Church Government

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Dr. Samuel Miller“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”

It was on this day, January 7th, in 1850, that the esteemed Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller passed from this earth to stand before His Lord and Savior. Dr. Miller had long served as professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The Seminary had been established in 1812, and Dr. Miller was installed as the Seminary’s second professor in 1813, joining Dr. Archibald Alexander in the work. Miller proceeded to labor at this post until his retirement in 1849. The following text presents first that portion of the Report from the Board of Directors of the Seminary concerning Miller’s decease, and then in the second paragraph, the official response of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as it met that same year. Drawn from Samuel Baird’s Digest (1855), pp. 303-304:—

174. Obituary notice of Dr. Miller, of Princeton Seminary.

1850, p. 621. [The Board of Directors of the Princeton Seminary report that] “at the tme of this inauguration, [of Dr. J.W. Alexander,] the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller, Emeritus Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government, who had been appointed by the Board to take a part in the exercises, was unable to be present by reason of the feeble state of his health. He continued gradually to sink, honouring religion, and enjoying in a high degree its supports and consolations, until on the 7th day of January, 1850, he departed this life in the eighty-first year of his age; having been Professor from the year 1813. The Board would here express their grateful sense of the divine goodness, in raising up for the Seminary in its infancy a man of such distinguished personal excellence, and such fitness for the high and important office in which he was so ably, so successfully, and so long employed.

p. 465. Resolved, That the Assembly record with deep emotion the decease of the venerable Professor Emeritus of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government, Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller, of whom becoming mention is made in the Report by the Board; and while the Church is, in this dispensation of Divine Providence, called to mourn the departure of one who has long stood among the foremost in her counsels, and in her confidence—one of the most prominent and able defenders of her faith and order—one of the staunchest friends of all her benevolent institutions—one whose conspicuous talents, ripe judgment, and elevated piety, made him eminently a fit model and a safe guide for her rising ministry; and whose rare excellence and purity of character beautifully exemplified, in the eyes of all who knew him, that religion to the cause of which his life was devoted—it is matter of profound thankfulness that such a man was raised up to the Church, and spared to her through so many years of usefulness, and permitted to perform so valuable a part in founding our first Theological Seminary—which has served to a great extent as the model of all our after institutions—in arranging its plan and giving it establishment; and that it was not until this great work of his life was done, and he had ceased from the active discharge of these duties, that he was taken to his glorious reward.

Excerpted from A Collection of the Acts, Deliverances, and Testimonies of The Supreme Judicatory of the Presbyterian Church, from its origin in America to the present time: with Notes and Documents explanatory and historical: constituting a complete illustration of her polity, faith, and history, by Samuel J. Baird. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855, pp. 303-304.

Words to Live By:
In my work at the PCA Historical Center, I have been struck over the years at how just a very few in the Church are accorded an extra measure of respect and admiration. Those who knew them honor their memory as ones marked by an unusual depth of character, an undeniable piety, who were circumspect in all their dealings with others. Samuel Miller was such a man. So too was Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, of whom we wrote this past Monday, and Harold Samuel Laird was yet another. Would that all Christians had that same bearing and could command similar respect. Is that possible? How does one come to be such a person? There is no easy answer. The only answer I have thus far is that we must live our lives as close to the Lord as possible, always quick to confess our sins, and with our eyes fixed on Christ, (in the words of Eugene Peterson) striving to live “a long obedience in the same direction”.

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“The great thing in the Church is CHRIST, the blood of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the presence of Christ among us. The great thing is Christ, but there is also advantage in a certain government of the Church of Christ. I am a Presbyterian, not only of situation, but of conviction and choice. Our Presbyterian way is the good middle way between Episcopacy on the one side, and Congregationalism on the other. We combine the two great principles that must be maintained in the Church—Order and Liberty; the order of government, and the liberty of the people.”—Merle d’ Aubigne.



4. I AM A PRESBYTERIAN—because there is no form of Church Government that so combines the two great principles, Order and Liberty—the Order of Government and the Liberty of the People.

The government is conducted by the office-bearers in individual churches, who constitute what we call Church Sessions; by the office-bearers of a number of churches, who form what we call Presbyteries; and by the office-bearers of a still greater number of churches, forming Synods or General Assemblies. A Church Session consists of the minister and the elders of a congregation; a Presbytery, of ministers and representative elders of several churches; and a Synod or Assembly, of ministers and elders of churches in a larger district or province.—(Acts xv.)

In countries where the number of Presbyterian churches is very great, the Assemblies are composed of representative ministers and elders chosen by each Presbytery. In all cases, Presbyteries and Synods consist of ministers and elders in equal numbers, deliberating and voting together. The Moderator or President of these Courts holds office only for a definite period, and is appointed sometimes by election, and sometimes by rotation. By these several and successive Church Courts, mature deliberation, impartial justice, and ecclesiastical order are secured. In cases of difficulty reference may be made and advice sought, and in dispute appeal may be taken from the Session to the Presbytery, and from the Presbytery to the Synod or Assembly of the Church.

Every congregation is free and independent in its local government and discipline, in the election of its office-bearers, in devising and executing its plans of Christian usefulness, and in the whole management of its affairs, so long as its acts are not inconsistent with the general rules and with the common weal of the Church. In all good government, civil or ecclesiastical, there is some central authority to confirm and regulate local liberty. This superintendence is exercised by each Presbytery over the several congregations within its bounds, and Presbyteries are under the control of Synods, and Synods are responsible to the General Assembly, in which the supreme power, legislative and executive, is vested.  .

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If You are Number Two, Do You Try Harder?

Samuel Miller was definitely number two among that faculty of Princeton Seminary that year of September 29, 1813.  Started only one year before, Archibald Alexander was the first professor of the Presbyterian Seminary with only a handful of students.  As another war with Britain was raging (the War of 1812), it was a trying time for a smooth start. On top of that, the students of Princeton College were anything but spiritual. College pranks had brought the college close to shutting down. Samuel Miller, fresh from a pastoral experience in a city church, would arrive on the campus and quickly became a force for spiritual good at both the seminary and the college, even in his position as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government.

Helping this whole process were a number of personal resolutions which Miller wrote down for himself, as a way of guiding his relationship with other people at both the college and the seminary. Those resolutions are too long to print here, but two of them speak to Christian people being in a supporting role, whether in the church, your called profession, or in any organization.

Number 3 reads, “I will endeavor, by the grace of God, so to conduct myself toward my colleague in the seminary, as never to give the least reasonable ground of offence.  It shall be my aim, by divine help, ever to treat him with the most scrupulous respect and delicacy, and never to wound his feelings, if I know how to avoid it.”

Number 4 reads, “. . . Resolved, therefore, that, by the grace of God, while I will carefully avoid giving offence to my college, I will, in no case, take offence at his treatment of me.  I have come hither resolving, that whatever may be the sacrifice of my personal feelings—whatever may be the consequence—I will not take offence, unless I am called upon to relinquish truth or duty.  I not only will never, the Lord helping me, indulge a jealous, envious, or suspicious temper toward him; but I will, in no case, allow myself to be wounded by any slight, or appearance of disrespect. I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or context.  What am I, that I should prefer my own honor or exaltation to the cause of my blessed Master.”

These were only two of the seven resolutions.  But even considering these two alone, what would be the result in our churches if both officers and members would more fully reflect in their character and conduct these two resolutions.  Truth and duty indeed were the only two exceptions to the rule.  Otherwise, the guiding principle was to always esteem others more highly than yourself.

Words to live by:  Samuel Miller wrote above, “I will give up all my own claims, rather than let the cause of Christ suffer by animosity or conflict.”  What a magnanimous spirit!  What a change this would cause in many local churches, to say nothing of our evangelical and Reformed denominations, if all the officers and members possessed Samuel Miller’s spirit.  Examine yourself, dear reader, or examine your small group, or examine your local fellowship. How do you measure up?  What can be done if you find your character and conduct lacking?  Is it not time for a revival of religion in your circles?

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It was on this day, July 2d, in 1824, that the Rev. Dr. Samuel Miller delivered what was termed an Introductory Lecture, at the opening summer session of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The title and subject of his lecture was THE UTILITY AND IMPORTANCE OF CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS. Dr. Miller had by this time been serving as a Professor at Princeton for over a decade. He was settled both in his theology and in his views of what the students must learn as they prepared for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. So, as this was his Introductory Lecture, we should most likely understand this message as one which Dr. Miller considered particularly foundational both for the  Seminary curriculum and for the future ministry of the Princeton graduates.

After presenting Dr. Miller’s opening remarks, his seven main points in support of creeds and confessions will be provided, though in their barest form and without supporting arguments, since space is limited. Much of the rest of the work will then be skipped, and we will jump to Miller’s concluding comments. If you would like to read the entire work [it’s not long—only 84 pages], there will be a link at the end of this post.


Neagle-Sartain portraitThe character and situation of one who is preparing for the sacred office are interesting beyond the power of language to express. Such a one, like the Master whom he professes to love and serve, is “set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). In all that he is, and in all that he does, the temporal and eternal welfare not only of himself, but of thousands, may be involved. On every side he is beset with perils. Whatever may be his talents and learning, if he has not genuine piety, he will probably be a curse instead of a blessing to the church. But this is not the only danger to which he is exposed. He may have unfeigned piety, as well as talents and learning; and yet, from habitual indiscretion; from a defect in that sobriety of mind, which is so precious to all men, but especially to every one who occupies a public station; from a fondness for novelty and innovation, or from that love of distinction which is so natural to men; after all, instead of edifying the “body of Christ,” he may become a disturber of its peace, and a corrupter of its purity; so that we might almost say, whatever may be the result with respect to himself, “it had been good for the church if he had never been born.”

Hence it is, that every part of the character of him who is coming forward to the holy ministry; his opinions; his temper; his attainments; his infirmities; and above all, his character as a practical Christian;—are of inestimable importance to the ecclesiastical community of which he is destined to be a minister. Nothing that pertains to him is uninteresting. If it were possible for him, strictly speaking, to “live to himself,” or to “die to himself,” the case would be different. But it is not possible. His defects as well as his excellencies, his gifts and graces, as well as the weak points of his character, must and will all have their appropriate effect on everything that he touches.

Can you wonder, then, that employed to conduct the education of candidates for this high and holy office, we see ourselves placed under a solemn, nay, an awful responsibility? Can you wonder that, having advanced a little before you in our experience in relation to this office, we cherish the deepest solicitude at every step you take? Can you wonder, that we daily exhort you to “take heed to yourselves and your doctrine,” and that we cease not to entreat you, and to pray for you that you give all diligence to approve yourselves to God and his church able and faithful servants? Independently of all official obligation, did we not feel and act thus, we should manifest an insensibility to the interests of the church, as well as to your true welfare, equally inexcusable and degrading.

It is in consequence of this deep solicitude for your improvement in every kind of ministerial furniture, that we not only endeavor to conduct the regular course of your instruction in such a manner as we think best adapted to promote the great end of all your studies; but that we also seize the opportunity which the general Lecture (introductory to each session) affords us, of calling your attention to a series of subjects which do not fall within the ordinary course of our instruction.

A subject of this nature will engage our attention on the present occasion: namely, the importance of creeds and confessions for maintaining the unity and purity of the visible church.

This is a subject which, though it properly belongs to the department of Church Government, has always been, for want of time, omitted in the Lectures usually delivered on that division of our studies. And I am induced now to call your attention to it, because, as I said, it properly belongs to the department committed to me; because it is in itself a subject highly interesting and important; because it has been for a number of years past, and still is, the object of much severe animadversion on the part of latitudinarians and heretics; and because, though abundantly justified by reason, scripture, and universal experience, the spontaneous feelings of many, especially under the free government which it is our happiness to enjoy, rise up in arms against what they deem, and are sometimes pleased to call, the excessive “rigor” and even “tyranny” of exacting subscription to articles of faith.

It is my design, first, to offer some remarks on the utility and importance of written creeds; and secondly, to obviate some of the more common and plausible objections which have been urged against them by their adversaries.


I. By a creed, or confession of faith, I mean an exhibition, in human language, of those great doctrines which are believed by the framers of it to be taught in the holy scriptures; and which are drawn out in regular order, for the purpose of ascertaining how far those who wish to unite in church fellowship are really agreed in the fundamental principles of Christianity. Creeds and confessions do not claim to be in themselves laws of Christ’s house, or legislative enactments, by which any set of opinions are constituted truths, and which require, on that account, to be received as truths among the members of his family. They only profess to be summaries, extracted from the scriptures, of a few of those great gospel doctrines which are taught by Christ himself; and which those who make the summary in each particular case concur in deeming important, and agree to make the test of their religious union. They have no idea that, in forming this summary, they make anything truth that was not truth before; or that they thereby contract an obligation to believe what they were not bound by the authority of Christ to believe before. But they simply consider it as a list of the leading truths which the Bible teaches, which, of course, all men ought to believe, because the Bible does teach them; and which a certain portion of the visible church catholic agree in considering as a formula, by means of which they may know and understand one another.

Now, I affirm that the adoption of such a creed is not only lawful and expedient, but also indispensably necessary to the harmony and purity of the visible church. For the establishment of this position, let me request your attention to the following considerations.

1. Without a creed explicitly adopted, it is not easy to see how the ministers and members of any particular church, and more especially a large denomination of Christians, can maintain unity among themselves.

2. The necessity and importance of creeds and confessions appear from the consideration, that one great design of establishing a church in our world was that she might be, in all ages, a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth.

miller_1824_creeds3. The adoption and publication of a creed is a tribute to truth and candor, which every Christian church owes to the other churches, and to the world around her.

4. Another argument in favour of creeds, publicly adopted and maintained, is that they are friendly to the study of Christian doctrine, and, of course, to the prevalence of Christian knowledge.

5. It is an argument of no small weight, in favor of creeds, that the experience of all ages has found them indispensably necessary.

6. A further argument in favor of creeds and Confessions may be drawn from the remarkable fact that their most zealous opposers have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.

7. The only further argument in support of creeds on which I shall dwell is that their most zealous opposers do themselves virtually employ them in all ecclesiastical proceedings.

Concluding Comment:

The church is still “in the wilderness”; and every age has its appropriate trials. Among those of the present day is a spirit of restless innovation, a disposition to consider everything that is new as of course an improvement. Happy are they who, taking the word of God for their guide, and walking in “the footsteps of the flock,” continually seek the purity, the peace, and the edification of the Master’s family; who, listening with more respect to the unerring Oracle, and to the sober lessons of Christian experience, than to the delusions of fashionable error, hold on their way, “turning neither to the right hand nor the left,” and considering it as their highest honor and happiness to be employed as humble, peaceful instruments in building up that “kingdom which is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost!.” May God grant to each of us this best of all honors! And to his name be the praise, forever! Amen!

To read the entire work by Dr. Miller, click here.

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