The Westminster Confession of Faith, taking cues from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, sees two distinct yet related spheres of authority over mankind. One is the ecclesiastical sphere and the other magisterial. Developed using in-depth and faithful exegesis, this doctrine shows there are certain legislative and judicial powers granted to the church and to the state.
This legislative power of the Church does not mean it is given authority over and against Scripture. If Scripture places a law on something, then the Church cannot void it. Gossip, for instance, is forbidden in Scripture. The Church cannot then make an ecclesiastical law that gossip is allowed or encouraged at fellowship gatherings. However, when Scripture is silent on a matter, the ecclesiastical law is free to legislate as the body wishes. Here’s an example: Scripture is clear that singing is an important and necessary part of worship. Yet, Scripture does not say with what instruments or how many songs. Churches are then free to legislate the styles, instrumentation, and frequency of these songs, so long as singing is done with thankful hearts (Col. 3:16). Similarly, the State is given the authority to make legislation for her denizens. The most universal examples are taxes and peace. While Churches may request and even require an offering, taxing congregants is far from biblical—for taxes are rarely cheerfully given (2 Cor. 9:7).
An instance of judicial power granted to the Church by God is the calling and ordaining of qualified elders and pastors for ministry. This is not a power granted to the State. If the magistrate began ordaining and installing pastors into churches, many of us would either fight or flee (indeed the only biblical responses available to us, for submission would be a sin). Likewise, the Church is granted the power to discipline sinful, unrepentant behavior. This is probably the least discussed and least liked in our denomination. In fact, I personally witnessed, within a presbytery, a pastor either ignore or forget (I could not tell, yet both are errors) to include church discipline as an historic mark of the Reformed faith and a biblical church. We say one cannot legislate morality, but in truth that comment should be, “the state cannot legislate morality,” for that is rightly within the biblical sphere of the Church.
Let me give to you a positive example of just that. I know of a church in Lynchburg, VA that practices a biblical approach to oaths and vows. Members of this church may enter into contractual agreements with one another under the legislative authority of the church. Under this contract, if one member hires another to do a plumbing job and a dispute arises, it is not brought before the civil courts but before the church court (the session equivalent) and the elders decide the matter. This way of adjudicating follows squarely in line with the biblical mandate of 1 Corinthians 6.
The biblical understanding is these two spheres—the ecclesial and magisterial—are separate yet dependent on one another to maintain law and order, morality and ethics, faith and life.