Presbyterian vs. Baptist: James Bannerman on Church Polity

**Note: The title of this post is purposely changed to “Presbyterian vs. Baptist” despite Bannerman writing about Congregational Independency, not Baptists. But because many might not recognize that Baptists usually adhere to a congregational independency, I decided to change the title to better relate to the likely audience of this blog.**

I recently finished reading through James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ.  The book was published in a single volume by Banner of Truth Trust (2015), and is 856 pages on the constitution and powers of the church.  I’d love to do an outline on every chapter, because I think it has good material for Protestants of all brands; but that would take some time, and has probably been done better by others (see here).  So I wanted to consider Bannerman’s last chapter, because I don’t think I’ve ever written anything on Presbyterianism as opposed to other models of church government.  I’ll skip the biographical sketch of Bannerman (you can find one here), and get right to the chapter.  My personal comments are few and hopefully obvious.

The chapter under consideration is entitled “The Independent System of Church Polity as opposed to the Presbyterian,” and is Chapter V, in Part IV (Parties in Whom the Right to Exercise Church Power is Vested) of Banner of Truth’s edition.  The chapter broken down into two subsections: Sec. I. “The Congregational Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism;” and Sec. II. “The Independent Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism.”  The two subsections address the two principles of Congregational Independency.

Bannerman first introduces those two principles: congregational and independent.[*]

Under the name of Congregationalism,” Bannerman explains, “are included those principles which lead them to assert for all the members of the Church, as well as for the office-bearers, a share in its rule and administration.”  As opposed to Presbyterianism, where the decision-making authority is vested in a representative body of elders, the “act of the rulers is null and void without the act of the members consenting with it.”  In other words, the governance of the church is shared equally by the members and the office-bearers.  The only difference between office-bearers and laypersons is that the office-bearers propose measures for adoption and, once voted on and consented to by the members, ensure their execution (822).

Bannerman then explains Independency.  Under that name “are included those principles which lead the denomination now referred to to assert that each worshipping congregation is a Church, independent of every other congregation,–being with its office-bearers complete within itself, and having no connection with other parts of one ecclesiastical system, or united under one ecclesiastical government” (823).  Congregational independency, therefore, is exactly what it sounds like: a congregation dependent on nothing outside of itself for its constitution and governance.  Unlike Presbyterianism, where churches are united under a joint body of elders (presbyteries), Independent Congregationalists take issue with any presbytery, council, or synod that would attempt to impose measures upon it without their consent.

Understanding these two names, Bannerman examines each in turn, and how they are challenged by the Presbyterian system. Lord willing you will find something useful in this consideration—whether you agree or not—and better know why you believe what it is you believe concerning church polity.


Sec. I. The Congregational Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism

There’s an important point made at the outset of this discussion. It was stated above that decision-making authority is vested, by Presbyterians, in the office-bearers of the church, as opposed to Congregationalists, who make the validity of a decision rest upon the church members’ vote.  Bannerman makes clear that “it would be a mistake to suppose that Presbyterianism…overlooks or undervalues the importance of the consent of the Christian members of the Church in her authoritative proceedings.”  He goes on to explain that “every proper means [must] be employed, in the way of explanation, persuasion, and instruction, to secure the concurrence of the members in the acts and proceedings of the rulers of the Christian society” (824).  One could think of it much like marriage; the husband bears the decision-making authority within the household—based on his God-ordained role, not his inherent superiority—but not at the expense of his wife or children. He makes the decision he believes is best for the family, by taking into consideration their thoughts and opinions.  But ultimately he makes the final decision, and is held accountable for it.  It makes sense that a qualification for rule in the church is how one rules in the home (1 Tim 3:2-4).

That qualification understood, the Presbyterian model maintains, “that there is in the Church a power of government and administration vested in an order of office-bearers, separate from ‘the Church collectively considered,’ and ‘exercised independently of the concurrence of the members’” (824).  This, Bannerman believes, may be established in one of two ways. (i) “We may prove from Scripture that Christ or His apostles instituted an office of authority and government in the hands of an order of men, separate from the Church collectively, and independent of the members at large;” and (ii) “We may, without any reference to the express institution of the office, prove that the peculiar powers and authority of such an office have been usually exercised and permanently administered by a distinct body of men, separate from and independent of the Church collectively considered” (825). If these two points are proven, Bannerman concludes, then the argument against Congregationalism is decided.  We will look at them separately.

(i) That Christ or His apostles instituted an office of authority and government in the hands of an order of men independent of the members at large.

Bannerman’s first objective is to prove that an office of authority and government were divinely instituted by Christ or His apostles.

The first proof of this principle is the very names given to this distinctive order of men.  “The presbyters of the New Testament Church are spoken of as rulers, as pastors, as overseers, as stewards, as governments—words which all…include the idea of authority and governing power as distinctive of the office held by them” (825).  The position held by Congregationalists necessarily undermines the plain meaning of the words.  If power is split between the office-bearers and members, then in what sense are the elders (presbyters) ruling, governing, or leading?  In the case of the Congregationalists it is the members that lead, pastor, oversee, and rule—not a distinct body of men set apart for that purpose. “The rulers of the church admitted in name are denied in effect; and instead of holding an office Divine and independent, are made the mere delegates of the members of the Church, with authority conditioned by their concurrence, and strictly limited by their commission” (827). Looking at the history of Congregationalism in America, it is easy to see why many ended up doing away with elders, and simply delegating committees of church members to make decisions. Many modern-day Baptists have succumbed to the same tendency; this is why in many churches you’ll find no elders, only a pastor and maybe a deacon or two.

The second proof Bannerman provides is the existence of the “ruling elder.”[†]  Within the office of presbyter, Bannerman delineates between three types of presbyters: (i) The “preaching elder” or pastor; (ii) the “teaching elder”; and (iii) the “ruling elder.”[‡]  It is the third order that Bannerman focuses attention on, stating, “the institution of a distinct class of presbyters for the express purpose of government in the Christian society…serves greatly to confirm the evidence we have from Scripture against the Congregationalist principle of a distribution of power…between office-bearers and members” (831). Several passages seem to indicate the existence of a ruling elder (Romans 12:7-8; 1 Cor 12:28), but it is 1 Timothy 5:17 that Bannerman believes is the most “decisive evidence” (830). Paul says to Timothy, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (KJV; emphasis mine). The passage seems to indicate a distinction between an elder that “rules” and one that labors in “word and doctrine” (viz., teaching elder).  This passage, Bannerman believes, so strongly indicates a distinction that even notable proponents of Independency have agreed to that interpretation (including John Cotton, Thomas Goodwin, and John Owen).[§]  Again if there is a ruling elder, there must be something to rule—otherwise it’s just a name, with no functional meaning.

(ii) That the peculiar powers and authority of that office have been usually exercised and permanently administered by a distinct body of men, separate from the Church collectively.

Bannerman’s first point was to show Scriptural proof for a distinct body of office-bearers, separate from the congregation at large, who rule over the church.  This second point is meant to show, from Scripture, that the “proper and distinctive exercises of Church power and authority are uniformly and statedly performed by the office-bearers…and never by the members generally.” That power and authority within the church is manifest in three ways: (1) in connection with doctrine; (2) in connection with ordinances; and (3) in connection with government and discipline. The Scripture evidence for “the stated and continual exercise of [these] particular functions…by a particular class, to the invariable exclusion of the members as large, would…establish the Presbyterian doctrine against the Congregational view” (832).  Let’s look at each of these closely.

(1) In connection with doctrine.  The power connected to doctrine, Presbyterians believe, “is exhibited in Scripture as always belonging to pastors [elders],” and never to the ordinary members. “The chief and highest exercise of Church power, to declare the mind of God from His Word, and to preach the Gospel to sinners, is ever represented as the work of presbyters, and never as the duty of the members” (832-833).  Presbyterians maintain that the congregation may elect a pastor to a position in the church, but that they do not have the right to preach, nor ordain preachers.  Only in extraordinary cases where necessity may dictate, is it believed that a layperson may preach to the church.  This, of course, does not exclude the church members from their duty to witness, proclaim, and give reason for the hope within them to the world around them; especially when called upon to give an account.

(2) In connection with ordinances.  Bannerman names ordination and the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) under this point, and declares that it does not belong in the hands of the church at large due to the absence of Scriptural precedent.  “There is not the shadow of evidence in the Word of God to prove that private members ever baptized, or dispensed the bread and wine of a Communion Table.”  While the Scripture gives examples of the laying on of hands, ordination, and dispensing of the Sacraments by church leaders, it is silent with regard to the common member.

(3) In connection with government and discipline.  Much of what is contained in this point has been stated at this point. The titles, instructions, and qualifications for eldership (1 Tim 3:2-4) are given to a distinct body and not church at large (he cites 2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim 5:19; Titus 2:15; and Titus 3:10 as examples of directions given to office-bearers and not to members in general).  “To office-bearers, and not to private members, was the commission given, to bind and to loose, to retain and remit sin, to hold and use the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (834).[**]


Sec. II. The Independent Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism

Bannerman next evaluates the Independent principle.  This may seem more relevant to modern distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists.  Depending on the Baptist church, it may in fact be run like the Presbyterianism discussed above, with a plurality of elders that exercise power and authority in a similar manner.  However, most Baptists, of any brand, will agree that the local church is autonomous, with no authority over it.[††]

According to this view,” Bannerman explains, “the power of ruling…is to be exercised within each particular congregation, apart from every other, and not in the way of the office-bearers of several congregations meeting for the exercise of a common authority over them all, each individual society being absolutely independent and separate from the rest in matters of government, discipline, and order” (838). The Presbyterian view can be gleaned from this description. “Presbyterians assert that the right of governing is deposited in the hands of the office-bearers of the Christian society, and not in the society itself,—a principle that paves the way for the elders of different congregations meeting together in the discharge of their peculiar functions, and as the representatives of their several Churches, for the exercise of a joint authority over the ecclesiastical societies which they represent” (838-839). These meetings are called Courts, Councils, Presbyteries, and/or Synods.[‡‡]

The main issue, in essence, is “whether or not it is lawful and right for the governing body of one congregation to unite with the governing body of a second, or third, or fourth, for the purpose of common counsel and joint authority in the exercise of rule over all” (839). Presbyterians maintain that it is right and lawful; Independents maintain the opposite.  The issue is not whether it is right for representatives from different congregations to seek advice or counsel from others, but whether they can meet together for joint government of the congregations under them.  Bannerman sets out to prove the Presbyterian principle under three arguments.

(i) The lawfulness of association for the exercise of common government, may be argued from the unity of the visible Church.

Bannerman admits that this consideration is not decisive in and of itself, but it “affords a very strong presumptive evidence in favour of the right of association for the purposes of government in the Church.” There is, it is argued, a oneness of the visible Church by its outward covenant relationship with Christ.  Because of this oneness in Christ, a person baptized becomes, “not so much a member of the local congregation…[but] a member of the catholic Church at large, having a right of membership throughout the whole.” In the same way, an ordained minister is a minister of the gospel across congregational bounds—he is a minister to the universal church. “It is unquestionable that the principles of visible unity upon which Christ constituted…His Church at first have laid the foundation for the association of rulers and office-bearers for the exercise of authority in common, and seem fairly to require that association in so far as in the circumstances of the Church it is practicable, or for edification” (842-843) In other words, the catholic Church is united in its witness to the gospel, its ordinances, and its covenant relationship to Christ (Eph 4:4-6).  Therefore, there seems to be a strong warrant for its office-bearers to come together, in unity, for the edification and governance of the church at large.

(ii) The lawfulness of association for the purpose of common government, may be argued from the examples in Scripture of such union among the rulers of neighboring congregations.

The argument here starts with the assertion that the word ‘Church’—ἐκκλησία—has a threefold meaning in the Scriptures, as opposed to the twofold meaning held by Independents.  Independents maintain that the word ‘Church’ is only used in two ways: (1) as speaking about the universal, mystical body of Christ, “made up of true believers throughout the world;” and (2) as a local congregation (i.e. the Church of Rome, the Church of Corinth).  Presbyterians do not deny these two meaning, but believe that there is a third way to understand ‘Church’ in the New Testament: (3) as “a combination of more than one congregation [in the same city], united together under a common government” (844). The assertion here is that when the word ‘Church’ is used in the singular (i.e. the Church of Jerusalem), it oftentimes denotes several congregations within a given city, united by a common government. Bannerman seeks to prove the two assertions contained in this argument: (1) that the word ‘Church’ can denote two or more congregations connected together; and (2) that they are united under one government.

(1) That the word ‘Church’ can denote two or more congregations in a given city. The Church of Jerusalem is Bannerman’s test case.  There is no way of knowing how many converts existed prior to the Lord’s ascension or the outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost; but what we do know is that there was over 100 disciples who met in the upper room during the Spirit’s outpouring, and that at one time, “Christ, after His resurrection, was seen of ‘above five hundred brethren at once’ [1 Cor 15:6]” (845). On that same day it is recorded that 3,000 were gathered into the Church, and it is said that “the Lord added daily to the Church such as should be saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). Again it is said that, after Peter preached, about 5,000 were added to that number.  One must further account for the women, not explicitly mentioned, but implied.  “Multitudes,”  Acts 5:14 and Acts 6:7 tell us, were being grafted into the Church on a daily basis.  But at this point Church cannot be understood as a single congregation.  “It is utterly impossible, upon any rational theory of interpretation, to maintain that the many thousands of converts thus particularly mentioned in Scripture, as added to the Church at Jerusalem, could have found it practicable to meet together as one worshipping assembly” (846). This point is even more convincing when one considers the small spaces they likely occupied to worship, and the privacy they would’ve sought for fear of the Jews.

Bannerman goes on to make a similar point concerning the amount of office-bearers and ministers that occupied seats in Jerusalem. “It is believed,” Bannerman says, “by most interpreters of Scripture, that the seventy disciples whom Christ…commissioned to preach the Gospel, labored for a period of time at Jerusalem” (847). Also, we know that for several years the twelve apostles occupied ministry in that city, and Acts 11 indicates several more presbyters and deacons within the city.  The conclusion being, that it seems far-fetched to believe a single congregation in Jerusalem maintained all of these well-qualified office-bearers on its staff.  Rather, it would seem that the “Church of Jerusalem” is a term utilized for a plurality of congregations within a given city.

(2) That they are united under one government. If the first point is proven, then the second easily follows. “The single name under which the several distinct…congregations at Jerusalem are spoken of as ‘the Church’ there, is of itself sufficient to prove that they had a common bond of union in their subordination to one ecclesiastical government.” This is confirmed by the fact that the elders and deacons were referred to, not as the office-bearers of this or that congregation, but by the Church there.  “From first to last, in the accounts we have of the Christians at Jerusalem, divided as they undoubtedly were into many congregations, we still read of one Church, or one body of office-bearers, of one set of apostles and presbyters ruling and ordering the common concerns of all” (848).

(iii) The example of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Bannerman’s final proof for the lawfulness of church rulers meeting together in the joint governance of the Church by means of synods or councils is found in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.  It is recorded that questions arose concerning the Mosaic Law and the rite of circumcision as it pertained to salvation.  Paul and Barnabas were then sent to the Church in Jerusalem concerning this question; a council was called that included the apostles and elders of that city.  After much deliberation, and difference of opinion, they pronounced their judgment and subsequently commissioned certain members of the Council to carry the decision to the Churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:1-33, 41; 16:4ff).

Bannerman then states that this narrative contains all the elements necessary “to make up the idea of a supreme ecclesiastical court, with authority over not only the members and office-bearers within the local…congregations….but also the Presbyteries or inferior church courts included in the same limits.”  First, there was a question concerning doctrine that was referred to a higher court in Jerusalem.  Second, there were deputies sent to take part in the council.  And third, these representatives met with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, and, “after due deliberation and discussion, ministerially declaring the law of Christ on the question in debate, and issuing a decree on the point.”  “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials…” (Acts 15:28); “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.” (Acts 16:4; emphasis mine on both verses; NASB).



If you’ve made it this far, I commend you, and thank you.  I do hope that it might benefit someone who is truly interested in understanding better their position on church polity.  It seems that often people hold the position they do more out of tradition or upbringing than by conviction—so it’s important to evaluate your position, in light of Scripture, from time to time.  I highly recommend Bannerman’s book in that endeavor; it is a tome to be sure, but it reads nicely, and he is very good at outlining things simply for your understanding.





[*] Someone may object to Bannerman outlining the terms of this discussion, but his analysis and summarization of the positions are directly quoted from a contemporary authority on the position: Ralph Wardlaw, Congregational Independency (1848).

[†] This point is possibly too broad to give much support to in a brief summary; but I have tried to summarize the main point. For more in-depth study, Bannerman directs his reader to George Gillespie, Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641) and Alexander Henderson, The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland (1641), pp. 13, 30, 36; see also John MacPherson’s, Presbyterianism (1900), pp. 37-89.

[‡] Most Presbyterians limit this to simply the teaching (pastor) and ruling elders. See, for instance, the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (2013); Chapter 25:9 (Testimony): “The responsibility of the elders is in teaching and ruling. Although all elders are to be able to teach, the Scripture recognizes a distinction in these functions.”

[§] See the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline (1648), ch. vii:1: “The ruling elder’s office is distinct from the office of the pastor and teacher [using 1 Tim 5:17 as prooftext].” The Cambridge Platform was a quintessential Congregationalist document; New England Puritans drafted it.

[**] Bannerman goes on to deal with three Scriptures leveled against his third point: Matt 18:15-20; Acts 15; and 1 Cor 5. I have left this out due to the growing length of this post, but I didn’t want someone to think I was purposely avoiding the objections. Bannerman deals with them on pages 834-837, and I leave it to your study (though I’d be willing to discuss them in the comments).

[††] “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers…each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.” The Southern Baptist Faith and Message (2000); section VI.

[‡‡] Historical note: In colonial New England, where Congregationalism held sway, they quickly recognized the difficulty of maintaining their idealized society—their “city upon a hill”—through the principles of Congregational Independency. This is why in name they remained Congregationalists, even while becoming functional Presbyterians through their many councils and synods: Cambridge Platform synod (1648); the Halfway Covenant (1662); the Reforming Synod (1679-1680). They maintained their consistency by stating that these measures were only “recommended” not required—but often they were strongly recommended.


~ by JN on January 2, 2016.

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