The Staunch Calvinist

"Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God." - Jonathan Edwards

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1689 Baptist Confession Chapter 26: Of the Church - Commentary

.../span, distinct from the civil magistrate.

2. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

Christ has given government in the church distinct from the civil government. The keys of the kingdom and power are given to these “Church officers.” This is the first difference between what is called Congregationalism and the Presbyterian form of church polity. When we read this paragraph of our Confession, we see that all “power and authority” are given to the local church, not to “Church officers.” The second difference comes in chapter 31 called “Of Synods and Councils”:

1. For the better government and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.

3. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, 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.

4. 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.

In a sense, the authority given to the local church in this paragraph of our confession is transferred to the synod or council of the Presbyterian system. This is not a small difference. The Presbyterian system requires that there be an external authority above the local church which directs its government and order of worship. Our Confession speaks about keeping relations with other bodies and other churches (paragraph 15), but they merely have an advising role, never “authoritatively to determine” things. John Frame, himself a Presbyterian, gives a short description of that form of church government:

In the presbyterian system, common in churches called Reformed as well as Presbyterian, there is a plurality of elders in every church. (Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.) These are elected by the people. The elders meet as the ruling body of each particular church, and the elders of a region meet together as a broader court, dealing with the ministry of the whole area. Usually once a year, all the elders of the denomination, or a representative group of them, meet as a General Assembly, or Synod, to resolve questions of importance to the whole church, as did the apostles and other leaders in Acts 15.[39]

More may be said about Presbyterian polity, but I am not qualified to speak and criticize it. Pick a decent work on ecclesiology or a systematic theology and you will encounter the arguments for and against each church polity.

Congregational Polity

Our Baptist forefathers shared a common polity with the Congregationalists. The Congregationalists baptized infants but did not admit them into church membe...