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Doctrine of Church Censures: Right Form of Government Conclusion

July 30, 2023 Series: Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Topic: Doctrine of Church Censures Scripture: Acts 15:1–16


WCFaith: Chapter 30, Art. 1 / Acts 15.1-16


Why is the matter of church government in general and of Presbyterian church government in particular important?

  • Presbyterianism is not only the most biblically sound form of government
  • Presbyterianism provides the most trustworthy, just, and peaceful way for the church
    • to determine its direction or its practices
    • to resolve its differences

While we speak with some affection to our independent and congregational

  • some of that affection and care and love for them should drive us to speak to them about the kind of government under which they labor
  • because we believe Presbyterian church government is the biblical form

Let's quickly review the most common forms or church government

Types of Church Government


It is practiced today mostly in churches that are called brethren churches.

In those particular churches, if they are true to their original principles

  • there are no church officers
  • there are only those that perform some type of admistration

There may be a treasurer but there is no elder, deacon, or Pastor

Every male, family, household head in the congregation is deemed competent and worthy to stand in the assembly and “give a word to the congregation”

  • This is based on a faulty reading of 1 Corinthians 14

There may be some kind of president or moderator in the meeting

  • to identify who gets to speak and who does not
  • to decide when to sing and when not to sing


This is sometimes called the independent

  • advocates self-rule for every local congregation

Final authority resides within the congregation itself

  • but who has final authority differs from congregation to congregation

Sometimes the congregational form of church government will have a pastor

Sometimes their worship services may look similar to ours

Some may have elders in the church

  • many do not have elders
  • those that do are typically only adjunct elders
    • they are not ruling elders
  • the rule is in the hands of the congregation

Things that are decided for a church are all decided by the congregation

  • whether it is the budget or the direction of the church
  • whether it is the pastor or the type of sermons to be preached
  • whether it is how their worship service looks


Independent churches are the bulk of American protestant churches

Independent churches are governed in numerous ways

They do not all have elders but may have deacons & a ruling board

  • in most cases, they are rulers in name only because often it is the pastor and his personality that rules the church

Some of them are confessional churches

Some have conferences with other churches

  • but they are not able to order/ command outside of the local church

An independent church believes everything that needed for its government is already right there in the local church

  • within that Church's membership

There is no extended membership beyond the local church

Prelatic/ Episopacy

The episcopal (or prelatic) form of church government can be found

  • in the Roman Catholic Church
  • in the Greek Orthodox
  • in the Russian Orthodox Churches
  • in the Church of England
  • in the U.S. Episcopalian Church
  • in the U.S. United Methodist Church

This form of church government calls for a distinct category of church officers generally known as a priesthood to govern the church

  • comprised of archbishops
  • comprised of bishops
  • comprised of rectors (or vicars)

The Roman Catholic Church

  • adds the Pope as supreme head of the church
  • there are cardinals that rule over the archbishops, bishops, and local priests throughout the world

The Orthodox Churches have Patriarchs

  • similar in authority in their respective churches to the Roman Pope
  • though they do not claim infallibility

Presbyterianism - The Biblical Form

Our churches are governed by a system of courts

  • beginning with the court of a local church
  • proceeding up to a Presbyterian court
  • then a synod and/ or a general assembly of presbyteries

The root/ basic/ lowest court of the church is the presbytery

  • not the local session (group of elders)

There are some exceptions to this:

  • they believe the root court is the local session

We believe that the court with all of the authority is:

  • the presbytery itself
  • elders from various churches in a particular region ruling together

We believe this is the system set forth in the Scriptures

As we learned over the past few weeks, there are noticeably clear marks that Presbyterianism is exactly what is modeled in the New Testament

Importance of Elders

There are several times in the Scriptures where rulers and elders are set forth over the people of God.

From the days of Moses

  • there were what we call undifferentiated elders
  • there was not a particular civil establishment
  • those elders served kinds of two hats, functions
    • they had ecclesiastical function
    • they had a civil function.

As the days went by under Jehoshaphat

  • a number of elders we set up in Jerusalem
    • in ecclesiastical courts 
    • in civil courts

Brief Old Testament Background

Exodus 12.21-28

Remember, at this time there are approximately 2 million Israelites

When we hear Moses talking to the children of Israel

  • he is not talking the entire crowd of 2 million

Notice verse 21: Moses calls for all of the elders

  • and he told the elders what to do

Have you ever wondered who those elders are?

  • Are they just the old guys?

Clearly these are officers that existed in the people

  • these are the men of respect and renown
  • these are the ones that people listen to
    • having some authority in the congregation
    • competent to represent the people as they stood before Moses

As they received instructions, as representatives, they went back to their various areas of responsibility

  • they issued the commands of Moses,

In verse 28 → the children of Israel went away and did as the Lord had commanded

  • the ordinance of the Passover was started under this form of government
    • It came down from God to Moses
    • Moses gave them to the elders
    • the elders gave them to the people
Exodus 18.13-26

Clearly there were elders set up to judge the people

  • these matters were, I believe, essentially civil matters
    • although perhaps not exclusively

This is before the people entered into their civil estate

  • there are still elders that are somewhat undifferentiated and doing perhaps double duty.

Notice there are qualifications for these men, similar to the New Testament

  • for those who would rise to the office of elder in our districts as well.
2 Chronicles 19.1-11

There is a differentiation between the King’s matters and the Lord’s matters.

There were political/ civil judges/ officers set up

  • and there was ecclesiastical officers or judges

In Jehoshaphat, during the days of the monarchy

  • we now have a differentiation in the elders

The Levites judge things for the Lord

The chief fathers of the children of Israel judge the things for the king.

Entering the New Testament

This is important to understand:

  • people in the New Testament were not born into a “Churchly vacuum”

They did not rise up in a church that did not know how to govern itself

The Church of Jesus Christ that existed in the Old Testament, for the most part, already knew how to govern itself.

We do not have time to go into all of the intricacies about the various officers in the church and how they function as deacons and as elders

  • but if you reflect upon what we have learned from the book of Acts
  • you will notice there is already a recognition that those elders that existed in the book of Acts
    • they were apostles and elders in that church

The apostles sat with elders, and they make judgments with elders

  • they did not come into this estate ignorantly

The apostles came with the history of a church that has been governed

  • that has held courts
  • that has made decisions
  • that provided judgment in all of the Lord's matters

Let's be clear that when we come to the book of Acts and talk about church government

  • we are doing so with a solid foundation that has already been laid

The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 16, 18

Next, I want you to understand about the Keys

  • and what the keys control

Turn with me to Matthew 18.15

  • this passage teaches church discipline

First, let's take away the doctrines of men

  • if 2 or 3 are gathered together and pray for something the Lord is bound
  • that is not what Jesus says here

Jesus is talking about church office that has the authority to bind and loose

The church to which Jesus refers is the church of the elders sitting in judgment

  • with the authority to bind and loose
  • who have the keys of the kingdom of heaven
  • who are able to open and to shut

John 20.23

Binding, loosing, remitting, retaining all pertain to the eldership of the church

  • this is what is called the keys of the kingdom.

Historically, our reforming fathers have understood these keys to be 2-fold

The Key of Doctrine

With this key, the steward of the house, the elder:

  • preaches the Word of God
  • goes to the spiritual cupboard inserts the key
    • opens it and dispenses the goodness to all that are in the house

That is what we call the key of doctrine

  • the preaching of the Word of God

The Key of Discipline

When we admit and invite people to the table of the Lord

  • that is the opening, the loosing
  • when it is necessary either to censure or to excommunicate
    • that is shutting, binding

Fencing of the table is a part of that duty.

The administration of the sacraments is part of this.

That same elder also has the ability to shut, to bind

  • to close the doors
  • to insert the key and to lock it
  • such that those obstinate and scandalous sinners
    • who refuse repentance and admonition
    • are at no longer come to the table

When it is shut, they are no longer partakers of the cupboard of the house

  • the cupboard is closed to them

This is what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18.

  • When He says → Tell it to the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen, and as a tax God were for whatsoever you bind on her shall be bound in heaven whatsoever you loose on or shall be loose.

The Key and the Brethren Churches

The difference in this church government regarding the keys is answered in the question:

  • Who has the keys?

Who has the keys in the brethren form of church government?

  • they practice what is called shunning

Shunning is how the keys are exercised

  • they will just turn their backs on you

The Key and Congregational Churches

When there is a trial everybody's dirty laundry is aired out in the open

  • Everybody in the congregation hears it
  • Everybody in the congregation votes up or down
    • and the person is cast out on the church

The Key and Independent Churches

In Independent churches, there is only the local assembly.

The officers of that assembly, whether they are deacons, whether they are elders, ruling or a governing body of that church … they decide.

Those officers who are familiar with the one who has gotten crosswise with the leadership/ governing body

  • they presume themselves to be entirely unbiased their judgment
  • although they all may have sat together as a committee and discussed that matter
    • perhaps that poisoned the well, so to speak

 The Key and Prelatic Churches

In the prelatic system, the bishop holds those keys

  • the bishop hears a report from the elders and makes the determination

The Key and Presbyterian Churches

In the Presbyterian form of church government

  • the root court is the presbytery.

This requires that more objectivity and light be shed upon the situation.

It is the presbytery of churches coming together that have the authority to bind and loose

  • such that a man has not been left to those that he may have been confronted with in his own local church
  • such that the accuser is not also the judge

There are others elders that come from other churches in the Presbytery

  • they do not have a history with the person under review
  • they are better able to judge with unattached emotion

It is that court that has the authority to wield the keys

  • This is not just simply good logic.
  • This is what the Scriptures require.

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