Foreword to James Bannerman’s “The Church of Christ”

May 20, 2015

by Carl Trueman

The church in the West faces a very tough future. In America, while church attendance remains high compared to Europe, the de-Christianisation of society is happening at an aggressive pace. In Europe, the church is struggling even for bare existence in some places. Everywhere, the anti-Christian atmosphere becomes more hostile. Same-sex marriage is the cultural and legislative wedge that would appear to guarantee that the church will be socially marginalized, if not actually persecuted, in the coming years.

Biblical illiteracy, indifference, and even active hostility are likely to be the orders of the day.

Like Paul in the first century, we face a transitional point in history. As he contemplated the end of the apostolic era, where the men directly appointed by Christ to lead the church were passing away, so we contemplate the death of a world where the church was at least a familiar part of the scenery. In the future, society may well not regard the church as having any obviously legitimate role; and the church will have no generic capital in the wider culture upon which she will be able to rely. Biblical illiteracy, indifference, and even active hostility are likely to be the orders of the day. At such a time, it is important to reflect upon priorities for the church, for this is not a moment for muddled thinking or for expending energy on things which do not count.

Paul laid plans for the transition from apostolic to post-apostolic Christianity in his Pastoral Epistles. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, he laid out a normative pattern for the church in the post-apostolic era. At a basic level, the church needed a stable, orthodox doctrinal testimony (a form or pattern of sound words) and a form of government, overseers and deacons. In short, Paul saw that the most important practical thing the church needed was a practical doctrine of the church herself. To survive after the death of the apostles, the church needed to be governed well in accordance with agreed doctrinal standards.

The same is true for the church today. As we head into a world very similar to Paul’s own context, a world of pluralist religion where Christianity is regarded with intellectual and moral suspicion, we need a solid grasp of what the church actually is and how she should be governed. The New Testament places the church at the centre of its practical vision of the Christian life and at the heart of the Great Commission. Thus, a clear understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the church should be a priority for all Christian ministers, elders, deacons, and indeed informed lay people. Only when one knows what the church is can one fully grasp what her task is and what tools the Lord has provided for the accomplishment of that task.

It is with this in mind that The Banner of Truth Trust has reprinted one of the key historic texts in Protestant, Presbyterian ecclesiology: James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ. Bannerman, along with others such as Robert Smith Candlish and William Cunningham, was one of the finest ministerial minds in the generation of Scottish churchmen who lived through the events of the Disruption of 1843. Then, approximately one third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland left to form the Free Church of Scotland over the issue of patronage, or the question of who had the right to call a minister to serve a congregation: the patron or the congregation itself. The point may now seem for many to be somewhat antiquarian but it goes to the heart of the issue of ecclesiology: the nature and administration of church power. Bannerman’s later writings on ecclesiology thus emerged from his own very practical experience of ecclesiastical debates and discussions.

For him, the nature of Practical Theology as a discipline arose out of the consideration of the church as an act of God, with Christ as her head and her source of power.

The Church of Christ contains the lectures which Bannerman gave each year at New College, Edinburgh, the pre-eminent educational foundation of the Free Church. They were thus intended to be for students who were looking to enter the ministry. While Practical Theology today often deals with the homiletic aspects of the theological curriculum, it has also become an umbrella for anything pertaining to the practicalities of the daily life of a minister. Thus, courses in counseling, management theory, and even financial competence often populate the PT course load at seminary. In Bannerman’s day, however, the discipline was much more narrowly focused, as these lectures indicate. For him, the nature of Practical Theology as a discipline arose out of the consideration of the church as an act of God, with Christ as her head and her source of power. Thus, the modern reader approaching this text and being told it teaches practical theology might well come away bewildered: the content is far more exegetical, systematic, and doctrinal than the Practical Theology curriculum of most, if not all, seminaries in the twenty-first century.

Yet Bannerman’s approach is surely correct. The church is not a response to the grace of God but an act of the grace of God. The structure of the Heidelberg Catechism, placing the church in the section on ‘Grace,’ makes this point with implicit power. Calvin, in his use of the language of motherhood, articulates the matter memorably in Institutes IV.I.i (Beveridge translation):

I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. This was true not merely under the Law, but even now after the advent of Christ; since Paul declares that we are the children of a new, even a heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26).

The church is God’s creature, not the invention of human beings. Indeed, the analogy between creation and the church which Paul draws in Colossians 1:15-20 makes this clear. And if the church is God’s creature, then the message she speaks, the rules she lives by, and the power she exerts are to be regulated by God and thus by God’s word. Hence, Bannerman’s approach to practical theology is, first and foremost, theological because it has to do with God’s revelation.

Bannerman’s work is a very thorough treatment of ecclesiology which repays careful reading and reflection. It is worth noting, however, that at the very heart of the work lies the vital question of church power, its nature and extent. It is perhaps not overbold to say that mistakes made on this particular question will tend to vitiate the understanding of the church as a whole. Consider these questions: In what does the ordained ministry consist? Should the church micro-manage the lives of her members? How does the church relate to the state? To what extent should the church campaign as a church for wider political or social causes? Is the church to be an agent for the transformation of society as a whole? What tools does the church have for making disciples and, if necessary, for disciplining them? These are just a few of the questions which can only be answered correctly once the matter of the nature and extent of the church’s power has been settled.

As Christ is head of the church, he is the source of her power.

Bannerman’s answer to the nature of the church’s power is straightforward: as Christ is head of the church, he is the source of her power. Because he is the source of her power, he is also determinative of the character of her power. That power is ministerial and spiritual and is exercised in three connected areas: the doctrinal, the sacramental, and the disciplinary. These are, of course, three marks that many in the Reformed tradition ascribe to the church: the preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the appropriate implementation of discipline.

A grasp of these basic principles helps to clarify a lot of confusion. First, if the church’s power is spiritual, then the notion that the civil magistrate should be used to coerce belief is shown to involve a terrible confusion of categories. To put it bluntly, the sword cannot be used to impose Christianity. Had the church understood that throughout history, much bloodshed could have been avoided. Today, while the stakes may not be as high, this principle should be a sobering truth to those who use the language of ‘Christian nation’ in too glib a fashion. Churches are Christian; it is hard to see how a nation might qualify as such.

A sound ecclesiology, which connects the church’s power to the church’s mission, is a prerequisite to correct priorities.

Second, these principles focus the mind of the church on her primary task: making disciples. Of course, Christianity makes a difference to how people behave in their neighbourhoods and in their workplaces. It no doubt shapes how they think about voting at election time. It impacts their response to the great social issues of the day. But the church as an institution is not directly focused on any of these things. Her task is to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and to nurture believers and to bring them to maturity in the faith. In a time of scarce resources, knowing where to focus the church’s energy is vital. A sound ecclesiology, which connects the church’s power to the church’s mission, is a prerequisite to correct priorities.

Third, these principles highlight the tools for achieving this discipleship: word, sacraments, and discipline. There is a vast number of books written on how to grow the church, how to ‘do’ church (a ghastly phrase, if ever there was one), and how to disciple people. Some years ago, I sat on a panel with a free-will Baptist pastor and a number of mega-church pastors. When asked by the audience about matters pertaining to church policy, myself and the free-will Baptists found ourselves unexpectedly on the same side. Our response to any question was first to go back to the New Testament principles of word, sacrament and discipline. The mega-church pastors all seemed to offer versions of a different refrain: yes, we see what the Bible says, but we have tried these other approaches, and they seem to work better. The problem, of course, is that such responses are ultimately pragmatic and operate with a malleable definition of the means of grace. One might also add that they tended to be spectacular and expensive. The ordinary means of grace, word and sacrament enriched by prayer, are inexpensive, available to all, and entirely consonant with the New Testament vision of the church.

I doubt that any reader will agree with everything Bannerman has to say. Baptists and Congregationalists will repudiate his Presbyterianism. Many Presbyterians will now struggle with his advocacy of the Establishment Principle which seems today at best a pious hope, at worst a hang-over from an outdated and now impractical model of church and state. Yet the great thing about the book is that it will stimulate the reader to reflect on the nature of the church in a profoundly biblical and historically sensitive way. At a point in history when the church in the West is finding herself for the first time in 1,500 years to be marginal often unwelcome, clear thinking on the nature and purpose of the church is vital. I do not think there is a better way to sharpen one’s thinking on these matters than thoughtful and deep reflection upon this work of James Bannerman.


This piece is adapted from Carl Trueman’s foreword to The Church of Christ by James Bannerman (2015). Used with permission from the publisher, Banner of Truth. Also view Carl Trueman’s lecture on this volume.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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