First Book of Discipline Approved by the General Assembly in Scotland
by Rev. David T. Myers
They had already proven their worth to the Scottish church. The infant Church of Scotland had a Confession of Faith summing up biblical doctrine, which had been authored by the famous “Six Johns” in Scotland. Now these same “six Johns” of Presbyterianism had been called upon to undertake a new and scarcely less important task, namely, that of drawing up a book with a complete system of ecclesiastical government. Their names, for the record, were John Winram, John Spotswood, John Willock, John Douglas, John Row, and last, but not least, John Knox. Of these six, our readers should certainly recognize the last name, but the former are hardly household names to present-day Presbyterians.
In working out the necessity to do everything decently and in order, these six men clearly did not take their example from any Kirk (church) in the world, not even from John Calvin in Switzerland, but rather from the sacred Scriptures. Arranging their subject of church government under nine different heads, they divided these among the six men, who studied them individually and then jointly as a solemn committee. Much time in reading and meditation was done by them. Earnest prayers were offered up for Divine direction. Finally their work was completed on May 20, 1560 and then approved by the General Assembly of Scotland on January 17, 1561.
While the whole First Book of Discipline can be found on line here, we can sum up some of its parts for your information. The permanent office bearers of the visible church were of four kinds: the minister or pastor, to whom the ministry of the Word and Gospel were given, along with the administration of the Sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; the Teacher, whose province included the interpretation of Scripture in churches and schools; the ruling elder who assisted the minister in governing the church, and last; the deacon, who had special charge of the monies of the church in assistance to the poor.
Now anyone who knows anything about the officers of your Presbyterian church will see in this establishment of officers a portrait of your church government. You might not think that church government is especially spiritual in name, but the pastors, teachers, ruling elders, and deacons beg to differ with you. To them, it was and is both biblical and practice in governing the visible church so that it can be a witness to the world at large.
In these beginning days of the Kirk in Scotland, two temporary office bearers were raised up in the position of Superintendents and Exhorters/Readers. They were what we would call “lay-preachers” who went through all the nation, reading, proclaiming, and planting churches. Regular meetings were held weekly, monthly, and yearly, depending on whether it was the local, regional, or national church.
The important matter of church discipline was included to purify the church and reclaim the repentant back to the fold. In fact, there is a key phrase in this document which says that the Church was to “correct the faults which either the civil sword does neglect or may not punish.” They recognized that there may be times when the civil government is corrupt at the local, state, or national levels, but this does not excuse the church from exercising their God-given authority to suppress vice and immorality in the members which compose the local churches.
Words to Live By: Reader, pray much for the spiritual leaders in your local, regional, and national churches. If they are Reformed and Presbyterian in conviction and conduct, they often deal with hard matters of faith and conduct among the congregations under their spiritual care. Hold them up in prayer and encouragement. Submit to their biblical oversight, for one day they must make a report about you to the Chief Shepherd (Hebrews 13:17). They wish to do this in joy, not in grief. Be faithful to your covenant promises to support the church to the best of your ability. May your continual prayer be to revive Christ’s church and . . . begin that revival in you.