1. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils (Acts 15:2, 4, 6).
The church has an authoritative presence beyond the local assembly. In this chapter of the Confession we come to the doctrine which separates presbyterianism from the independency which is so common in our era.
1. For the better government, and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called Synods or Councils (Acts 15:2,4,6): and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies (Acts 15); and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the Church (Acts 15:22–23, 25). [American Version of paragraph 1, 1789]
Sadly, most of the changes in the American version of the Westminster Confession were not really improvements. This is one of the exceptions. The paragraph makes it clear how the synods are to be constituted and shaped. In short, the councils and synods are not appointed from the top, but are constituted in a “bottom up” representative fashion. It belongeth to the bishops and rulers of the local church to appoint such broader assemblies. They are not established, for example, in the same way that the Westminster Assembly was established. No set time is established for how frequently they meet; this is not a confessional issue, but rather one determined by the conditions of the church at the time.
2. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion (Isa. 49:23; 1 Tim. 2:1–2; 2 Chron. 19:8–11; 29:1–36; 30:1–27; Mal. 2:4–5; Prov. 11:14); so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies (Acts 15:2, 4, 22–23, 25). [This paragraph deleted in the American version, and subsequent paragraphs renumbered.]
In the older view of Christendom, a Christian magistrate had the power to convene a lawful assembly of the Church. He could not tell them what to say, but he could tell them that they had to say something. He had authority circa sacra, but not in sacris. He could convene this assembly of the Church from the number of her ministers, as well as other fit individuals—theologians, and such. Of course, if the magistrates were hostile to the faith, then ministers could convene an assembly themselves, or be sent by the particular churches, along with other fit persons, to meet in such a synod.
3. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and to authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word (Acts 15:15, 19, 24, 27–31; 16:4; Matt. 18:17–20).
So what does a synod do? They determine controversies surrounding the faith, and cases of conscience. They establish the order of worship for the churches, as well as the government of the churches. They handle complaints about poor administration in particular churches, and settle the complaints authoritatively. If their decrees accord with in the Word of God, they are to be received with reverence and submission on two counts. The first is the agreement with the Word, and the second is the authority they have had assigned to them as a governing body in the Word. The implication of the Confession here is that a local church can disregard a synod if its decision is not in accordance with the Word.
4. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both (Eph. 2:20; Acts 17:11; 1 Cor. 2:5; 2 Cor. 1:24).
Synods and councils of all kinds are not infallible. Consequently they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but as an aid to faith and an aid to practice. The word of the Church is authoritative, but not normative.
5. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate (Luke 12:13–14; John 18:36).
Ministers in synod are not to stray from their assigned sphere. They are not to meddle in partisan politics unless the situation is extraordinary, and even then they are to remember their place and only express themselves in great humility. If the magistrate asks advice, with regard to his conscience, they may give it. But here, the advice is only advice.