Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 7): Ministerial Authority

The Presbytery of New Brunswick’s Apology in 1739 addressed two proposals made to Synod the previous year. While these acts had limited itinerant preaching and required the examination of candidates for ministry by a committee of Synod, the Presbytery of New Brunswick disregarded these acts of Synod and admitted to trials and license John Rowland without being subject to the required examinations.[170] After the protestation of 1741, Synod approved that Thomson publish a critique of the Apology in 1741 to address the dissidence and defend the Protestation titled The Government of the Church of Christ.[171] The Protestation of 1741 had effectively banned the Presbytery of New Brunswick from participating in Synod, “The way to save the church from death, then, was akin to the work of a surgeon removing a malignant tumor. It involved eliminating from the Presbyterian fold those members of synod who were guilty of ‘unwearied, unscriptural, antipresbyterial, uncharitable, divisive practices’ in the previous twelve months especially but also for ‘some years before.’”[172] The Protestation of 1741 listed several reasons for the necessity of such a measure, all “variations on the need for some authoritative norm in the church and the disorder fomented by the other party.”[173] 

In The Government of the Church of Christ, Thomson meticulously responded to the arguments of the ApologyHe delineated the Presbyterian Church polity, which he perceived the church had subscribed to in the Westminster Confession and Directory with the Adopting Act of 1729. Both Thomson and the other members of the Synod of Philadelphia regarded the actions of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and the Apology to be in direct opposition to the form of government they had adopted, “Thomson charged that Tennent and his associates were guilty of promoting an ‘unorthodox’ theory of Presbyterian government.”[174] They contended that the Presbytery of New Brunswick had violated both acts of Synod, “They proceed also to license and ordain men to the ministry, contrary to and in contempt of our synod’s authority; who, when licensed and ordained, do also, in an irregular manner, break in upon our congregations, without our consent or approbation.”[175] The Apology contested the legitimacy of the protested acts of synod and questioned whether Synod had the authority to legislate and impose rulings of this nature on Presbyteries. In response, Thomson contested their presupposition that Synod was claiming this legislative power. The power granted to the officers of the church, both at the presbyterial and synodical level, was a ministerial authority to interpret the scriptures and apply them to particular cases.  To the members of Synod, the Apology struck at the fundamental elements of Presbyterian Church polity because it questioned the authority granted to church judicatories. Thomson’s response serves as a key document and thorough description of those elements, which he thought, defined Presbyterian Church polity.

The Government of the Church of Christ is a mix of rebuttals to the arguments made by The Apology and positive statements regarding church polity. Thomson’s three goals for his paper were to give a clear argument for the church’s authority to govern its members and explain the nature of this authority and government. To address the second goal, Thomson gave eleven propositions of his own to explain what he considered to be historical, proper Presbyterian Church government. Third, he addressed the arguments made against this authority by the authors of The Apology. The Apology itself consisted of six positive propositions for what they affirmed was proper church government and eleven opposing propositions.

In response to The Apology’s objections to legislative power of church judicatories in particular, Thomson argued that church judicatories were granted ministerial power to make rulings that are binding on its members by applying Scripture to particular cases. Thomson challenged their accusation that the Synod was claiming legislative power by clarifying in his response the nature of the authority of church judicatories. Thomson defined what justified his arguments for authority in the Confession, to whom this authority was granted, the necessity of this authority, what they were granted authority to do and how they were to arrive at their determinations. The Apology objected to the legislative power of church judicatories in particular in five ways: how rules were to be determined in Scripture, that the power of making laws was granted to Christ alone, that the perfection of the Scriptures disallowed the creation of new laws, that these new laws made by church judicatories were often human commandments of things indifferent, and that this power was too often abused in the history of the church. Thomson answered each of their objections by clarifying the nature of the power that was being assumed by church judicatories. In each of these arguments, Thomson laid out the trajectory for how the authority of church judicatories should operate.

Thomson lamented the state of the church, which had departed so quickly from those things that they had once held to so strongly. Thomson regarded the constitution of the Church of Scotland as that which they were departing from, “What strong bewitching is this! That many, who not many months ago, one would have thought, would have been ready to die for the constitution of the Church of Scotland, or presbytery, are now so deluded with new doctrines and modes, that neither confession, catechisms, nor directory, are regarded when brought in competition with the sayings of Mr. Whitefield and our protesting brethren.”[177] Two conceptions of the church were at odds, one that emphasized a ministry qualified by zeal and one that emphasized an orderly church polity. Hart loosely ties their de-emphasis on forms to Whitefield, “It also indicated an organic connection between the church order and theology or between the form of practice and the content of faith…Forms and content were much more intimately connected than the revivalists supposed.”[178] In addition, Hart argues that the debate was not simply one of “liberty of conscience versus church power” but was rather a debate of “the working of the spirit versus a faith ordered by properly ordained ministers and a disciplined body of presbyters.”[179]  Hart attributes this to the influence of Whitefield’s emphasis on revivalism over a properly order church. Even though Whitefield’s influence may have driven them away from emphasizing a proper church government, they used the argument in The Apology of liberty of conscience to argue against synod’s control over the ordination of ministers. In the end, Hart argues that “Revivalism and liberty of conscience seemed to be making the same challenge, namely, whether the rules and procedures established by Synod were necessary for a faithful church.”[180]

Thomson’s broader concern was that The Apology disregarded what he considered properly Presbyterian Church government as laid out in the Westminster Standards they had adopted. Thomson lamented the schism on the horizon and he identified the crux of the problem to be their rejection of authority of synod:

We are awfully threatened with a woeful schism on account of the late act of our synod concerning the examination of candidates for the ministry, against which some of our brethren have protested, and do proceed to license and ordain men to the ministry contrary to what said acts directs; so that in all appearance these brethren and the rest of the synod must divide, or the synod must pass from and rescind their own acts, which they judge rational, necessary and well grounded on the general rule of the Word. Yea, these brethren, in the reasons of their protest, renounce all power and authority in synods, or church-judicatories, to make any acts or rules to bind any members which do dissent, which is to take all government and authority out of their hands.[181]

After stating some hesitation as to how to engage a group so opposed to the authority of church judicatories, he argued that this behavior and their sentiments were contrary to the church government expressed in the Westminster Standards, “these men who directly and avowedly, in principle and practice, preach and act contrary to the very doctrines and rules of our Presbyterian Church as expressed in our Westminster Confession, Catechisms and Directory.”[182] If Gilbert Tennent had not accepted the church polity in the directory he would not have been able to continue in communion with them. Thomson cited Westminster Confession Chapter 1, article 6 and Chapter 31, article 3 to demonstrate how the Apology differed from the Confessional standards of the church:

and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.


It belongs 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.

The confessional standards, which the church had adopted in 1729, allowed for church judicatories to make determinations concerning issues not expressly given in Scripture, but “according to the general rules of the Word.” It also allowed for church judicatories at the synodical and presbyterial levels to make determinations of “controversies of faith and cases of conscience.” It also allowed for them to “set down rules” for the “better ordering of the public worship of God” and “government of his Church.” All of these determinations were then to receive submission. The confession made clear that it was not only their scriptural foundation, but also because they were determinations made by the officers of the church.

Thomson also cited the Scripture text, used by the assembly to justify the authority of church judicatories in synodical decisions, “Some of the matter of the decrees of Acts 15 was indifferent in its nature, not being moral, 2dly, that these degrees were binding upon all, whether there were negatives or minorities or not. Yea 3dly, that these decrees were binding upon those churches which had no hand in making them, as appears from Acts 16 v. 4-5.”[184] By rejecting in principle and practice those things which defined them as Presbyterians, the authority of church judicatories, they were rejecting the Confession itself and the church government which the Confessional standards instructed:

Our protesting brethrens principles and practice, are diametrically contrary to what is laid down in both these articles in all the clauses here recited, and particularly as to making rules and directions, and authoritative decisions of controversies, as well as the power by which these rules and decisions are made. Which conduct of theirs, how it can agree with their solemnly adopting the Westminster Confession and directory, I cannot comprehend, nor how they can justly claim the denomination of Presbyterians, while they avowedly preach and act contrary to the very plan of church government contained in this confession and directory, from whence we have the denomination of Presbyterians, and by which we are known and distinguished from other denominations of Christians.[185]

As a result, Thomson challenged the nature of their original adoption of the Westminster Standards and their claim as Presbyterians.

While addressing his second goal of setting forth a series of propositions of what he considered to be a summary of proper Presbyterian Church government, Thomson defined who this authority was granted to. In proposition 8, he defined what was meant by the term ‘Presbytery’ in Scripture,

When we use the word or term of presbytery; which is but once to be found in scripture, that I know of, it’s equally applicable to any ecclesiastical judicatory, from a session to an ecumenical council; the word properly signifies a convention of elders and presbyters sitting in judicatory, whether inferior or superior.[186]

According to Thomson, the term Presbytery and the authority granted to them could also be applied to all church judicatories. He used the ordination of Timothy as an example of the ambiguity and diversity of the usage of ‘presbytery’ in Scripture. He argued that it was unclear whether a superior or an inferior judicatory had ordained Timothy. The underlying principle was that upon ordination, each presbyter was given the “power of the keys” as “pares or equals.” [187]

The power or authority granted upon ordination could then be used “in concert or parity” and “whenever they meet and constitute, they are a presbytery, in a scripture-sense, of whatever degree or form the meeting or convention be.”[188] Whether they constitute a larger or smaller group, superior or inferior courts, they have the same power assigned to the term ‘Presbytery’ given in Scripture.

Thomson argued that authority was a necessary aspect of church judicatories for Presbyterian order. To address his first goal, Thomson gave two arguments for the necessity of the authority of church judicatories over its members. His first argument was one from reason, that could defend the authority of any societal, political or civil government. He argued that for the proper order of any society, its members must submit to its governance: “The law of nature and reason says, that none should enjoy the benefit of membership with any social constitution, but those who are willing to be governed by its rules; and the divine law says, ‘that we should withdraw from such as walk disorderly.’”[189] He used this argument, because he viewed the church as something similar in its constitution, “the church is a society regularly united and incorporated by a moral political union among her members.”[190] 

Thomson defined what these church judicatories were granted authority to do and how they were to arrive at their determinations. He argued from Matthew 25:19, Acts 20:28, and 1 Timothy 2:5, that the keys granted to the officers of the church were not merely given for “advice,” but in order to rule. The keys of the kingdom of heaven given in Matthew 25:19 were the “authority of administration of the affairs of the church” which was given to not only Peter and the Apostles, but to every church officer throughout time. [191] The Bishops in Acts 20:28, were given the  “commanded to feed, in the Greek poimanein, which word imports all the authority of a shepherd over his flock, which is certainly more than merely consultative, or by way of advice.”[192] Thomson argued that the authority granted to these shepherds implied much more than what the authors of the Apology were granting the officers of the church. He cited two more verses, 1 Timothy 2:5 and Hebrew 8:7, that insinuated that the officers of the church, namely the elders, were to rule the church and the church was to obey their rulers in the church.[193] 

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


[170]. The New Brunswick presbytery are also referred to as the ‘protesting brethren’ for their protest of various acts of Synod.

[171]. John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson: Presbyterian Constitutionalist Minister of the Word of God Educational Leader and Church Builder (Lancaster: The Lancaster Press, 1943), 33.

[172]. D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” in S. Donald Fortson III, ed., Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land  (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 157.

[173]. Ibid., 160.

[174]. Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 85.

[175]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ (Philadelphia: Bradford, 1741), 115.

[177]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 57.

[178]. D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” 161.

[179]. Ibid.,165.

[180]. Ibid.

[181]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 117.

[182]. Ibid., v.

[184]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, vi.

[185]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, vii.

[186]. Ibid.60.

[187]. Ibid.

[188] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 60.

[189]. Ibid., 69.

[190]. Ibid., 57.

[191] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 58.

[192]. Ibid.

[193]. Ibid.

[194]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 60.


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One comment

  1. A propos the canns of Dork: In the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, there is a distinction between Members of a local church and Adherents. This is particularly evident when the church is voting on whether to issue a call to the pastorate, when Members’ votes are reported separately from Adherents’ votes. In this context, of course, “Members” means communicant members (Please don’t try to make out that the Free Presbyterian church of Scotland is not Reformed!).
    My kind of Reformed Baptist includes children in the church, in the same way that the Law included uncircumcised Israelites in the Nation – The guys who, under Joshua’s leadership, were circumcised at Gilgal did not thereby transition from Gentile to Israelite, they had been Israelites before.

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