What Are the Limits of Church Authority?

As we have noted before, few questions are more important than to understand the nature and limits of church power. How do we distinguish between circumstances of worship and prescribed elements? May the Church authorize ceremonies in worship not commanded in Scripture?

The answer is clear from the Westminster Assembly: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also" and "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2; 21:1).

On this topic, we have previously highlighted John Bailey Adger (1810-1899)'s 1884 article on "Church Power." He affirms: "Our doctrine, our discipline, our worship, are all divine and revealed things, to which the Church can add, from which she can take away, nothing. No more discretion has the Church in regulating those who compose her membership. She can make no new laws to bind their conscience. Neither contrary to, nor yet beside the Scripture, can she impose any new duties not imposed on men by the Word. On the other hand, she cannot make anything to be sinful which God himself has not forbidden. In fine, the Church has no lawmaking power, except as to circumstances of time and place, order and decency, which, from the nature of the case, Scripture could not regulate, and which must needs be left, and have therefore been left, to human discretion. All the power which the Church has about laws is declarative and ministerial. Her officers are servants of the Lord, and declare not their own will, but the Lord's, and that only as he makes it known in the Word, which is open to all men, and which every man is entitled to judge of and interpret for himself."

We would also bring your attention two additional works by John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898): 1) The Discretionary Power of the Church (a sermon preached in 1875, found in his Sermons, wherein he quotes James Henley Thornwell so profoundly; and 2) Individual Liberty and Church Authority, a sermon preached in 1889. 

These works help to clarify that ecclesiastical authority is ministerial and delegated, not authoritative in itself. Adger and Girardeau have correctly and helpfully exposited the nature and limits of church authority, limiting it to what God has authorized, and not going beyond that. Take time to study these works, and to address what a very important question that every Christian must face. 

What is the nature and limits of church power? Few questions are more important.

John Bailey Adger (1810-1899) gives a wonderfully full answer to this question in his article from the October 1874 number of the Southern Presbyterian Review, entitled, aptly, "Church Power." 

Christians need to take heed to Adger's counsels, so that we might learn to obey lawful authority, and resist tyranny. Read this article, and you will better understand what Presbyterian church government is all about. 

A Missionary's Farewell - Why John Bailey Adger went to preach the gospel in Asia Minor

In 1834, 24-year-old John Bailey Adger of South Carolina prepared to sail across the world to minister the gospel to the Armenians in Asia Minor, sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. But why would he go to a foreign nation, when the need was so great in his own country? To the Executive Committee of the Southern Board of Foreign Missions, he penned this Farewell Letter. It is a beautiful apologetic for the work of missions to every people, tribe, tongue and nation.

A snippet: "Great as are our domestic necessities, I have been unable to convince myself, that it is my duty to remain in America! Why? Simply because I hear a louder call from Asia. Our Savior's ascending command, bids us evangelize the whole world. But his ministers are chiefly confined to a small portion of the earth. Very few Americans (hardly any from the South) have left their country to go to more destitute lands. All seem occupied in looking down at the contracted space around their own feet. Instead of the telescope, we are using the microscope. Instead of all mankind, we think only of our own countrymen. Instead of the whole harvest, we are anxious about reaping only the produce of a little corner. Instead of the whole glory of THE SAVIOR OF MANKIND, we are striving to win for Jesus, only a dim and lustreless diadem. I desire not that such views and feelings should be mine. It is the duty of the Church of Christ, and it should be my endeavour, 'to lift up the eyes and look round about.' Our Master has instructed us to teach all nations. He has allotted us our work upon a great scale. We must, therefore, 'attempt great things, and expect great things.' (the motto of William Carey, D.D., Baptist Missionary to India)."