The Church as an Institution | Willem Apollonius

Willem Apollonius (1602-1657)
A Consideration of Certain Controversies (1644)
III. Of an Instituted Visible Church, pp. 24-43.


Whether no other external visible church be described in Scripture, and acknowledged by the Word of God, but a parochial or particular church: which is confi­ned to such limits, as that of necessity it must be such as may be contained, and ought to meet, ordinarily in one place, for the celebra­ting of God’s public worship, and all the or­dinances of God with mutual edification: so that the constitution of such a church, which by reason of their multitude, or some other cause, cannot in all their members meet ordi­narily in one place for the celebration of the worship of God and exercise of all God’s ordi­nances, is unlawful and repugnant to the Word of God and the Apostles institutions concerning the constitution of a church de­scribed in the holy Scripture?


We judge an external visible particular church, to be a church duly and lawfully con­stituted according to the pattern of the chur­ches erected by the Apostles, which, when it may be, doth in one place under the inspection of one pastor and elders adjoined, frequent the service of God for their mutual edification. But when, by reason of the multitude which God daily addeth to the church, or some o­ther cause, it cannot meet in one place, but doth in several places exercise the divine wor­ship of God and the work of the ministry, un­der more pastors and elders joined into one Consistory, Presbytery, or Classis. The con­stitution of such a church, we say, doth very well agree with the Word of God, and the Apostolical institution. And therefore we also conceive that the visible church described in the holy Scripture, is not only a parochial or particular church, but that there is also a National and Universal Church, dispersed through a whole kingdom, yea through the whole world; which doth in ecclesiastical communion make up one body catholic. Yea we affirm that the name church in Scripture is applied to a company of elders with ecclesiastical jurisdiction assembled to­gether for transacting church affairs.

Therefore concerning a visible church in­stituted by the Word of God we defend these following positions.

I. Presbyteries.

We affirm that the constitution of such a church, which by reason of its multitude, or some o­ther cause, cannot meet ordinarily in one place for celebrating divine worship, and exerci­sing the ordinances of God, is lawful, and con­sonant to the Word of God and the Apostolical institution, though they exercise the wor­ship of God and the work of the Ministry in diverse places, under several pastors and elders joined into one Presbytery. This position is proved:

1. From the constitution of the Church of Jerusalem instituted and erected by the Apo­stles, which could not meet in one place, but must by reason of their multitude meet distributively from house to house in diverse places, under the inspection of divers Pastors: and yet was a visible instituted Church, and is called in Scripture a church in the singular number. For the number of that church was so great, that three thousand were added to it in one day (Acts 2.41), and the number of those that believed and were added to the church grew up to the number of five thousand men (Acts 4.4), and the number of those that believed in­creased daily more and more both of men and women (Acts 5.14; Acts 2.47), which yet daily met, and that in the time of persecution, from house to house for performing the exer­cises of divine worship (Acts 2.46 and 5.42).

2. The Church of Ephesus, duly constitu­ted according to the Word of God, was one church (Rev. 2.2), which yet was gover­ned by diverse pastors joined in a common Presbytery for ecclesiastical jurisdiction (Acts 19.8-9 and 20.17-18), which did also very greatly abound in multitude of members, as ap­peareth Acts 19.10, 17-20 and 20.20-21; 1 Cor. 16.8; Rev. 2.2-3. And yet met in some private house for celebrating the wor­ship of God (Acts 19.9-10 and 20.20). But that this whole multitude could in one school or house celebrate the worship of God, is im­possible. It’s certain therefore to us that they met in diverse places and at diverse times under the inspection of diverse pastors.

3. The Church of Rome did not meet in one place for celebrating the worship of God, there were more holy assemblies there in di­verse places. There was a Church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16.5). Paul when he was at Rome had holy church assemblies in his own house (Acts 28.23, 30-31), which yet was not that whole (collectively taken) and famous church of the believing Romans, whose faith was famous through the whole world (Rom. 1.8). Other examples we meet with in the Scripture of churches duly constituted ac­cording to God’s appointment, which met not in one place for exercising the worship of God, but did in diverse places under a common Pres­bytery of diverse pastors perform holy duties [e.g. the Church of Corinth & the Church of Antioch]. Hence also in our Belgic Churches in some greater towns, though there be more belie­vers than can celebrate the holy worship of God, and exercise other ordinances of Christ, together in one place; yet they are not divided into several churches, but do together make one visible Church, under the common Presbytery and government of diverse pastors.

II. National Churches.

We affirm that a visible Church descri­bed in the holy Scripture, was not only parochial or particular, but there was also a National Church, of one nation or kingdom, which consisteth of many and diverse parochial churches, joined under one ecclesiastical government, and knit together amongst them­selves by a mutual visible communion and fel­lowship ecclesiastical.

We deny indeed that there can be any such typical National Church now under the New Testament, as the Jewish Church was. Wherein all of that nation were bound to a public and solemn typical worship to be performed, in one place chosen by God, under the inspection of one visible pastor or priest, who in worship and sacrifices did hold forth and represent the whole people or nation. For this vanished a­way with the types and carnal precepts of the Old Testament.

We reject also that national and provincial form of a church, intro­duced by men, in which many churches are united and subjected to a Cathedral Church, and depend upon one visible pastor, who is pa­stor and lord of all other pastors and inferior particular churches. Wherein the inferior chur­ches enjoy God’s holy ordinances and ecclesiastical power by derivation and commission from the power and jurisdiction of that Cathedral Church or that national or provincial pastor and bishop. For these are the inven­tions of Antichrist, which bring a tyranny into the Church, and overthrow the power gran­ted by God to the churches and pastors.

Yet such a national and provincial church we acknowledge, wherein many particular chur­ches are by one visible Ministry and church government joined into one collective ecclesiastical body visible, for celebrating all those ordinances of God which are necessary to the visible ministerial government of those chur­ches, and mutual ecclesiastical fellowship in it. This notion of a Church we deduce from Scripture by these arguments:

1. The Church of God under the Old Te­stament consisted of many particular churches and synagogues, which did in diverse places cele­brate the worship of God, and the exercises of doctrine, discipline and church government. As appeareth, Acts 15.21; Acts 13.15-16; Luke 21.12; John 12.42, all which were yet conjoined into one national visible Church which God had chosen out of every nation and people (Deut. 7.7 and 32.8). But the chur­ches of the New Testament are of the same na­ture and form, in all essentials which do con­stitute a Church. As having the same Faith, the same Covenant of Grace, the same signs of that Covenant for substance, the same way of salva­tion, the same Religion, the same visible professi­on of faith (which constitute a Church visible) common to both, and differ only in accidental typical ceremonies, which change not the es­sence and form of a Church.

Hence Prote­stant writers observe that the holy Scripture doth not refuse to make use of the name syna­gogue to denote a Christian Church (James 2.2; 2 Thes. 2.1; Heb. 10.25). “For when as the Church of both Testaments is one and the same, for essence, there is no reason why both people may not be de­scribed by one and the same name,” saith Tilenus in his Theses. part. 2. disput. 14. Thes. 3. It was moral and perpetual therefore, that those many synagogues, and parochial or particular churches, should unite into one National Church. Hence also the Jewish Churches brought to the faith of Christ under the New Testament, though dispersed through diverse countries, were joined into one ecclesiastical body, ruled by the same law, government and ecclesiastical discipline (1 Pet. 1.1-2 compared with 5.1-2).

2. The Church of Galatia consisting of many several particular churches, as appeareth Gal. 1.2, and yet was united into one ecclesiastical body of that nation, and united in a Church so­ciety under one common discipline and go­vernment. Hence Gal. 5.9 it’s compared to a lump which is easily corrupted by a little lea­ven. Like as the united and compacted body of the Corinthian Church is set forth by the same similitude (1 Cor. 5.6). He giveth command to the Galatians concerning an uniformity of govern­ment in external discipline and worship to be observed amongst them, against the seducers and false teachers (Gal. 4.10 and 5.9-10), which intimates an united authority in church government. Whereby the false teachers might be removed out of all the particular churches. The Church of Galatia therefore was provincial.

3. The particular churches of one province or nation, which in the ministerial govern­ment, in ecclesiastical fellowship and com­munion are conjoined and united into one vi­sible ecclesiastical body, for the exercising vi­sible acts of church communion jointly a­mongst themselves. Those constitute a Church Provincial or National. For the members which do in an ecclesiastical manner mutu­ally exercise amongst themselves visible acts of ecclesiastical communion, and do together jointly participate in the same acts and privileges of a Church, they make one visible body of a Church. But the particular churches of one nation do according to the Word of God, exercise amongst themselves such visible ecclesiastical communion: For they do by their particular members, by their pastors and el­ders delegated, sometimes hear the same Word, frequent the same divine worship, par­take of the same sacraments; and do ordinari­ly avoid and shut out from the Kingdom of Christ the same excommunicated person; ex­hort, reprove, comfort, and mutually edify one another ecclesiastically. And when one of them hath made defection from the Gospel of Christ, others endeavor by Ecclesiastical Ministry and the discipline of Christ to reduce it into the right way. And if they refuse to hearken to their ecclesiastical admonition, they judge them as a company of heathens and publicans, avoid, and exclude them from their holy com­munion. Since then the churches of one people or nation perform amongst themselves these specific exercises of ecclesiastical communion and union, there is therefore a coalition of them into a Church National.

Hence also our Churches of the Netherlands in their Synodal canons have ordained not only ecclesiastical assemblies, Consistorial, Presbyterial, and Classical, but have also often decreed that Synods Provincial and National are to be called for the ecclesiastical judging of the affairs of the Church. As appears by the Synod at Emda, Anno 1571. art. 6, 7, 8, 9. at Dort, Anno 1578. art. 16, 17. at Middleburgh, Anno 1581. art. 20, 21. at the Hague, Anno 1586. art. 26, 27. at Middleburgh, Anno 1591. art. 25, 26. at Dort, Anno 1619. art. 29, 30, where it is decreed that there shall be four sorts of Church Assemblies held, to wit, Consistories, Classes, Synods Provincial and National: wherein nothing but ecclesiastical affairs may be handled, and that in an ecclesiastical manner.

III. The Universal and Catholic Church.

We affirm that there is described in Scripture an universal external Church, dis­persed through the whole world, which in a visible polity maketh one. Ecclesiastical orga­nic body, under which are contained all Par­ticular, Classical, Provincial, and National Churches, as parts of that whole. This assertion we thus prove from Scripture.

1. From 1 Cor. 12.28. God hath set some in the Church, etc. where by the word Church is sig­nified that one body of which there are many members, spoken of ver. 12. Wherein is not de­scribed the Invisible and mystical Church of Christ, as such, but the Church of Christ as visi­ble and external: as being that which is di­stinguished by the visible sacrament or sign of baptism, ver. 13. Which consisteth of vari­ous and heterogeneous external members and organs, ver. 15-18. To which are given from God those various and external admini­strations for edification, spoken of ver. 28. Which is subject to schism and separation, ver. 25. Nor is it any particular church that is there described, but the Universal and Catholic Church. Wherein all, as well Jews as Gentiles, are joined into one body, ver. 13. Which comprehends all that are baptized in one Spirit, ver. 13. To which are given from God, Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Pastors, the gifts of tongues and miracles, etc. ver. 28. Which are not given to this or that particular, but to the Catholic Church visible. There is therefore here described an Universal Church.

2. There is by the Word of God some fel­lowship and communion ecclesiastical between all the visible churches of the whole world. And therefore we must acknowledge by the institution of Christ a universal body of the Church. For there is between them an internal fellowship and an obligation to mutual duties of Christianity (Eph. 4.3-6), which requireth also an external ecclesiastical fellow­ship and communion in exhorting, reproving, comforting and edifying of all, and bindeth us to offer prayers and thanksgivings to God in the Ministry of the Church, in behalf of all the churches of the whole world. To reduce churches gone astray, etc. and that fellowship which the members of a particular church hold amongst themselves, the same in a due pro­portion ought the Provincial and National Churches to hold amongst themselves, for the mutual edification and increase of the body of Christ, by which ecclesiastical communion all National Churches do make up one Universal Ecclesiastical body.

3. So also we see in Scripture ecclesiastical meetings held, which represented the Church Catholic and Universal of the whole world. Wherein businesses were transacted which concern the Universal Catholic Church of the whole world. As Acts 1, where an ecclesiastical meeting is held by preaching the Word, and exercises of discipline or church govern­ment (ver. 15-16, 26), and that in the name of the Church Catholic. For there are the pastors of the Church Catholic, the Apostles (sent into the whole world, Mat. 28.19) with the brethren out of Galilee and Jerusalem (ver. 15), and they transact a business which concerneth the Church Universal. To wit, the ele­ction of an Apostle to be a pastor of the Church Universal. And they who transact those things which concern the rule, government, and over­sight of the Church Universal, ought to repre­sent the Church of the whole world. And Acts 15.22, that meeting of Apostles, elders, and brethren is called a Church, who by an ordina­ry power prescribed ecclesiastical decrees and canons to all the churches of the Gentiles, and imposed them in a way of jurisdiction, which no provincial, or national, much less parochial church might lawfully do; but is an act of the Catholic Church.

The Reformed divines also acknowledge a catholic visible Church: see (amongst others) Walaeus in his common places, loco de Ecclesia militante, pag. 458, of his works in folio; where, explaining the nature of the Church visible, af­ter the definition of it, he affirms, that “this Church visible is considered two ways; either u­niversally, for the Church which through the whole world is by the preaching of the Gospel cal­led out of the world, which in some respect may be called also Catholic; or for a particular compa­ny confined to one certain place.” See also the po­sitions of the professors of Leyden, disp. 40. thes. 27, where they tell us that the “Church Vi­sible is by some confounded with a church particu­lar, and the Invisible with the Universal. But we, say they, saving always better judgements, think these members ought not to be confounded.” And thes. 33. thus they say, “This Church visible is con­sidered two ways, either as a certain company of one particular village, town, or province, those, to wit, who are knit together not only in a community of faith and Sacraments, but also in the form of external government and ecclesiastical rites: or as a certain company ecumenical and universal dispersed in divers places through the whole world, though in the very external form of go­vernment and circumstantial rites, they doe often much differ amongst themselves, yet agreeing in the essential community of the Faith and Sacraments: whence also that is frequent in Cyprian, The bishopric is one, whereof each severally hold a part.

IV. Representatives of the Church.

We affirm that a company of pres­byters met together with Ecclesiastical juris­diction for transacting church affairs, are a church. To wit, a ministerial, or a governing and representative church (as they call it), and therefore called in Scripture by the name church. 

We confess that such a company of presbyters are not a church representative properly so called, as if the elders were the de­legates of the believers, who in their name and their stead govern the church, and judge of church affairs. So as that the company of believers govern and judge by those elders as their instruments and deputies: like as the King’s deputy represents the King himself. For the multitude of believers in the Church hath not by the Word of God a power of ru­ling, and judging Church affairs by a spiritual jurisdiction, and therefore cannot delegate it to the elders and presbyters. But the pres­byters do themselves immediately from Christ the King of the Church receive power of ru­ling and ecclesiastical jurisdiction (2 Cor. 5.20; 1 Cor. 4.1). In this sense therefore we do not acknowledge a representative Church.

Neither do we acknowledge such a representative church, as by commission from the multitude of believers, should have absolute power by their laws and acts of jurisdiction to bind the multitude, and subject their faith and conscien­ces, so as without trial they should receive and embrace whatsoever should be determined by this Church. For this is the Papists tyrannical Antichristian representative church, in the Pope and his popish bishops, which by Refor­med Churches is denied and cast out.

But this representative Church we acknowledge out of the holy Scriptures, viz. a company of pres­byters chosen by the multitude of the Church, which by authority and ecclesiastical jurisdi­ction received from Christ is set over and takes care of the Church, and rules it by spiritual ju­risdiction, and decrees made consonant to the Word of God. To whom the whole multitude of believers is bound to yield obedience, in all things which from the Word of God and by the power by Christ committed to them they decree. This governing ministerial or re­presentative Church is proved by these ar­guments.

1. From Mat. 18.17-18. Tell the church. This is that church which hath the power of the Keys, the power of binding and loosing in heaven and earth. But now this power was not given to the whole multitude of believers, but to the elders and governors of the Church, who must be obeyed in the Lord un­der the penalty of excommunication. For the government of the Church is not a promiscu­ous and popular government, but is committed by God to the presbyters and elders, which are the the rulers and guides in the Church. This is that Church which is to receive and judge of the believers complaints brought before them, concerning the scandals and offences of the members of the Church. Which is the office of the pastors and presbyters, to whom the Holy Ghost hath prescribed laws and rules, according to which they ought to receive and judge of those com­plaints (Tit. 1.13), which to all the multitude of believers in the Church is not enjoined. This is that Church which hath the power of re­mitting and retaining sins. Which was given to the Apostles and their successors (Mat. 16.18-19; John 20.21-22), but no where to the whole multitude of believers. The ruling and ministerial Church of presbyters is therefore here understood.

Whence also saith Beza upon Mat. 16.18 that “in the Holy Scripture the word church is sometimes used for an ecclesiastical senate, as Mat. 18.17, to wit, because conve­ned in the name of the whole Church over which they are set; it’s elsewhere called by Paul a pres­bytery (1 Tim. 4.14),” and that in this place by church the Evangelist understands a college of elders he proveth from hence, that “he doth after make mention of binding and loosing, which power and jurisdiction was always in their power, who were therefore called rulers of the synagogue.” And Tremellius in his notes upon the New Testament translated out of Syriac, “To the church, saith he, that is, to that council instituted by God and the congregation of his saints, that the authority both of binding and loo­sing, according to God, should be in their power, as appears in this and the following verse.” Diodati in his notes on the Italian Bible upon this place expounds church, to be “a meeting of them that have the care of governing the church amongst Christians, and the inspection of the order, peace, and discipline thereof (1 Cor. 5.3-4 & 2 Cor. 2.6) according to the custom of the Jewish Church, which also had their consistory for correction of manners.” The doctors and professors of Gene­va in their notes on the French Bible, in this place do understand “those who have the care and ordinary calling of administering doctrine and discipline in the church: as there had always been use of it among God’s people, but was specially renewed in the Ecclesiastical Ministry under the Apostles.” The Dutch interpreters in their notes on the new Dutch translation upon this place expound church, by “church governors, who as it were represent the whole Church (1 Cor. 12.28; 2 Cor. 2.6).”

2. It’s proved from 1 Cor. 5, where is an ecclesiastical assembly described, which by a spiritual jurisdiction transacts the church affairs, and represents the church, to wit, the presby­tery taking care of the church discipline, which is gathered together with Paul’s ministerial spirit, and the power of the Lord Jesus, that is, the power of the Keys, which Christ, as Lord of his Church, only hath (Rev. 3.7), which therefore consisteth only of the chur­ch’s ministers, and Christ’s ambassadors, as be­ing they who alone have the ministerial spirit of the Apostles, and the power of the Lord committed to them. Which is also gathered together for this end, to deliver to Satan an incestuous person, a church member. Which exercise is committed not to all the church members, but to the ministers and pastors. We must therefore acknowledge a governing and representative Church.

We reject therefore these opposite opi­nions following.

1. That there is no other Church visible de­scribed in Scripture, but a particular or parochial church, which might meet together in one place to celebrate the holy worship of God. For there is such a visible Church de­scribed in Scripture, which hath those attri­butes given to it, which agree not to a particu­lar church, as such: as that it’s dispersed through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1 Pet. 1.1 compared with 5.1-2). That all both Jews and Greeks, whether bond or free, make up one body thereof (1 Cor. 12.13).

2. That a particular visible church is by the Word of God limited to such bounds, as that of necessity they may be ordinarily contained, and ought to meet in one place for performing the public worship of God with mutual edifica­tion. For we have shewed that the constitu­tion of such a church, as by reason of their mul­titude or some other cause, cannot ordinarily meet in one place, doth well agree with the word of God and Apostolical institution. For the essence and lawful constitution of a church dependeth not on the outward circumstance of place, but on a due profession of faith, and bond of holy communion. For, as Ames saith, “that same in profession doth constitute a Church Visible, which in reality and it’s internal nature constituteth the Church Mystical, that is, Faith.” (Medull. lib. 1, cap. 32, thes. 7).

3. That there is no visible instituted Church, but that which is met together for the perfor­mance of all the ecclesiastical ordinances of Christ, for preaching the Word of God, and administration of the sacraments, and the ex­ercises of all the offices and spiritual gifts, in a constituted Church. But Christ speaketh of a Church (Mat. 18.17) met together not for the Word and sacraments, but only for the ex­ercise of church discipline. So likewise is that meeting called a church, wherein the Apostles did not by way of sermon preach the Word, nor administer the sacraments, but only told what God had done among the Gentiles (Acts 14.27 & 15.4), or chose some to carry their decrees to others (Acts 15.22), which were acts of ecclesiastical jurisdiction. And therefore that meeting, which meeteth only for the exercise of discipline and ecclesiastical jurisdiction is also a Church, and so called in Scripture.

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