The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXXI. Of Synods and Councils

Section I.-- For the better government and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils.


The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in their act approving of the Confession of Faith, 1647, inserted a caveat: "That the not mentioning in this Confession the several sorts of ecclesiastical officers and assemblies, shall be no prejudice to the truth of Christ in these particulars, to be expressed fully in the Directory of Government." The views of the Church of Scotland, and also of the Westminster Assembly, on this subject, are therefore to be more fully ascertained in "The Form of Presbyterial Church Government," agreed upon by that Assembly, and usually bound up with the Confession of Faith. In that document they declare: "It is lawful and agreeable to the Word of God, that the Church be governed by several sorts of assemblies, which are congregational, classical, and synodical;" and also: "That synodical assemblies may lawfully be of several sorts, as provincial, national, and ecumenical;" and further, that "It is lawful, and agreeable to the Word of God, that there be a subordination of congregational, classical provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the Church." Here we have a distinct specification of the several sorts of ecclesiastical assemblies, and also an explicit statement of the due subordination of the judicatories of the Church; which we are now accustomed to denominate kirk-sessions, presbyteries, provincial synods, and General Assemblies. At present, however, we have only to notice the statement in the section of the Confession under consideration. In opposition to the Independents, who maintain that every congregation has an independent power of government within itself, and deny all subordination of judicatories, our Confession asserts that, "for the better government and further edification of the Church" (that is, for attaining the end better than can be accomplished in smaller meetings of Church officers), "there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils." Of this we have an example in the synod which met at Jerusalem to settle the question about circumcision. "The question, whether or not the Gentiles who had made a profession of the Christian religion were bound to submit to circumcision, was of common concern, and could only be settled by the judgment and decision of office-bearers delegated from the Church as a whole; and we find that the judgement or decision of these office-bearers, when met judicially to consider the question, was considered as binding upon the whole Church. Nor is it any valid objection to this court forming a model for the imitation of the Church in after ages, that it was composed partly of apostles; for the apostles were also elders, as every higher office in the Church includes the official power belonging to inferior offices; and we do not find that, in the whole discussion, the apostles, as judges, claimed any superiority over their brethren, who are called elders. At any rate, the decision was promulgated as the joint decision of both.-- Acts xv. 21-31."

Section II.-- As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; so if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.


The Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in the act by which they adopted the Confession, make a special reference to this section, and expressly declare that they understood it "only of kirks not settled or constituted in point of government;" and while they admit that "in such kirks a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, may be called by the magistrates' authority and nomination, without any other call, to consult and advise with about matters of religion," they assert that this "ought not to be done in kirks constituted and settled," and that it is always free to the ministers and ruling elders "to assemble together synodically, as well pro re nata as at the ordinary times, upon delegation from the Churches, by the intrinsical power received from Christ, as often as it is necessary for the good of the Church so to assemble, in case the magistrate, to the detriment of the Church, withhold or deny his consent." Our Reformers, it is well known, were ever jealous of the least encroachment upon the independence of the Church. Her intrinsic power to convene her own Assemblies occupied a prominent place in all their contendings with the Crown. Their maxim was: "Take from us the freedom of Assemblies, and take from us the Evangel." At the period of the first Reformation this power was both claimed and exercised. The Church held her first Assembly, in 1560, solely in virtue of her own proper authority, under Christ her head; and for at least twenty years-- during which time there were no fewer than thirty-nine or forty Assemblies-- the sovereign was not present, either in person or by a representative, as afterwards became the custom. At the era of the second Reformation, the intrinsic power of the Church was nobly vindicated by the famous Assembly held in Glasgow in l 638. Although the king's commissioner dissolved the Assembly in his master's name, and discharged their further proceedings, under the highest penalties, yet the Assembly, claiming an intrinsical power from the Lord Jesus Christ, continued their sessions and proceeded with the important business for which they had met. It must be acknowledged, however, that in the Act of 1592-- which has been considered as the Magna Charta of the Established Church, and which the Act of 1690 revived and confirmed-- the right of the Church to appoint her own Assemblies was not sufficiently secured. This right is conceded only when neither the king nor his commissioner is present. Accordingly, immediately after the Revolution, the Assemblies of the Church were often abruptly dissolved, and repeatedly adjourned, by the royal authority.

"This point (the power of freely meeting and dissolving by the Church's own authority), that so often was contested between the Crown and the Presbyterian courts in Scotland, is of far greater importance to ecclesiastical independence and liberty than at first it may appear to be. Without this being retained and secured, a little reflection may show that the exercise of any other powers they may claim, may be rendered, by the will of a superior, not only precarious, but altogether nugatory and void. It is well known that this arbitrary exercise of prerogative, in calling and dissolving Parliaments, had rendered them powerless, and they were in danger by it of being utterly abolished; nor did the nation reckon their civil liberties at all secure, till annual or regular meetings of Parliament were secured by law. The danger would be equal and the effect similar, if ecclesiastical assemblies were made, in this respect, wholly dependent on the Crown; of which the history of the English Convocation affords a striking evidence."

Section III.-- It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.


This section is evidently intended as a decision upon another important principle in the controversy with Independents, who, while they admitted that congregations might, in difficult cases, consult with advantage synods of ministers, denied to these synods any authority over the congregations. Presbyterians readily grant that the power of Church rulers is purely ministerial. Christ is the alone Lord and Lawgiver in his Church; so that their business is only to apply and enforce the laws which he has enacted. Their deliberations, however, are to be considered, not an merely consultative, but authoritative; and, so far as their decisions accord with the laws of Christ, laid down in his Word, being formed in his name, and by authority conferred by him, they must be binding upon the conscience. The Synod of Jerusalem did not merely give a counsel or advice, but pronounced an authoritative decision upon the case referred to them. They "ordained decrees," "laid a burden" upon the Churches, and enjoined them to observe certain "necessary things," and their decision was cheerfully submitted to by the Churches concerned.-- Acts xv. 28, xvi. 4.

Section IV.-- All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.


Although Papists maintain that infallibility is lodged somewhere in the Church, they are not agreed among themselves whether it resides in the Pope, or in a general council, or in both united. It is here affirmed that all councils may err. Councils being composed of men, every one of whom is fallible, they must also be liable to error when collected together. It is also asserted that many of them have erred; and this is sufficiently evident from the fact, that different general councils have made decrees directly opposite to each other. In the Arian controversy, several councils decreed in opposition to that of Nice. The Eutychian heresy was approved in the second Council of Ephesus, and soon after condemned in the Council of Chalcedon. The worship of images was condemned in the Council of Constantinople, and was approved in the second Nicene Council, and again condemned at Francfort. Finally, the authority of councils was declared, at Constance and Basil, to be superior to that of the Pope; but this decision was reversed in the Lateran.

Section V.-- Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.


While our Confession denounces any Erastian interference of the civil magistrate in matters purely spiritual and Ecclesiastical, it no less explicitly disavows all Popish claims, on the part of the synods and councils of the Church, to intermeddle with civil affairs, unless by way of petition, in extraordinary cases, or by ray of advice, when required by the civil magistrate. Our Reformers appear to have clearly perceived the proper limits of the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and to have been very careful that they should be strictly observed. "The power and policy ecclesiastical," say they, "is different and distinct in its own nature from that power and policy which is called civil power, and appertainseth to the civil government of the commonwealth; albeit they be both of God, and tend to one end, if they be rightly used, viz., to advance the glory of God, and to have godly and good subjects." "Diligence should be taken, chiefly by the moderator, that only ecclesiastical things be handled in the Assemblies, and that there be no meddling with anything pertaining to the civil jurisdiction." Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both; but each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere-- the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.

Previous | Next | Index

Return to Documents at CRTA

Return to CRTA