Theological Primer: The Nature of Church Power

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From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we will look at the nature of church power.

God has ordained two great agencies of divine authority on the earth: the state and the church. They are both governed by God and accountable to God, but the way in which God exercises his power through the state and the church differs significantly. In keeping with the distinction laid out in Matthew 22:16-21 (“render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”), James Bannerman argues that the state has been given authority to exercise power relative to the outward and temporal rights and privileges of men. The church, by contrast, has been given authority to exercise power relative to the inward and spiritual state and consciences of men (The Church of Christ, 233-45).

The nature of church power is ministerial and declarative. This means all church power—whether exercised by the whole body, pronounced from the pulpit, or bound up in representative officers—must be in service to Christ (ministerial) and involves stating and enforcing the Word of God (declarative). In Presbyterian polity, a group of elders exercising church power (in a session, a presbytery, or general assembly), is called a “court” of the church, because the power vested in church officers is never legislative. As Guy Waters reminds us, the elders are only “called to declare the mind of Christ in relation to the matters that are properly before them” (How Jesus Runs the Church, 66). Church power is a spiritual power, pertaining to believers, exercised in a moral and spiritual way, and never resorting to force (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 594).

Reformed theologians have typically described church power using three categories.

(1) Potestas dogmatike is the authority the church possesses in regard to doctrine and faith. The power is not absolute, but consists in the church’s calling to interpret the Scriptures, draw up subordinate standards (i.e., confessions), and press the claims of Christ upon the consciences of men. The church has been given power to bear witness to the truth of God to those inside and outside the church.

(2) Potestas diataktike is the authority the church possess in regard to ordinances and government. While the church cannot bind the conscience to any man-made law, it does have power to adopt rules for effective operation that are in accord with the teaching of Scripture. Like every society, the church is well served by doing things “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40; cf. v. 26).

(3) Potestas diakritike is the authority the church posses in regard to the discipline of its members. The church is not given a sword (as the state is), but rather keys that it might open and close membership in the church (as an expression of entrance or expulsion from Christ’s heavenly kingdom).

The function of the church, therefore, as distinct from the state, is “to proclaim, to administer, and to enforce the law of Christ revealed in the Scriptures” (PCA Book of Church Order 3-3). The church qua church has not been granted authority to address every topic, settle every controversy, or right every wrong. The nature of church power extends to all those under its care, but is limited to doctrine, order, and discipline (BCO 11-2).

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