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Imperious Presbyterianism

Kevin Reed

Published: Trinity Foundation, 2008

The author of this pamphlet will not be unfamiliar to many Free Presbyterians. Amongst other works, his booklet on Biblical Church Government (PHP, 1983) is an excellent pithy defence of Presbyterian polity which has been widely read and another of his booklets, Christmas (co-authored with M. Schneider), has been a solid defence of the Protestant position on the mid-winter festivities. In his earlier booklet on Biblical Church Government he points out that the church is not a social club but a kingdom established by Christ and subject to his rule. He proceeds to defend the rule of the church by a plurality of elders assisted by a body of deacons. He defends the role of church courts, from the session of a local congregation, and their ability to refer matters to higher courts, such as a presbytery. In the last section he asserts the need for the government of the church by confessional standards and outlines the strong record of creeds and confessions throughout church history.

In this booklet, Mr Reed is seeking to sound a new note of caution that addresses some of the abuses of Presbyterian Church government that seem more prevalent in the United States of America, particularly in the micro-Presbyterian denominations and congregations. He begins by clearly contextualising the problem as not being something confined to old mainline denominations that long ago abandoned Presbyterian doctrine and polity. Instead, it is an issue within these ‘conservative’ micro-Presbyterian circles where authoritarianism is stamping itself on congregations in the guise of Biblical government.

Reed begins with a discussion of the nature of the visible church and the role of the gospel as the one element without which an assembly cannot be a legitimate church. This defence of the visible and invisible church is built on reference to both the Westminster standards and the classic text of James Bannerman (The Church of Christ, 2 vols, published by SWRB). He proceeds to show from early history the error of defining the church in terms of her officers and how that led to Popes and Prelates. Showing that at the Reformation, Protestantism redefined the nature of the church – quoting William Cunningham ‘Papists used to lay down this position: Where there is not a valid ministry, there is not a true church; and the Reformers answered them with this counter-position: Wherever there is a true church, there is, or may be, a valid ministry’ (Historical Theology, Vol 1). He also shows the importance of this in mission, for the formation and governance of congregations in isolated places or groups in troubled times.

He then proceeds to look at the nature of the ministry (or church office) and the place of ecclesiastical authority and how it is derived from a minister’s role as a messenger of the Lord Jesus. He helpfully notes that this authority is specific to labours associated with their office, following this up with examples from the USA where ministers have gone far beyond those boundaries into trying to govern choices of housing or even pressuring couples into courtship.

He places an important stress on what might be called ‘the office of church member’. Church members should retain a Berean spirit and examine the teaching that they are given against a daily searching of the scriptures. How necessary it is, given the importance of the members and elders in the formation of our own denomination, to be reminded of Calvin’s arguments that corruption of the gospel and worship requires Christians to withdraw and that there are times when it is necessary for believers to band together and form congregations, rather than remain within congregations which manifest grave deficiencies.

The choice of the term, Imperious Presbyterianism is a useful one as it distinguishes an overbearing authoritarianism from the right exercise of Biblical church government. This is an excellent little booklet sounding an important note in contemporary Presbyterianism.

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