(In his discussion concerning the ideal form which the church of Christ ought to take on this earth, Kuyper has discussed the fact that a congregation is made up of believers and their seed, that the church receives into her fellowship members from other churches, that the church must also be busy in the work of missions. In the following paragraphs he discusses the question of authority in the church.)
18. Where Authority Resides in the Visible Church.
Not all authority is the same. A Reformed church may desire political rights in order to be recognized, supported, and protected by the magistrate. In this respect, authority also over the church rests with the magistrate of the land. In like manner, a Reformed church can exercise civil rights through the acquisition of property, administrative deeds, buying or renting, or the closing of contracts. In all these matters it comes under the authority of the civil judge. It is subject to the sentence of that judge in differences concerning contracts with other churches if no court of arbitration or other relief is stipulated in a way binding upon both sides. All such authority, meanwhile, is not the authority which belongs as such to the sphere of the church.
There is a church conceivable, and there were churches like, e.g., the Churches Under The Cross, which possesses neither constitutional nor civil rights and even lacks a certain confederation, yet is a church. Where one speaks of authority in the church of Christ, one means exclusively that peculiar authority which is exercised in its own sphere over matters affecting her essence. A church which is once formed is an institute in which authorization to issue commands and to exercise authority stands alongside of the duty which proceeds from that authority. This is a duty to obey and to give honor. The question is, now, where that authority resides. And, granting that it does not reside in the invisible church in a mystical sense, where does it reside in the visible ecclesiastical institute?
To that question it must be answered: authority in and over the church resides in her King and Lord to Whom it is given by God Triune. This only King and Lord exercises His glorious and sovereign authority directly by His Word, i.e., by the Holy Scriptures through His Spirit Who works in the hearts of His people and through the experiences of weal and woe which He determines for His church on earth. No man possesses the right to command and the right to exercise authority as sovereign among men. There is in the church no other magistrate than her King and Lord. And neither metaphorically nor in a manner of speaking may it be said of anyone that it is due him to have the oversight over the church of Christ. Indeed, mention can be made of ecclesiastical oversight in the sense in which our fathers served with honor as members of parliament, as representatives of the people, and the officebearers as “inferior magistrates.” But now in our days this use of the name “magistrate” has entirely disappeared. Every mention of “ecclesiastical magistrate,” if one referred to a definite man, has become absurd. To seek sovereign oversight and magisterial power (as our elders said) in the church among men is to deny that Jesus is King, or that He lives or also that He directly exercises power on earth.
All authority exercised by persons in the church is therefore always the opposite of the magistracy; i.e., it is characterized by service. Just as an officebearer exercises very definite authority, but never in any other way than in the name of, by order of, by virtue of the supremacy of his King and as responsible to him, so also is all authority which is exercised in the church never anything else but the official authority of service by which the one who exercises it is nothing while the King is everything. The authority exercised in the church is therefore also holy because it never originates by agreement with earthly sinful power, but it flows directly forth from that separate realm of the kingdom of heaven over which the Son of God as Mediator sways His scepter.
This official authority of service is mentioned here as applicable to our circumstances under the new covenant so that we do not consider here the earlier privileges of Israel’s tribes, nor the authority of a priest or prophet in days of old, nor the authority of David’s descendants upon the throne in Jerusalem. David does not continue to live in our kings, but lives on in Christ. And because the church in her present form came out of the extraordinary and preliminary Old Testament church it must now be asked: through which persons this King now exercises His authority. The answer to this question is twofold: there is a basic or essential authority through the office of all believers, and there is that authority which concerns the organization and operation of the church through the appointed ministers.
Without denying for a moment the bond between Christ and His church, it must now be established that authority in the church resides in the church itself, but is exercised through special officebearers. The church is a strictly spiritual monarchy, a kingdom under the absolute kingship of Christ; in her visible form decidedly democratic, but aristocratic in her organization. However, one must not conclude from this that the gathering of believers receives the mandate of authority from the King in order then to transfer this authority to the officebearers. No, both the believers and the officebearers receive their official calling directly from the King. Thus the office of believers and the office of officebearers are completely equal. The congregation is not over the officebearers, nor are the officebearers over the congregation, but Christ is over both — Christ Who establishes a mutual relation between both and binds both to the authority —of His Word. If the congregation attempts to bring pressure to bear upon the officebearers which is outside of the Word of God or against it, then the authority of such a congregation is of no worth and does not concern the officebearer. And in like manner, if an officebearer attempts to exercise authority over the believers outside of or over against the Word of God, then this authority falls away completely, is no longer authority, but becomes pure arrogance. Then the balance of this authority is lost. It is only properly divided where both the believers and the officebearers remain strictly with the Word and act only by the authority of that Word. But if the congregation departs from the Word, then the Godly authority of the officebearers is imposed on her. And in like manner, if the officebearers forsake the Word then the Godly authority of the congregation is imposed on the officebearers. At last, the church which entirely forsakes the Word loses all her authority. And in like manner, officebearers who depart entirely from the Word can no longer pretend to have any right of authority. The difference between the authority of magistrates and ecclesiastical authority is thus clear. The civil magistrate retains its authority even when it goes against God; and for that reason even a Nero must be obeyed. But this is not the case in the church. In the church obedience becomes a sin and respect becomes guilt before God when the person who enjoins and asks respect departs from the Word.
Those who, strangers to the first principles of church polity, speak in this respect of revolution, express only the perversity of their hearts in the matter of obedience which we owe to Christ our King.
Revolution is to resist the authority of the King. Not he who punishes the apostate officebearer resists that authority, but just the other way around, each believer who upholds and respects the unfaithful officebearer resists the authority of Christ. *
19. What Systems of Church Government Have Been Tried.
Five systems of church government have been devised for the churches of Christ in her visible form which we, for the sake of clarity, shall distinguish as Romish, Lutheran, Reformed, Independent, and Collegiate.
These are the four characteristics of the Romish system: 1) that it allows only one government for the entire visible church on earth. 2) that it divides the church into two classes: spiritual and laical; and, further, excludes the laity from the government of the church; 3) that it is in principle strongly monarchial; and, 4) that it sets up the supremacy of the church over the state. The Romish system desires one government for the whole world-church, looses itself from the national realm, represses the vital variations of national languages with one dead language (Latin) which is the same for all, and thereby loses most of her spiritual character. She does not trust the organic unity of the church in Christ and therefore attempts to guarantee this unity by an external bond.
Her second mark rests on this first mark. She makes a distinction between clergy and laity, which distinction is used to declare her laity a minor. Rome does this because the laity bring national distinctions into church government. Not the laity but the clergy can be placed outside all national relationships, something which is done through the introduction of celibacy. Thus this spiritual class, loosed from all the national relationships of society, forms a distinct order which lives exclusively for the church. And exactly by this means, Rome brings into existence a world-church.
Hence the Romish church, in the third place, had to develop as strongly monarchial. People did not readily accept this, and Rome’s popes had to fight a stubborn fight before they had suppressed the republican idea of sovereign control in the hands of the bishops. But the consequence of the principle worked in their favor. In spite of all episcopal opposition the profound idea of a monarchy, understood by Hildebrand and his papal school, now pervades the Romish ecclesiastical system. The conciliar system is powerless to express the unity of the world church; only the papal system is capable of this. In the councils, after all, national divisions always reappear and only in the pope do all national distinctions fall away. Finally, the bond of union with Christ is never to be found in the council; that bond appears only in Christ’s viceregent on earth. From this also is to be noticed, as a fourth mark of this system, the supremacy which the Romish system aims at over the state. Because the church is conceived as identical with the kingdom of God and organized independently under the pope as viceregent of Christ, Rome can tolerate no power over her, because this would be a power of the secular magistrate which would destroy her unity. In like manner, this would permit an entirely independent power alongside of her which would compel her to withdraw from life so as to be busy only with spiritual matters. The theory of two swords is thus at least no one-sided exaggeration, but only the logical development of what is hidden in the false idea of one unique church.
*At this point in the discussion Kuyper does not discuss the all important question: who decides whether the officebearers or the members of the congregation are right. Officebearers may consider themselves to be right, and a group of people from the congregation may insist that they are right while their officebearers are wrong. Within the Reformed system of church polity, these matters are adjudicated at broader ecclesiastical assemblies. Kuyper reserves a discussion of this for a later paragraph in the pamphlet.