“Peace, order and good government” is the introductory phrase of section 91 of the CONSTITUTION ACT, of 1867. This phrase states in general terms the scope of the legislative jurisdiction granted to the Parliament of Canada by Her Majesty the Queen. It is the governing principle of our government.
The Constitution of the United States of America, as I am sure you are all aware, reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In both of these documents these foundational statements give us the essential governing principles of our governments and as citizens of these nations we would expect that government would thus be guided and restricted in its work and legislative authority. If the government acted outside of, or beyond, the principles thus stated, it would need to be corrected or even deposed.
Over the years the words of these governing principles have been interpreted, misinterpreted, adjudicated, amended, and modified until one wonders whether the Fathers of Confederation, or the Continental Congress, respectively, would look at our governments and ask themselves, “What happened?”
What happened was a failure to distinguish between principle and circumstance. The principles, I am sure we would agree, are sound and were we given the opportunity to do it over again we would probably be very hard pressed to do better. What happens is that men fail to distinguish between principle and circumstance and they begin to try to amend and expand the principles to speak to every eventuality of circumstance. The only ones who have benefited from this morass of legalism are politicians and lawyers.
As we think on the subjects of Church Government and Discipline, we need to be reminded of the dangers we as sinful men and women are prone to in these areas. If we stray from principle and look to circumstance and begin to legislate every and any eventuality we will find two things happening. First of all we will be involved in a never ending task because the permutations of circumstance are innumerable. Secondly, the sin in men’s hearts will always find ways to skirt existing ordinances and find loopholes to excuse our behaviour and so we will be propelled toward a litigious environment in our Church courts with the same proliferation of politicians and lawyers. Surely that would be an abomination in Christ’s Church!
If, on the other hand, in our labours to see the Church of Christ properly governed, we stick to principle we will find that loopholes and excuses are exposed for what they are. Principles are plain and stand above circumstance. Principled men will, in each circumstance, act so that principle is upheld and sin and rebellion are quickly exposed so that the courts of the Church can deal with them appropriately.
Law of God
This is the same battle Jesus faced in dealing with the Pharisees. In their original, perhaps at one time honest, intention they had created rules and regulations beyond the Word of God in order to make violation of the Law of Moses a remote possibility. However as men they soon began to elevate their own laws of circumstance over the heart principles of the Law of God and legalism was enshrined as the operating circumstance of the nation.
In Mark 7:6-9 (ESV) – Jesus said to the Pharisees – “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ” ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
As we think on this enormously important issue of Church government and discipline let us be aware of the dangers into which our nations have fallen and against which Jesus warned.
We have a Confession! We believe that it is a clear and sufficient summary of biblical doctrine and principle. Our governing documents should serve to keep us focused on those principles. Our hearts will want to debate and dissimulate but an eye and heart set on the principles set forth in the Word of God and summarized in our Confession will not allow us to become mired in the circumstances of the sin which inevitably arises in our fellowship. Principled, scriptural and confessional, Presbyterianism honours Christ as King. May that be our testimony in word and in deed!