The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXX. Of Church Censures

Section I.—The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.


To suppose, as some have done, that the government of the Church is ambulatory, or that no particular form has been appointed by Christ, but that he has left it to be moulded according to the wisdom or caprice of men, and varied according to the external circumstances of the Church, is to impeach the love of Christ to his Church, and his fidelity to Him who hath appointed him to "reign over the house of Jacob." No human society can subsist without government; how absurd, then, to suppose that the Church of Christ, the most perfect of all societies, has been left by her king destitute of what is essential to the very being of society! Under the Old Testament a most perfect form of government was prescribed to the Church; but order and discipline are as necessary to the Christian as they were to the Jewish Church. And can it be reasonably supposed, that while the government of the latter was minutely prescribed, that of the former has been totally neglected! All sects of Christians, indeed, plead the authority of Scripture for that form of government which they prefer; and thus they implicitly acknowledge that the outlines, at least, of some particular form may be found in the Scriptures.

Even the advocates of the divine right of ecclesiastical government differ widely respecting the precise form of it which has been appointed by Christ. Papists, conceiving that the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of Peter, and the vicegerent of Christ, is the visible head of the whole Church, maintain that in him the supreme government of the universal Church is reposed, and that from him all other bishops derive their authority. Episcopalians, holding a distinction of rank among the ministers of religion, vest the government of the Church in bishops, archbishops, &c. Independents, conceiving that every congregation forms a complete Church, and has an independent power of jurisdiction within itself, lodge the government of the Church in the assembly of the faithful. Presbyterians, holding, in opposition to Episcopalians, that all the ministers of the Word are on a level, in respect of office and authority; and, in opposition to Independents, that particular congregations are only parts of the one Church, maintain that the government of the Church is committed, under Christ, to the presbytery, or the teaching and ruling elders; and that there is a subordination of courts, in which the sentence of inferior courts may be reviewed, and either affirmed or reversed. It would be out of place here to examine the claims of these different systems. That the Presbyterial form is "founded upon, and agreeable to, the Word of God," is, in our judgment, fully established in "the Form of Church Government" drawn up by the Westminster Assembly.

It is only necessary to advert to the opinion of the Erastians, who maintain that the external government of the Church belongs to the civil magistrate. This opinion is directly opposed to all that the Scriptures say about the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ. That remarkable declaration of Christ, "My kingdom is not of this world," plainly shows that his kingdom, though in the world, is totally and specifically distinct from all others in it; and when he forbade the exercise of such dominion over his subjects as the kings of the Gentiles exercised, the different nature of the government to take place in it was clearly pointed out. Among the various office-bearers which Christ has "set in the Church," the civil magistrate is never mentioned. And were it true that it belongs to the civil magistrate to model the government of the Church, Christ must have left his Church more than three hundred years without any government; for it was not till the fourth century that the Church received any countenance from the civil powers.

"The formal and specific difference betwixt the Church and the kingdoms of the world, and, consequently, between civil and ecclesiastical authority, in respect of origin, ends, subjects, laws, privileges, means, extent, &c., has, by many writers, been very particularly explained. No doubt, the Church on earth hath some things in common with other societies, and the authority in both may often have the same objects, materially considered, they admit also of a mutual respect, and reciprocal acts and duties towards each other; but none of these are inconsistent with their formal distinction, but rather suppose it; so that all the power and peculiar actings of each, whatever matters they respect, must ever be of the same nature with that of the society they belong to—in the one wholly spiritual, and in the other always and wholly secular. When following their proper line, and keeping within their proper sphere, they can never jar or impede one another by interference: like two straight and parallel lines, they can never meet or be confounded together. Whatever dangers have arisen, or may arise, from abuse, none can arise merely from the distinct and independent nature and actings of these societies; so that there can be no reason for subjection one of them to the other. The common plea of the necessity of one undivided supreme power in all states, and of the danger of an "imperium in imperio', applies only to societies and powers of the same nature and order, and is impertinently urged for a supremacy of temporal rulers over a Church of Christ, whose authority is of a different kind."

Section II.—To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

Section III.—Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; for deterring of others from like offences; for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

Section IV.—For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition, suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season, and by excommunication from the Church, according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.


In opposition to the Erastians, who assign the power of indicting the censures of the Church to the civil magistrate, our Confession here affirms, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed to the officers whom Christ has appointed in his Church. "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven," said Christ to Peter, "and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."—Matt. xvi. 19. By "the keys of the kingdom of heaven," we are to understand the power and authority of exercising government and discipline in the Church; in virtue of which, those entrusted with these keys have power to "bind and loose," by inflicting and removing censures; and their proceedings, when conducted agreeably to Scripture, are ratified in heaven. Presbyterians maintain that these keys were given to Peter, as an apostle and elder; and, therefore, that the gift extends to all the apostles, and after them, to all ordinary elders, to the end of time. The same thing that is expressed in the above passage by binding and loosing, is elsewhere expressed by remitting and retaining sins. But Christ addressed these words to all the apostles: "Peace be unto you; as the Father hath sent me, so send I you. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."—John xx. 21, 23. It is true that this power is ascribed to the Church: "Tell it unto the Church," &c. (Matt. xviii. 17); but by the Church, in this passage, is to be understood the rulers or elders of the Church; and this text further confirms the doctrine of our Confession, that the power of discipline is committed solely to the office-bearers of the Church. The Church and the State may take up the same cases, but under a different consideration; it is only when viewed as crimes against the State that they come under the cognisance of civil rulers, and are to be punished with civil pains; viewed as scandals against religious society, they come under the cognisance of the rulers of the Church, and can only be removed by ecclesiastical censures.

Church censures are necessary for vindicating the honour of Christ and his religion—maintaining the purity of his worship—reclaiming offenders—deterring others from the like offences—removing contagion from the Church—and preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer the seals of his covenant to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

The censures of the Church are spiritual in the nature and effects. They are appointed by Christ for the benefit of offenders, and have a tendency, as means, to promote their recovery, and not their destruction. As offences differ in degrees of guilt and circumstances of aggravation, the Church is to proceed according to the nature and degree of the offence committed. In some cases a simple admonition will suffice.—Tit. iii. 10. A greater degree of guilt will call for a rebuke, solemnly administered in the name of Jesus Christ.—Tit. i.13; 1 Tim. v. 20. Scandals of greater magnitude will require the suspension of the offender from the sacrament of the Lord's supper for a season.—2 Thess. iii. 14. This is called the lesser excommunication; and the highest censure which the Church has the power to inflict is called the greater excommunication.—Matt. xvii;. 17. We have an example in the case of the incestuous man, who was delivered "unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."—1 Cor. v. 5. It does not, according to the Popish notion, consist in literally delivering up the offender to the devil, but in casting him out of the Church into the world, which is described in Scripture as Satan's kingdom.

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