Neocalvinism Compared with Independency V

Independency’s Doctrine of the Church

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1851, March 27th, 1924

As the reader will be pleased to remember, in the preceding articles we looked for a place to put the Neo-Reformed of our day (Dr. Kuyper and his student Dr. Severijn) with their viewpoint regarding church and state. To whom are they most closely related? Alongside who should we place them? That was the question that preoccupied us.

To this end we assayed to evaluate them and their views against the old Independents in their doctrine on this point. And the outcome was astounding. For we had heard nothing but bad things about the Independents, while the result of our inquiry was that, as far as the relationship of church and state was concerned, they were not far removed from what the old Reformed had taught in Holland, and that therefore, on this point, they were much closer to Dr. Hoedemaker with his Reformed doctrine than with Kuyper and his followers with their new views. What Owen taught which was contrary to most of his Protestant contemporaries in England was not that civil government as such should be released from the bond of God’s Word (far, far from it!) but only that civil government, which itself is to confess the truth and to support the church, had to tolerate or suffer any doctrines which deviated from the truth unless they were blasphemous and caused a public disturbance.

That Owen in this case taught something new to English Protestants but not to us Dutch ones was also recognized by his followers in England. In “The Life of Owen” which is prefixed to the edition of his Works, we read:

Nor is it matter of mere conjecture, that it was on the hospitable shores of Holland, and in the bosom of her church, that English fugitives first learned the true principles of religious liberty, and bore them back as a precious leaven to their own land.

(Works, vol. I, p. XLI)

Once again: as far as the relationship of church and state is concerned, the old Independents did not have much new to teach our Dutch Reformed, and therefore nothing objectionable, and therefore also nothing of what would later be taught by Dr. Kuyper and Dr. Severijn.

It nevertheless remains true that it was the Independency principles which led to the now proclaimed Neo-Reformed system. The weakness of the old Independents, as we have seen, lies not in what they taught about the relationship of civil government to religion. That weakness lies in what they taught about the church.

If the magistrate is to rule in a Christian country, he needs a church of Christ next to him. Not, as Rome would have it, blindly to submit to the judgment of that church. But in order to be informed from the Word by that church, to whom the ministry and interpretation of God’s Word is committed, about those things that concern it. And now if the church has no voice to officially pronounce what God demands in His Word, then one of the following will be the case: either the government only consults public opinion and therefore lives practically separate from God and His Word, or the government which wishes to rule according to God’s Word bypasses the church and takes the Word in its own hands in order to officially expound that Word, and ends up laying down the law to the church and ruling her even in purely ecclesiastical matters.

This was in fact the case in the days when Independentist doctrine predominated in England.

But what, after all, did the Independents teach regarding the church?

Did they go as far as, e.g., Dr. Severijn, who believes that all congregations of our church whose consistory has deviated from the great truths of the confession may actually be removed from the list without any due process, and that in founding “the Church of the Confession” these congregations need not be taken into consideration? (see Dr. Severijn, Kerk en Staat, pp. 104ff.).

By no means: the Independents taught that in case a congregation strays from the truth, the other congregations must first use all due means to restore those erring congregations before breaking the bond of communion with them.

Listen to what Owen writes:

If any doubts or differences do arise about it, any opinions be advanced contrary unto it, either in any particular church, which they cannot determine among themselves, or among sundry churches, the last outward means for the preservation of the rule of faith among them, and of their communion in the condemnation of errors and opinions contrary unto the form of wholesome words, is by these synods or councils. The care hereof is, indeed, in the first place, committed unto the churches themselves, as was at large before declared; but in case, through the subtlety, prevalency, and interest  of those by whom damnable doctrines are broached, the church itself whereunto they do belong is not able to rebuke and suppress them, nor to maintain its profession of the truth, or that by suffering such things in one church others are in danger to be infected or defiled, this is the last external refuge that is left for the preservation of the  communion of churches in the same faith. We have multiplied examples hereof in the primitive churches, before the degeneracy of these synods into superstition and domination. Such was eminently that gathered at Antioch for the condemnation of the heresies of Paulus Samosatenus, the bishop of that church.

(Works, vol. XVI, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” p. 197. See also “A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God,” vol. XV, p. 530)

We see from such quotations how the present-day Neo-Reformed, who want nothing to do with any attempt to settle differences in an ecclesiastical way and who rudely broke off or wish to break off communion with congregations in which orthodox preaching is lacking, far surpass the Independents of old in this matter as well.

Yet the Independents held ecclesiastical principles which broke the neck of the authority of the church.

The first of these that we mention was their system of so-called Voluntaryism, which the Independents wholly adopted from the Anabaptists.

The Reformed or (by another name) Presbyterians proceeded from God’s covenant; all who were born in the covenant belonged to the church; the church was a planting of God among the people. That is why it was also self-evident that those congregations together formed one church.

According to the Independents, a congregation is formed by the completely voluntary entry of a few private Christians, who enter into a “covenant” (i.e., a human covenant) with each other in order to found a church. And that communion between the various local churches was also based on a voluntary alliance between those churches. A congregation that wanted to withdraw from the covenant was free to do so.

What the Presbyterians or Reformed here held onto, and the Independents let go of, was the unity of the church, which also manifested itself visibly or at least strove to do so.

The second peculiarity of the Independents, which was certainly connected with the previous one, but which also arose from their Anabaptist denial of office, was that they ascribed to the decisions of the Synods the authority of good counsel.

Owen wants to accommodate the Presbyterians in everything. Classical assemblies, provincial synods, national synods, convened by the Christian magistrate, Owen thinks all of this is fine and scriptural; but he would have nothing of a general church government exercised by such assemblies such as the Presbyterians would like.

Owen writes in this regard:

The authority of a synod determining articles of faith, constituting orders and decrees for the conscientious observance of things of their own appointment, to be submitted unto and obeyed on the reason of that authority, under the penalty of excommunication, and the trouble by custom and tyranny thereto annexed, or acted in a way of jurisdiction over churches or persons, is a mere human invention, for which nothing can be pleaded but prescription from the fourth century of the church, when the progress of the fatal apostasy became visible.

(Works, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” p. 207)

The ecclesiastical assemblies were free to make declarations, but the local churches were equally free to disregard those declarations. In the worst case, the other churches would say: we will no longer maintain fellowship with you.

Now then, with this system the church had no voice with regard to those who were within its walls, much less to those without; especially not towards the civil government. Any public exposition of the Word is out of the question. But if the church no longer had any authority in matters of faith, it would come about naturally that the government, which nevertheless came into constant contact with the church, itself would usurp that authority. And that is what came about during the heyday of the Independents in England. Sometimes a minister like Owen might appear in the English Parliament to preach there, but it was his voice, and not the voice of the church, that was there heard.

And in return for that sermon which Parliament heard, how much authority did it receive in the churches. The church was torn apart, the ecclesiastical assemblies were to have no authority, but the affairs of the church still had to be settled. And then Cromwell did, in a sense, just what King William I did with us in 1816. A state commission was appointed to help the dilapidated congregations get back on their feet, and then that committee moved from congregation to congregation, not only to inquire whether the local clergyman was preaching the gospel, but even whether he had the grace of God in his heart; and many are then said to have been cast out or maintained by that commission for his dress, for his speech, or for other outward things (see the “Life of Dr. Owen,” p. LVIII in Volume I of the Works, and J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, The Protector, ch. IX).

Here the Independent principle had its revenge on the Independents; the authority which they denied to the ecclesiastical assemblies, they thereby automatically placed in the hands of the government.

All went well for the Independents as long as the government in England was Independentist. But shortly after Cromwell’s death, the old authority was restored and Independentism was crushed.

And then gradually the Independents let go of all that Owen and others had taught about the magistrate’s bond to God’s Word and his calling vis-à-vis the church. And they arrived at what we are now accustomed to understand by Independency: churches completely detached from each other, and civil government detached from Church and religion.

But of this we will speak next time.