Limits of Church Power, specifically regarding Circumstances in Worship

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A subject that perennially seems to come up amongst Reformed folk is that of the limits of church power, particularly regarding the worship of God. The Scottish Presbyterian divine, George Gillespie, is often cited on this subject, having addressed the subject significantly in his book against the imposition of the English Popish Ceremonies at the time of the Second Reformation in Scotland. He writes in the author’s preface to his Dispute,[1] that “there is nothing which any way pertains to the worship of God left to the determination of human laws, beside the mere circumstances, which neither have any holiness in them, forasmuch as they have no other use and praise in sacred than they have in civil things, nor yet were particularly determinable in Scripture, because they are infinite; but sacred, significant ceremonies, such as cross, kneeling, surplice, holy days, bishopping, etc., which have no use and praise except in religion only, and which, also, were most easily determinable (yet not determined) within those bounds which the wisdom of God did set to his written Word, are such things as God never left to the determination of any human law. Neither have men any power to burden us with those or such like ordinances; For (says not our Lord himself to the churches), I will put upon you none other burden: but that which ye have already hold fast till I come (Rev. 2:24, 25). Wherefore, pro hac, etc., for this liberty we ought stoutly to fight against false teachers.[2]

Later in his Dispute, Gillespie put forward three conditions “necessarily requisite in such a thing as the church has power to prescribe by her laws”. These have also often been cited in Presbyterian literature.[3] Herewith is the text of this important section from Gillespie’s work.

§5. Thus having sailed by those rocks of offence, I direct my course straight to the dissecting of the true limits, within which the church’s power of enacting laws about things pertaining to the worship of God is bounded and confined, and which it may not overleap nor transgress.

Three conditions I find necessarily requisite in such a thing as the church has power to prescribe by her laws:

1. It must be only a circumstance of divine worship; no substantial part of it; no sacred significant and efficacious ceremony. For the order and decency left to the definition of the church, as concerning the particulars of it, comprehends no more but mere circumstances. Bishop Lindsay does but unskillfully confound things different when he talks of the ceremonies and circumstances left to the determination of the church.[4] Now, by his leave, though circumstances be left to the determination of the church, yet ceremonies, if we speak properly, are not.

Bishop Andrewes avouches that ceremonies pertain to the church only, and to the service of God, not to civil solemnities.[5] But so much, I trust, he would not have said of circumstances which have place in all moral actions, and that to the same end and purpose for which they serve in religious action, namely, for beautifying them with that decent demeanor which the very light and law of natural reason requires as a thing beseeming all human action. For the church of Christ being a society of men and women, must either observe order and decency in all the circumstances of their holy actions, times, places, persons, forms, etc., or else be deformed with that disorder and confusion which common reason and civility abhors. Ceremonies, therefore, which are sacred observances, and serve only to a religious and holy use, and which may not, without sacrilege, be applied to another use, must be sorted with things of another nature than circumstances. Ceremoniæ, ceremonies (says Dr. Field) are so named, as Livy thinks, from a town called Cære, in the which the Romans did hide their sacred things when the Gauls invaded Rome. Others think that ceremonies are so named a carendo, of abstaining from certain things, as the Jews abstained from swine’s flesh, and sundry other things forbidden by God as unclean. Ceremonies are outward acts of religion, etc.[6] Even on that account, says Junius, we have among ourselves distinguished rites and ceremonies, since in political duty, too, solemn rites have been commanded, but they are not properly called ceremonies unless they are holy observations of divine worship.[7]

A ceremony, says Bellarmine, properly and simply so called, is an external action which is good and praiseworthy for no other reason but that it is done to worship God.[8] From which words Ames concludes against him, that he, and others with him, do absurdly confound order, decency, and the like, which have the same use and praise in civil things which they have in the worship of God, with religious and sacred ceremonies.[9]

Yet Dr. Burges rejects this distinction between circumstances and ceremonies, as a mere nicety or fiction. And would you know his reason? For that (he says) all circumstances (I mean extrinsical) which incur not the substance of the action, when they are once designed or observed purposely in reference to such a matter, of whose substance they are not, they are then ceremonies.[10] If this is not a nicety or fiction, I know not what is. For what means he here by “a matter”? An action surely, or else a nicety. Well, then, we shall have now a world of ceremonies. When I appoint to meet with another man at Berwick, upon the 10th day of May, because the place and the day are purposely designed in reference to such a matter, of whose substance they are not, namely, to my meeting with the other man, for talking of our business, therefore the town of Berwick, and the 10th day of May, must be accounted ceremonies. To me it is nice, that the Doctor made it not nice, to let such a nicety fall from his pen.

When I put on my shoes in reference to walking, or wash my hands in reference to eating, am I using ceremonies all the while? The Doctor could not choose but say so, forasmuch as these circumstances are purposely designed and observed in reference to such matters, of whose substance they are not.

§6. 2. That which the church may lawfully prescribe by her laws and ordinances, as a thing left to her determination, must be one of such things as were not determinable by Scripture, on that reason which Camero has given us, namely, because individua are infinita. We mean not in any wise to circumscribe the infinite power and wisdom of God, only we speak upon supposition of the bounds and limits which God did set to his written word, within which he would have it contained, and over which he thought fit that it should not exceed. The case being thus put, as it is, we say truly of those several and changeable circumstances which are left to the determination of the church, that, being almost infinite, they were not particularly determinable in Scripture; for the particular definition of those occurring circumstances which were to be rightly ordered in the works of God’s service to the end of the world, and that ever according to the exigency of every present occasion and different case, should have filled the whole world with books. But as for other things pertaining to God’s worship, which are not to be reckoned among the circumstances of it, they being in number neither many, nor in change various, were most easily and conveniently determinable in Scripture. Now, since God would have his word (which is our rule in the works of his service) not to be delivered by tradition, but to be written and sealed unto us, that by this means, for obviating Satanical subtilty, and succoring human imbecility, we might have a more certain way for conservation of true religion, and for the instauration [restoration] of it when it fails among men, how can we but assure ourselves that every such acceptable thing pertaining any way to religion, which was particularly and conveniently determinable in Scripture, is indeed determined in it; and consequently, that no such thing as is not a mere alterable circumstance is left to the determination of the church?

§7. 3. If the church prescribe anything lawfully, so that she prescribe no more than she has power given her to prescribe, her ordinance must be accompanied with some good reason and warrant given for the satisfaction of tender consciences. This condition is, alas! too seldom looked unto by law-makers, of whom one fitly complains thus:

Lex quamvis ratio Ciceroni summa vocetur,
Et bene laudetur lex quo ratione probatur,
Invenies inter legistas raro logistas:
Moris et exempli leges sunt juraque templi.[11]

But this fashion we leave to them who will have all their anomalies taken for analogies. It becomes not the spouse of Christ, endued with the spirit of meekness, to command anything imperiously, and without a reason given.

It is for the church to teach first, then to direct, says Camero.[12] And again: For it does not have dominion over the clergy, and does not have to do with those whom Christ has redeemed, even if they cannot grasp what is a religious matter and what is not.

Tertullian’s testimony is known: Nulla lex, etc. No law (he says) owes to itself alone the conscience of its equity, but to those from whom it expects obedience. Moreover, it is a suspected law which will not have itself to be proved, but a wicked law, which not being proved, yet bears rule.[13]

It is well said by our divines, that in rites and ceremonies the church has no power to destruction, but to edification;[14] and that the observation of our ecclesiastical canons must carry before them a manifest utility.[15] But it is hard for pious brothers to subject themselves to those things which they perceive neither to be right nor useful.[16] If here it be objected, that some things are convenient to be done, therefore, because they are prescribed by the church, and for no other reason. For example, in two things which are alike lawful and convenient in themselves, I am bound to do the one and not the other, because of the church’s prescription. So that, in such cases, it seems there can be no other reason given for the ordinance of the church but only her own power and authority to put to order things of this nature.

I answer, that even in such a case as this, the conveniency of the thing itself is anterior to the church’s determination; anterior, I say, de congruo [in agreeability], though not de facto [in fact], that is to say, before ever the church prescribe it, it is such a thing as (when it falls out to be done at all) may be done conveniently, though it be not (before the church’s prescribing of it) such a thing as should and ought to be done as convenient. Which being so, we do still hold that the conveniency of a thing must always go before the church’s prescribing of it; go before, I mean, at least de congruo. Neither can the church prescribe anything lawfully which she shows not to have been convenient, even before her determination.


Ames, William. Puritan divine (1576–1633). Bellarmine Enervatus. 1630.

Andrewes, Lancelot. Bishop of Winchester (1555–1626). Sermons. 1628. Cf. Ninety-Six Sermons. Oxford: Parker, 1841.

Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ. 1869; repr. Banner of Truth, 1974.

Bellarmine, Robert. Jesuit apologist, Cardinal (1542–1621). Disputationes de Controversiis Christiane Fidei. Cf. Opera Omnia. Edited by Justinus Fèvre. Paris: Vives, 1870.

Burges, John. Moderate/Conforming Puritan divine (1563–1635). “A Manuduction unto the following Dispute.” In An Answer Rejoined to that much applauded pamphlet A reply to Dr. Morton’s general defense of three nocent ceremonies. 1631.

Calvin, John. Reformer (1509–1564).  Ioannis Calvini Opera quæ supersunt omnia. 59 volumes. In Corpus Reformatorum, volumes 29–87. Edited G. Baum, Ed Cunitz, Eduard Reuss, and Alfred Erichson. 87 volumes. Brunsvigæ: C.A. Schwetschke, 1834–1900.
————. Epistolæ et Responsa. In Johannis Calvini Opera omnia theologica in septem tomos digesta. Volume 6. Geneva: Jean Vignon, Pierre and Jacob Chouët, 1617.
————. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics. Volumes 20–21. 2 volumes. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

Cameron, John. Scottish synegestic theologian (c.1579–1625. Prælectiones Theologicæ in selectiora quædam loca N.T. 3 volumes. Saumur: 1626–28.

Chemnitz, Martin. German Lutheran theologian (1522–1586). De Examen Concilii Tridentini. 4 volumes. 1565–1573. Berlin: 1861. Cf. Examination of the Council of Trent. Translated by Fred Kramer. Concordia, 1971–1986.

Field, Richard. Anglican divine (1561–1616). The Book of the Church. 1606. Cf. 3rd ed., Oxford: William Turner, 1635.

Gillespie, George. A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland. 1637; 2nd Naphtali Press edition, forthcoming 2013.

Girardeau, John L. Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of God. 1888.

Hay Fleming, David. “Discipline of the Reformation,” IV. The Original Secession Magazine v13 (1877-1878): 807–821.

Junius, Franciscus, Huguenot theologian and Hebrew scholar (1545–1602).  De Politiæ Mosis Observatione. 1593. Cf. Abraham Kuyper, D. Francisci Junii opuscula theologica selecta. Amstelodami: 1882.

Lindsay, David. Bishop of Edinburgh (d. 1641).  “Epistle to Pastors of the Church of Scotland.” In. A True Narration of all the Passages of the Proceedings in the Generall Assembly of the Church of Scotland, holden at Perth the 25. of August, Anno Dom. 1618. Wherein is set downe the copy of His Maiesties Letters to the Said Assembly: Together with a Iust Defence of the Articles Therein Concluded, against a Seditious Pamphlet. By Dr. Lyndesay, Bishop of Brechen. London: Printed by William Stansby for Ralph Rounthwait, dwelling at the signe of the golden Lyon in Pauls Church-yard, 1621.

Murray, John. “Song in the Public Worship of God.” Song in the Public Worship of God - The Westminster Presbyterian.

Owen, John. Welsh epigrammatist (1564?–1622). “Res Judicatæ.” In Epigrammatum Joannis Oveni. 1624. Cf. Amsterdam: 1679. Cf. also, Titika Aslanidou, “Johannes Audœnus (†1622), Die Bücher VIII–X,” Heidelberg University Dissertation. 2007.

Pfeilen (Pfeil), Johannes Conradus. Deacon, Cannstatt (d.1637?). Clavis Theologiae, quae terminorum, vocabulorum, aequivocorum, aphorismorum … (1616).

Tertullian. Latin Father (c.160/70–c.215/20). Opera Omnia, PL 1–2.


[1] A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (1637; 2nd Naphtali Press edition, forthcoming 2013).

[2] Johannes Conradus Pfeil, Deacon, Cannstatt (d.1637?), Clavis theologiae, quae terminorum, vocabulorum, aequivocorum, aphorismorum … (1616), art. 9, page 373. John Murray cites Gillespie here in the draft version of the portion of the report on worship song he penned for the OPC in 1944. See John Murray, “Song in the Public Worship of God” Song in the Public Worship of God - The Westminster Presbyterian. The Southern Presbyterian John L. Girardeau cites Gillespie from this place in his Instrumental Music in Public Worship ([1888] 148); as does David Hay Fleming, in his “Discipline of the Reformation.” Cf. "The Discipline of the Reformation," Part IV, The Original Secession Magazine v13 (1877-1878) 817. This fourth part of the series was not included in the Naphtali Press printings of the Discipline (Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature v. 3 (1990); Shorter Writings of David Hay Fleming volume 1). Some day it may appear in a second volume of DHF’s shorter writings. See Gillespie’s preface on page 16 of the forthcoming 2013 edition.

[3] Cf. Hay Fleming, ibid., 149. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (1869; repr. Banner of Truth, 1974) 1.355.

[4] Epistle to the Pastors of the Church of Scotland. [Lindsay, Proceedings (1625 ed.), A2v, B3r–B3v.]

[5] Sermon on Esther 9:31 [Ninety-Six Sermons (1841) vol. 4].

[6] Of the Church, lib. 4, cap. 31. [1635 ed., 396.]

[7] De Polit. Mos., cap. 7. Quapropter etiam ritus, et ceremonias inter se distinximus, quia in jure politico sunt imperati et solemnes ritus; ceremoniæ verò [propriè] non nisi sacræ observationes in cultu divino appellantur. [Cf. Abraham Kuyper, D. Francisci Junii opuscula theologica selecta (Amstelodami: 1882) 377. ]

[8] De Sacram., lib. 2, cap. 29. Ceremonia proprie et simpliciter sic vocata, est “externa actio quæ non aliunde est bona et laudabilis, nisi quia fit ad Deum colendum.” [Cf. Opera Omnia (1870) 3.494. Gillespie seems to be summarizing and partially quoting the first paragraph of the chapter cited. He may also have had in mind Bellarmine’s vindication of the chapter, which opens similar to the above: “Cæremonia proprie dicta est externa actio, quæ non aliude est bona, et laudabilis, nisi quia fit ad Deum colendum.” Ad Caput XXIX, Vindicæ Pro Libro Secundo De Effectu Sacramentorum Cf. Opera Omnia (1870) 7.545. The phrase “simpliciter sic vocata” does not occur in either place, but “simpliciter” occurs at the end of the paragraph of lib. 2. chapter 29.]

[9] Bell. Enerv., tom. 3, lib. 1, cap. 8. [Cf. Bellarminus Enervatus (1629 [1628]) 52. Books two and three with separate title pages and pagination are dated MD.C.XXVIII.]

[10] Manuduct., p. 33. [Cf. in An Answer Rejoined (1631).]

[11] [Although the law may be invoked as the highest reason by Cicero,
And well-praised may the law be where it is approved by reason,
Rarely will you find auditors among the law-specialists:
There are laws of custom and example, and ordinance of the temple.]

An epigram of John Owen (1564?–1622). Book VIII, 50, “Res Judicatæ”. Cf. Epigrammatum Joannis Oveni (1624; Amsterdam: 1679), Epigrammatum … ad Edoardum Noel, Liber Primus, 226. Cf. Titika Aslanidou, “Johannes Audœnus (†1622), Die Bücher VIII–X,” Heidelberg University Dissertation (2007), unnumbered, p. 136. Cf. (accessed November 21, 2011).]

[12] Præl., tom. 1, p. 367. Ecclesiæ enim est docere primùm, tum præscribere, And again [cf. 1.368.]: Non enim dominatur cleris, nec agit cum iis quos Christus redemit, ac si non possent capere quod sit religiosum, quid minus.

[13] In Apologet. [Cf. Tertullian, Apologeticus, Caput IV, PL 1:289A–B. “12 Nulla lex vetat discuti quod prohibet admitti, quia neque iudex iuste ulciscitur, nisi cognoscat admissum esse quod non licet, neque civis fideliter legi obsequitur ignorans, quale sit quod ulciscitur lex. 13 Nulla lex sibi soli conscientiam iustitiæ suæ debet, sed eis, a quibus obsequium expectat. Ceterum suspecta lex est, quæ probari se non vult, improba autem, si non probata dominetur.” ANF 3.21 “It is not enough that a law is just, nor that the judge should be convinced of its justice; those from whom obedience is expected should have that conviction too. Nay, a law lies under strong suspicions which does not care to have itself tried and approved: it is a positively wicked law, if, unproved, it tyrannizes over men.”]

[14] Chemnitz, Exam., part 2, p. 121 [1861 ed., p 428, ¶9]. [“Et Paulus 1 Cor. 10 et 13 dicit, sibi a Domino datam potestatem, non ad destructionem, sed ad ædificationem.”]

[15] Calv. Instit., lib. 4, cap. 10, sect. 32 [CR 30 (CO 2), 890–891; McNeill and Battles, 2.1209–1210]. [“Quod quidem obtinebitur si quæcunque erunt observationes manifestam utilitatem præ se ferant….”]

[16] Calv., Epist. et Resp., col. 478. Piis vero fratribus durum est, subjicere se rebus illis quas nec rectas esse nec utiles animadvertunt. [“Responsio ad Duo Certa Capita.” In French, “Sur Les Ceremonies Et La Vocation Des Ministres,” CR 38 (CO 10), 208–209].
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