Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 9): The Peace Of The Church In Submission

The Apology, in addition to questioning the extent and nature of the authority exercised by church judicatories, also questioned the authority of Synod over presbyteries. The disagreement that precipitated their objection was whether Synod had the jurisdiction to regulate the examination of candidates for ministry, which they saw as the authority of the Presbytery. The Apology argued that Synod could only give their best advice in cases, but could not make rules that were binding upon Presbyteries. They were additionally concerned that submission to higher church judicatories might necessitate submission in matters of Christian liberty or matters of conscience and, at worst, forbid lawful practices or require sinful ones. According to Thomson, limiting the authority of Synod to advisory was to reject the authority that Christ had granted higher church judicatories.

Both the Protestation of 1741 and Thomson’s The Government of the Church of Christ regarded the actions of the New Brunswick Presbytery as divisive and contrary to Presbyterian order. As Thomson defended his conception of Presbyterian Church polity, he insisted that the New Side had disrupted the peace that this polity provided. Thomson argued that they were far guiltier of a coercive type of power in their actions against Synod,

but may it not be justly queried if the protesting brethren, who are against this rule-making power, be not more guilty of beating their fellow-servants within these twelve months past, than all the other members of our Synod have been since the first foundation of a Presbyterian Church was laid in Pennsylvania, by their rash judging and condemning them as the worst of men, and by incensing the populace against them, filling them with prejudices.[226] 

In comparison, their methods of handling disagreements with their colleagues were not conducive to peace. As Milton Coalter summarized the impasse, both “considered themselves conscience-bound to pursue their present program for the greater good of the church. But the revivalists believed their conscience dictated infractions of the law in the present case, while their opponents assumed that only a complete adherence to the letter of the law could bring about the intended good.”[227] 

In addition to the ministerial authority of church judicatories to make binding acts, Thomson argued that the peace of the church would be maintained only if presbyteries were required to submit to rulings of Synod. Thomson, in The Government of the Church of Christ, gave four major points to prove this. First, he argued the greater the assembly of church officers, the more authority it held over smaller assemblies. Second, he argued that the keys of the kingdom were given to church officers at the Synodical level as well as the presbyterial level. Third, he argued that by submitting judgments to a vote of the whole assembly, the minority in the determination of the vote must submit to the majority. Lastly, he argued that common sense dictated that in order to enjoy the benefits of membership to any society, one must submit to its governance. Additionally, in response to the objections of The Apology, he clarified the extent to which church judicatories should be submitted to and addressed their concerns regarding Christian liberty, the problem of dissenting from church judicatories, when proper disobedience was necessary and the problem of breaking communion. Thomson argued that this governance of Christ’s church produced peace amongst its members when they properly submitted to its authority and encouraged non-communion as the last resort in cases of sin. Only by this obedience and submission would the peace of the church stay in tact.

First, he argued that when officers convened in a church judicatory, their authority increased when in greater assemblies. The Apology asserted, in its six statements in which it affirmed propositions for church polity, that all ministers were equal in their power and authority. Thomson added to this concept in proposition three, of Thomson’s eleven statements defending proper Presbyterian Church government, that if churches joined together to form a unified judicatory, such as a Presbytery or a Synod, then they were joining together for the governing of the entire body. A “subordination” of judicatories, therefore, was necessary, “When there are more particular congregations than one united together in the exercise of government over the whole, the government of that body so united, is to be managed by a due subordination of inferior or smaller judicatories to greater or superior, from a session or congregational consistory to an ecumenical council.”[228] For Thomson, the same authority that consisted in a session was only multiplied when officers of Christ’s church joined together, “so the authority of the lesser or inferior is included in the greater or superior. Whatever a session can do, that also can a Synod or an assembly do.”[229] The same power given to a smaller judicatory was possessed by a larger one, “consequently if a session can make rules or orders binding all their members or people, so may a Synod: and if it were not so, there could be no subordination.”[230] Milton Coalter summarized Thomson’s argument as “the prerogatives of lesser judicatories were assumed to be included within those superior councils. Therefore, the Philadelphia Synod had an even greater claim to power of ordination than the presbyteries under its jurisdiction.”[231]

Thomson argued that the term Presbytery could refer to not only a small association of elders, but also any association of elders convened together to form an ecclesiastical court. With reference to the debate at hand, Thomson argued that it was an unknown body of elders that ordained Timothy. It could have been a larger body or a small consistory. Ultimately, “Presbytery” referred to a church judicatory and it’s responsibilities and authority existed no matter how broad the association was or how narrow, “the word properly signifies a convention of elders and presbyters sitting in judicatory, whether inferior or superior.”[232] 

Second, Thomson rejected their argument that synodical decisions could never be binding on Presbyteries, based on his argument that the keys of the kingdom were given to church officers and when these officers met, the rulings they make were equally as binding as those made at the presbyterial level. Because the keys of the kingdom were given to individuals at their ordination equally, in whatever quantity they meet, they form a body that held the same authority, “The power of the keys is given to presbyters, to each at his ordination, as pares or equals; they are to act 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.”[233] 

The role of the officers was to prevent “disorder and confusion” by governing the body of Christ by the application of Scripture to particular circumstances. [234] The power of these keys was granted to the officers of the church to make “orders, acts, or diadactic rules, for the regulating of circumstancials of ecclesiastical matters.” [235] The scriptures commanded that there be the appointment of “officers and rulers in his kingdom, who are authorized both to teach and rule, according to these doctrines and laws.” [236]  The reason for this was that Scripture could never enumerate the endless applications, so the role of the officers of the Church was to expound upon the scriptures, taking the “general rules of the word” and applying them in “subordination” to it.[237]  

Third, the convening together of officers into judicatories required that all submit their votes to particular cases and submission to the determination of the whole was necessary for proper governance. Thomson argued that when all submit their votes to a particular case, they were in a sense submitting to the determination of the whole. Therefore, they would need to submit to the vote even if they found themselves in the minority. This nature of this submission assumed that the thing being voted on was not a matter of sin, but a lawful matter to be determined by the wisdom of the officers of the church and the direction of Scripture on the subject. In his eleventh proposition, Thomson equated the act of voting with a willingness to submit to the outcome of the vote, “when they give their consent that the thing should be voted, they virtually say, we are willing to be determined by the majority of votes, whether we be negatives or affirmatives, of the major or minor party.”

Thomson agreed with The Apology‘s proposition that all officers of the church possessed an equality of power, however, he used this same idea to argue that the voting power of church judicatories required that minorities in the vote submit to the majority. Contrary to The Apology’s suspicion that Synod would lord its power over the minority, Thomson argued that because all officers were present and submitted the outcome to a vote, the vote should determine the outcome,

The nature of the thing, as hath been observed, requires, that such equal rulers acting in concert, must debate and vote the matters before them; then certainly the majority must carry the point, if the judicatory have a right to vote such a matter, or are proper judges thereof those who make up the minority, by submitting the matter to a vote, do give their consent that the majority should carry it, or else why did they vote at all? The minority have an active hand in the determination, by voting, though the determination go against them: and so if there be any lording it over them, it’s with their own consent.[238]

The very nature of a vote, necessitated that the majority of votes should determine the outcome and that those voting should submit. If this were not the case, then voting would be of no use. If advice was the only outcome of a vote by church judicatories and not submission to the majority, as The Apology had recommended, Thomson argued that all authority would be removed from the officers of the church,

either they must take the majorities counsel and act according to their judgment, and then the minority must submit; or they have a right to reject it if they please, and so there is no authority, but only advice, which is implied in the assertion, and is certainly these brethren’s judgment: for it seems the people ruled are the ultimate judges of their own liberties, though ruled by their own representatives; and so farewell all government in the church.[239]

Thomson considered this to be contrary to the nature of government in general and more specifically, Presbyterian Church government,  

the presbytery may give their best advice, and so might as many magistrates or mechanics, but are invested with no authority to rule, nor is their judgment of any authority further than its apparent reasonableness persuades the parities concerned: which is most evidently absurd, contrary to the Word, to reason, to the nature of government in general, and the Presbyterian government in particular.[240]

If persuasion was the only tool available to the officers of the church, Thomson saw this as no authority at all. The nature of a vote must consist of the minority submitting to the majority vote. In order to sustain the authority and order required by Scripture, Thomson argued that submission must be assumed when a vote was cast.

Fourth, Thomson argued that submission to rulings of church judicatories, especially lower to higher courts, was a fundamental aspect of governance. In order to enjoy the benefits of membership, one needed to obey its government. Thomson considered this argument to be the very basis of laws in any government,  “but to allow more to the inferior judicatory would be to exalt them above the superior, viz. To oblige the superior, either by relinquishing their own determination, or by keeping communion with the inferior at the expenses of the overthrow of the very fundamental laws of society and government, viz. In allowing the privileges of membership to such who refuse to submit themselves to the government of the body.”[241] To sustain the order of the church, submission to its governance was required.

According to The Apology, in matters not expressly given in Scripture, church judicatories only had the power to advise. The church polity expressed in The Apology espoused a different understanding of Synodical authority in matters of conscience. They argued that no church judicatory had the authority to make binding laws in matters of conscience. Rather than making applications of the general principles of the Word to individual cases for the better ordering of the church, namely those regulations that the Synod was placing on candidates for ministry to be subject to examination by a committee of Synod, they argued that an advisory role was the only appropriate role of Synod. In the introduction to The Apology they affirmed five introductory statements regarding the role and authority of church judicatories. They affirmed that at the Presbyterial level, authority existed in matters of ordination and membership, but neither judicatory had authority in matters of conscience. The first two statements affirmed the authority of Presbytery to regulate qualifications for ministerial candidates and the terms of communion for laity. Thomson agreed with their proposition with qualifications. He argued that an individual candidate for ministry must offer himself to the “regulations of the whole.” [242] Since the presbytery and the individual candidate were part of a larger body, they were subject to the superior judicatory. The final three statements limited the authority of both Presbyteries and Synods in regard to matters of conscience and Christian liberty. The final statement limited the authority of Synods to give only advisory rulings, “that Presbyteries should deliberate concerning matters of conscience or things that ‘have a good tendency to the advancement of religion’, to give their best advice.”[243] Thomson likened the authority of church judicatories to that of a parent to their children, “no authority unless there be a power to oblige a subject, though unwilling to obey: A neighbor or a friend may advise, but a parent may command his child to obey.”[244]

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


[226]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 109.

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

[228]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 59.

[229]. Ibid.

[230]. Ibid.

[231]. Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder, 85.

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

[233]. Ibid.

[234]. Ibid.

[235]. Ibid.

[236]. Ibid., 61.

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

[238]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 71-72.

[239]. Ibid., 55.

[240]. Ibid.

[241]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 65.

[242]. Ibid.54.

[243]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 54.

[244]. Ibid., 64.

©Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


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