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Church Membership of Ministers

by Charles Hodge

(reviewing the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly of 1843)

An overture from the Presbytery of Miami, brought up the question, whether ministers should have their names enrolled as members of particular churches? This question the Assembly answered in the negative. Several members agreed in favor of an affirmative answer on such grounds as the following: A minister without pastoral charge is not connected as a member with any particular church, unless his church relation is sustained and continued, notwithstanding his ordination. Again, cases may occur in which a minister may be deposed and yet not excommunicated, he is then no longer either a minister or church member; he is not subject to either presbytery or session. It was also argued that our constitution does not authorize a presbytery to excommunicate [which we presume is a mistake]; the presbytery, it was said, may direct, but the session executes. If then a minister is excommunicated, how can the sentence be carried into effect unless he is enrolled as the member from some particular church, and when no longer a member of the presbytery, subject to the jurisdiction of its session?

The brethren who argued for a negative answer to the overture contended that membership in a particular church necessarily involved subjection to the session of that church, but as the minister is not subject to the session, he should not be enrolled as though he were under its authority. The relation which a minister sustains as a member of presbytery having jurisdiction over a session, is inconsistent with his subjection to that session as a church member. And although a ruling elder may, as a member of presbytery, be over a session, and yet as an elder, subject to its jurisdiction; yet as he is only a member of the presbytery during its sessions, and by special delegation, his relation to the church and to its session is essentially different from that of a minister. The General Assembly has decided that licentiates are members of particular churches, and subject to the jurisdiction of the session, until they are ordained; which of course implies that their relation to the church is changed by ordination; which is no longer that of membership in a particular church, but that of an overseer of a particular church and a member of the church in general. When he ceases to be a minister, he becomes de facto subject to the particular church within whose limits he may reside.

This whole question seems to be one more theoretical than practical. There was no diversity of opinion as to the relation in which a minister stands to the church, but only as t the proper mode of denominating and expressing that relation. All admit that while he has a right to the privileges of a particular church, he is not subject to the jurisdiction of its session, and that he has no need of a letter of dismission and recommendation to entitle him to the same privileges in another particular church. Is he then a member of any particular church? That depends on what is meant by member, or on what membership implies. If it implies nothing more than a right to the privileges of the church for himself and children, he is a member; but if it also implies subjection, he is not a member. In all other cases it confessedly does imply subjection. It would seem very incongruous and of evil tendency, to express by the same term and in the same way, relations so essentially distinct, as those in which a pastor and private Christian stands to the same church. The decision of the Assembly, accordant as it is with the usage of all Presbyterian churches, will, we doubt not, meet with general approbation

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