SYNODS AND COUNCILS
(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 31)
The Bible teaches that there ought to be a plurality of church-officers or elders in each local congregation. For example, we read that Paul and Barnabas “…appointed elders in every church…” Acts 14:23. And the Apostle Paul instructed Titus to “…appoint elders in every city…” Titus 1:5. Thus the churches were to be ruled by a plurality of persons, and not by any individual.
This plurality of elders is traced all the way back to the Triune God. There is a real sense in which the Trinity is a Presbytery. For, there is a plurality of Persons in the Godhead, viz. the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three Persons are one God. Thus though God is many Persons, He is yet one God.
The Church on earth reflects the Godhead. For, there are many churches, but there is one church. Likewise there are many church-officers or elders in the local church, but they are one ruling authority. At the local level we call the ruling authority the Session. At the district level we call the ruling authority the Presbytery. And at a regional level, (in Australia), we call the ruling authority the General or State Assembly of the particular State. Then there is a national Assembly, or General Assembly (of Australia). But each one of these synods and councils is made of church-officers or Presbyters.
Now, in Proverbs 11:14 we read, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Presbyterianism seeks safety in the multitude of counsellors. The various church synods and councils are Presbyterianism’s Biblical system of checks and balances.
In the following we’re looking at Synods and Councils. Whereas the word ‘synod’ refers to the meeting or forming of the ecclesiastical or church council, the word ‘council’ refers to the function of the ecclesiastical or church council. A Synod assembles, and a Council deliberates.
The Forming of Church Assemblies
For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils, which is to say that Synods and Councils are for the better ruling and further building up of the church.
In the transitional period when the Older Testament Church was becoming the Newer Testament Church there were, as you would expect, some teething troubles. One of the things plaguing the Church-in-transition was the teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Acts 15:1b. Thus we see an example of such a Synod or Council or Assembly in Acts 15 where the elders met in Jerusalem to deal with this question.
Now, keep in mind that the Apostles were also elders. For example, the Apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 5:1, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder…” Therefore it was a group of presbyters or elders, including apostle-elders, who met at Jerusalem to discuss the issue of circumcision and salvation.
We read in Acts 15:2&3, “Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissention and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question, so being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren.”
Thus far we see that the church at Antioch in Syria, (not to be confused with the church at Antioch in Pisidia), sent Paul, Barnabas and others, to the General Assembly at Jerusalem. They were sent with a specific task, viz., to hear what the ‘multitude of counsellors’ as a body had to say about the issue of Gentile converts and their keeping of the Mosaic Law.
Then we read in Acts 15:4-6, “And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and the reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’ Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.”
So we see then that the purpose of the Synod at Jerusalem was for the Council to deliberate on the question of Gentile circumcision and their keeping the whole of the Mosaic Law. Peter addressed the General Assembly at Jerusalem and demonstrated that there is no distinction between Gentile and Jewish converts. For there is no difference in the way people are saved; which is by the Holy Spirit working grace in the heart through faith (Acts 15:8&9).
Peter says that since neither they, nor the Gentiles, nor the early fathers such as Abraham, were saved by their own keeping the Law, why should they yoke the Gentiles with the Mosaic Law? He puts it like this, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we are able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Acts 15:10&11.
So, after the members of the General Assembly had their say and had become silent, James, who we today would call the General Assembly’s Moderator, spoke. After concurring with Peter, and after summing up the proceedings as they had gone thus far, he then said, “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” Acts 15:19&20. Then up ahead we read these words regarding Paul and Silas, and also Timothy, “And as they went through the cities, they delivered to them the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.” Acts 16:4.
So, in summary, we’ve seen that there has been a Synod at Jerusalem. This Council of elders from different places met to deliberate on a particular doctrinal issue. The General Assembly issued a letter of instruction for the various churches. This letter was delivered to the various churches by Paul, Silas and others.
Thus we should note that the Assembly has authority to issue decrees to the churches in line with the Word of God. Therefore the churches to which the letter was sent were not autonomous entities. Rather, the many churches are part of the one church, i.e., the holy catholic or universal church. Presbyterianism seeks to hold this Biblical balance in its form of church administration. So we see from Scripture then that our statement is correct that for the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils.
Now, we ask the question: Who may lawfully call a synod? In light of the Jerusalem Assembly, we’ve seen that the church herself may lawfully call an Assembly. However, this is not to say that the Civil Magistrate or the Civil Authorities may not call a Synod of ministers and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion. Indeed, the Westminster Assembly, from which we get the great Confession of Presbyterianism, the Westminster Confession of Faith, was called by the Parliament. When it was completed the Confession was then presented to the Houses of Parliament with the title, “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines, Now by Authority of Parliament Sitting at Westminster.”
So, the Westminster Confession of Faith was given at the request of the Civil Authorities for advice on matters of religion. We see Biblical precedent for this. In 2 Chronicles 19:8f. Jehoshaphat called a religious synod in Jerusalem, “Moreover in Jerusalem, for the judgment of the LORD and for controversies, Jehoshaphat appointed some of the Levites and priests, and some of the chief fathers of Israel, when they returned to Jerusalem. And he commanded them saying, ‘Thus you shall act in the fear of the LORD, faithfully and with a loyal heart’…”
Likewise King Herod called a synod, “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Matthew 2:4. Indeed, the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” 1 Timothy 2:1&2.
So, unless the Civil Authorities prove themselves to be open enemies to the church, it is lawful for them to call synods and councils to consult and advise about matters of religion.
The Function of Church Assemblies
Regarding the Church, one of the functions of Assemblies is to ministerially decide controversial matters and cases of conscience. This we’ve seen illustrated by the General Assembly at Jerusalem. Can a man remain uncircumcised and yet be saved? That was the big controversial matter and conscience case in the period of the church’s transition. Well, the experts in theological doctrine declared that the way of salvation since the fall was salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Therefore, the Gentile Christians at that time were advised simply to abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication.
The letter sent to the Gentile Christians ends with the words, “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” Acts 15:29b. It ought to be well noted that it doesn’t say, do these things and you will be saved. For the Assembly met to counter the false doctrine of salvation by works of righteousness.
So, the Assembly functioned ministerially – it sent out a letter of advice. But this isn’t to say that its advice is not binding if it is in accordance with God’s Word. For synods and councils may also meet to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of public worship and organising the church.
We’ve already noted that the Jerusalem Assembly expected the churches to keep its decisions. Therefore the decisions of the Session, Presbytery, State or National Assemblies are binding on those under their respective jurisdictions. To be sure, decisions may be appealed to the various church courts, if the appeal is not frivolous. For the synods and councils also meet to receive complaints in cases of bad administrations.
Let’s say the Session (i.e., the plurality of Elders) of your local church changed the Sunday worship times to 4AM and 11PM. First off, the Session itself has the authority to change worship times. However, it may very well be a bad case of administration to have such strange worship service times. So, the safety of a multitude of counsellors at the next level could be appealed to, if the Session won’t listen to reason. Without the checks and balances of the various church courts elders could quite easily lord it over the people. But the Presbyterial system (when working as it should) helps protect against individual popes and despotic groups.
Now, to be sure, it might be difficult (but not impossible), to find in Scripture where a Session may not make a ruling to have Sunday worship at 4AM and 11PM. But it would certainly not be edifying for a congregation to have these unorthodox worship times forced upon them. But the point is that all lawfully called synods and councils may authoritatively determine complaints of cases of maladministration with authority. And if their rulings are in line with Word of God they ought to be received with reverence and submission. But not just because they are agreeable to the Word of God, but because God has given authority in His Word for synods and councils so to act. Therefore we should note very well that the Assembly functions authoritatively.
Notice in Acts 16:4 that Paul and Silas delivered to the churches “…the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem.” These decrees or decisions weren’t just suggestions. The churches were expected to keep the rulings. However, the fallibility of synods and councils should be noted. (We’ll consider this in a moment).
But one of the reasons that the Congregationalist and Baptistic Denominations, i.e., the Independents, don’t hold to the Presbyterian system of synods and councils is a fear of rulership. The Independents believe that each little church is independent from the rest. But we believe the church, though many, is one Church. And we believe that there are things that confront the church which need to be handled by the greater body. Again, in the words of Proverbs 11: 14, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” The problem that faced the church when they called the Jerusalem Assembly was greater that any individual congregation could have dealt with. The question of the way of salvation was at stake.
It stands to reason that the reason that there is so much false teaching among the different denominations today is because of the lack of spiritual oversight. Where there are no checks and balances from the wider church, each congregation operates as an entity autonomous from the rest.
Indeed, there are many Independents, i.e., autonomous churches such as Congregational and Baptist, Pentecostal etc., who do not necessarily have a plurality of elders ruling over them. For many of them have only one elder in charge; and this by choice! But is this not just popery on another level? Small scale popery? For whether you have one single man rule the collective or universal Church, or whether you have one single man rule one autonomous church, the end result is the same – you have a pope! But let me again remind you of the wisdom of God, “[I]n the multitude of counsellors there is safety.”
This ‘multitude of counsellors’ is a safety factor at the local church level. It is a safety factor at the district or Presbytery level. And it is a safety factor at the State and National Assembly level. The General Assembly at Jerusalem attests to this.
Now, to be sure, and church history will attest to this, but all synods and councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred.
The Fallibility of Church Assemblies
The main reason for the Reformation, which began in 1517, was on account of many papal errors. Indeed the subsequent decree that declared the doctrine of papal infallibility was a blatant error! So is the Romish decree that published the doctrine of Transubstantiation. The list goes on and on of errors made by synods and councils over the centuries.
However, it is not hard to see that these errors (just listed) are errors because they don’t line up with the clear teaching of God’s Word. Therefore synods and councils are not to be the rule of faith and practice. They are simply to be an aid to both faith and practice. And the only way synods and councils can be an aid to faith and practice is when they themselves adhere to the clear teaching of Scripture. As it says in the Westminster Confession of Faith in chapter one paragraph ten, “The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
The General Assembly at Jerusalem searched the Scriptures for the answer to their problem regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles to the church at that time. Hear what the Moderator of the Assembly had to say, “And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, ‘Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: “After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does these things.” Known to God from eternity are all His works.’” Acts 15:13-18.
So, the Lord always had it in mind to include the Gentiles or the nations in His Church. Therefore, they must be treated as part of His Church, now that it the Church is no longer national, being confined to Israel, but has become universal. The point for us at the moment is that the Scriptures clearly testify to this. Therefore as it was at the Jerusalem Assembly, so it ought to be at all our synods and councils. Thus the Scriptures are to be consulted and applied to the situation at hand.
Now, synods and councils assemble to handle ecclesiastical or church matters. Which is to say that the meetings have to do with matters of Church government, not Civil government. We’ve already noted that, though the Church and State are distinct, the Church may give advice to civil authorities when requested. Therefore an Assembly may be called for that very purpose.
However, the church may also humbly petition the civil government. Now, this petition may not necessarily be for advice on some civil matter, but may also include comment when, for example, the civil authorities overstep their sphere of power. Or the Church may need to comment when the civil authority is derelict in its duty. But if the Church should pass political comment, she must do so coherently and humbly. She must not intermeddle with civil government like some medieval pope!
The Church must remember that the civil authority is God’s minister to the people for the good of the people, (Romans 13:4). Thus the Church must remember that the Church and State, though both accountable to God, are distinct spheres of government. For the Church has been given the power of the keys, whilst the State has been given the power of the sword. But, because we live in a fallen world, there will no doubt be times when the Church must speak up against the misuse of civil government.
One only has to think of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany before the WW2. But in more peaceful times, in the words of Robert Shaw, “Church and State may cooperate 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.” (An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 370).
We’ve noted that church synods and councils are for the better government and edification of the Church. The Church on earth is, for those with eyes to see, the visibilisation of Christ’s spiritual and invisible kingdom. For Jesus says in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Therefore, if we are going to honour the sole Head of the Church, Christ our King, we would do well to strive to do all things according to our Master’s will as revealed in Scripture.
Church synods and councils are one of the ways that Christ assists us to do His will on earth. And Church synods and councils are one of the ways that Christ fulfils some of the petitions we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.”