GA 101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture

In my first installment in the GA 101 series I summarized the background from Reformed theology about why we Presbyterians organize ourselves the way we do.  That brings us now to how we actually do organize ourselves.  (I heard you out there say “decently and in order.”)

As I mentioned last time, our underlying theme is community and our overriding paranoia is granting too much authority/power to an individual.  While we grant authority and power to groups of people, we are still reluctant to invest too much power in any one group.  So we have multiple groups that are designed to keep each other accountable.  In simple terms this is what we mean when we talk about “Connectionalism” in Presbyterian settings.  Many denominations use the term connectionalism, (for example the United Methodists) but when Presbyterians use it, it is not just a relationship term, but carries a strong governance and polity meaning as well.

Let me first talk about the different groups in the structure of the church, and this is going to be review for most of my hard-core Presbyterian readers.  These groups go by different descriptive names like “governing bodies,” “councils,” “courts,” and “judicatories.”  Their role in governing is both legislative and judicial.

In the Presbyterian structure the “lowest” governing body is the church session.  This is lowest in the double sense that it is closest to the membership and that actions move up the ladder from there.  It is not lowest in the sense of priority or mission.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)) Book of Order used to have a section that says: b. The administration of mission should be performed by the governing body that can most effectively and efficiently accomplish it at the level of jurisdiction nearest the congregation. [old G-9.0402b]

The word “session” comes from the Latin and Early French to sit, a body that sits in deliberation.  This term is commonly used by Presbyterian branches although the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) does permit the use of the term “parish council” as well. [7.1(4)]

The church session is composed of the minister, or ministers, and elders selected from the congregation.  This governing body is to be the spiritual leadership of the congregation and may be the administrative leadership as well.  In the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) there is a separate church council which handles much of the administrative duties.  In the PC(USA) each congregation can decide for itself if it wants just a session or a board of trustees as well.  And the PCANZ has several different options for congregational organization, but with a session at the core.  New elders are called by God through the voice of the people and in almost all cases that means the whole membership of the congregation.  However, the session has responsibility as the examining and ordaining body for new elders and, as far as I am aware, in any Presbyterian branch the only way to be ordained as an elder is to be elected to the session.  (Interestingly, one of the three alternate ways that elders can be selected in the Church of Scotland (CofS) is to be selected by the current session.)

One of the important distinctives of Presbyterianism is that the three offices, minister/teaching elder, ruling elder and deacon are perpetual and you will hear people say “once and elder, always an elder.”  Of course, any of these offices can be renounced by the individual or removed through church judicial action, but in branches with rotation of elders on session, if a person is elected to the session again after serving their first term, they are not re-ordained.  In some Presbyterian branches, like the PC(USA) or the PCANZ, an elder will serve a fixed term on the session and then needs to be reelected when their term is up.  But I have found that in most Presbyterian branches, including CofS, PCI and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), once you are elected an elder you serve on the session as long as you are able.  An individual can be released from this service if they are unable to preform it.  This truly perpetual service may help explain the additional church council in Ireland.  In a few branches, like the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), whether or not to have terms and rotation is a decision that is made by the congregation.

An important distinctive between Presbyterian branches is the eligibility of women to serve in ordained office.  I have found it generally true that men and women can both serve in the ordained offices in “mainline” Presbyterian branches including the CofS, PCI, PCANZ, PC(USA), and the Presbyterian Church in Ghana.  In the conservative branches, like the Free Church of Scotland (FCS), Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and PCA, only men may serve as ministers/teaching elders or ruling elders.  The EPC leaves the decision up to the congregation.  It should be noted that this is a relatively recent development in the PC(USA) with women eligible to be ordained as deacons in 1906, as ruling elders in 1930, and as teaching elders in 1955.

Well, maybe I should have done a single post only on ordained offices, but all of this is important because in every governing body of a Presbyterian church ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders rule jointly and above the level of the session any duty or ecclesiastical office can be preformed by either type of elder.  As the EPC Book of Order says: “The Ruling Elder shares authority with the Teaching Elder in all of the courts of the Church, in both rights and duties.” [from section 10-4]

So what is above the session?  The next higher governing body in every Presbyterian branch that I have looked at is the presbytery.  For most Presbyterian churches the ministers/teaching elders are not members of the church that they serve but are members of the presbytery and therefore it is the responsibility of the presbytery to oversee their training, examinations, and ordination.  The other members of the presbytery are the churches that are part of the presbytery and it is the responsibility of the church sessions to send ruling elders as commissioners to the presbytery meetings.  At the presbytery and higher levels the number of ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders are much closer in numbers since each session is generally eligible to send one or two elders, and more if it has a larger membership, or more pastors on staff.  The EPC allows for churches sending additional elders if there is a “disproportionate ratio of Ruling Elders to Teaching Elders.”  The PC(USA) tries to make the number of elders exactly equal if there is a greater number of minister members of presbytery than allocated elder commissioners with a process called “redress of imbalance.”  (Note there is no corresponding procedure if there are more allocated elders than pastors.)  An extreme example of this is the PC(USA) Presbytery of San Gabriel which has three seminaries and three retirement communities within its boundaries resulting in three times the number of ministers honorably retired or in non-parish ministry than installed at churches.  So, each church gets to send two or three additional elders to presbytery meetings to make the numbers equal.  From what I have heard from several presbyteries, in practice the presbytery meetings are often dominated by elders since they are more likely to attend than the ministers if there is nothing controversial on the docket.

In addition to the training, oversight, and nurture of ministers/teaching elders, the presbytery is also responsible for the oversight, nurture and planting of churches within its bounds as well as other ministries that it may undertake in that area.  And the presbytery has responsibility for discipline within its bounds.

The church session and the presbytery are generally considered all that is necessary and sufficient to have a Presbyterian church since the connectionalism of church government has now been established by having two levels of governing bodies to hold each other accountable.  In the history of American Presbyterianism, the first churches were established on Long Island in the 1640’s and in Delaware and Virginia in the 1690’s, but the real establishment of Presbyterianism is marked by the first presbytery meeting, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, in 1706. (For more, check out Turning Points in American Presbyterian History – Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729, an installment in an excellent series of articles by D. G. Hart and John R. Muether in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s monthly publication New Horizons.)

While most branches have one or two governing bodies above the presbytery, at least one stops at the presbytery level:  The Reformed Presbyterian Church Hanover Presbytery appears to be an independent presbytery with seven churches and two affiliated churches across the United States. Similarly, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, with four churches and a preaching station, has the presbytery as its highest governing body.

[Technical note: While we frequently joke about an independent presbyterian church as an oxymoron it actually is not. At it’s root the presbyterian form of church government is an expression of church government by representation with the governing board gathering to discern the will of God. An independent church could have such a structure, and some do, and without being a part of a larger governing body still be considered Presbyterian.]

Above the presbytery comes the synod and the general assembly, but in few branches do both of these exist.  In the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) the highest governing body is the General Synod.  In most Presbyterian branches the highest governing body is the General Assembly and synods, if they ever existed, are not currently present.  The PC(USA), the PCI, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada appear to be among the few large Presbyterian branches still using synods with the CofS dissolving its synods about 20 years ago.  Where they exist, synods provide an intermediate level of review and mission coordination in a geographic region.  Whether or not they should they exist, at least within the present PC(USA) structure, is a hotly debated issue. You can check out my thoughts on their synod structure.

So what do the connections between these levels mean?  How does this all fit together?  To begin to answer that question here was a section from the PC(USA) Book of Order [old G-1.0400, now present as a footnote to F-3.02] that was taken from a statement by the 1797 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America:

The radical [ed. in the sense of fundamental and basic] principles of Presbyterian church government and discipline are:

That the several different congregations of believers, taken collectively, constitute one Church of Christ, called emphatically the Church; that a larger part of the Church, or a representation of it, should govern a smaller, or determine matters of controversy which arise therein; that, in like manner, a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part, and to all the parts united: that is, that a majority shall govern; and consequently that appeals may be carried from lower to higher governing bodies, till they be finally decided by the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole Church. For these principles and this procedure, the example of the apostles and the practice of the primitive Church are considered as authority.

The General Assembly is the highest representation of the collected wisdom and spiritual discernment in a Presbyterian church.  Each higher governing body reviews the legislative and judicial actions of the body below it.  And each lower body can bring legislative and judicial appeals to the next higher body.  In this way a higher governing body holds the lower one accountable and mediates transactions, such as transfer of congregations, between lower bodies.

But connectionalism requires accountability in both directions, and this happens in two ways.  The first is that the lower governing bodies supply commissioners, teaching and ruling elders jointly, to the higher body so it is not a disembodied review panel but a collection of presbyters, guided by the Holy Spirit, looking at issues and problems together.  The second way the bodies are connected is that in the most important matters of faith and practice the actions of the higher body must usually be ratified by the presbyteries.  I will go into this in more detail in a later installment, so let me leave it here with the general statement that in many Presbyterian branches constitutional changes or significant “acts” can not be enacted by the General Assembly or Synod alone but must be sent back to the presbyteries for a yes or no vote.

This leaves me with one final topic to consider and that is which is the level of fundamental or originating power in the Presbyterian system.  It turns out that there is not agreement on this, and in Scotland, where the church developed as a “National Church” the General Assembly is usually considered the fundamental level.  However, in the United States, where the church developed from the congregation up, the presbytery is usually considered the fundamental unit.  From the article by Hart and Muether:

Because presbyteries were established first, not synods or general assemblies, American Presbyterianism is characterized by the power of presbytery. The American church, unlike its Scottish analogue, has delegated greater power to presbyteries than to higher courts. This is particularly evident in ordination, where presbyteries still enjoy remarkable autonomy in calling men to the ministry. This feature of American Presbyterianism may reflect sound polity and good theology, but it is also an accident of history. One of the reasons for forming a presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706 was to license and ordain men for the gospel ministry. Ever since then, presbyteries in America have been jealous to guard that prerogative.

The PC(USA) Book of Order also addresses this in the section [old G-9.0103, now included in G-3.0101] that says in part:

The jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body.

The GA Junkie’s companion, and not for the faint of heart, the Annotated Book of Order [pg 108] includes the extra information about this section that the phrase about powers being reserved to the presbyteries was added in 1993 and a Historical Note that in the former United Presbyterian Church and United Presbyterian Church in North America all powers not mentioned resided with the General Assembly.

Well, once again, I seemed to have produced a lengthy discussion that ended up notably longer than I thought it would be.  And it took a lot longer than expected to write as well.  The general background material about the Presbyterian system of government is now finished and we will turn to the specifics of the General Assembly.  Up next: The Cast of Characters – The scorecard to identify the players.

2 thoughts on “GA 101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture

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