Sunday, September 20, 2009

Westminster Directory of Church Government

The Westminster Form of Presbyterian Government is a document with which many Reformed Presbyterians are acquainted, primarily because it is published in the Free Presbyterian edition of the Westminster Standards. It is a major contribution of the Westminster Assembly to the understanding of Biblical church polity. What fewer Reformed Presbyterians know is that this was not the Assembly's only official statement on church polity. Another document, the Westminster Directory of Church Government (to be distinguished from the Directory of Public Worship, and the Directory of Family Worship, the latter of which was not published by the Westminster Assembly at all, but by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, though it is often published with the Westminster Standards), stands as often-overlooked, but perhaps more valuable contribution by the Westminster divines on the subject.

It is largely the work of Alexander Henderson, and partially based on his earlier work The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland (1641) as well as the disciplines of the French and Dutch Reformed Churches. It lead to the creation of the Provincial Assembly of London. The English Parliament approved the Form rather than the Directory and due to the opposition of David Calderwood, the Directory was not approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; hence, this document, while a product of the Westminster Assembly, is little known today.

Wayne Spear discusses two collections of Presbyterian standards published in Scotland over the years in his unpublished dissertation "Covenanted Uniformity in Religion: The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners Upon the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly" (1976), pp. 326-327:

With regard to the printing of the Westminster Confession, it is apparent that it was one of the best-sellers in the eighteenth century in Scotland, being printed repeatedly. What requires further detailed investigation is that fact that the Confession was published along with other documents possessing varying degrees of authority within the Church of Scotland. In general, there were two types of collections which were being published throughout the eighteenth century. One was more inclusive, containing, inter alia, the First and Second Books of Discipline from the sixteenth century, and the now little-known Directory for Church-Government which was produced by the Westminster Assembly.1 A second kind of collection appeared as early as 1732, containing what came to be the standard selection of documents; the only document on church polity which it included was the Westminster Form of Church Government.2

1 The writer has examined, in Barbour Library of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, editions of this type which were printed in 1739, 1764, and 1771. All make reference to an edition originally published in 1725.

2 This collection was re-published as recently as 1970 by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Dr. Spear went on to say much more about the Directory of Church Government in an essay published by Charles G. Dennison & Richard C. Gamble, Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1986), pp. 84-85:

After long debates, and with considerable use of the art of accomodation, the Westminster Assembly produced three documents which embodied their advice for the government and worship of the church. The Directory for Worship and the Form of Church Government were both completed in December of 1644. Both documents are fairly well-known, because they have been published repeatedly in the Scottish editions of the Confession of Faith.4

The third document, A Directory for Church-Government, Church-Censures, and Ordination of Ministers, was completed on July 4, 1645.5 It was the basis for legislation passed three years later by the English Parliament setting up presbyteries in London and in counties where the Parliament had military control. Shortly thereafter, Oliver Cromwell purged the Parliament of its Presbyterian members, and the experiment in England with Presbyterian church government came to an end.

The Directory for Church Government was presented to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, and was ordered to be printed for study by the presbyteries. The rise of Cromwell in England brought about the collapse of the effort to achieve agreement in religion between Scotland and England, and no further action on the Directory was taken. The document was reprinted a number of times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Scotland, but not in the last 200 years, and never in America.6 Today this product of the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly has been almost entirely forgotten.

This "lost" document of the Westminster Assembly, however, deserves to be better known. While it contains much material that is also in the better-known Form of Church Government, it is a much more polished document. In my doctoral dissertation, I asserted that the Form of Church Government is "a virtual mosaic, whose bits and pieces are the sentences debated and approved by the Assembly over a period of many months, and subsequently rearranged by two different editorial committees."7 It was put together in haste, as a kind of progress report. The Directory for Government clears up some of the confusion in the language of the earlier document. More importantly, it contains the results of the Assembly's deliberations on the subject of church discipline. It also adds practical details about the operation of church government. In his Baird Lectures, A.F. Mitchell said of the Directory for Church Government,

It is practical and comprehensive, a storehouse of valuable counsels as to many things in government, and still more in discipline, not touched on in the propositions [i.e., Form of Church Government], and is well worthy of being studied by Presbyterian ministers, who wish to do full justice to the system of government the Westminster Assembly sanctioned.8

4. See also Iain Murray, The Reformation of the Church (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 203-230.
5. [A.F.] Mitchell, [The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards,] 257ff.
6. Ibid., 264. See also my unpublished dissertation, "Covenanted Uniformity in Religion: The Influence of the Scottish Commissioners upon the Ecclesiology of the Westminster Assembly" (University of Pittsburgh, 1976), 327 note.
7. "Covenanted Uniformity in Religion," 257.
8. Mitchell, 264.

The Westminster Directory of Church Government is among the documents slated for publication by the Westminster Assembly Project. To read transcriptions of two editions of this document, see their digital library. This document is a treasure not to be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. The post mentions David Calderwood's opposition to the Directory. Is it known what he found objectionable about it?