Rev. Coleborn is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. Part 1 of this continued article appeared in the preceding issue of the SB.
Summary of the Church Order
The main subjects that the Book of Discipline and the Book of Common Order dealt with are as follows:
The offices of Christ’s church according to God’s Word were recognized as ministers, elders, and deacons. Two temporary offices were also allowed, to meet the abnormal situation in the Reformed Church of Scotland at that time, when there was an acute shortage of ministers. These were the “offices” of “superintendent” and “reader.” The “superintendent” was an experienced minister who had oversight of a region with other, less experienced, ministers and readers under him. The “readers” were educated, godly men, who would take “reading” services.
Each congregation had the right to elect its own minister, but ministers had to be examined by the church. Ministers are responsible to see that the gospel be “truly and openly preached in every church and assembly of this realm.” The gospel was defined as the whole spectrum of divine truth.
The sacraments could not be administered except where there was the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments was to be in the language of the people. In Scotland at that time, that meant three languages!—English, Scots, and Gaelic, after the manner prescribed in the Order of Geneva. There was an insistence on a high standard of preaching. Merely to read a sermon was “alike to have no minister at all, and to have an idol in the place of a true minister, yea, and in some cases it is worse.” They felt that none should content themselves with having only a shadow of a real minister.
The principle of “extraordinary things may be done in extraordinary circumstances” was the concept behind the “superintendents” and “readers.” This principle was also adopted at the time of the Westminster Assembly. The Westminster divines embodied it in the following way in the Form of Church-Government, Concerning the Doctrinal Part of Ordination of Ministers, No. 11: “In extraordinary cases, something extraordinary may be done, until a settled order may be had, yet keeping as near as possibly may be to the rule.”
Elders have an important place in the government of the church according to the First Book of Discipline. They, with the minister, formed a local Presbytery, or council, that guided the spiritual affairs of the local congregation. They also, with the minister, assisted in all public affairs of the church. They judged and decided causes, gave admonition to the ungodly, and exhorted men to godliness. They also were to take heed to “the life, manners, diligence, and study of the minister.” They were, for example, to admonish and correct him where desirable, and if worthy of deposition to proceed against him in the church courts. There was a parity of minister and elders, and the minister was seen simply as an elder set apart for the special work of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Elders were elected for one year only by a free vote of the congregation, but they could be re-elected.
Deacons were to look after the financial interests of the church but also were to care for the needy materially. Deacons were also elected for one year by a free vote of the congregation.
The First Book of Discipline did not lay down a graded series of assemblies of elders, such as a Kirk Session, Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly. They are, however, easily seen in a rudimentary form. For example, the minister, elders, and deacons of a local congregation were required to meet at stated times — a Kirk Session. Ministers within six miles of the larger towns had to meet weekly, where there was the study and interpretation of the Scriptures or “prophesyings.” It was to be also a time for considering doubts and for admonition — a Presbytery. The supervising minister had to meet with the other ministers of his region from time to time — a Synod. Also, from the beginning the Reformed Church of Scotland had the General Assembly. This body was representative of the whole country, and the ministers and elders of each place had a seat on it.
The local church eldership or Kirk Session, as on the continent, originally exercised authority over more than one congregation. For example, there was one Session for all the congregations of Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc. This was called the “lesser Presbytery” or “eldership.” As more congregations within a city called their own Sessions, this “lesser Presbytery” became known as the “greater eldership” or “classical Presbytery” and absorbed the “prophesyings” assemblies. It then assumed the present character of a Presbytery or Classis. Note also how from the beginning it was seen as very important that ministers meet together regularly for discussion and prayer.
Worship was basically required to be the same as practiced by the Reformed Churches on the continent. There was only the singing of the psalms unaccompanied by musical instruments. There was a sermon and prayer and the reading of the Scriptures. The Christian Sabbath was “straitly kept” with a morning worship service and in the afternoon there was an all-age Catechism class. All holy days, except the Lord’s Day, were abolished as having no biblical warrant. All vows of celibacy and the assumption of special religious apparel were declared to be sinful.
In baptism, only water was to be used, and all the Romish additions of oil, salt, wax, spittle, etc. was forbidden as the inventions of men.
The Lord’s Supper was administered in both forms, and with simple ceremony. The reformers of Scotland thought the celebration of it four times a year sufficient. Common communion cups were used, and those wishing to profess their faith and come to the Lord’s Supper had to be able to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed before the elders. The people sat around a common table, and the elements of bread and wine were passed from member to member. It was laid down that, “The Table of the Lord is most rightly ministered when it approacheth most nigh to Christ’s own action” at the Last Supper.
The offering could be taken at the door, as was the Jewish custom.
There was essentially a Calvinist insistence on ecclesiastical discipline, to which princes and preachers were also subject, contrary to the pre-Reformation practice. The administration of discipline was entrusted to the ministers, elders, and deacons, and is distinguished from the civil magistrate’s administration. The church had the power of biblical excommunication. There was to be also mutual censure and admonition of ministers.
The administration of the church was basically at a congregational level. It was for the local officers to establish good order at this level so that the preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and the other parts of the worship of God could proceed unhindered and in a way edifying to the congregation.
The Roman Church had virtually ceased to exist in Scotland by 1560, yet vast revenues came in from lands previously owned by it. The question was, what was to be done with this revenue? The First Book of Discipline proposed that three things be done with it. It was proposed that it be used for the maintenance of a gospel ministry, for the promotion of general education from a Reformed (biblical) world and life view, and for the support of the poor. This last work was seen as a sacred trust from Christ. The section in this document on Education is most extensive. The reformers of Scotland, as on the continent, placed such an importance on the Christian education of the youth of the church, it was scarcely less than the importance they gave to the true preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. The ideal was “a kirk and a school in every parish.”
The care of the poor was also very close to the heart of the church. There was a desire that, in a material and practical way, the mercies of Christ be extended to those most in need of it.
The main headings of The First Book of Discipline are: Of Doctrine; Of the Sacraments; Abolishing Idolatry; Of Ministers; Of Provision for Ministers; Of Superintendents; Of Schools; Of Universities; Of the Rents of the Church; Of Discipline; Of Election of Elders & Deacons; Of the Policy of the Kirk.
The Reformed Church of Scotland had a great spiritual battle to fight to bring order to the church of Christ as based upon His Word. While the fruits of their labors did not receive the support of the Parliament of its day, the church bravely and faithfully worked at organizing itself after the principles of God’s Word in spite of every discouragement. The church did not believe it was dependent upon the State to give effect to how it should order itself. It refused also to accept that the State should be excused from recognizing the ideals of God’s Word for the ordering of the church. These various sentiments found fresh expression in The Second Book of Discipline of 1578. By that time, however, Knox had been gathered to a better country, and the labors of that work fell to other faithful soldiers and servants of Christ Jesus.
D. Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, Wodrow Society, Edinburgh, 1843; The First Book of Discipline, Ed. J.K. Cameron, Saint Andrew Press, 1972; Hetherington, W. M., History of the Church of Scotland, John Johnstone, Edinburgh, 1848; Knox, J., The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, Andrew Melrose, London, 1905; M’Crie, T., The Life Of John Knox, Free Presbyterian Publications, Glasgow, 1976; Reid, W. S., Trumpeter of God, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1974; Renwick, The Story of the Scottish Reformation, IVP, London, 1960; Dictionary of the Scottish Church History & Theology, Org,. Ed., N.M. de S. Cameron, IVP, Illinois, 1993; Reformed Book of Common Order, National Church Association of the C of S, 1978.