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

WCF 30: Of Church Cencures

Dear Church Family,

When we were disciplined by our parents as children – admonished and corrected by them – it was no fun at the time, but as we grow older we become grateful for their loving correction. Likewise, church discipline often conjures up negative feelings and attitudes in people; however, it is one of the blessings of church membership by which we may grow in the Lord. For, as the Scriptures tell us, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).

Church discipline (or church censures) was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class wherein we studied chapter 30 (“Of Church Censures”) in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 30.1 – Church Officers

This chapter on church censures begins, in the first paragraph, by establishing both the supreme and the subordinate authorities in Christ’s Church. The supreme authority of Christ’s church is the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself; He is the King and Head of His Church (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 28:18). The subordinate authority of Christ’s church are church officers whom Christ has appointed to govern His people under-shepherds (Ephesians 4:11-13; Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:4-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

As Jesus declared before Pontius Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world, otherwise His servants would be fighting to protect Him (John 18:36), so too is the government of the church through church officers distinct from the civil magistrate.

WCF 30.2 – The Keys of the Kingdom

Having established that Christ has given authority into the hand of church officers distinct from the civil magistrate, paragraph two of this chapter goes on to explain what kind of power these church officers have. This authority, which was delegated by Christ to His Apostles, is called “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:15-19).

As this authority is described by Jesus as “keys,” it is apparent that the function of this delegated authority is to open and close the door to the kingdom. Therefore, specifically, the authority of the keys of the kingdom is the power to retain and remit sins, to shut the kingdom against the unrepentant, and to open the kingdom to repentant sinners (John 20:21-23; Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20).

Previously we learned that God has “ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good; and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doer” (WCF 23.1; Romans 13:1-4). However, Christ has not ordained the sword (or physical violence) to be used by the officers of His church. Rather, the power of the keys of the kingdom is exercised through the use of the word and censures. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world; therefore, church officers do not bear the sword or any kind of physical violence in the administration of their duties (John 18:36).

WCF 30.3 – The Purposes of Church Censures

Church censures (or church discipline) is necessary. And, it is necessary to accomplish at least five purposes: (1) for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren (Jude 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:5); (2) for the deterring of others from similar offences (1 Timothy 5:20); (3) for purging out the leaven that might infect the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6-7); (4) for vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the Gospel (Matthew 7:6); and (5) for preventing the wrath of God (Revelation 2:5).

Our denomination’s Book of Church Order similarly summarizes the purposes of church discipline: “The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains: (a) the glory of God; (b) the purity of His Church; (c) the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners” (BCO 27-3).

WCF 30.4 – The Degrees of Church Discipline

There are three basic forms of church discipline which are given to us in Scripture, three forms of church discipline that increase in severity: (1) admonition (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:20); (2) suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a time (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15); and (3) excommunication from the Church (Matthew 18:17; Titus 3:10-11).

Conclusion

Church censures (or discipline) is a serious and weighty matter. As we will learn in the next chapter, all synods or church councils since the time of the Apostles may make mistakes, and many have (WCF 31.3). The authority which Christ delegates to the officers of His church may, and has been, abused. Yet, at the same time, Christ calls fallen men to govern and shepherd His church through His delegated authority.

With that in mind, please remember to pray for the pastor and elders of our church, for the pastors and elders in all of Christ’s churches in our denomination and throughout the world. Pray that we might care for God’s people with the gentleness and tenderness like that of a nursing mother cares for her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8), while also diligently laboring to exhort, encourage, and implore God’s people as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

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

WCF 29: The Lord's Supper

Dear Church Family,

In our ongoing chapter-by-chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith in the adult Sunday school class, we have examined the sacraments in general (chapter 27, “Of the Sacraments”), the sacrament of baptism (chapter 28, “Of Baptism”) and this past Sunday we examined the sacrament of the Lord’s supper (chapter 29, “Of the Lord’s Supper”).

WCF 29.1 – The Definition and Purpose of the Lord’s Supper

Looking to the teaching of the Apostle Paul on the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-21; 11:23-26; 12:13), this rite of the church is defined as “the sacrament of His [Jesus’] body and blood” which is to be observed in His Church unto the end of the world. The purposes of the Lord’s supper are several: (1) the perpetual remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial death; (2) sealing all the benefits of Jesus’ sacrificial death to true believers; (3) the true believer’s spiritual nourishment and growth; (4) the true believer’s further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him; (5) the true believer’s bond and pledge of their communion with Jesus, and each other, as members of His mystical body.

The confession’s emphasis on how these benefits of the Lord’s supper are only for true believer’s is a reminder that the sacraments are ‘sanctificational.’ That is to say, both baptism and the Lord’s supper are means by which God grows His people in grace and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

WCF 29.2 – What the Lord’s Supper is not

This paragraph of the confession is a refutation of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) concerning the sacrificial nature of the Lord’s supper. According to the teaching of the RCC, the Lord’s supper, or eucharist is “a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1366).

However, the Bible teaches that Christ offered up Himself once for all for the sins of the people (Hebrews 7:26-27); no other sacrifice is needed. Thus, the Lord’s supper is not a sacrifice, but a commemoration of Jesus’ one true sacrifice on the cross of Calvary.

WCF 29.3 – By Whom and For Whom

In our previous discussion of the sacrament of baptism, we noted how baptism is to be administered only by lawfully called ministers of the gospel. The same is true of the Lord’s supper. Thus, the Lord’s ministers are to: (1) declare the words of institution (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26); (2) pray and bless the elements, setting them apart from a common to a holy use (Matthew 26:26-28); (3) and distribute the elements only to those who are present (Acts 20:7).

In times past, the church has sometimes administered private communion to the wealthy or royalty, thus fostering a sort of elitism; something which the Bible explicitly condemns (1 Corinthians 11:17-22; James 2:1-5). So, the sacrament of the Lord’s supper should be taken together in the church, as one body communing together. Yet, what about those who are homebound by illness? Chad Van Dixhoorn wisely advises that these members of the church ought not to be forgotten: “There may be some cases where a pastor will find it wise to minister to the infirm by bringing bread, wine, and a part of the leadership and membership of the church, to celebrate the supper within the context of a special, small (and usually brief) worship service.” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 391).

WCF 29.4 – Abuses against the nature of the Lord’s Supper

In this paragraph, the confession condemns three abuses of the Lord’s supper that are all contrary to the nature of the sacrament. These are three things that are commonplace in the practice of the Roman Catholic Church: (1) the private administration of the Lords supper by a priest, or any other, alone; (2) denying the cup to the people; (3) worshipping the elements of the bread and wine.

Thus, the spirituality of the Lord’s supper should be emphasized:

It is important that the communion service be conducted with simplicity and dignity. Care should be taken that no rituals or movements be added to the service that distract attention from the administration of the bread and the cup. The minister should face the congregation from behind the table, the host should not be elevated or adored, the bread and not wafer should be used, and the elders should serve the people at tables or in pews. Anything that implies change in the substance of the elements should be avoided. Only actions that reinforce the spirituality of the Supper should occur. (Terry Johnson, Leading in Worship, 18).

 

WCF 29.5 – Sacramental Union in Scripture

“The fifth paragraph of this chapter offers a condensed reader’s guide to the sacramental sections of the Bible…It is designed to explain the vivid language used in Scripture to describe the Lord’s supper…” (Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 393). Because of the sacramental connection between the sign and the thing signified, sometimes in Scripture the elements are called ‘the body and blood of Christ’ though the elements do not actually change (Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:26-28).

WCF 29.6 – Transubstantiation Refuted

Paragraph six of this chapter is a refutation of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church known as ‘transubstantiation.’ This doctrine is defined as follows: “by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1376).

To maintain such a doctrine, however, is repugnant to Scripture, common sense, and reason. Ultimately, transubstantiation entails the practice of idolatry, worshipping and honoring those things which are not God (Exodus 20:4-6; 1 Corinthians 11:24-26; Luke 24:6).

WCF 29.7 – “Real Presence” Refuted & the “Spiritual Presence” of Christ Upheld

Paragraph seven of this chapter is a refutation of the teaching known as ‘consubstantiation’ (the idea that Christ is physically present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine), as well other views known as the “real presence” of Christ. That is to say, Christ is not physically present in any way in the Lord’s supper. Rather, when worthy receivers (true believers) partake of the physical elements, they spiritually feed upon Christ crucified, who is spiritually present to the faith of believers (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:28).

WCF 29.8 – Fencing the Table

The Apostle Paul warns that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Thus, those who are “ignorant and wicked” (who have not professed faith in Christ and seek to follow Him) should be warned that they will receive no spiritual benefit from the Lord’s supper, but in fact will eat and drink to their own damnation.

This practice of warning and denying admittance to the Lord’s supper to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:6-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15) is often referred to as “fencing the table.” Traditionally, there have been three different practices of fencing the table in the history of the church and across denominations:
(1) “Open” communion – anyone who professes faith in Christ may partake of the Lord’s supper, regardless of their church membership.
(2) “Close” or “Guarded” communion – only those who are members of a particular kind of church may partake of the Lord’s supper.
(3) “Closed” communion – only those who are members of that local church or denomination may partake of the Lord’s supper.

In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), according to our standards (BCO 58-4), churches may practice either “close” or “closed” communion. At Providence Presbyterian Church, we practice “close” communion in our fencing of the table: we invite all those who are members in good standing of a Bible-believing, evangelical church to partake with us.

Conclusion

At the end of our lesson on Sunday, someone asked a question about the frequency of the Lord’s supper; specifically, why does our church partake of this sacrament every Sunday. Briefly summarized, there are four basic reasons for our weekly partaking of the Lord’s supper: (1) Biblically, it seems that this was the practice of the early church (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7); (2) Historically, this was the practice of the Church for many centuries; (3) Worshipfully, the Lord’s supper functions as an important element in the covenant renewal aspect of our worship service; (4) Practically, the Lord’s supper is a constant reminder of our separateness from the world and an implicit (and often explicit) exhortation for unbelievers to trust in Christ for their salvation.

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

WCF 28: Baptism

Dear Church Family,

Having discussed what the Bible teaches about sacraments in general (as summarized in chapter 27 of the Westminster Confession of Faith) this past Sunday in our adult Sunday school class, we turned our attention to chapter 28 (“Of Baptism”).

Before we delve into this chapter, however, it might be good to remind ourselves of the fundamental difference between the Reformed view of the sacraments and how they are most commonly viewed by many evangelicals today. For the Reformed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper are “signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27.1); they are God’s ‘visible words’ by which He communicates the grace of His covenant promises; however, for many evangelicals the sacraments (or ordinances) symbolize the individual’s faith and obedience; they are man’s testimony (for example, see paragraph 7 of the Baptist Faith and Message).

This is an important difference to keep in mind, especially when considering the doctrine of baptism. The Reformed view of infant baptism – which is mentioned in the chapter – is not a stand-alone doctrine. It is based on a fundamentally different view of the meaning and purpose of the sacraments, the nature of the covenant of grace, and the biblical teaching on the difference between the visible and invisible church.

That said, let’s now consider what the confession teaches regarding the sacrament of baptism.

WCF 28.1 – The Purpose and Meaning of Baptism

The purpose of baptism is for the “solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church” (1 Corinthians 12:13). According to the Great Commission, baptism marks a person as a disciple, or follower of Christ (Matthew 28:19).

To the individual who is baptized, it is a sign and seal of several things: (1) the covenant of grace (Colossians 2:11-12); (2) their ingrafting into Christ (Galatians 3:27); (3) regeneration (Titus 3:5); (4) remission of sins (Mark 1:4); and (5) a person’s giving up unto God through Jesus Christ to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3).

WCF 28.2 – The Proper Administration of Baptism

There are three conditions by which baptism may be deemed to have been rightly administered: (1) the outward element is water; (2) it is Trinitarian; (3) it is done by a lawfully called minister of the Gospel. We find these criteria, once again, in Jesus’ command to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20). For a brief explanation of the third criteria, I recommend Kevin DeYoung’s article: “Who Can Baptize?

WCF 28.3 – The Proper Mode of Baptism

Because baptism symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration (John 3:5-8 (cf. Ezekiel 36:24-29); Matthew 3:11, 15; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Corinthians 12:13), pouring or sprinkling is the proper mode of baptism.

Some Christians argue that baptism is only properly administered by the mode of immersion, and they do so usually based upon three arguments:
(1) that the Greek word “baptize” means ‘to immerse’ (but there are instances in the New Testament where this is not necessarily the case: Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; Hebrews 6:2; 9:10).
(2) supposed New Testament examples of immersion (but see Acts 10 and Acts 16 for examples where immersion was highly unlikely).
(3) that baptism represents burial which is more in keeping with immersion (there are two instances in Scripture where baptism is spoken of in terms of burial (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12); however, most often in Scripture, baptism symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration (John 3:5-8 (cf. Ezekiel 36:24-29); Matthew 3:11, 15; Titus 3:5-7; 1 Corinthians 12:13)).

WCF 28.4 – The Proper Recipients of Baptism

The sacrament of baptism ought to be applied to both those who profess faith in Christ, as well as to the infants of one or both believing parents (Acts 2:38; Colossians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:14). The understanding of infant baptism is based on the continuity between the old and new covenants, particularly with respect to the connection between circumcision and baptism. For further reading, I have previously written about the doctrine about the doctrine of infant baptism here.

Some Christians argue that baptism should only be applied to individuals who have professed faith in Christ, and they do so usually based upon the argument that these are the kinds of baptisms that we find in the New Testament. However, the New Testament also contains records of “household baptisms” (Acts 16:15, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 1:16). In these instances, individuals believed and thus they – and all those in their households – were baptized. While it is not specifically stated that these households included infant children, it does point us to the fact that God’s covenant promises were intended to work in and through families, not just individuals. This is in keeping with the practice of household circumcisions of the Old Testament, and even the initial institution of circumcision in which all the males of Abraham’s household were circumcised (Genesis 17:23-27), including 318 trained men of Abraham’s household (Genesis 14:14).

It is true that in the New Testament, most all of the baptisms that are recorded are those in which the sacrament of baptism was applied to people after they believed. This, they did out of obedience to Christ’s command (Matthew 28:18-20), as well as to demonstrate and publicly profess their new-found allegiance to Christ and His church. This does not, however, take away from the fact that baptism represents God’s initial work of regeneration, to which our faith is a response. That is to say, baptism represents God’s initiatory promises to which we respond in faith.

In example, the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt and “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2) and yet with most of them God was not pleased (1 Corinthians 10:5) because the good news that was preached to them was not united by faith in those who heard (Hebrews 4:2). This is yet another reason why we apply the sacrament of baptism to our infant children. We are declaring the promises of God in the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) which our children (like us) must embrace in faith. In baptism, we are maintaining and declaring that God initiates the work of salvation through His promises in His Son, Jesus Christ, and that these promises must be embraced by faith, otherwise the sign and seal is ineffectual (see WCF 27.3).

For a better understanding of the proper mode and recipients of baptism, I recommend Robert Rayburn’s short little book What About Baptism?

WCF 28.5 – The Importance and Qualifications of Baptism

As the sacrament of baptism was commanded by Christ, it is a great sin to contemn (regard with contempt) or neglect its practice (Luke 7:30; Exodus 4:24-26). At the same time – even as the right administration of baptism is one of the essential marks of the true church – God’s grace and salvation are not inseparably linked to it. That is to say, a person may be saved apart from baptism (Acts 10:2, 4, 22, 31, 45, 47), and not everyone who is baptized is saved (Acts 8:13, 21-23).

WCF 28.6 – The Efficacy of Baptism

The efficacy of baptism (its ability to communicate God’s grace) is not necessarily tied to the time of its application to an individual; after all, the Spirit of God works when and where He pleases (John 3:8). Thus, the grace promised through baptism is given according to the counsel of God’s own will (Acts 2:38-41), His mercy (Titus 3:5), and is for those whom He has appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48).

WCF 28.7 – The Frequency of Baptism

Because baptism is a symbol of the one-time act of regeneration, it is only to be administered once (Titus 3:5).

Conclusion

In some churches, baptism is viewed as necessary for salvation. Some view baptism as an essential work of a priest, and others view it as an essential work of the individual being baptized. In other churches, baptism is viewed as insignificant and irrelevant.

In the summary of the teaching of the Bible on the doctrine of baptism – as we find this summary explained for us in the Westminster Shorter Catechism – we find that baptism is one of those means by which God communicates His grace to His people. Baptism with water does not save, but baptism by the Holy Spirit does (that which water baptism points to). Thus, the practice of baptizing new believers and the children of believers in the church reminds all of God’s people that we are without hope, apart from God’s sovereign mercy.

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