Disruption Free Church of Scotland position. The Claim, Declaration and Protest of 1842 (a constitutional document for the Free Church of Scotland and Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland) states that church government is "ministerial, not lordly, and to be exercised in consonance with the laws of Christ, and with the liberties of his people." This ties in with the statement in the Free Church Practice (page 82, paragraph 4, 1st edition) "Although the General Assembly is invested with the power of regulating the whole action of the Church in its Synods, Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, still it is not regarded as having any lordly or absolutely binding authority. It is expected to act ministerially under Christ, and to carry out such rules as appear to harmonise with his own instructions in his Word."

The real authority of synods - binding not advisory

Yet while Synods cannot impose without the authority of the Word they do have real authority and are acting ministerially under Christ and in His name. Unless something is plainly contrary to the Word and its principles or in the case of matters of doctrine and worship beside it is the duty of those who are instructed to obey. But while Synods general and particular may and have erred and are not infallible WCF 31:3 states "It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules for the better ordering of the publick worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to 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." In other words, Synods are not infallible but their authority is real and ordained so that unless obedience results in sin, private concerns should give way to public. Rutherford states that Synods must bind us to what is unsound and false or unjust or wicked must be beside or contrary to the word of truth before their judgements can be regarded as ultra vires (p.40). Men must hear the Church Matthew 18:17, 18, 19 20. As Rutherford puts it, "the authority of Synods consisting of six onely, differeth not in nature and essence, from a generall councell of the whole Catholike visible Church" (Due Right of Presbyteries, p.331). "Synods should take care that no man despise their Authority, as Timothie is exhorted by Paul but their Authoritie in matters of faith is conditionall, and so not nul".

"...we hold, when lawful Synods are convened in the name of Christ doe determine according to the word of God they are to be heard as Ambassadours who in Christs stead teach us, and what is once true and ratified in Synods in this manner is ever true and ratified as the reverend professours say and never subject to any further examination, and new discussion, so as it must be changed and retracted as false. For this is to subject the very word of God to retraction and change, because a Synod did declare and truely determine it in a Ministeriall way to be the word of God" (A Free Disputation, p.36).

This is borne out by the Scriptures in relation to the Synod of Jerusalem in Acts 15. They "ordained decrees," "laid a burden" upon the Churches, and enjoined them to observe certain "necessary things," and their decision was cheerfully submitted to by the Churches concerned - Acts 15: 28, 16:4. It was authoritatively decided (not by the apostles alone, but ' by the apostles and elders, with the whole church,' Acts 15:22) -- not for that church (Antioch) only, but for all others. Paul, therefore, in his next missionary journey, as he passed through the cities, ' delivered to them,' it is said, ' the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem.' Acts 16:4. Thus the position that synodical authority is merely advisory and consultative not binding is quite false and unscriptural.

The controversy in America in the 18th century which resulted in the schism of 1741 in the Presbyterian Church centred upon this issue. As Charles Hodge put it in the history of the controversy, the issue became "whether a church judicatory had, on any occasion, the right to bind its dissenting members. This paper [from New Brunswick presbytery] seemed to allow, even in cases of appeal, nothing beyond advisory power either to synods or presbyteries. It was therefore regarded as a formal renunciation on the part of its authors, of the fundamental principles of presbyterianism." It is unpresbyterian and unconfessional to limit the power of synods to the extent that they cannot bind dissenting members.