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Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: May 1, 2005, p. 351.

In this series of articles we are considering some of the principles of Reformed church government. The first article was on the principle that Christ has chosen and qualified certain individuals to represent Him as special officebearers in the church. A second principle of Reformed church government has often been referred to as the autonomy of the instituted church. In this article we begin to consider what is meant by this truth.

By autonomy is meant self-governing. When we say that an instituted church with properly called and installed elders and deacons is autonomous, we mean that under Christ it governs its own affairs. Christ governs each instituted church through the special officebearers that He has placed within that church, without any other individual or body coming between Him and that church.

Many wrong views of church government involve placing an individual or a body of people between Christ in heaven and His bride as she is manifested in the church institute. Only to His beloved bride has Christ given the keys of the kingdom, and no individual or body can stand between Christ and His bride, that is, between the Head and His body. Some try to place the state between them; others insert officebearers, who are supposedly of a higher rank than those in the instituted church; still others make ecclesiastical courts to be higher than the consistory. But all of these run contrary to the truth that the keys of the kingdom have been given by Christ only to His bride, the church.

Attempts by the State to Take the Keys from Christ’s Bride

In church history there have been many times in which the State has tried to take the keys of the kingdom away from the church by refusing to let her do the work that God has given to her. In the churches at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the State often took the place that had been formerly occupied by the pope. This happened not only in England but also, to a certain extent, in the Netherlands and other countries of Europe.

There were many who wanted it this way. Unbelievers do not want the church to have the right to exclude them from the sacraments. They would like to be able to live as they please, and still have the right to partake of the sacraments, and thus assure themselves that they are safe from God’s wrath. Those holding to false doctrines, such as the Arminians in the Netherlands, did not want the Reformed churches to have the right to discipline them for their errors. They wanted the State to be the final judge in such matters.

Soon after the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619), the Reformed churches rapidly declined due, to a great extent, to the State’s usurping the authority that was given by Christ to the churches. The problem actually predated the Great Synod, for the churches needed the approval of the States General just to call the synod. It took many years for them to get this approval, which gave time for Arminianism to become deeply entrenched in the churches. Then, after this synod, it was not until shortly after the Secession of 1834, a period of more than two hundred years, that the State again decided to permit a National Synod to convene.

Having experienced in their own history the evil of having the State dominate and control the church, Reformed churches should be on their guard against this ever happening again.

The Presbyterian Doctrine Known as the Establishment Principle

Presbyterians historically have maintained that the State has no right to the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Yet, at the same time, they have taught that the State has the calling to defend and support one denomination as the “established church” in that nation. This is the position of the original Westminster Standards and continues to be maintained today by those Presbyterians who still hold to these standards.

The original creedal position of the Presbyterians, as found in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 23, Article 3, reads as follows:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

This same idea is found in the writings of George Gillespie, a Presbyterian theologian who was part of the Westminster Assembly and who had great influence in the forming of the Presbyterian creeds. In his work on church government entitledAaron’s Rod Blossoming, Gillespie confesses that the church, and not the State, has the authority to preach the gospel and exercise Christian discipline. But then, right after saying this, he goes on to say that the State has the calling to ensure that the church does what she is supposed to do. The church does it, but the State has to make sure she does it. This is really the same idea set forth in the section of the Westminster Confession quoted above. The paragraph begins by saying that the civil magistrate “cannot assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the powers of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” But then it goes on to say that the magistrate must see to it that the church does this faithfully. Gillespie even went so far as to say that if the church is not doing her job, but rather is preaching false doctrines and disciplining those who are maintaining the truth, then the State has the right and the calling to intervene and set things right. This amounts to saying that there is a sense in which the State does have the calling to exercise the keys of the kingdom, but that the State must carry out this duty indirectly, that is, it must do so through the means of the instituted church.

That the Westminster Confession is in a sense giving to the State the power of the keys of the kingdom is evident from the proof texts that are cited in the Confession in defense of its position. They quote passages such asDeuteronomy 13:5, which says that false prophets are to be put to death, and II Chronicles 34:33, which refers to Josiah’s removing all idol worship and making the people serve the Lord their God. What authority was it that was given to Israel to put false prophets to death? What authority was it that Josiah had to remove the false worship and demand that the people serve the Lord their God? This was the authority of the keys of the kingdom. It was authority to remove from the church those who are impenitently walking in sin—the same authority that has always been given and continues to be given only to the church. Israel was the church in the old dispensation, and the authority given to the church in the old dispensation corresponds to the same authority that is given to the church now in the new dispensation, with the exception that the authority to punish with the sword has now been taken away from the church.

The Autonomy of the Church Institute: The Keys Given Only to Her

If the keys of the kingdom have been entrusted to the church, and not the State, then it logically follows that the State does not have the calling to ensure that the keys of the kingdom are being used properly.

It is important for us to see, first of all, that the keys of the kingdom have been entrusted to the church. This is taught in the familiar words of Matthew 16:18,19, which reads:

18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

That the keys of the kingdom include church discipline becomes clear two chapters later, in Matthew 18:17, 18, where we read:

17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

The keys of the kingdom, which are the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline, by which the kingdom is really opened to believers and shut against unbelievers, are clearly given to the church, and not the State.

If the church is given the keys to bind and loose, then the State does not have this authority. If Christ confers authority on the church, so that the church has the authority directly from Him, then no person or institution can come between her and Christ in this area.

Perhaps an example will serve well to illustrate this. The instituted church as a whole is not like a special officebearer within the church. A special officebearer, whether he be a minister, elder, or deacon, receives his authority from Christ not directly, but through the instituted church. An instituted church must choose to have the minister, elder, or deacon to labor in her midst. When such a man is installed into office, he confesses that he has been called by Christ, who has spoken through the instituted church. Since he has received authority from Christ not directly, but through the church, the church has the authority to ensure that the special officebearer is faithfully performing his labors. But this is not the relation between the church and the State. The church does not receive her authority from Christ through the State. Christ conferred the keys of the kingdom upon her directly. He did not go through the Roman government to give them to her.

This is what is meant by the autonomy of the instituted church. A body that is autonomous is, by definition, a self-governing body that is not subject to control from the outside. A true instituted church is subject solely to Christ. She governs herself solely according to Christ’s laws, submitting herself solely to Christ, without the State or any other body or institute coming between her and Christ, her Husband and Head. It is true, of course, that there are certain laws in the secular sphere issued by the State that such a church must obey—laws concerning the building, the church property, incorporation with the State, etc. But the church is not in any way subject to the State in the area of the keys of the kingdom. The State has nothing to say about what she may or may not preach, and whom she may or may not discipline. This authority has been given by Christ solely to the instituted church. To deny this is really to deny a fundamental principle of Reformed church government—the principle of the autonomy of the local church.

The State Unable; the Church Enabled

It also should be obvious that the State is not qualified to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Far and away the majority of the people on this earth are unbelievers, and unbelieving men will almost always be the ones in control of the government of any given nation. Such men are not qualified to determine what constitutes sound preaching and proper exercise of church discipline. Unbelievers always justify the ungodly and condemn the righteous (Isaiah 5:23). If the State is allowed to take this authority upon itself, it will inevitably lead to the promoting of false churches and the persecuting of true ones.

The true church, however, is given not only the authority but also the ability to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Christ promised His church that He would give to her the Spirit of Truth, who would guide her into all truth. One must have the Spirit of Truth to determine what is the preaching of the Truth, and who should be disciplined for not walking in the Truth.

Christ has given a very high calling to the instituted churches on this earth. With the confidence of faith we look to Him also to give to us the ability to carry out this calling, that His name alone may receive all the glory and praise.