Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 11): Obedience To Lawful Matters

Thomson distinguished between what was considered sinful and what was considered lawful. If something was considered indifferent or a matter of Christian liberty in Scripture, meaning not sinful, then the officers of the church could determine whether such an action would be beneficial for the order of the church. In proposition 10 of Thomson’s own statements regarding church government, he argued that obedience was required in matters that were lawful, whether or not they were indifferent, because they were the conclusions of the lawful officers of the church which convened together and:

ought to be submitted unto, and conscientiously observed, by all members of that body, because they are the conclusions of a just representative of that body; and consequently are virtually the conclusions of the whole; and also, because they are, by Christ’s institution, invested with authority to make such conclusions, that is, to declare that such or such a general rule of the word requires and intends so in the present case.[264]

Thomson also argued that in any society or government, a measure of personal liberty in matters indifferent must be surrendered for its peaceful governance, “consequently it must imply a giving up of his liberty in the use of indifferent things, so far as is needful in order to comply with the laws of the society.” [265] Even though a surrendering of certain personal liberties might be inconvenient, “not to any abridgement of our liberty, but the unhappy difference of judgment about things wherein our social union require an uniformity.”[266] If the matter was indeed indifferent, “The minority could submit in good conscience even though they did not judge the legislation prudent or expedient.”[267] If submission were not possible, because it would cause a member to sin, then they should appeal to the Synod to have the matter considered, “Minorities could always appeal an ecclesiastical act that contradicted their convictions, but when their appeal failed, the majority was duty-bound to demand their colleagues either obey or separate.”[268] If this process failed, then non-communion was the only option, “they out to submit, if they may without sinning against light and conscience; or else a separation must of course ensue: but if the matter be unlawful, it’s better to obey God than man; i.e. it’s better to separate than sin.”

The Apology argued that if individuals object to the rulings of Synod as sinful, then it did not have the power to threaten non-communion. One concern about what Thomson was advocating was that submission would require obedience to things that were sinful. Consequently, Synod could potentially be an oppressive force. In the first opposing Proposition in The Apology, the authors argued that higher church judicatories were not given power to “lord it over lower ones by creating laws” and penalizing those who do not adhere to them. [270]  They objected particularly to the ability of Synod to threaten “non-communion” as a consequence of not adhering to their rulings. [271] The Apology assumed that absolute obedience was what Synod was requiring. They argued that Christ had not ordered a “blind obedience to the laws and ordinances of a greater number in a church judicatory, although they judge them to be sinful and contrary to the good of his kingdom.”[272]


The Apology objected to the consequences of this binding nature of authority. In addition to accusing the Synod of legislating new laws not found in Scripture, they accused them of legislating new consequences if an individual refused to submit to them. The Apology argued that it was unlawful to “censure or exclude them for obeying their conscience.” Thomson argued that the majority could equally appeal to obedience to their conscience.[273] This penalty was not in fact a new penalty, but one that was necessarily assumed in all civil or social governments. If one did not abide by the rules of the government, one forfeited the privileges of being a member.

Nor is blind obedience required of any, but every one, members and ministers are still at their liberty to act according to their light…let every one keep a good conscience in the sight of God. No coercive power is pretended; only the nature of the constitution requires, that every one who would partake of the benefit of communion with the body, must submit to the government of it.[274]

Likewise, this same idea existed in the church, “A forfeiture of the privileges of members of that society, to the person who refuses to be subject to its rules and constitution, which the society judges to be founded upon the general rules of the word.”[275] 

The objective of a vote, according to Thomson, was that the body of officers could convene and discuss an issue at hand and come to an agreement. During this process, they could determine whether an issue was lawful and expedient. Once voted upon, those in the minority would need to submit if the matter were lawful. In order to vote, Thomson argued, the minority of the outcome must submit to the majority.  Non-communion was the only outcome if the minority of the vote could not submit to the vote of the whole, “Non-communion, as hath been observed, is only the unavoidable consequence of the opposition of judgment or opinion of the voters, and is mutual, both parties suffering the inconveniency in their proportion.”[276] Thomson argued that non-communion was the only consequence if submission was not possible because the benefits of communion rely upon the submission to its government. He argued that the power demonstrated by the officers of the church was not coercive, because it was determined by the act of voting in a judicatory.

The corruption of church discipline was another issue that The Apology addressed as one of their objections. By adding new laws, the officers of the church were adding to the lawful conditions of church discipline. Thomson summed up proposition five of their argument, “Christ’s terms and discipline are fixed and invariable, but granting this legislative power, they are varied by every new Law or canon that’s made: hereby Church-discipline is drawn off its foundation, to the lusts, fancies and traditions of men.”[277] His response was that these “fixed and invariable” “terms of communion and rules of discipline” needed to be applied to particular circumstances by the judgment of the officers of the church. [278] He added that if this process produced a rule that was “besides or contrary to any divine rule” then the regular process of bringing that to light needed to be followed. Even with this potential problem, it was no “objection against such rules or orders as are indeed agreeable to the Word, nor the authority by which they are made.”[279]

Non-communion was not necessarily a penalty, according to Thomson, but a blessing when separation was the only option, because it was better to separate than to sin. Now that the church was disestablished, he saw the ability to freely associate, or to be able to leave a communion to join another, as a blessing, “neither reformed churches nor dissenters ever complained of non-communion as a severe penalty, yea, they never, that I heard, reckoned it a penalty at all but rather rejoiced at the liberty when they could do it without persecution.”[280] Thomson argued that non-communion was beneficial if one’s conscience could not obey a sinful command, especially when it was done in peace.[281]  Thomson contrasted the sentiments of the Apology with that of Reformed church polity dating back to the Reformation, “rules of government and discipline, which were binding on all members that would hold and enjoy communion with them.”[282]

The Apology appealed to the dissenters of the Church of England as an example of how the church polity that Thomson was espousing would have required their submission. Thomson responded by arguing that dissension from the Church of England was necessary because they were requiring “’unscriptural ceremonies of religious worship’ that were contrary to the Word.”[283] The authority they exercised was legitimate, but the content was not, which ultimately made dissension lawful. Thomson only regretted the uncharitableness that took place toward the dissenters. He no doubt had the present “uncharitableness” of the current conflict in mind.

Thomson considered the two acts of Synod regarding the examination of candidates for ministry and the limiting of itinerant preaching as prudent decision of Synod for the better ordering of the church. The New Brunswick Presbytery was validly concerned over violations of Christian Liberty; however, Thomson argued that their interpretation of Christian Liberty and conscience was mistaken with regard to the acts of Synod. Thomson considered their appeal to Christian Liberty as invalid in the case before them. He argued that church judicatories had the authority to make rulings for the better governing of the body as long as they were lawful, not declared unlawful by Scripture. He considered Synod’s rulings concerning candidates as a prudent decision reached by a vote on a matter that was not expressly stated in Scripture, but required no less by the general rules of Scripture and the directory. Their blatant disregard for the acts of Synod, by licensing Rowland, was considered to be against the Presbyterian order that Thomson was espousing. The submission of Presbytery to the rulings of Synod, Thomson argued, 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.

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


[264] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ, 63.

[265] Ibid., 81-82.

[266] Ibid.

[267] Milton J. Coalter, Gilbert Tennent: Son of Thunder, 87.

[268]. Ibid., 86.

[269]. John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ64.

[270]. Ibid.71.

[271]. Ibid.

[272] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ71.

[273]. Ibid.62.

[274]. Ibid.72.

[275]. Ibid., 62.

[276] Ibid., 72.

[277]. Ibid.83-84.

[278]. Ibid., 84.

[279] Ibid., 86.

[280]. Ibid., 100.

[281]. Ibid.

[282]. Ibid.

[283]. Ibid., 101.


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  • Tricia Howerzyl
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    Tricia was born and raised in Southern California. She graduated in 2007 with a B.A. in History from San Diego Christian College and an MA in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California in 2011. She is married, has two children and one on the way. They attend Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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