Here, then, is the result of our investigations and comparisons. The Word of God contains six great, well-defined principles of government, that were embodied in that Church which was planted and organised by the inspired apostles of the Lord. All existing modern Churches claim to be apostolic, and, with the exception of the Greek and Roman Churches, profess to adopt the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith and practice.
But, on comparing the prelacy of the Church of England with the standard of the Divine Word, it is found that in that Church not one of the apostolic principles of government is recognised or embodied. Among the Independents, three of the apostolic principles are exemplified in practice; the remaining three are nowhere to be found. Among Presbyterians, these six principles are all acknowledged, and every one of them is a main feature of the Presbyterian system.
We now remind the reader of the axiom with which we entered on the investigation: The modern Church which embodies in its government most apostolic principles, comes nearest in its government to the Apostolic Church. We apply this axiom to the settlement of the case. Our conclusion is, that, while the prelacy of Rome and England is in direct opposition to the form of ecclesiastical government that was sanctioned by inspired men; and while Independency approaches much more nearly, it still falls short of the primitive model, the Presbyterian is, in point of government, the only Apostolic Church.
We are, indeed, very far from maintaining that any Church on earth is in everything an exact model of the pattern presented in the primitive age. It requires very little thought to see that the Apostolic Church of the Scriptures is altogether unique – one that in all its parts is never to be realised in this world again. There were in it apostles, prophets, and apostolic delegates – all vested with extraordinary powers, which have been handed down to no successors. It was quite common for the early preachers to work miracles in confirmation of their doctrine, and confer the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands. Sometimes in the same congregation there were several gifted brethren, who could look into the future with prophetic eye and declare infallibly the mind of God. In the Church of Jerusalem, organised by the whole college of apostles, and the mother of all other churches, there was a community of goods established; and it was quite a common thing for the people of those days, when their hearts were warm with the first glow of love to the Lord Jesus, to sell their property, and lay the price of it at the apostles’ feet. There were no public buildings erected for the celebration of Christian worship during all the apostolic age; and public teachers, instead of confining the labours of a life to one little district in the country, went everywhere preaching the Word. These are matters as to which no sect that we know of has been able yet to copy the Apostolic Church, or is ever very likely to do so.
Again, there are some arrangements, some of them very unimportant, interwoven with the Presbyterian system, for which it would be difficult to find precedent in the Scriptures. We have already adverted to representation – the practice of one or two elders representing their brother elders in our meetings of presbytery – an arrangement founded more on common sense than Scripture, and adopted to prevent any individual congregation from exercising a preponderance of influence, and to secure, as far as possible, calm deliberation and impartial sentences. Could we command in the assembly of elders the personal presence of inspired apostles to guide the brethren to a right decision, we are sure all would go well, and we might not be so solicitous as to representation; but, so long as humanity falls short of perfection, it is right to guard against abuses, and to impose upon the exercise of arbitrary power a salutary check. There is no plan better adapted to accomplish this, and to secure at the same time the confidence of the people, than that of representation.
We have also spoken of the subordination of church courts, an arrangement entered into for giving effect to the principle of appeal, and which not only gives to the denomination unity and strength, but is obviously attended with many other advantages. The utility of both these principles is undoubted, but it were vain to say that they are essentials of Presbyterianism.
It is not uncommon to hear people speak of the advantages that accrue to the Presbyterian system from the admittance of the lay element into the Church courts. This must be a misunderstanding altogether. None but elders – teaching and ruling elders – are competent to sit in any Presbyterian Church court, from the session of a congregation up to the General Assembly, and, as we have already seen, all elders are equal in point of official standing, for though their departments of duty are in some respects different, yet the office is one and the same. No elder of any kind is a layman, but an ecclesiastical office-bearer, ordained with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery, and appointed to the oversight of the flock and to the discharge of spiritual duties.
Nor does an elder sit in our Church courts to represent the laity. He represents the laity in no sense different from that in which the minister represents them; both are chosen by the people, and both fill the one office in the Church, the only difference between them being one of education, of labour, and of reward. The notion is only plausible from the fact that most elders are engaged in secular pursuits. But it should be remembered that all ministers were so engaged at the first. Even an apostle lived by his trade, as he repeatedly informs us (Acts 20:34; 18:3; 1 Cor. 4:12; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8); and it was part of Paul’s charge to the bishops of Ephesus, “that so labouring they ought to support the weak” (Acts 20:35).
If the pursuit of secular employments proves our elders to be laymen, then the bishops of Ephesus were laymen, and the Apostle of the Gentiles was a layman too. It is equally in vain to argue that, as the brethren were present in the apostolic council (Acts 15:23), the laity are entitled to be represented, and are represented by the elders in our Church courts: for, as every one knows, elders and brethren were both present in that council, and therefore the one could not represent the other – each class had a place and a function of its own. Elders sit in their own right as spiritual rulers in the house of God. There are in our Church courts no lay representatives and no lay elders – a name which ignorance invented and malevolence has preserved, in order to bring the office into contempt and disrepute.
It is, however, only candid to say that such grotesque notions of ecclesiastical order, as these terms betray, have received countenance from the disparity that in the course of time has risen between the elders who teach and the elders who rule. This disparity is not the result of any ecclesiastical enactment, but was at the beginning, and still is, the effect mainly of a difference of gifts. The most gifted of the elders was in the beginning set to preach, and what at first was only a difference of gifts has grown in the progress of time to wear the appearance of a difference of rank. One is here reminded of the truthful remark of Dr. Campbell:
Power has a sort of attractive force, which gives it a tendency to accumulate, insomuch that what in the beginning is a distinction barely perceptible, grows in process of time a most remarkable disparity.
The disparity existing among teaching and ruling elders among Presbyterians, instead of being defended, is very much to be lamented, and ought as much as possible to be removed. This is to be done, however, not by lowering the teaching elder, but by elevating the ruling elder, and appointing to office those only who are distinguished from the people by more than a common measure of graces and gifts, who are aware of the responsibilities of the eldership, and who are determined, for the Lord’s sake, to the best of their ability to discharge its duties. Besides, the office of the deacon, existing at present only in some congregations, should be revived in every Church, where elders can manage temporal matters only by neglecting the spiritual concerns peculiarly their own. These and other defects can be remedied, when once they are seen to be defects; for it is one among the many recommendations of the Presbyterian Church polity, that it possesses within itself a purifying and reforming power, by which, while always preserving the Scriptural and essential principles of the system, it can alter any arrangement that experience has proved in its practical operation not to be productive of good.
We do not, then, assert that the Presbyterian Church is in everything an exact copy of the Apostolic Church. There are some things found in the one that must be for ever wanting in the other; and conversely, there are some things wanting in the one that are found in the other. But in doctrine they are exactly the same: in worship they are exactly the same: in government, all the main principles of the one are found in the other. There is no other Church on earth of which the same statements can be made in truth.
We regard it, therefore, as put beyond all reasonable doubt, that of all the Churches now existing in the world, the Presbyterian Church comes nearest to the model of apostolic times. That such is the fact, every man, who gives to the evidence here submitted that careful and unprejudiced consideration to which it is entitled, must, as we think, be convinced.