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Bannerman’s The Church of Christ: The Power of the Church

Category Articles
Date March 23, 2018

The previous article, in February, discussed some ‘aspects of the Church’: its twofold character as visible and invisible, and its twofold character as catholic and local. All references in the text are to James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Banner of Truth Trust reprint, 2015.

* * *

When we come to discuss the actual power of the Church, we must ask, What is its source? The answer is that the power of the Church is derived from positive Divine warrant, and not from the consent of its members or from the state.

Christ’s Headship Over the Church

These statements regarding the origin and source of Church power ‘necessarily involve the proposition, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church’ (p. 202). Christ is both the founder and the administrator of the Church. Her existence at first, and ‘her life and well-being ever since’, depend entirely on him (p. 207).

The Church has no store of life apart from Christ being in it; the ordinances of the Church have no deposit of grace apart from Christ present with them; the office-bearers of the Church have no gift of power and authority or action apart from Christ ruling and acting by them. It is most important to remember that it is in this high and very special sense that we are to understand the expression, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church’ (pp. 207-8).

Bannerman stresses that this ‘cardinal doctrine lies at the very foundation of every other that concerns the Church of Christ, and ought to be guarded with the utmost jealousy and care’ (p.208).

The Rule or Law of Church Power

Office-bearers and laws must exist in the Church, simply because it is an organised society. The rule for the use and administration of Church power is, of course, the Word of God. Christ’s will is nowhere expressed or announced, except in the Bible. ‘His will must be the only rule for the guidance of the Church in matters in which it is called upon to act’ (p. 222). Not only is the Church responsible to obey Christ’s will as every other moral creature is, but an added obligation applies to the Church as a result of Christ’s Headship and Kingship over it, ‘a double sovereignty of nature and grace’ (p. 223).

This principle of obedience to the will of Christ is clearly biblical. Scripture provides express precepts, clear examples and general principles which, taken together, prove that there ‘is enough in the Word of God to be, and which was intended to be, a distinct and complete guide for the Church in the exercise of its powers of action and administration’ (pp. 224-5).

At the same time, we must also bear in mind that there is a distinction between what is essential and what is merely expedient in the Word. Scripture is a full and complete guide for the former, but concerning the latter, ‘there is nothing expressed in Scripture directly; and something is to be left to the discretion of the Church and its office-bearers’ (p. 226). Times and length of services, for example, may be included here. Of course, it may not always be easy to draw the line between what is fundamental and accidental. ‘The rule of the Apostle is the clearest and most applicable, which seems to intimate that the discretionary authority of the Church is limited expressly to the things of “decency and order”‘ (p. 227).

Therefore laws made by Church authority are declaratory, ‘involving in them no other or new authority beyond what is previously binding’. They are ‘limited to the object of explaining and applying the law previously uttered by Christ in reference to such matters’ (p. 228). ‘Beyond this the legislative function of the Church does not extend’ (p. 229). Furthermore, office-bearers are ministerial and subordinate, ‘having no authority or discretion of their own, and being merely ministers or servants to carry out the will and execute the appointments of Christ’ (p. 229). Their functions are ministerial, not lordly.

When we consider decisions of Church courts, we notice again,

the great and fundamental principle that the mind of Christ, revealed and expressed in the Bible, is both the rule and the limit of Church power. If the judgement or decision pronounced in the lawful exercise of their authority by the Church or its office-bearers be in accordance with the principles of the Word of God, that decision was before pronounced in heaven; and it is both valid and binding upon the conscience, not only because it is consistent with God’s Word, but also because it is a decision lawfully pronounced by a lawful tribunal appointed by Christ for the purpose.

Bannerman adds that ‘no judgement of any Church whatsoever can bind the conscience, except in so far as, and no further than, it is grounded upon the Word of God’ (p. 231).

In the case of last resort, when persuasion has failed to induce the Church to reconsider its decision, one remedy remains ‘and an ultimate one’: a person

may transfer the case for judgement to a higher tribunal, and for relief and freedom to his own conscience may take appeal from the act of the Church of Christ on earth to the judgement of Christ Himself in heaven. Under the solemn protection of an appeal so taken, his conscience shall be free, and the sin shall not be on him, but on his judges (p. 231).

In light of subsequent history, it is of interest that Bannerman makes no reference at all to a right of continued protest or any right to protest against decisions of a supreme judicatory, after all means have been exhausted to induce the Court to reverse its decision.

The Nature of Church Power

 In discussing the nature of church power, Bannerman reminds us that there are two kinds of power in general among men, civil power and spiritual power. Civil power can only ultimately rest on the fact that the civil magistrate is the ‘steward of God’s right to rule over the persons and properties of His creatures’ (p. 234). Church power, while also of Divine institution, is completely different in nature, however. It is purely spiritual. The different categories of Church power demonstrate that this power is entirely spiritual. Traditionally, the different ways in which Church power has been put into practice have been grouped under three headings:

1. Power of Doctrine. This ‘is a spiritual authority on the part of the Church to be a witness and interpreter, ministerially, of the truth of God to the consciences and understandings of men; and it is essentially incompatible with any power addressed to aught but the conscience and the understanding’ (pp. 236-7). He notes that a ‘compulsory power can never secure my belief: it may force my submission, or hypocritical pretence of submission, to certain truths, but not the conviction of the understanding or the assent of the heart’ (p. 236).

2. Power of Administration. Church power in dispensing ordinances is merely administrative. In regard to laws, it is no more than declaratory. ‘The Church has no physical influence, ex opere operato1…’ to make ordinances of virtue other than the spiritual grace Christ communicates through them (p. 237).

3. Power of Discipline. Where there is ‘a discipline not spiritual, not addressed to the understanding and conscience, [it] cannot be [Church] discipline in the proper sense of the term at all …compulsion is not merely improper, but impossible’. It is a discipline instituted solely for spiritual ends, namely, ‘that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord’. Bannerman points out that a ‘spiritual result must, from the very nature of things, be accomplished by a spiritual instrumentality’ (p. 238).

That the administration of Church power implies a spiritual and not a temporal authority may be demonstrated by express statement from Scripture, especially from the Lord Himself. ‘Render unto Caesar…’ (Matthew 22:16-21) shows the broad separation between the two provinces of civil and spiritual jurisdictions. ‘It shall not be so among you…’ (Matthew 20:20-28) shows that the power in His kingdom is not exercised in the way temporal rulers exercise their power. Again, ‘My kingdom is not of this world… that I should bear witness to the truth’ (John 18:36-7).

Christ’s kingdom is not to be upheld or protected by the civil sword. It is a heavenly, not a temporal, kingdom. It is founded on the truth of God, and upheld only by the authority of truth. Some, of course, may question Bannerman here and point to the example of those Covenanters who took up arms to defend themselves. The essential point to bear in mind, however, is that the spiritual kingdom itself cannot be defended except by spiritual means. The Covenanters certainly stood for the spiritual prerogatives of the King and Head of the Church in general, but their specific purpose for taking up arms was to defend the religious and civil liberty of Christ’s subjects, which is a slightly different matter as it involves temporal matters as well.

The irreconcilable distinction in nature between spiritual and temporal authority is the very reason why they can exist together in perfect harmony. The things of God are not inconsistent with the things of Caesar, just because they are fundamentally distinct. The clear inference from this is that the Establishment Principle involves no compromise of principle on the part of either Church or state.

The terrible consequences of confounding these two jurisdictions have been seen in history. Anabaptists in Germany at the Reformation and Sectaries in seventeenth-century England alike claimed civil authority to inherit the earth as the elect. But the consequences of the papacy grasping secular power were even more serious. History will ever show ‘that Popery has never failed, where circumstances permitted the assumption, to claim the temporal, along with the spiritual, authority and to grasp the double sword of civil and priestly power’ (p. 245). She made herself rich trafficking with the merchants of the earth and ‘the bodies and souls of men’ (Revelation 18:2-13).

The Extent and Limits of Church Power

The Westminster Confession of Faith shows that decisions of Church authorities impose the obligation on Church people to receive these decisions because they are (and only if they are) consonant with the Word of God; but also because they are made by a power that is in itself God’s ordinance for governing His Church. Any decision made in accordance with the Word of God ‘will show itself to be from God by the power or blessing it carries along with it’ (p. 250).

‘The power of the Church is one of authority and not only of advice… because it is Christ’s ordinance for rule…. The power of the Church is a power of blessing, and not a power without a blessing’ (p. 250). It is clear that Church power therefore is real power.

Those who advocate the Congregational or Independent form of Church government are bound by their own principles to hold that the power of office-bearers is largely that of advice, more than actual authority. They assert that decisions of congregational office-bearers can only be made with the consent of the membership. Bannerman quotes some leading advocates of Congregational Independency, who held that the power of discipline is only valid with the consent, concurrence and sanction of the ordinary membership. This, he argues, ‘is not authority, in the proper sense of the term’, when those who are ruled can reject the lawful decisions of their rulers. Thus Independency comes far short of the right and scriptural doctrine on the extent of Church power. Such, he argues, are ‘inconsistent with the nature of every orderly and well-regulated society’ (p. 255).

The Independent view, moreover, is ‘inconsistent with the many explicit statements of Scripture on the nature and extent of Church power’ (p. 257). We read in the Epistles of the various titles given to Church officers, such as bishop, elder, ruler and pastor. These all bespeak authority to rule over the flock. This is also true about the duties given to them to perform, such as ‘reprove’ and ‘rebuke’.

From this we can see that obedience is required of the membership of the Church: ‘Obey them that have the rule over you’; ‘Submit yourselves’. We also have actual descriptions of Church power in exercise, such as dealing with the man in Corinth. Taken together, these show that Church power is real power ‘and not a nominal one, dependent on the consent or concurrence of the governed’. This sufficiently repudiates the Independent view of Church power (p. 259).

The limitations on Church power are fourfold:

a. It is limited in that it is purely spiritual. Thus discipline cannot partake of civil or semi-civil penalties, as opposed to the Romanist claims to civil supremacy as well as ecclesiastical.

b. It is limited by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, since it is purely ministerial.

c. It is limited by the Word of God, for it has no authority beyond what the Scriptures teach.

d. It is limited by the rights of conscience. This limitation, Bannerman argues, provides the conscience of the individual believer with

a sanctuary which is blessed and sanctified by Christian freedom within, and over the threshold of which authority, even the authority of the Church cannot pass. Within that sanctuary none but the Lord of the conscience may enter; and because it is His dwelling-place and home, His presence protects the conscience from the intrusion of the Church (pp. 260-61).

This point must be held in connection with a particularly striking statement, where Bannerman asserts that ‘the right of conscience to be free from the commandments and authority of man is identical with the right of every man to obey God’ (p. 169).

This article first appeared in the March edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine and has been reproduced with permission.


  1. That is, the correct performance of a rite by a priest, in and of itself conveys grace to the recipient [lit. ‘by the works, worked’].

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