A Presbyterian Plea: Part 1

The church of Christ is described in Scripture in various ways. It is a temple. She is a bride. It is a body. It is a flock. He is a man. And more. Critical to each of these analogies is that the church is one. She is one bride, one flock, one temple, etc. Moreover, this unity is not only a thing to be perfected in the future, but is also required to be a present reality. One important aspect of the church’s present unity is with respect to church government. However, before discussing the particulars of the “house rules,” it is important to consider the unity upon which this government is based.

The unity of the church is rooted in Christ Himself:

Ephesians 2:15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby… 19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; 21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.

Christ is the foundation for this one temple. It is His household. The church is one man in Christ, and is one body.
Our Lord goes so far as to compare the unity of the church to the unity that exists in the Godhead:

John 17:20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

Thus, the unity of the church of Christ not only reflects the unity of the Godhead, but also calls the Gentiles into the fellowship of this one church.

The church’s unity does not merely reflect the Father and the Son, but is one also of the Holy Spirit:

Ephesians 4:1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, 2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Unity, therefore, reflects the Father and the Son, and flows to us through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we are responsible to endeavor after maintaining this unity. The virtues of lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance, and love help to secure this unity. We may reasonably conclude that pride, harshness, impatience, and hatred tear this unity apart. What is also demonstrated by this passage is that unity is also secured by the hope of our calling; by the object of our worship and faith, and by the administration of the sacraments, particularly baptism. This last point brings us to consider the unity of government to which Christian unity calls us.

The wise man tells us that “Through desire a man, having separated himself, seeketh and intermeddleth with all wisdom,” (Proverbs 18:1). Thus, proverbial and natural understanding teach us that separation is contrary to wisdom. Nor are we left to mere natural wisdom in the government of Christ’s household, but are given particular instruction regarding how the functions of the church are related to trinitarian unity. Since Christ is the Head of this body, every particular congregation may be seen as so many branches of one tree.

For example, the “church at Jerusalem” is referred to in the singular (cf. Acts 8:1, 11:22, and 15:4). It is not “the churches at Jerusalem,” it is “the church.” This was also true of the churches of Antioch (Acts 11:26 and 13:1), Ephesus (Acts 20:17 and Revelation 2:1), and Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1).

Yet to any unbiased mind, Scripture demonstrates that this one church was not, and could not possibly be, one particular congregation. In a hostile city, where the church’s Head was recently crucified, and the leaders of that city were charged with His murder, there were about 5,000 adult males in the congregation (Acts 4:4). Could anyone possibly expect 15,000, possibly more, to meet in one congregation? What about the multitude more added in Acts 5:14 to this conservative figure? Later in Acts, the number of the disciples could be referred to as “myriads,” or tens of thousands (21:20). Thus, this one church may have likely had 20,000 – 30,000 disciples at Jerusalem. And this multitude of disciples had “elders:”

Acts 21:17 And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. 19 And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands (μυριαδες; myriads, or tens of thousands) of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.

Thus, the unity of the church was expressed by tens of thousands of disciples in one place being referred to as one church, and having one college of presbyters. Nor do we need to wonder at this, since Christ is building one temple, has one bride, and therefore we would expect that this church would function as one church, so far as is practicable.

From this one instance of the church at Jerusalem, we may thus conclude that the unity of the temple of the Lord was expressed in one particularly important way: that her government was under collections of presbyters, joined together in one ruling body over several congregations. Our next article will examine this topic in further detail.

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5 thoughts on “A Presbyterian Plea: Part 1

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mr. Hillbilly. How would you address Acts 21:22, which reads:

    “What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come.” (KJV) (Geneva Bible has similar reading, although other translations may read differently, for example, ESV: “What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.”)

    Also, how would you address John Owen’s comments?:

    “3. It is said of most of these churches expressly that they respectively met together in one place, or had their assemblies of the whole church for the discharge of the duties required of them; which is peculiar unto congregational churches only: so did the church at Jerusalem on all occasions, Acts 15:12, 22, 21:22; see chap. 5:11, 6:2. It is of no force which is objected from the multitude of them that are said to believe, and so, consequently, were of that church, so as that they could not assemble together; for whereas the Scripture says expressly that the “multitude” of the church did “come together,” it is scarce fair for us to say they were such a multitude as that they could not come together.

    “And it is evident that the great numbers of believers that are said to be at Jerusalem were there only occasionally, and were not fixed in that church; for many years after, a small village beyond Jordan could receive all that were so fixed in it. The church at Antioch gathered together in one assembly, chap. 14:27, to hear Paul and Silas. This church, thus called together, is called “The multitude,” chap. 15:30; that is, the whole brotherhood, at least, of that church. The whole church of Corinth did assemble together in one place, both for solemn worship and the exercise of discipline, 1 Cor. 5:4, 5, 11:17, 18, 20, 14:23–26.

    “It is no way necessary to plead any thing in the illustration or for the confirmation of these testimonies. They all of them speak positively in a matter of fact, which will admit of no debate, unless we will put in exceptions unto the veracity of their authors. And they are of themselves sufficient to establish our assertion; for whatever may be the state of any church as unto its officers or rule, into what order soever it be disposed ordinarily or occasionally for its edification, so long as it is its duty to assemble in and with all its members in one place, either for the exercise of its power, the performance of its duty, or enjoyment of its privileges, it is a single congregation, and no more.”

    John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 15 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 276–277.

    Thanks!
    Steve H.

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    1. Mr. H,

      Thanks for reading and interacting!

      Owen says, “3. It is said of most of these churches expressly that they respectively met together in one place, or had their assemblies of the whole church for the discharge of the duties required of them; which is peculiar unto congregational churches only: so did the church at Jerusalem on all occasions,”

      Owen obviously betrays his party prejudice here. The eldership was composed of various ministers at Jerusalem. If they all met in one place, what would be the use of a plurality of ministers? Were they not all preaching? Were some sitting around collecting salaries?

      Also, the facts of the case are plainly contrary to this assertion:

      “Acts 5:42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ. ”

      The Apostles, who were also elders over the Jerusalem church, did open air preaching at the temple, and held worship services in every house. This is consistent with the following passage:

      “Acts 2:46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
      47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

      Note again, there was public evangelism in the temple, but that the activities of the church included house to house meetings, which included continuing “stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The breaking of bread, the prayers, the preaching of the word, and the Apostles’ doctrine took place from house to house.

      Putting 20,000 – 30,000 in one person’s house, or even in the temple, is absurd, given that the preaching of Christ was considered illegal by the authorities over the temple, much less the observance of the sacraments, public prayers, etc.

      This usage of a singular term “church” for an obvious multiplicity of household-sized congregations is throughout the book of Acts:

      20:20 And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house,

      8:3 As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

      The only thing that seems to have compelled Owen to assert that the disciples always met in one place is addiction to a false notion.

      Acts 15, which ironically teaches authoritative dogmas are lawfully issued from courts higher than particular local congregations, states that the following people assembled:

      6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

      That the elders and apostles could be described as a multitude (plaethos) in v. 12, means that a multitude of ministers existed within the one city of Jerusalem. Again, a fatal blow to the divisive notions of Congregationalism. The context dictates that the multitude of which Luke speaks is the same multitude that came together to consider this matter: the elders and apostles (v. 6), whom Peter had just addressed (vv. 7-12). Both the disputation and the silence were from the multitude of elders and apostles.

      The part played by the entire church was not within the synodical deliberations, but in the choice of men from among the elders and apostles to represent the church, confirming the dogmas of the Synod.

      As for the multitude that came together in Acts 21:22, it was a riotous mob, not an assembly for worship (21:36). The term for “coming together” is also not a normal term used for gathering together for worship.

      Owen says, “it is scarce fair for us to say they were such a multitude as that they could not come together.”

      It is completely fair to say so, since Scripture informs us that it was at least two myriads, or 20,000 disciples, and that these disciples were celebrating the sacraments, receiving preaching, etc. “from house to house.”

      “And it is evident that the great numbers of believers that are said to be at Jerusalem were there only occasionally, and were not fixed in that church; for many years after, a small village beyond Jordan could receive all that were so fixed in it.”

      This proves the point that the “one church” was not one local church, but one presbyterial church, existing within several congregations, not strictly within the city walls of Jerusalem, but in the outlying areas. Yet, these disciples were still part of the one church at Jerusalem, and still under one body of elders.

      “The church at Antioch gathered together in one assembly, chap. 14:27, to hear Paul and Silas. This church, thus called together, is called “The multitude,” chap. 15:30; that is, the whole brotherhood, at least, of that church.”

      The church of Antioch had over five prophets and teachers (13:1). If the multitude met in one local congregation, why were there more prophets and teachers needed than one or two? Why a summary list of five, implying more?

      As for the reception Paul and Barnabas by “the church,” it is gratuitously supposed that this consisted in the whole multitude of the disciples, whereas the context seems to dictate others. For example, the church that sent them out and laid hands on them was the collection of prophets and teachers in Acts 13:1-3. Then, we are told:

      Acts 14:26 And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. 27 And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. 28 And there they abode long time with the disciples.

      “The whole church of Corinth did assemble together in one place, both for solemn worship and the exercise of discipline, 1 Cor. 5:4, 5, 11:17, 18, 20, 14:23–26.”

      The instance of the church at Corinth is the most convincing that Owen offers. However, as is plain to any honest reading, the church at Jerusalem was not one single congregation, but a collection of congregations, which Owen himself said was possibly in more than one geographic location. As such, if Corinth were conceded as a single congregation, it does proves nothing against the unity of the church with several congregations in Jerusalem.

      On a more fundamental level, Owen’s theory is contrary to the unity of Christ’s flock, the one body of Christ is not one single congregation. That is a cultic notion, which cuts Christians off from the entire body of Christ, a body which met in Acts 15 to issue authoritative dogmas to particular congregations. More on that in a future article.

      Thanks for interacting!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. A pretty interesting case for Jerusalem having a single congregation is here https://archive.org/stream/amanualofcongreg00daleuoft#page/78/mode/2up (p. 78 and up)

    Of course, Congregationalism doesn’t stand or fall on Owen’s particular argument; there could be very well multiple Congregational churches in one city.

    (Although, per Ephesians 4:2, 3, which you cited – “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” – please be fair to Owen – we don’t know his motives, and so it is uncharitable to suggest the reason was “addiction to a false notion.”)

    At this point I’m not seeing how the following text demands a Presbyterian interpretation:
    “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.” (Acts 21:17, 18)

    Assuming that at this point there was multiple assemblies, Congregationalism, for instance, allows for the meeting of elders from different churches – the difference is over the power they have over such churches (thus assembling of leadership is not an issue).

    When we talk about the word “church” itself, I am aware of any usage in Scripture that necessarily implies a Presbytery. Given the word’s meaning, I would think it could, given the context, mean not only a particular assembly, but God’s people in general, or, by extension, God’s people in a given location.

    Interestingly, Acts 15:4 seems to be using the term church without consideration of a presbytery:
    “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.”

    Since the church is distinguished from the elders, I can only see two possible meanings for the word “church” here:
    1. a particular church (in which case at this time there could be no presbytery for two or more churches in Jerusalem, since there would have been just one Jerusalem assembly); or
    2. the Jerusalem Christians in general (aside from the question of polity and the number of assemblies)

    I know you believe Acts 15 overall proves Presbyterianism, which, if it actually does, I hope it can be shown without question later in the series. At this point, all I am saying is that I don’t see how Acts 21 can shown to be a foundational text for proving Presbyterianism; and that given the word “church” can be used in different ways, I am unsure how relating this word to a locality would in and of itself prove Presbyterianism either.

    You may agree; but, as you mentioned, you plan to delve more thoroughly on it in upcoming posts, so, Lord willing, we’ll see what you have to say in light of Scripture. Thank you.

    Like

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