Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Presbyterian church government

FPC, Laurens, SC, my grandmother's church
 Part 3 of a series on Church government
2. PRESBYTERIAN GOVERNMENT: government by elders (presbuteros, elder). In this form of government, the local church is governed by a session (elders elected by the congregation, sometimes called ruling elders and teaching elders (pastor and ministerial staff). The sessions send representatives (usually ministers and one ruling elder from each session) to the Presbytery of their district. Each presbytery sends representatives to the Synod, which governs a large area, and they send representatives to the General Assembly, usually a national body. Usually these bodies include ministers and laity (ruling and teaching elders). This form of church government developed under the representative government of Great Britain.
a.      Presbyterian churches practice this form of church government most fully, but many independent churches have local elder rule. There is a growing trend among some Baptist churches of incorporating the local elder rule into their polity, though they do not use the presbytery or synod.
b.      There is some Scriptural support for the idea of elders. The Jewish synagogue was/is ruled by elders (Luke 7:3), and the early church was ethnically Jewish. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders or had them elected (Acts 14:23 – Greek cheirontoneo can translate “appoint” or “elect by raising hands” 2 Cor. 8:9). Elders are mentioned in Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; James 5:14. When we understand elders and bishops are used interchangeably in Scripture we can include Phil. 1:1 and 1 Tim. 3:1-7 while others add 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:17 which describe the ministry of elders. Notice the limited role for the congregation in this form of government.
c.       Ruling and Teaching Elders: The distinction between teaching and ruling elders is based on John Calvin’s (d. 1564) interpretation of 1 Tim. 5:17 He argued against the excesses of episcopacy that only one ordained office exists, that of elder, and not two, both bishop and elder. Then he divided the office of elder into two categories, ruling elders and teaching elders, based on his reading of 1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” It is a misreading. One can find four or five kinds of elders in the passage if one wants. The simplest interpretation is that the preaching and teaching describes the elder who rules (nurtures) well. The extra-local church bodies called presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies are explained by the precedent of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35), though the text says the Council was the “whole church,” not a presbytery of elders. Baptists see Acts 15 as a meeting of an association of churches because the “whole church” with members of local churches from across the Mediterranean met together and agreed on Gentile inclusion in the churches.
d.      The biggest problem with Presbyterianism for Congregationalists is that elders rule, or govern the church when the congregation should hold authority. The key word is prohistemi used in Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4, 5; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 14. The word can carry an authoritative, strong tone or a gentle, nurturing tone. Perhaps 1 Tim. 3:4-5 is helpful for their argument, saying elders take care of God’s church, not “rule.” Practically in most churches with this form of government, ultimate governance (electing a pastor) is said to be given to the congregation while elders exercise leadership and govern on regular matters. To become a member of the church, one must appear before the elders and be approved by them in order to be announced to the congregation as a new member, a practice which indicates where the real power of governance lies.
e.      But the Calvinist misreading of 1 Timothy 5:17 creates an additional problem. Presbyterians often refer to their form of church government as being the most biblical because it retains the offices of elder and deacon. But the term elder refers not to a self-perpetuating clique which controls church finances and operations. It instead refers to what we call today pastors, leaders who care for the spiritual needs of the congregation. Deacons, in turn, function as practical-needs ministers to the congregation and community. In Titus, the exhortation to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5) means to appoint a plurality of pastors in every municipality who oversee as shepherds the local bodies entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28). Southern Baptists see elders as pastors, an office Baptists have always affirmed and ordained. For the first 250 years of their history, Baptists tended to use the terms, elder and deacon. The term pastor came into vogue in the last half of the 1800s. Pastors are the elders in Southern Baptist life. The Presbyterians do not have a corner on biblical terminology in church government.
f.        What about the priesthood of all believers? Norman Maring and Winthrop Hudson wrote, “When Baptists . . . advocated a congregational form of church government, they did not do so because it offered a convenient administrative procedure by which decisions could be reached easily by a show of hands. They did so because they believed that Christ intended the full participation of the members of the church in its total life, as implied in the doctrine of the priesthood of believers.”[1] The Biblical model for church governance is both elders and deacons,[2] and that is what the Baptist congregational model provides.[3] Elders (pastors) tend to the spiritual needs of the church,[4] and deacons tend to the practical needs of the people of God (Acts 6). Indeed, in Southern Baptist history, the elder or elders were the pastors of the churches.[5] Baptist polity incorporates both elders (pastors) and deacons already.


[1] Garrett, 179-80.
[2] Gerald Cowen, Who Rules the Church? Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 13-14.
[3] Hobbs, 178, 183-191.
[4]  Dever, 24. Dever says, “remember that the preacher, or pastor, is also fundamentally one of the elders of his congregation.”
[5] Ibid, 20-21. What Dever misunderstands is that the titles pastor and elder were interchangeable, not some lost-treasure, Calvinistic underpinning of Baptist churches.