Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.16: The Government of the Church

Sixteenth Question: Should the government of the church be monarchial? We deny against the Romanists.

Turretin begins his discussion of this question by offering a structural reflection: he notes that, thus far, his treatment of ecclesiology has been organized around the distinction between the internal and external aspects of the church. Now, we’re told, we move on to a third aspect – the church’s government.

He makes it immediately clear that the church requires some form of government; indeed, he doesn’t entertain the possibility of a church without government. We’re not going to find any anarcho-communitarianism in Turretin! He’s a good Presbyterian forebear: the church requires a form of government because “God is a God of order, not of confusion, nor can order be preserved without government.” So, instead of asking about whether there should be church government, “the question is what that is and what is its nature: monarchical or aristocratic” (18.16.2). That’s right; those are your only two options. He doesn’t even entertain the possibility of a republic, much less a democracy.

Furthermore, Turretin further clarifies that the church most certainly is a monarchy in the sense that it submits to Christ as “the head and supreme King of the church.” The question, then, is “whether besides Christ another head and another monarch is to be acknowledged among the rulers of the church, to whom all are to be in subjection” (18.16.3). Unsurprisingly, Turretin denies this. So, really, the argument is about how the kingdom of the church is to be run in the (apparent; or earthly-historical) absence of its monarch: did that monarch delegate authority to a single representative, or is that authority delegated to a college of representatives? When Turretin argues against monarchy in the church, he is arguing for the second of these options.

Finally, it should be clear already that this question is really about the pope. But since the next question deals with the issue of the pope more directly, I’m going to try and skirt that issue here as much as possible.

Ok, enough preamble. Turretin gives eight reasons in support of his position:

  1. ”Christ absolutely prohibited sovereignty in the church” (except for his own, obviously). Turretin appeals to Luke 22 here as a dominical prohibition against the exercise of lordship: “domination in the church is prohibited and only ministry and service are left” (18.16.4). Elaborating on this, he argues that the sort of authority exercised in monarchial government is fundamentally opposed to the sort of service to which leaders in the church are called. Against counter arguments that assert Christ only ruled out violent use of authority, etc., Turretin’s interpretation suggests that the passage should be read as an argument “from the greater to the lesser”: “If I [Christ], who am Lord, still am among you as a servant, how much more just is it that you who are servants and have no jurisdiction over one another should be humble and remove from yourselves all thought of primacy and domination” (18.16.6)?
  2. Dominical command rules out any “absolute and autocratic authority.” Here Turretin appeals to Matthew 23, wherein Jesus asserts that he is the only master and the disciples should simply serve one another. This derives from two points: (1) all believers are brethren (and sistren; c’mon, Turretin…) and so are equal; and (2) Christ has all the authority and doesn’t give it to anyone on earth.
  3. Not only does Jesus forbid domination by church leaders; the apostles do too. Turretin draws on 2 Corinthians 1 and 1 Peter 5, observing that the authors “designate pastors by those names which denote care and ministry, but not dominion or empire” (18.16.8).
  4. Turretin now makes an argument for silence: if having an earthly monarch in the church was so important, then why didn’t Paul say so? He talks about officers of the church, but never mentions something like this. Paul’s mention of the apostolic office should not be used to work such a notion in, either, because “the apostolic office was temporary and extraordinary (which ought to ease), not ordinary and perpetual” (18.16.9). Very convenient, certainly.
  5. Christ is the head of the church, so there can’t be any other earthly head. Theologically speaking, “no one can be the head who is not also the Savior” (18.16.10). Turretin also makes an argument on the basis of Ephesians 5 and the idea that the church is the bride of Christ: “Christ is the head of the church in the manner in which the husband is the head of his wife, who does not allow of a vicar in the marital office.” Well, then. What do you think, gentle readers: would Turretin have reconsidered if had he been aware of the various rethinkings of polyamory underfoot in some sectors? Leave your vote in the comments.
  6. Now Turretin points out a number of “absurdities” in support of his argument. We’re talking things like: if there was an earthy monarch who was head of the church, the church would have to be called the bride of that person rather than the bride of Christ.
  7. This is an interesting argument because technology has rendered it mostly obsolete. Turretin says that the founding of the church throughout the world required multiple apostles (to cover all the geographical distances, etc.), then how can a single person govern it all? Furthermore, apparently political philosophers at the time argued that having a universal monarch over the whole world was impractical so the same must be true, Turretin assures us, of a universal episcope. So, the authority to minister and serve the church by leading its government remains dispersed: “not peculiar to one alone, but common to many” (18.16.14).
  8. Finally, Turretin quotes from the church fathers in support of his position. Here’s a nice tidbit he gives us from Gregory the Great (first pope of his name): “I speak confidently because whoever calls himself universal bishop or priest, or in his pride desires to be so called, runs before Antichrist” (18.16.15).

Turretin’s discussion continues for a couple pages, but it is rather redundant given what he’s already said. This material mostly serves to disambiguate and head off objections. Here are three interesting tidbits:

  • ”We acknowledge a supreme monarch of the church—Christ, not the pope—and there can be no other besides him” (18.16.19).
  • Turretin quotes Cyprian: “The episcopate is one, a part of which is held by individuals wholly” (18.16.22). The language here is somewhat suggestive of the doctrine of the Trinity, and I wonder if there’s a parallel between the development of Trinitarian doctrine and the development of the doctrine of the episcopate. Of course, it is possible to interpret Cyprian as saying that the episcopate is one, each bishop has a part, and together they all make up the whole. Wish I had the Latin (and knew how to read it!).
  • Finally, in one of the preamble paragraphs I referred to Christ’s apparent or earthly-historical absence. I did so because near the end Turretin makes the point that Christ doesn’t need a universal vicar because Christ isn’t really gone, and he makes it in a good Reformed fashion through reference to Word and Spirit: “Nor is there need of a visible head besides him, since he is perpetually present with his church by his word as well as by his spirit” (18.16.23).

Stay tuned—there’s plenty more of Turretin’s ecclesiology where that came from…


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