GA 101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?

In my previous post I had a few opening remarks about this series of blog posts.  In this one I present a relatively brief and simplified development of why the Presbyterian system of government is structured like it is.

I frequently tell a group that the Presbyterian system of government is “made up of the less desirable aspects of the possible alternatives.”  It has neither the stream-lined nature of an Episcopal system with bishops to make the decisions or the simplicity of a congregational system where it is every church for itself.  The Presbyterian system is hierarchy by committee.  And we like it, or at least tolerate it.  Why is that?  Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?

We do it because of the example from the Bible and our Reformed view of God, the Church, and humankind.

Being Reformed, the place to start is with the Bible.  While we draw mainly from the pattern of the New Testament Church, there are instances in the Old Testament where our understanding of church government is foreshadowed.  One example is where Moses called out and trained additional leaders from among the Israelites. (Exodus 18:15-26)  Later when the Israelites wanted a king Samuel the prophet made it clear that what they really should accept was God as their King to reign over them, not an earthly king.  (I Sam 8)  And throughout the Old Testament God raised up prophets, leaders, great warriors, and even kings from any segment of society, not necessarily a priestly or royal class.

But in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was given to an individual for the necessity of the occasion.  In the New Testament, with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, it dwells in all believers and therefore changed the model for church government.  In the New Testament we see the decision making of the church being done in community, by groups of leaders.

It is also in Acts, specifically Acts 6, where we see the initial differentiation of those set aside to different offices.  When the works of mercy, the “daily distribution,” became too much for the apostles, they had the Hellenists choose seven from their group to take over this work and these seven were set aside with prayer and laying on of hands for this task.  These were the first deacons in our Presbyterian model, while the apostles could now concentrate on “the word of God,” the role of the elders.  It also sets the standard for how individuals are chosen and set aside for any Presbyterian office:  The call is made by God and confirmed by the community and the individuals are set aside by prayer and laying on of hands.

The specific differentiation of ministers/teaching elders and ruling elders does not have a clear-cut moment like this in scripture. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (ICR) says “In giving the name of bishops, presbyters, and pastors, indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture, which uses the words as synonyms.” (ICR Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 8)  (The word “presbyter” is also translated “elder.”)  We do have references to groups of elders in Acts 20:17 ff where Paul meets with the Ephesian elders and again in Acts 21:18 in Jerusalem where “Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”

Our model for the proceedings of church government is taken from Acts 15 where the dispute arose over whether a new follower of Jesus must also convert to Judaism.  We are told that “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider the matter.”  The first general assembly, or at least presbytery meeting, that we have documented.  What did they do?  They had speakers tell of their experiences and witness to God’s actions/revelation.  There was a motion, it seems to have passed by consensus, and their decision was sent out to the Church, particularly those at the center of the dispute.

This example shows several important aspects of Presbyterian style government:

  1. The decision was made jointly by a group, not just one or two leaders
  2. The group was not homogeneous but included pastors (apostles) and elders
  3. The process was “connectional.”  There was a back-and-forth between congregations and the higher governing body.
  4. No one is seen as “representing” their congregation’s viewpoint, but all are seen as working together to discern the will of God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The development of church government in the next few centuries is thoroughly discussed by Calvin in Book 4 Chapter 4 of ICR.  Let me, at the risk of over simplifying, summarize a few important points:

First, a system of bishops, pastors and elders did develop, but the role of bishop was not one of having “dominion over his colleagues” but was one to coordinate matters and preside over an assembly.  This is similar to our understanding of the role of the Moderator in a Presbyterian setting.

Second, individuals were selected to serve in these higher offices by what we would recognize as a search committee, but they were then verified by votes of the bodies and the whole membership of the church in that district.

Third, the offices of teaching elder and ruling elder became distinctive.

So, to summarize to this point, we structure our churches and conduct our business in the same manner as we understand the early church structured itself based on the example of the church in the Book of Acts.

While the example is Biblical, there is also a Reformed theological underpinning for doing it this way.

Probably the first and foremost principle of Reformed theology is the sovereignty, and supremacy, of God.  Just as Samuel cautioned the people against wanting an earthly king, so one reason there are no individuals with “dominion” is because Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  This is affirmed at the very beginning of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order. (Editorial comment:  I view this as a very important principle and was disappointed when the Form of Government Task Force pushed this down to the second paragraph of the new Foundations of Polity section of the Book of Order rewrite.)

Another aspect of the sovereignty of God is the concept of “election.”  Accepting that it is a part of Reformed theology, what it means is that God has formed and called the Church, not us humans, and it is the body of Christ.  Therefore this covenant community, the body, the community of faith, is important in everything we do.  Church government involves community as well as the sacraments and the discerning of call and selection of officers.

In making us part of the body, God has bestowed on each believer different spiritual gifts and talents for building up of the body.  (I Cor. 12)  We each have a part to play, and the ordained offices are only one group of many different possible parts and each part is important in its own way. We have the Reformed concept of the “priesthood of all believers” which has the double implication of all believers having direct access to God and all believers having a part to play in the body.  However, not all gifts are the same and it is contrary to I Cor. 12 to use the “priesthood of all believers” to argue that anyone has the “right” to be a teaching elder, ruling elder or deacon.  God could call anyone, just as leaders in the Old Testament came from every strata of society, but it is conditional on God’s call and God bestowing the gifts and talents for the office.

We believe that there are several reasons why we make decisions better as the community rather than as individuals.   First, with regards to different spiritual gifts, in group decision making each person brings their own unique perspective to the problem.  Another aspect was expressed by Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book about Christian community, Life Together.  About the importance of community he writes “The Christ in [a person’s] own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

A third, and very significant, aspect of vesting power in groups is the Reformed concept that original sin has so completely corrupted us humans that we can not be trusted to make decisions individually.  There is a need for accountability in the context of community.  This is the “total depravity” of the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession expresses it like this in Chapter 6, Sections 4 and 5:

4. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

5. This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.

Therefore, making decisions and holding power as groups is more likely to discern God’s will and defeat an individual’s selfish tendencies.  But as is well known to many Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession, in Chapter 31, Section 3 cautions that it is not just individuals, but our sinful nature can even pervade the group:

3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

This brings us to what the Reformation was all about in principle:  Returning the Church and its theology to what it originally was in the early Church before being corrupted by human sinful nature.  It is why John Calvin was so thorough in discussing the organization and practice of the early church in ICR.  One of the often quoted, in whole or in part, phrases or slogans of the Reformation goes something like (in Latin) ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei; “The Church reformed, always reforming according to the word of God.” (I will admit at this point that as far as I can tell from my reading this seems to have come down as oral history since neither I nor others who cite it and have looked can locate an original or early reference for this.  However, it is so tightly ingrained in Reformed theology that I treat it as valid tradition and not urban legend.)  This phrase, and particularly the “always reforming” part, is brought out on numerous occasions by any number of individuals and groups, to claim that the Reformed church is to be doing a new thing.  That is fine for Isaiah (43:19) but my trusty New Dictionary of Theology (S. B. Ferguson, D. F. Wright, and J. I. Packer eds.) and an article on the PC(USA) web site by Anna Case-Winters agree that “always reforming” is to point us to recovering the old, original things.

Therefore, the Presbyterian system of Church government is intended to be a self-correcting system so that on balance over time we should not wander too far from the will of God.  That is why we do it the way that we do!

While I have regularly presented this material to groups before, I found the experience of putting it into concise written form to be a rewarding exercise.  I hope this is brief enough, yet informative enough, to be useful.  I do know that a few devout and faithful Presbyterians have differed with me on some of these points so I do welcome your comments via the comment section or e-mail to  Hey, it’s a self-correcting system.

Coming next:  GA 101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture

6 thoughts on “GA 101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?

  1. Steve

    A different viewpoint is now available at Mike Spreng has a post titled “ Anglican vs. Presbyterian Polity” which covers much of the same ground as I do. I won’t comment on it point-by-point here. Maybe at a later time when I have read and reread it a few times. A couple of items though:

    First, my objective was to explain, not defend. His post is much more of a defense of Anglican/Episcopal ecclesiology (theology of the Church).  And his is a longer discussion and draws from other church writings.

    We agree on (early) bishops being “first among equals” and he brings up from letters something I saw in Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin was not clearly opposed to bishops, provided they were first among equals and were approved by the people. Mr. Spreng echoes this and says that Calvin was corrected by other reformers to disallow the office of bishop in the Reformed church.

    Finally, Mr. Spreng seems to have the Presbyterian Church in America in his cross-hairs since he regularly goes back to their Book of Church Order for quotations and criticism. I’ll have to read around his blog a bit more to see if there is a significance to his focus on that branch of Presbyterianism by my reading so far suggest it may get back to the Federal Vision controversy.

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