Friday 11 September 2009

Where is the Seat of Church Authority (Matthew 18:15-20)?

One of the consequences of the Separatist movement that somewhat polarised positions was the evolutionary development of idea as to the exact seat of church authority. During this pursuit of a pure church two ideals or admonitions emerged: some Anglicans and Presbyterians understood that for practical purposes, that authority rested with the ministers and elders; whereas many of the Independents and Separatists favoured the view that this was to reside within the congregation.[1] It must be recognised though, that during this time of flux that there was much variance in the Puritan ideals, and hard and fast boundaries do not always work well in assessing this time period. However, many of its leaders did struggle with the question of church authority and it is perhaps helpful to understand in some measure how these two positions developed.

From the outset, any church that looked to Calvin and Geneva as its theological fountainhead invariably included church discipline as a non-negotiable ingredient for a truly Reformed church. In 1539, during a time of temporary exile in Strasbourg, the pastor from the church, Calvin, clearly defended the Reformed doctrine of the church in a letter to Cardinal Sadolet. He writes that ‘there are three things on which the safety of the church is founded, namely, doctrine, discipline and the sacraments’[2] and also that ‘the body of the church, to cohere well, must be bound together by discipline as with sinews’.[3] This concern for a well-ordered church highlights discipline as an important strand of Calvinistic ecclesiology.

The majority of the Puritan movement, and especially the Separatists up until 1608 at least, were ‘convinced Calvinists’[4] according to White, and besides which, the application of outward discipline would most likely have been more pressing with the use of church covenants to bind believers together. How else could the ideal of a pure church be realised and maintained other than through rigorous discipline? Presbyterians who advocated a different pattern for Anglican government while remaining within the church, White clarifies that in the ‘1570–80s they looked to Calvinistic Geneva as the ideal church’ and they were seeking ‘the one apostolic pattern revealed in Scripture, the Presbyterian pattern’.[5] This discloses a recurring issue that has remained to our day concerning the reformation of church polity and practice. Whether or not there is a single NT pattern and blueprint to be copied has remained a topic for much debate and this matter cannot be side-stepped concerning any vision that may pursue a connection between the Trinity and the church.

The classicus locus for the subject was Matthew 18:15–20 and the precise meaning of the phrase ‘tell it to the church’ (18:17) was hotly contested. Did this mean ‘tell the elders’ or ‘tell the congregation’? White has probably irreversibly established that there was a developed Separatist tradition and he devotes almost one whole chapter to these matters concerning Matthew 18:17. In an analysis of the apparent changing views of the English Separatist pastor in Amsterdam, Francis Johnson (1562–1618), White discerns: ‘In the interpretation of the key text, Matthew 18:17, “tell the church” he [Johnson] now understood “the church” to be “the elders”, and not, as the English Separatists had all held until then, “the whole congregation”.’[6]

The way this passage was expounded, often impacted what was a delicate balancing act between the spiritual authority of the elders and the congregation. This was frequently a reaction to the clerical control of parishes where members had little input in church governance. Church discipline may have been the starting point for discussion but this led to other matters relating to the locus of authority for the calling of ministers and congregational decision making. White maintains that a vital principle throughout Separatism (at least up until the end of Smyth’s ministry) was the conviction that Anglican ministry in its entirety was to be rejected as impure and apostate. Certainly any persistent participation in private fellowship with individual members of parish congregations and the listening to the preaching of even godly parish ministers would have led to excommunication.[7]

The shifting of church authority from the hands of the ordained ministers, into the midst of the gathered believers, led to an irreversible distancing from the Church of England. This left no room for the Episcopal authority of Bishops while simultaneously rejecting Calvin’s Presbyterianism. Perhaps this issue of authority also opened the door for many other unexpected wholesale changes that emerged, such as the validity of Anglican Baptism and Calvinistic soteriology.[8] Hopefully this sketch of the background to the times in which Smyth ministered is helpful, prior to our more detailed investigation of his theology. Crucial ecclesial issues have already arisen so far and these can be summarised with three questions: Is it valid to pursue a single all controlling blueprint for the reformation of the churches? Did a Separatist tendency towards ‘always progressing’, pave the way for unbridled fluidity in all aspects of ecclesiology? Where is the final seat of church authority?

[1] The historical context of English church reform during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century is a much discussed topic. Here are some references that are helpful to give some preliminary insights: Meic Pearse, The Great Restoration, Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998; Nick Lunn, ‘Laurence Chadderton―Puritan, Scholar, and Bible Translator’, Banner Magazine, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008, 537; J. I. Packer, Among God’s Giants, Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991, repr 2000; Basil Hall, ‘Puritanism: The Problem of Definition’ in Studies in Church History, Vol. 2, ed. G. J. Cunning. Nashville: Nelson, 1965; Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1976; Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Wotton-Under-Edge: Clarendon Press, 1967, repr. 1990, 86.

[2] John Calvin, ‘Reply by John Calvin to the Letter by Cardinal Sadolet to the Senate and the People of Geneva’ in Calvin’s Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Vol. 1, Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1844, 38. Hereafter called Calvin’s Tracts.

[3] Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts, 55.

[4] B. R. White, The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century, Didcot: Baptist Historical Society, 1996, 18.

[5] White, The Development of the Doctrine of the Church Among the English Separatists, i–iii.

[6] White, The English Separatist Tradition, 142.

[7] Ibid., 158.

[8] Lee, ‘Chapter 1: Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Background’ in The Theology of John Smyth. This offers some helpful background of the historical context of John Smyth. This book also maps Smyth’s theological changes concerning baptism and soteriology that ran parallel to Smyth’s changing views on authority.

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