Why are we Presbyterians? Because we are “presbyterian” in our “Ecclesiastical Polity”. “Ecclesiastical Polity” is one of those fifty cent theological terms that simply means, “the operational and governance structure of a church or of a denomination.” The word “presbyterian” comes from the Greek word in the New Testament “presbuteros” and describes how the church is governed.
There are basically three different types of Church government. The first is “hierarchical”. This is rule by a sacred order. It is a top down approach to Church government. After Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, we see a drift towards a hierarchy in the church.
The term “Bishop” was synonymous with “preacher” in a congregation; what we would call a teaching Elder. Over time the job evolved in the major cities from that of mainly preaching into more administrative responsibility. Once the merger of Christianity by the state in the 300’s A.D. took place it was easy to drift toward this Roman hierarchical system. Bishops took on a more regional responsibility. These Bishops were given more authority and over time the idea of a Pope over the entire Church developed. Today, churches that drift towards a hierarchical structure include the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist churches to varying degrees.
The second form of church government is “congregational”. This is a rule by a congregation. This is a form of pure democracy. Most of the decisions are made by an entire congregation. Every local congregation is independent and autonomous. The first time this form of Church government was mentioned in writing was in 1648 in the Cambridge Platform in New England. Note that this is a very recent and an American approach to church government. It is not what we see as we look back into church history. Today this form of church government is characterized by many Baptist, Independent Fundamental, and Congregational churches. More and more congregations in America are becoming anti-denominational and use this type of structure.
The third form of church government is “presbyterian”. This is church government by “presbyters” or Elders. We believe this to be the form of church government that scripture presents to us. Calvin Knox Cummings in his book, Confessing Christ writes,
“The church is thus to be governed by two kinds of elders, ruling elders and teaching elders. These elders are also called bishops, or overseers (Titus 1:5,7). They are shepherds set apart to nurture God’s people (Acts 20:17, 28; Hebrews 13:7, 17). Deacons are another set of officers who are chosen to minister to needy Christian (Acts 6:1-7).
The apostles and elders of the New Testament church gathered for a general council to determine matters of Christian faith and practice (Acts 15:6ff). This teaches the need for general assemblies of the whole church such as exists in the Presbyterian system. Local congregations in isolation from each other are not the framework of church government reflected in the practice of the early church. Such independency is unknown in the New Testament.”
Those in a hierarchical system tend to not have any voice in the oversight of the church. Those in a congregational system tend to drift towards the will of the majority in decision making. Those in a presbyterian system have a representative form of government, much the way our United States form of government was created. The US Constitution was modeled after a Presbyterian form of government. In recent history many people in America now think our form of civil government is more congregational than presbyterian; hence more references to America being a Democracy vs a Republic. In Presbyterian churches we are governed by a Session made up of ruling and teaching elders. Congregational voting in Presbyterian Churches is limited to electing Ordained Officers (Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders, Deacons), electing non-ordained Trustees, and the approval of an annual budget because it contains the terms of a minister’s call.
In our Book of Church Order it states, “The session is charged with maintaining the government of the congregation. It shall oversee all matters concerning the conduct of public worship; it shall concert the best measures for promoting the spiritual growth and evangelistic witness of the congregation. It shall receive, dismiss, and exercise discipline over the members of the church, supervise the activities of the diaconate, the board of trustees and all other organizations of the congregation, and have final authority over the use of the church property. The session also shall appoint ruling elder commissioners to higher assemblies.”
Being Presbyterian is difficult for us. It goes against the message of our culture that prizes individuality above all else. Left to our own desires we will always tend to drift towards a congregational form of church government. The idea of “one man one vote” is ingrained in us from a very young age. May the topic of church government be another area where we strive to be more Christian than we are American. I encourage you to read chapter one of our Form of Government which is titled, “Christ, the King and Head of the Church.” (http://opc.org/BCO/FG.html#Chapter_I)
Please pray for the overseeing session of Faith Bible OPC. It is a big job to fulfill. The session needs the wisdom and guidance of the Lord in the various tasks they undertake.