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Of Church Courts.


Of Church Courts.

James Dodson

83. Is it lawful for the rulers of the Christian Church to meet in council for the exercise of church government?

It is necessary, for the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, that church rulers meet in organized courts; and of these courts there are three kinds: Sessions, Presbyteries, and Synods.

84. What is meant by the Session?

The Session is a court of judicature, composed of all the teaching and ruling elders of a particular congregation of professed Christians.

85. What use has a Christian Church for congregational Sessions?

It is reasonable that cases of smaller importance should be decided by inferior judicatories; that every distinct church should have a distinct court for deciding its own proper concerns; and it is essentially necessary to the punctual administration of just discipline, and the preservation of regular order.

1 Cor. 14. 33. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”

86. Is there any scripture warrant for congregational Sessions?

A plurality of elders are ordained, by divine appointment, in every congregation, and these, in order to act as one, must assemble in judicature [a]: Christ refers cases for decision to this representative church [b]; and the existence of such tribunals is a matter of fact, evident from New Testament history [c].

[a] Acts 14. 23. “They had ordained them elders in every church.” [b] Mat. 18. 15-20 “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone—If he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more—and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen—whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall he hound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven:—For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [c] Tit. 1.5. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city.”

87. How should the members of the church conduct themselves towards the Session of the congregation?

Every member of the church should respect the persons, and honour the characters, of all the members of session, although they are like himself imperfect men [a]: he should strengthen the hands of the session by sincere prayer for it [b]; and yield a conscientious submission to its decrees, in every thing which does not violate the divine law [c].

[a] Acts 14. 15. “We also are men of like passions with you.” [b] 1 Thes. 5. 13. “Esteem them very highly, in love for their works’ sake.” [c] Heb. 13. 17. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.”

88. What is a Presbytery?

The Presbytery is an ecclesiastical court of Presbyters, exercising jurisdiction over several distinct congregations, and providing for them the means of edification.

Acts 20. 17, 28. “He sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God.” 1 Tim. 4. 14. “Laying on of the hands of the presbytery.”

89. How is the Presbytery formed?

A plurality of gospel ministers have authority, at any time, in an unsettled state of the church, to meet with ruling elders in a presbyterial capacity, for the promotion of religion; but in a regular state of the church, the Presbytery consists of all the ministers of the congregations under its jurisdiction, and of a ruling elder regularly delegated to represent in council the session to which he belongs.

Acts 15. 2. “They determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem, unto the apostles and elders.”

90. What necessity is there for presbyterial courts in the Christian Church?

Congregational elderships stand in need of mutual consultation and advice: there may occur ecclesiastical decisions which are of common concern to several churches; business may often arise of such a nature as cannot be settled by a session; and neighbouring congregations being parts of one church, require some bond of visible union, and a government, to which, as congregations, they owe submission.

91. Is there any scripture warrant for holding presbyteries?

The New Testament contains the pattern of a church regularly presbyterated: It holds forth several distinct worshipping assemblies, as ONE CHURCH—having ONE COMMON GOVERNMENT; and as a pattern to the whole christian church until the end of time.

92. What instances do the scriptures give of several worshipping assemblies, or distinct congregations, being but one church?

The churches in Jerusalem [a], Antioch [b], Ephesus [c] and Corinth [d], are every one of them held up to our view, in scripture, as ONE CHURCH, and yet, in each of these cities, there were several distinct worshipping assemblies.

[a] Acts 2. 42. and 21. 20. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers—Thou seest, brother, how many tens of thousands [Ποσαι μυριαδες.][See NOTE O.] of Jews there are which believe.” [b] Acts 13. 1. “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch, certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen.” [c] Acts 19. 6, 7. 20. “They spake with tongues and prophesied—and all the men were about twelve—So mightily grew the word or God, and prevailed.” [d] 1 Cor. 1. 2. and 14. 34. “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth—Let your women keep silence in the churches.”

93. Were these churches in each of those cities united under one common government, or quite independent of one another?

In those churches, there were rulers, who met together for the exercise of authority:—These rulers met in Presbytery, directed the use to which the funds of the church should be applied [a]; ordained ministers [b]; excommunicated notorious offenders [c]; and restored the penitent to the privileges of the church [d].

[a] Acts 11. 29, 30. “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: which also they did, and sent it to the Elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” [b] Acts 13. 3. “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands them, they sent them away.” [c] 1 Cor. 5. 4, 5. “In of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together to deliver such an one unto Satan, for the destruction of the flesh.” [d] 2 Cor. 2. 6. “Sufficient to such a man punishment, which was inflicted of many.”

94. Is the primitive church a pattern, agreeably to which all modern churches should be modeled?

The apostles were appointed to settle the church, with a constitution of government divinely authorized: the primitive order exhibits that constitution in all its parts; and all the churches are bound to conform to the primitive order, except in those instances of extraordinary and miraculous power, which were granted in order to establish the constitution.

Phil. 4. 9. “Those things which ye have both learned and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace with you.”

95. To what objects does the power of presbyteries extend?

Presbyteries have authority to decide upon al! questions of doctrine and order which are brought regularly before them; to inspect and regulate congregations; to provide suitable persons for the gospel ministry; to ordain them to office; to direct, settle, and remove them, as may best promote the interest of religion: these courts deriving their power from the Head of the church, are limited in its exercise only by his law.

2 Cor. 13. 10. “According to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction.”

96. Do congregations and individuals owe submission to the decrees of their presbyteries?

The decrees of presbyteries are held valid by Jesus Christ, in all cases which are consistent with his statutes [a]; and whosoever resists them, despises the authority of Christ in this divine ordinance [b].

[a] Is. 8. 20. “To the law, and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” [b] Mat. 16. 19. “And I will give unto thee, the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven.”

97. Does the christian system admit of any ecclesiastical courts superior to presbyteries?

In order to maintain the visible unity of the church; to settle differences which may arise in presbyteries; and to arrange the common concerns of the whole church, SYNODS, having authority over presbyteries, are evidently necessary, according to the christian system.

98. How are the superior ecclesiastical courts formed?

Synods, which are of three kinds, differing principally in the extent of their jurisdiction, PROVINCIAL SYNODS, NATIONAL ASSEMBLIES, and GENERAL COUNCILS, are formed by presbyters delegated from the subordinate judicatories of the church.

99. Is the Synod a scriptural institution?

According to the scriptures, the church is one society, and must have a government over the whole [a]: Christ refers with approbation to the forms of procedure in the Jewish courts, in which synagogues were subordinate to the sanhedrim [b]; and at Jerusalem, a synod, composed of the rulers from the several churches, met, disputed, and determined, a point of controversy in the church [c].

[a] Eph. 4. 11-16. “And he gave some—for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ—from whom the whole body fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body, unto the edifying of itself in love.” [b] Mat. 18.—Compare with Deut. 17. 8-12. [c] Acts 15, chapter throughout.[See NOTE P.]

100. What power does the synod possess over the subordinate branches of the Christian Church?

The power of the synod is not destructive of the power of subordinate courts: It is not accompanied with force, like the power of civil courts: It is not merely advisory; but a ministerial display of Christ’s own authority, unto which Christians are bound to submit in the Lord.

Acts 15. 28. “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.”

101. In whom is the power of calling synods or councils invested?

The civil authority, desirous to serve the interest of Christ’s kingdom, may convene, on urgent occasions, the ministers of religion; but the right of calling and dissolving all ecclesiastical courts, as such, is, by the Head of the church exclusively, invested in church officers.

2 Chr. 19. 8. “Moreover, in Jerusalem, did Jehoshaphat set of the Levites, and of the priests, and of the chief of the fathers of Israel, for the judgment of the Lord.” Mat. 16. 19. “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”