Chambersburg, PA
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

What does “Presbyterian” even mean?

I’m 3/4 of the way done teaching our membership class. This is only our second time going through the class, but it is becoming a favorite of mine. Not only do I have the chance to get to know better some great people, but also we get to discuss exciting things like church polity.

Ok, that isn’t the most exciting thing we discuss, but it is one of the things we go over in the class. Church government, as has frequently been stated, concerns not the essence of the church but the well-being of the church. In other words, a church isn’t determined a true church because it has a certain form of government, but church government does effect the health of a church. And, although scripture doesn’t give us a detailed blueprint for how churches should be governed, it does give us important biblical principles which our more detailed blueprints should be based upon. I realize that many will interpret the following biblical rationale differently; but we can only expect that church-health will depend, to some extent, on our faithfulness to those principles revealed in Scripture.

Redeemer Church is presbyterian (part of the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA). “Presbyterian” is a term that primarily refers to a form of church government – and in fact is one of the 3 main forms of church government. Congregational (whether single-elder led or multiple-elder led) and hierarchical (such Episcopalian or Roman Catholic) are the 2 others. So, though “presbyterian” has historical and theological implications, these things are not what I am dealing with here. There are some theologically liberal presbyterian churches & denominations, but “presbtyerian” does not mean “liberal” (for example, the PCA split off from the PC USA in 1973 due to theological liberalism taking greater and greater hold in that denomination).

Most simply, Presbyterian means governed by elders, who exercise authority (and church discipline) in the church, “shepherd” (provide spiritual care for) church members, and teach and oversee the teaching ministry of the church. This post is not primarily about what elders do, but why and how they function in relation to church government (Deacons are also an office in the church, but not an office of authority or teaching, as seen in the descriptions and qualifications of these offices. Rather, deacons see to the physical and practical needs of a congregation). But, since elders are present in non-presbyterian churches, there is more to it.

Presbyterianism is characterized by 4 main commitments:

  1. Plurality of leadership
  2. Parity of leadership
  3. Representational leadership
  4. Connectional accountability

Here is how I explained these in the class (I gained a few insights here from “How Jesus Runs the Church” by Guy Waters).

1. Plurality of leadership means that there is never 1 person exercising authority on their own. Rather, authority is exercised in the church courts, by a plurality of elders (often called a “session” nowadays). No 1 person calls all the shots; no 1 person makes decisions bearing authority without accountability; no 1 personality or set of personal preferences drives the direction of the church. Here is the biblical basis: when local churches are established in the New Testament, elders (plural) are appointed (see Titus 1:5 & Acts 14:23). When local church leaders are referred to in the New Testament, they are referred to in the plural (1 Thess. 5:13, Acts 20:28, Heb. 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-2). This may not be an explicit command, but it is a clear pattern. With the cessation of the office of “Apostle” (a temporary, extraordinary office which no one can rightly claim today – see Acts 1:15-26), “elder”, along with “deacon”, became the ordinary, perpetual offices of the church. And, though apostles exercised authority individually (even though they were not above the need for accountability from one another – see Galatians 2:11-14), elders are always appointed over local churches as a plurality – never as individuals.

2. Parity means equality. What this means is that all elders are equal. No one elder is above the other, such that he can act autonomously in matters of church governing, or can act without accountability from other elders, or can insist his will upon the elders. No elder’s vote counts as more than “1”. You might wonder, “Doesn’t the New Testament mention bishops?” Yes, sort of, but the two greek words (presbuteros and episkopos) are used interchangeably in reference to 1 and the same office, commonly interpreted “elder” or “overseer” (compare Acts 20:17 & 20:28; also Titus 1:5 & 1:7. Also, see 1 Peter 5:1-5 in which Peter, though an apostle, refers to himself as a “fellow elder” to the elders of that congregation. If Peter puts himself on the same level as them, though he is an apostle, how much more should elders view themselves as equals). Although Bishops became a significant office historically in the church, we maintain that that was a departure from the biblical pattern. The PCA, based on 1 Timothy 5:17, makes a distinction between “Teaching Elders” (pastors) and “Ruling Elders”, but it is a difference based on gifting and calling, not in office, standing, or authority.

So, local churches should be governed by a plurality & parity of elders. Practically speaking, these first 2 serve as a protection from the abuse of power by an individual in the church. Each person has real accountability, and no one is calling the shots as an individual. The old maxim states, “Power corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Of course, even within presbyterianism, there may be churches in which the pastor, practically speaking, calls all the shots and is surrounded by mere “yes-men”. But that’s not true presbyterianism. No form of church government eradicates the effects of sin and provides guaranteed protection from the abuse of power, but there are some that provide better protections against it, and we believe that is why God laid out this pattern.

3. Representational leadership means that a presbyterian church works similarly to a representational democracy in the political sphere. In such a political government, the people have the power. But, their exercise of that power is limited – primarily to the appointment of leaders who represent their interests. Christ alone is head of the church, yet he delegates this power to the whole church. The people exercise that power in the choice of those officers (see Acts 6:3, which though is in reference to the selection of deacons, I would assume also governs how elders were appointed under the oversight of the apostles such as in Titus 1:5, and moreso after apostles ceased to be).

This means, first, that elders only govern at the consent of the governed. No one can simply declare himself an elder or pastor or church leader. They must be granted that privilege by the church. Therefore, they are accountable to those people to govern in a Christ-like and biblical way. This is why, in our denomination, pastors and elders are always voted into office by the local congregation in which they serve – every member gets to vote on every elder/pastor. They are examined by presbyteries or sessions, to be deemed as qualified for that office. But, they cannot be over a local church without the consent of those people. Of course, the people should place elders over them who will serve Christ, not their whims; but the people should call elders to account if they as a body cease to obey Christ.

Second, this means that not every Christian is called to be a leader who exercises authority (especially related to admission to membership and discipline) in the church. Every church member is certainly called to use their gifts in the service of the ministry in the church, but the New Testament is clear that only some are qualified to serve as elders (see the qualifications for office in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3) and therefore to exercise the authority and responsibility of elders.

4. Connectional accountability means that a presbyterian church does not have absolute local church autonomy. Rather, there is a system of real and meaningful accountability from the broader church (in our denomination, the elders of local regional churches meet as a Presbytery, and the presbyteries meet as a General Assembly). The biblical basis for this inter-church connectionality comes from Acts 15, where the apostles and elders from different local churches meet to deliberate and rule on a controversy, the outcome of which is binding upon the local churches.

So, there it is – presbyterianism. In another post I hope to say more about what elders actually do (teach, shepherd, and discipline). And, let me again say that I understand people will interpret the biblical data differently, and, thankfully, the true church extends far beyond lines of polity.