Monday, March 11, 2019

Presbyterian Church Government

The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, by John Lorimer

If someone asked me to define Presbyterianism, I would point to our doctrinal standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) and perhaps list a few notable distinctives like a belief in God's sovereignty in history and salvation, the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of covenant theology, and its distinctive form of church government. But it is the last of these, church government, which provides the origin of the word "presbyterian."

The word "presbyterian" comes from the Greek word for elder (πρεσβύτερος). The term began to be used back when the major divisions among English-speaking denominations were defined by church government. On the one hand there was the Church of England with its episcopal system (the word "episcopal" come from the word for bishop, ἐπίσκοπος). In that system, the churches in a region were governed by an individual, the bishop. On the other hand you had congregational churches which were independent local churches governed largely by congregational vote. Presbyterian churches, though, were governed by a plurality of elders, both in the local church and on a regional level.

In the Presbyterian system, the congregation is led and governed by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23), who along with deacons are elected by the congregation and ordained by other elders (Acts 6:1-6, 14:23, 1 Tim. 4:14). These elders also meet with the elders of other churches to lead and govern the church on regional and denominational levels (Acts 15). The assembly of elders in a local church we call a session, the regional assembly we call the presbytery, and the denominational assembly we call the general assembly. As the Scripture citations above indicate, we adopt this form of government because it is what Christ and the apostles appointed for the church. The Bible does not appoint all the details of how this system operates, leaving some room for flexibility where wisdom and prudence must dictate. Yet, it does describe these basic principles.

Biblically speaking, elders can also be called overseers, bishops, pastors, and shepherds (Titus 1:5-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). While all elders are equal in authority, there is a difference between what we call “ruling elders” and what we usually call “teaching elders” or “ministers of the word.” These teaching elders are those elders “who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). They are are called to preach the gospel, and to do so as their life calling (1 Cor. 9). And as the sacraments are signs and seals of the gospel, they are administered by preachers of the gospel. Like teaching elders, ruling elders are church shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) who join in the care and oversight of the congregation, but they are not preachers and they usually make their living in another way. To many people, ruling elders seem to be laymen since they usually do not have a seminary degree and are not part of a paid staff, but ruling elders are ordained officers of the church and serve on the ruling bodies of the local, regional, and denominational levels.

We also believe deacons fulfill an important office in the church (Acts 6:1-7). They oversee and administer the mercy ministry of the church, helping those in need and coordinating the efforts of the congregation to that end. 

In this form of government, both church members and church officers are held accountable. No individual governs by himself. If things go wrong on a local level, there is the ability to appeal to the regional presbytery (and the general assembly, if necessary). This connection between local churches not only helps coordinate church discipline and settle doctrinal controversies, but it also helps coordinate and strengthen efforts like home and foreign missions, Christian education, and diaconal assistance. It is not foolproof or infallible - no system of government can save a church on its own - but it is a wise system, established by our wise Lord, for the good of His people. As Ephesians 4:7-16 teaches, Christ gave His church its leaders to strengthen the body so that it may attain to "the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:13–14). May Christ bless what He has appointed and give His church shepherds that reflect Him, our chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).


For more on this topic, you can read our Book of Church Order at this link and chapters 30 and 31 of the Westminster Confession at this link. A short book which serves as a helpful introduction to the biblical basis for Presbyterian church government is Which is the Apostolic Church? by Thomas Witherow, which can be read for free online at this link

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