WCF 31: Of Synods and Councils

Dear Church Family,

When God delivered the people of Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt, one of the first things that Moses did was appoint judges over the people (Exodus 18:13-27). This, Moses did, based upon the advice given to him by his father-in-law, Jethro. Jethro advised Moses to “select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exodus 18:21) and to place them as leaders over the people.

In the New Testament, the apostles likewise did something similar by advising the various churches to appoint elders or overseers in the church (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1ff). And, in the book of Acts, we have a record of the first “Jerusalem Council” which was comprised of apostles and elders of the various churches who came together to consider a particular controversy.

Thus, we find the biblical foundation for the calling together of church synods or councils. This was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class on the Westminster Confession of Faith wherein we studied chapter 31 (“Of Church Synods and Councils”).

WCF 31.1 – The Purposes of Church Councils and Who May Call Them

In examining the first church council of Acts 15:1-35, the first paragraph of this chapter in the confession provides two main points with regard to church councils: (1) Synods and councils (assemblies of the officers of various churches) serve the better government and edification of the church; (2) Those “overseers and other rulers of the particular churches” have the responsibility and authority to convene together as often as seems necessary to them for the good of the church.

WCF 31.2 – The Ministerial Duties & Authority of Church Councils

These church councils fulfill their ministerial duties in three ways. First, they are to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience – to help settle troubled minds and sort out disagreements in the church (this was the principle issue in Acts 15). Second, they are to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of worship and government of the church; church councils play a part in ordering these secondary issues (WCF 1.6). Third, they are to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, acting as a means of checks and balances for the protection of God’s people.

The authority of church councils is based on two things. First, if their decisions are in agreement with the Word of God, believers are bound to obey them because their conscience is ultimately bound by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But, second, believers are bound to obey the decisions of church councils because church councils are an ordinance of God (appointed in His word to rule according to His delegated authority). For example, the first Jerusalem council made a clear distinction between the private opinions of individuals and the decrees of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:6, 28; 16:4).

To this point, Chad Van Dixhoorn writes:

Although Presbyterian churches, and some other Reformed churches, still maintain this practice in the use of presbyteries and general assemblies, the current of modern Christianity has drifted away from a respect for councils, their creeds, and their rulings on controversies. It seems that not only this confession, but the Word of God itself is calling us to heed councils not less, but more. The Westminster assembly did not overstep its bounds in calling Christians to receive the decisions of councils, at least those consonant with the Word of God, with ‘reverence and submission’. (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 417).

 

WCF 31.3 – The Helpfulness of Church Councils

While emphasizing the authority of church councils, the confession all seeks to bring balance to this teaching with a reminder that all church councils may err, and many have erred. Because they are comprised of fallible men, synods and councils are not infallible. Scripture alone is “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (WCF 1.2; Acts 17:11).

Thus, church councils are not to be made the rule of faith or practice (1 Corinthians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Rather, church councils are to be used as a help in faith and practice (Acts 6:1-7; Acts 15).

WCF 31.4 – The Limits of Church Councils

Based on two statements made by Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 12:13-14; John 18:36), this last paragraph sets forth the limits of church councils – what they should and should not handle. First, synods and councils are to handle and conclude only ecclesiastical issues (those pertaining to the faith and practice of the church). Second, synods and councils are not to intermeddle with civil affairs except in extraordinary cases by humble petition and when required by the civil magistrate they may give advice. The responsibilities and authority of church councils are not to be confused or inter-mixed with those of the civil government.

This last point concerning the unique ecclesiastical responsibility of church councils has sometimes been described as the doctrine of “the spirituality of the church.” For a more in-depth explanation of this doctrine, I recommend this article by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether: “The Spirituality of the Church.” Unfortunately, many Christians today wish to promote the Christian faith through the power and authority of the state; however, as T. David Gordon reminds us, “Christianity does not rise or fall on the basis of governmental activity; it rises or falls on the basis of true ecclesiastical activity. What Christianity needs is competent ministers, not Christian judges, legislators, or executive officers” (“The Decline of Christianity in the West? A Contrarian View”).

Conclusion

To be sure, church councils or presbyteries and assemblies of church officers have, and will, make mistakes. And, some have abused their God-given power and authority. Yet, God in His wisdom has not left individual Christians to their own devices. The Bible never encourages Christians to have no authority but their own. He has graciously given officers and leaders to the church for the equipping of the saints, and for the work of service, for the building up of the body Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Let us all pray for the work of our church councils – for the session of our local church, our presbytery, and our denominational General Assembly. Let us pray that God would give wisdom and discernment for the better ordering of the government and worship of our church.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch