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Comment on the Nature of a Church Constitution

by Charles Hodge

copyright © 2000

Extracted from “The General Assembly”; Topic: “Overture No. 3—On Church Members,” which appeared in Princeton Review, 1850, p. 468.

This was a memorial from the Second Presbytery of Philadelphia asking the General Assembly to take such action in the case of members of the church who remove, without certificate, or who fail, for a length of time, to attend upon the ordinances of the gospel, as will secure constitutional and uniform action throughout the Presbyterian churches.

“As there is no provision in our form of government, or discipline, to meet such cases, and as it would be inexpedient for the General Assembly to make a regulation on the subject, which would have the force of a constitutional rule, the Committee on Bills and Overtures recommended that the following be sent down to the presbyteries for their decision:

“Shall the form of government be amended by adding this clause at the end of chapter 9?

Sec. 6. “They shall also have power to remove from the list of communicants, those who by long continued absence, without a regular dismission or other equivalent causes, are improper persons to be retained as members of the church.”

Mr. Morris gave the reaons which had induced the Presbytery to which he belonged to ask this alteration. There are many members of churches out of reach of discipline, and absent for years, and their names ought not to be continued on the roll.

Dr. Hoge said, that it is proposed now to do regularly, what has been done heretofore irregularly. It is simply to omit from the list of members the names of persons of whom the Church has no knowledge.

Dr. R. J. Breckinridge contended that there is no use for such a power, and it is liable to unspeakable abuse. Pastors and elders should do their duty in keeping watch of the members. There may be churches, not well watched, where the thing has become an evil. But you will often find these absent ones re-appearing; and they will be greatly grieved to find their names stricken off. If you want to put an irresponsible power into the hands of the Session, so that they may turn members out when they will, without form of trial, pass this provision, and you will have it. It is a settled principle of our Church, that a man who has given himself to the Church has made an irrevocable covenant, and you are trenching upon some of the most fundamental principles, sanctifiedby two or three centuries, when you propose to strip a man of his rights, and turn him out of the Church without trial. He besought his brethren to pause before taking any step toward such a measure as this; and to test the sense of the house again, he moved to lay the proposition on the table. Carried.

It seems to us that there is a wrong principle in this overture and in the answer which it was proposed should be given to it. There are two distinct theories respecting our ecclesiastical constitution. The one is that it is the grant of powers; the other is that it is a limitation of powers, i. e. a treaty entered into by primary church organizations as to the manner in which they shall exercise the powers inherent in them and derived from Christ. The latter is unquestionably the true view. A church session does not derive its power to admit members or exercise discipline from the constitution. The constitution simply states that such and such powers pertain to a church session; and the various church sessions embraced under the constitution agree to exercise those powers in a certain way. Neither does a presbytery derive from the constitution the right to ordain or to depose from the ministry. If independent it could exercise those rights at discretion; but when associated with other presbyteries interested in its acts, it stipulates that it will ordain only under such and such circumstances. The reason of this is obvious, a man ordained by one presbytery becomes, as a member of synod, a judge over the members of other presbyteries. They, therefore, have a right to a voice in the matter. Hence all presbyteries thus associated enter into an agreement as to what qualifications they will demand in candidates for ordination, and in general as to the principles on which they will exercise their presbyterial powers. And such an agreement is their constitution. It is not therefore a grant of powers, but a stipulation between the associated presbyteries as to the manner in which they will exercise the powers inherent in them. It follows from this that a session or presbytery is simply bound by contract not to violate the constitution, but the exercise of its perogatives is not circumscribed by that instrument. It can do what it pleases, as a church court, provided it infringes on no article of its contract with other courts, and on no principle of the word of God. It has no need therefore to go to the General Assembly to ask power to do what from its very nature as a church court it has the right to do. A session must have a right to say who are the members of the church over which it presides. It might as well ask for power to erase from its roll the names of the dead, as to seek authority to say that those who have left them and wandered off no one knows where, have left them, and are no longer under their watch and care. The memorial, however, seems to assume that no session has any power in the premises but what it derives from the constitution; and the committee of Bills and Overtures proposed to add a section to that instrument to the effect that church sessions “shall have power to remove from the list of communicants those who from long absence,” &c., as though such assumption were correct. According to our view the sessions have all the power they need in this matter inherent in themselves, and we therefore rejoice that the overture was rejected by the Assembly.

copyright © 2000

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