The Advantages of Presbyterian Church Government
“Church government? Sounds pretty boring.” That’s probably how many Christians react in their minds to the subject of church government or ecclesiastical polity, which is the doctrine of how the church is to be organized and governed according to the Scriptures.
But when you think about it, the subject of church government is actually quite relevant and practical. For example, in recent years the Christian world has been confronted with many stories of abusive clergy. In addition, the church has always faced the challenge of conflict in congregations brought about by such things as heresy, schism, power struggles, gossip, and other manifestations of sin. How the church is organized and governed has a direct bearing upon the way congregations and even whole denominations address such church conflicts, and can profoundly impact whether or not such conflicts are addressed successfully and biblically.
There are basically three major forms of church government in the Christian world today: Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian. The Episcopal form of church government is a hierarchical form of government where church power is ultimately vested in the hands of bishops.
The Congregational form of church government is a democratic form of government where church power is ultimately vested in the local congregation.
The Presbyterian form of church government is a form of church government where church power is believed to be entrusted by Christ to congregationally-elected Elders who serve, along with the Minister(s), as Christ’s undershepherds, and who represent the congregation on the local leadership council (called the Session in Presbyterian parlance); and, when called upon to do so, in the governing body of the regional church (called the Presbytery) and the national church (called the General Assembly).
Therefore, Presbyterian church government is a representative form of church government which, unlike independent and non-denominational churches, expresses the connectionalism of the local congregations with the broader body of Christ at a regional (Presbytery) and denominational (General Assembly) level; which involves the spiritual oversight and governance of the church by a plurality of elders; and which provides clearly spelled-out checks and balances that provide accountability and minimize abuse of church power through an appellate church-court system that holds local congregations and their leaders accountable while at the same time guarding the rights and privileges of the local congregation.
Because of these characteristics of Presbyterian church government, and also because we believe that the Presbyterian form of church government is revealed and mandated in the Word of God, we believe the Presbyterian form of church government has distinct advantages over other forms of church polity.
First of all, the Presbyterian form of church government has many advantages when it comes to the spiritual rights and privileges of local congregations and individual church members.
In historic Presbyterianism every local congregation has the right to call its own Pastor, as opposed to some extreme forms of episcopal church government where the diocesan bishop either chooses the local parish priest or pastor, or at least has a large say in the selection of local church pastors.
Of course, in Presbyterianism a local congregation’s call to a potential pastor has to be approved by the governing body of the regional church, the Presbytery. (This is part of the “checks and balances” provided by Presbyterianism.) But ordinarily it is only in very rare and exceptional circumstances and for very weighty reasons that the Presbytery will deny a congregation’s call to a man to serve as Pastor. In all of this the local congregation’s rights are maintained and its spiritual well-being is guarded.
Local congregations also have the right to elect their own local Ruling Elders and Deacons to serve in the church. The Elders represent the people on the local church’s spiritual leadership council (i.e., the Session). The Deacons minister to the mercy-ministry needs of the congregation.
In addition, most Presbyterian churches have clearly spelled out guidelines and procedures which guard both the rights and privileges of individual church members. (In The Orthodox Presbyterian Church these rights and privileges are clearly spelled out in The Book of Church Order, which you can read on the OPC’s website, opc.org.)
Thus, for example, let us say that a church member has come to have serious concerns about the doctrinal soundness of the Pastor, and believes his concerns are not being properly heard and addressed by the Pastor and Session. In such circumstances the church member doesn’t just have to pack his bags and find another church. There are clearly spelled out avenues for bringing his concerns before the Presbytery (the governing body of the regional church), thereby providing both accountability and appropriate checks and balances. In serious cases such matters of church concern and conflict may even be taken all the way up to the governing body of the national church, the General Assembly, for deliberation, guidance, and decision.
In independent and non-denominational congregations which follow a congregational form of church government, such outside accountability and assistance is simply not available, at least not at any kind of official or binding sense.
Closely connected to the above, a second advantage of Presbyterian church government is that it provides for the accountability of church leaders, and in this way it serves to guard church members from spiritually abusive church leaders. It also guarantees that the local Pastor, or some other strong personality on the Session, doesn’t become the local king, the “head honcho” whose word is absolute law. Because of the fact that each Ruling Elder and Pastor has an equal vote in the church’s governing assemblies (Session, Presbytery and General Assembly), the Presbyterian principle of a plurality and parity of elders helps to rein in domineering personalities and prevent the potential abuses of a one-man rule.
As a Minister in the OPC, my official membership is in the regional church (the Presbytery). That means that I am directly accountable to my Presbytery. Should I ever start teaching heresy, or fall into scandalous sin, or start abusing Christ’s sheep by a dictatorial leadership style, I can be called to account by my Presbytery, and if necessary even censured and removed from church office. Knowing this is actually a great comfort for me, as it should be to the congregation I serve, because I know the sinful tendencies of my own heart, and God in His grace uses this system of accountability and spiritual oversight to keep me spiritually in check.
Finally, Presbyterian church government is a great advantage to the church’s Pastors, because it is designed to provide pastoral care not only to the members of the congregation, but to the Pastor himself.
The question is sometimes asked, “Who pastors the Pastor?” Churches which follow the episcopal system may be able to point to the diocesan Bishop, but in churches that follow a congregational or independent system of polity (which would include most independent, non-denominational churches today) there is no official means of providing pastoral care to the Pastor himself.
Statistics have shown that a large percentage of Pastors end up burning out and leaving the ministry. Pastors are sometimes held to such a high standard of expectations that they can find it difficult to develop transparent friendships. Because of such expectations they can sometimes feel isolated, detached and alone, leading to discouragement which they feel they need to hide behind a public persona of confident spirituality. “After all, isn’t the Pastor suppose to have it all together, spiritually-speaking?” seems to be the thinking. In churches which follow an independent or congregational form of polity, there is no official mechanism in place to minister to the pastoral needs of the Pastor; and that can have a deleterious effect not only on the Pastor himself, but on the congregation he serves as well.
Because Presbyterianism is an inherently connectional system, when it is working the way it is suppose to it actually helps to provide pastoral care to the Pastors of the churches. For example, in our Presbytery (the OPC’s Presbytery of Ohio) each Session of each local congregation is suppose to get an annual visit from the Presbytery’s church visitation committee. Our Session recently had its annual visit from the Presbytery visitation committee. Yes, we talked about official church business and issues in the church, but ultimately this was a pastoral visit from representatives of our Presbytery. The brothers on this visitation committee offered us spiritual counsel and encouragement, they listened to us, and they prayed for us. It was such an encouragement to me and to our Elders that it caused me to realize just how thankful I am to be a Presbyterian, to be part of a connectional church that cares about my personal spiritual needs as a Pastor and a Christian.
Of course, we in the OPC don’t believe that following a biblically Presbyterian form of church government is essential to being a true church of Jesus Christ. We recognize that there are many faithful, gospel-preaching and sound churches which follow other forms of church government. The Presbyterian form of church government is not essential to the being of a true visible church. But it is greatly helpful to the well-being of the church.
And, of course, Presbyterian church government is only as good as the men who are entrusted with the government of the church. Following the Presbyterian form of church government is no guarantee that the church will avoid problems and conflict. The church is made up of sinners – including biblically Presbyterian churches. Nevertheless, when biblical Presbyterian polity is followed faithfully, it can be a great aid toward maintaining the purity, unity and peace of Christ’s church.
There are many advantages to following a Presbyterian form of church government. Won’t you consider biblical Presbyterianism?