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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Ecclesiastical Polity


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the rules by which churches are governed, as to their spiritual concerns. The reformers having renounced the pope as antichrist, and having laid it down as their fundamental principle, that Scripture is the only rule of faith, and that it is the privilege of every man to interpret it according to his own judgment, had to consider in what manner the churches which they had formed were to be regulated; and there soon arose among them upon this point diversity of sentiment.

Melancthon and the earliest reformers viewed with veneration the hierarchy which had so long subsisted, as also many of the ceremonies which for ages had been observed; and they expressed their readiness to continue that distraction of pastors which their researches into the history of the church had enabled them to trace back to the early ages of Christianity. But while they declared in favour of this form of ecclesiastical polity, they did so, not upon the ground that it was of divine institution, or positively required by the author of Christianity as inseparable from a church; but on the ground, that taking into estimation every thing connected with it, it appeared to them eminently adapted to carry into effect that renovation of piety, and that religious influence, which they were so eager to promote. They thus made ecclesiastical polity a matter of expediency, or of prudential regulation; the one thing in their view, binding upon all Christians, being to strengthen the practical power of religion. That this is a just representation of the state of opinion among the first Protestants, will be placed beyond a doubt by a few quotations from the confession of Augsburg, and from the works of some of the most eminent divines who then flourished. Speaking of this subject, the compilers of the confession declare, "that they were most desirous to preserve the ecclesiastical polity, and those degrees in the church which had been introduced by human authority, knowing that, for wise and good purposes, the discipline, as described in the canons, had been introduced by the fathers." "We wish," they add, "to testify that we would willingly preserve the ecclesiastical and canonical polity, if the bishops would cease to act with cruelty against our churches." And once again they remark, that they had often declared that they venerated not only the ecclesiastical power which was instituted in the Gospel, but that they approved of the ecclesiastical polity which had subsisted, and wished, as much as was in their power, to preserve it. It is quite plain from these passages, that the framers of that confession, and those who adhered to it as the standard of their faith, viewed ecclesiastical polity as a matter of human appointment; and that, although they venerated that form of it which had long existed, they looked upon themselves as at liberty, under peculiar circumstances, to depart from it. The truth, accordingly, is, that a great part of the Lutheran churches, as we shall afterward find, did introduce many deviations from that model for which their founders had expressed respect and admiration; although episcopacy was in several places continued.

2. In consequence, however, of the exertions of Calvin, what were denominated the reformed churches deemed it expedient wholly to change this form of polity, and to introduce again the equality among pastors which had existed in the primitive times. That celebrated theologian, resting upon the undisputed fact, that in the Apostolic age no distinction subsisted between bishops and presbyters, thought himself at liberty to frame a system of polity upon this principle, persuaded that, by doing so, he would most effectually guard against those abuses that had given rise to the Papal tyranny which Protestants had abjured. He accordingly introduced his scheme where he had influence to do so; and he employed all the vigour of his talents in pressing upon distant churches the propriety of regulating, in conformity with his sentiments, their ecclesiastical government. But, while he was firmly persuaded that an equality among pastors was agreeable to the Apostolic practice, he has shown that he did not conceive this equality to be so absolutely required by Scripture, that there could in no case be a departure from it. He was, in fact, convinced that all the purposes of religion might be accomplished under a form of polity in which it was not recognized: "Wherever," he says, "the preaching of the Gospel is heard with reverence, and the sacraments are not neglected, there at that time there is a church." Speaking of faithful pastors, he describes them to be "those who by the doctrine of Christ lead men to true piety, who properly administer the sacred mysteries, and who preserve and exercise right discipline." In tracing the progress of the hierarchy, he observes, "that those to whom the office of teaching was assigned were denominated presbyters; that to avoid the dissensions often arising among equals, they chose one of their number to preside, to whom the title of bishop was exclusively given; and that the practice, as the ancients admitted, was introduced by human consent, from the necessity of the times." That this exaltation of the bishop, and, of course, this departure from parity, did not, in his estimation, render the church unchristian, is apparent from what he says of it after the change was introduced: "Such was the severity of these times, that all the ministers were led to discharge their duty as the Lord required of them." Even after archbishops and patriarchs had arisen, he merely says, in recording their introduction, "This arrangement was calculated to preserve discipline."

3. What Calvin thus taught in his "Institutes," he confirmed in many of the interesting letters which he wrote to various eminent persons. In these letters he speaks with the highest respect of the church of England, where the distinction of clerical orders was preserved. He corresponds with the highest dignitaries of that church in a style which he assuredly would not have adopted, had he considered them as upholding an antichristian polity; and he repeatedly avows the principle, that, in regulating the government of the church, attention must be paid to the circumstances in which its members were placed. Beza, who was warmly attached to presbytery, and who upon every occasion strenuously defended it, still admits that the human order of episcopacy was useful, as long as the bishops were good; and he professes all reverence for those modern bishops who strive to imitate the primitive ones in the reformation of the church according to the word of God: adding that it was a calumny against him, and those who entertained his sentiments, to affirm, as some had done, that they wished to prescribe their form of government to all other churches. In the excellent letter which he addressed to Grindal, bishop of London, and in which he pleads the cause of those ministers who scrupled to use the ceremonies which their brethren approved, he bears his testimony to the conformity of the church of England in doctrine with his church, expresses himself with the highest respect of the prelate to whom he was writing, and concludes by asking his prayers in his own behalf, and in that of the church of Geneva; all of which is quite inconsistent with the tenet, that presbytery is absolutely prescribed by divine authority.

4. The same general principle was avowed by the most eminent English divines. Cranmer explicitly declared, that bishops and priests were of the same order at the commencement of Christianity; and this was the opinion of several of his distinguished contemporaries. Holding this maxim, their support of episcopacy must have proceeded from views of expediency, or, in some instances, from a conviction which prevailed very generally at this early period, that it belonged to the supreme civil magistrate to regulate the spiritual no less than the political government; an idea involving in it that no one form of ecclesiastical polity is of divine institution. At a later period, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, we find the same conviction, that it was no violation of Christianity to choose different modes of administering the church. Archbishop Whitgift, who distinguished himself by the zeal with which he supported the English hierarchy, frequently maintains, that the form of discipline is not particularly, and by name, set down in Scripture; and he also plainly asserts, "that no form of church government is, by the Scriptures, prescribed or commanded to the church of God." This principle is admirably illustrated and confirmed by the venerable Hooker, in the third book of his work on ecclesiastical polity; and another divine of the English church, who lived about the same period, has laid down what he conceives to be an unquestionable position, "that all churches have not the same form of discipline; neither is it necessary that they should, because it cannot be proved that any particular form of church government is enjoined by the word of God." We have, indeed, a succession of testimonies from the introduction of the reformation down through the reign of Elizabeth,—testimonies given by the primates, and bishops, and theologians, who have been venerated as the luminaries of the church of England, that the divine right or institution of episcopacy constituted no part of their faith; and this is confirmed by their correspondence with reformed divines, who did not live under the episcopal model, but who, notwithstanding, were often consulted as to the ecclesiastical arrangements which the convocation should adopt. The same general sentiment is to be traced in those churches which had reverted to the primitive equality among the ministers of Christ. In the second Helvetic confession, which was approved by many churches, it is taught, that bishops and presbyters in the beginning governed the church with equal power, none exalting himself above another; the inequality which soon was introduced originating from the desire of preserving order. Various passages from Cyprian and Jerom are quoted in confirmation of this; and the article thus concludes: "Wherefore no one can be lawfully hindered from returning to the ancient constitution of the church of God, and to adopt it in preference to what custom has introduced." Had the compilers believed that this ancient constitution was of divine obligation, they would have expressed themselves much more strongly with respect to it; and instead of representing the return to it as what ought not to be hindered, they would have enjoined it, as what it was a violation of the law of God to neglect.

5. The reformation in Scotland, conducted by Knox, who had spent a considerable part of his life at Geneva, and who had imbibed the opinions of Calvin, proceeded upon those views of polity which that reformer had adopted. Still, however, he authorized a modification of these opinions, accommodated to the state of his native country; for although the title of bishop was not used, superintendents, with powers little inferior to those committed to prelates in England, were sanctioned by the first Book of Discipline; and these superintendents were classed, in the acts of different general assemblies, among the necessary ministers of the church. The necessity must have arisen out of the circumstances of the period when the book was framed; for the polity which it prescribed was said to be only for a time; and the office of superintendent, as has been strenuously urged by some of the most zealous defenders of presbytery, was not intended to be permanent. The Lutheran church, with the exception of those branches of it established in Denmark and Sweden, has adopted a kind of intermediate constitution between episcopacy and presbytery. While it holds that there is no divine law creating a distinction among ministers, it yet contends that such a distinction is on many accounts expedient; and accordingly a diversity in point of rank and privileges has been universally introduced, approaching in different places, more or less, to the hierarchy which subsisted before the reformation. But, although it has thus regulated its own practice, it unambiguously admits, that as the gospel is silent as to any particular form of polity, different forms may be chosen, without any breach of Christian union.

6. It appears from the statement which has now been given, that all Protestants immediately after the reformation, while they abjured the papal supremacy, were united in holding that the mode of administering the church might be varied, some of them being attached to episcopacy, others to presbytery; but all founding this attachment upon the judgment which they had formed as to the tendency or utility of either of these modes of government. An idea was soon avowed by some of the reformers, that the whole regulation of the church pertained to the magistrate; this branch of power being vested in him no less than that of administering the civil government; and to this opinion the name of Erastianism, from Erastus, who first defended it, was given. Cranmer, in an official reply which he made to certain questions that had been submitted for his consideration, declared, "that the civil ministers under the king's majesty be those that shall please his highness for the time to put in authority under him; as, for example, the lord chancellor, lord great master, &c; the ministers of God's word under his majesty be the bishops, parsons, vicars, and such other priests as be appointed by his highness to that ministration; as, for example, the bishop of Canterbury, &c. All the said officers and ministers, as well of the one sort as the other, be appointed, assigned, and elected in every place by the laws and orders of kings and princes." By the great majority of Protestants, however, the tenets of Erastus were condemned; for they maintained that the Lord Jesus had conveyed to his church a spiritual power quite distinct from the temporal; and that it belonged to the ministers of religion to exercise it, for promoting the spiritual welfare of the Christian community. But, while they disputed as to this point, they agreed in admitting there was no model prescribed in the New Testament for a Christian church, as there had been in the Mosaical economy for the Jewish church; and that it was a branch of the liberty of the disciples of Christ, or one of their privileges, to choose the polity which seemed to them best adapted for extending the power and influence of religion.


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Ecclesiastical Polity'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/e/ecclesiastical-polity.html. 1831-2.

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