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The Biblical Foundations for Presbyterian Church Government
A Commentary and Defense of the Foundational Principles for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), as Outlined in the Preface of the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO)
Note: These are the lecture notes for the second class of an 8-week series that I am teaching at Harvest Community Church, called “What Does it Mean to be Presbyterian?” Links to the other class lecture notes may be found at the end of this post.
In the second class in this series, our goal is to consider some of the foundational biblical principles for Presbyterian church polity. Especially, we want to see the regulative principle for church polity—that we draw what is our government from the Bible’s teaching about how Christ's church should function, whether by expressly set down in Scripture, or what may be deduced by good and necessary consequence from Scripture. Then, we will talk about a number of things in our polity that are properly considered “circumstances” of church government that we must think through by Christian prudence.
The Regulative Principle for Church Government
The “regulative principle” refers to the notion that what we do as a church must be regulated by God’s Word. In plain terms, this means that, when we gather as a church, we do what God has commanded—nothing more, and nothing less. Our regulative principle is often put in contrast with the normative principle, which suggests that the church may do anything (within reason) that God has not explicitly forbidden.
Most conversations about the regulative principle deal with matters pertaining to worship. Presbyterian worship is governed by the regulative principle, so that our corporate worship services involve only the elements of worship that God explicitly commands: Scripture, prayer, preaching, singing, and the sacraments. Worship according to the normative principle would be willing to incorporate other elements into worship that are not explicitly commanded, like dance or drama. We will consider the regulative principle as it pertains to worship later in this course.
Beyond worship, the regulative principle also pertains to church government. Classic Presbyterians talked about the distinction between church government that is jure divino (by divine authority) and church government that is jure humano (by human authority).1 As Morton Smith writes, “The distinguishing mark of true Presbyterianism has always been the commitment to the principle that the Bible is ‘the infallible rule of faith and practice.’ This means that the Bible not only tells us what we are to believe, but how we are to put our faith into practice.”2 While we acknowledge that there are circumstances of church government that must be guided by Christian wisdom alone, the only legitimate substance of our church government arises from what the Bible teaches—either explicitly, or by what may be inferred by good and necessary consequence (WCF 1.6).
The Preface to the BCO
Our Book of Church Order (BCO) summarizes the fundamental principles of biblical church government in the “Preface to the Book of Church Order.” While the BCO does not have a reputation of being particularly devotional, the Preface is breathtaking in its summary of the current and future state of the church under the reign and rule of King Jesus. In the rest of this study, we will work slowly through the text of the BCO, adding some light commentary as we go.
I. The King and Head of the Church
The opening paragraph of the Preface of the BCO traces all the way back to the 1646 “Form of Presbyterial Church Government,” written by the same Westminster Assembly who published our Confession and Catechisms:
Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government rests, whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom to order it and to establish it with judgment and justice from henceforth, even forever (Isaiah 9:6-7); having all power given unto Him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23); He, being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints (Ephesians 4:10-13).
This first paragraph grounds the government of the church on the authority of the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Particularly, this paragraph draws attention to the kingship of Jesus “who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom….” In his commentary on this paragraph, F. P. Ramsey writes, “As the Church is a kingdom erected by its King, it is in place first to treat of the King. Then the kingdom itself may be more fully described.”3 Indeed, the fact that the visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” (WCF 25.2) explains why all church government must be jure divino, according to a regulative principle: because the church is under the authority of King Jesus. For any human being to legislate laws to bind the church of Christ is to usurp the role of King Jesus.
Jesus Christ is not only King; the Preface continues by declaring that Jesus personally holds all the offices of his church:
Jesus, the Mediator, the sole Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Head of the Church, contains in Himself, by way of eminency, all the offices in His Church, and has many of their names attributed to Him in the Scriptures. He is Apostle, Teacher, Pastor, Minister, Bishop and the only Lawgiver in Zion.
Jesus personally holds all the offices of his church in himself—including as “the only Lawgiver in Zion.” Ramsay rightly notes that “not even Moses is called a lawgiver in the Scriptures.”4 Smith writes, “With Christ as the only Lawgiver, we recognize that the Church is not a legislative body, but merely a declarative body. That is, Christ is the one who has given the laws by which the Church is to live. The Church’s task is to seek to understand and the meaning of these laws to the world. It is not her task to write new laws for the Church.”5
Although Jesus Christ personally contains all the offices of the church in himself, he graciously mediates his authority through officers:
It belongs to His Majesty from His throne of glory to rule and teach the Church through His Word and Spirit by the ministry of men; thus mediately exercising His own authority and enforcing His own laws, unto the edification and establishment of His Kingdom.
Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.
Notice the thorough control our Lord exercises over his church. It is he who appoints offices, utters oracles, and enjoins ordinances. The church’s system of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship are his, for he has laid them down in Scripture—either expressly, or to be deduced by good and necessary consequence. Nothing is to be added, and nothing is to be taken away from the fullness of our Lord’s commands for his people. Smith observes, “In this [section], the Presbyterian Church in America declares that she believes in what is sometimes called the jus divinum principle of church government. We believe that both the doctrines of faith, and also the basic principles of church government, discipline, and worship have been given to us in the Word.”6
So, while Christ involves men as officers in his church, the “principle must not be lost sight of, that it is Christ who rules and teaches the Church by the ministry of men, and not they who rule and teach the Church for him. They are not themselves governors, but the media [i.e., intermediaries] of the only Governor.”7
Finally—but hardly of least importance—this first section of the Preface concludes with a strong statement on the role of the Holy Spirit in the government of the church:
Since the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven, He is present with the Church by His Word and Spirit, and the benefits of all His offices are effectually applied by the Holy Ghost.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Two founding fathers of the PCA, Robert Cannada and W. Jack Williamson, draw out the significance of this statement when they write that “The dynamic of the visible church is the Holy Spirit….Any discussion of the courts of the church should bear in mind that they are instruments of the same Spirit who fills each individual Christian, all of whom individually and collectively should be submissive to his leadership ‘speaking in Scripture’ (Westminster Confession, I, 10).”8
II. Preliminary Principles
The preliminary principles of the Presbyterian Church in America are adapted with only minor modifications9 from the preliminary principles that were first adopted in 1788 by the Synods of New York and Philadelphia, and then adapted by the First General Assembly of the PCUSA in 1789.10 The original introduction to these principles from 1788 is worth reproducing in full:
The Synod of New York and Philadelphia, judging it expedient to ascertain and fix the system of union, and the form of Government and Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in these United States, under their care; have thought proper to lay down, by way of introduction, a few of the general principles by which they have been hitherto governed: and which are the groundwork of the following plan. This, it is hoped, will, in some measure prevent those rash misconstructions, and uncandid reflections, which usually proceed from an imperfect view of any subject; as well as make the several parts of the system plain, and the whole plan perspicuous and fully understood.11
Again, we will work through these principles, offering some brief commentary on them as we go.
First Preliminary Principle: God Alone is Lord of the Conscience
The first preliminary principle deals with the conscience:
1. God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.
The first sentence of this first principle is a restatement of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2. While all Christians would agree that Christians should be free from any commandments that are contrary to the Word of God (a), the regulative principle of church government is stated in (b): “which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God.” That is, the Church has no authority to legislate commandments that God has not commanded in the Bible. This idea deals with what the Church may teach and apply.
The second sentence, on the other hand, deals with how the Church may teach and apply all that Christ has commanded us. Specifically, we believe in the universal and inalienable “rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion.” Morton Smith explains this idea well:
Though the Presbyterian view of the Church is a high view, and does esteem those who minister the Word highly, it does not maintain that private Christians are bound to submit without hesitation to all decisions of church officials. Each man has laid upon him the responsibility to examine the Word of God and to determine for himself its meaning….The right of private judgment is viewed as a divine right, and a divinely given responsibility.12
Finally, while the first two statements are positive statements of principle, the third statement states the negative implication: we reject the establishment of any church by the civil powers. This principle of disestablishmentarianism also finds its expression in the 1789 American Revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.3.
Second Preliminary Principle: Church’s Right to Define Terms of Association
The first preliminary principle dealt with the rights of liberty of conscience before the Lord for the individual. The second preliminary principle deals with the rights of the Church to define admission into membership:
2. In perfect consistency with the above principle, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.
While the Church cannot coerce an individual about what to believe, each Christian Church, union, or association of particular churches may set parameters of membership for both ministers and members. That is, every Church has the right to define the terms for membership, fellowship, and office-bearing in the Church.
Importantly, this principle then explains that a Church’s determinations on these matters does not infringe on the liberty of the individual, even if the Church errs in the standards it sets for admission or communion. The principle is simple: no individual is coerced to join any particular church, and no Church is coerced to bend their principles to admit into communion a candidate who falls outside the standards they set for membership. The individual has liberty and the Church has liberty.
In the PCA, this means that Sessions determine who is admitted into membership into a particular church and who is qualified to serve in the offices of Ruling Elder and Deacon for that particular church. Similarly, Presbyteries determine which ministers are qualified to be admitted to serve congregations as pastors. Some Sessions may have different requirements for membership than others, and some Presbyteries may have different requirements for ministers than others.
At the 48th General Assembly of the PCA in 2021, this became an important principle. One Presbytery had made the determination to admit a man as a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery who held certain theological differences with the Westminster Standards; however, that Presbytery then also forbade that man from teaching his different viewpoints in ministry. Two previous General Assemblies inquired into this practice, as to whether this was a violation of liberty of conscience of the minister, as protected in the first preliminary principle.
The 48th General Assembly, however, exonerated the Presbytery by appeal (in part) to the second preliminary principle: it is no infringement of the liberty of the minister, since he was not coerced to join the Presbytery.13 (I fully agree with this conclusion; I helped to write the minority report that advocated for this decision.)14 The man has liberty not to minister within the bounds of this Presbytery, and the Presbytery has liberty to set the terms of his communion within the Presbytery. In this case, the Presbytery may grant certain doctrinal exceptions from the Standards of the PCA, but the Presbytery is not required to do so—and even if they grant an exception, they are free to restrict the teaching of that exception within their Presbytery’s bounds.
Third Preliminary Principle: The Responsibility of Discipline
If the individual has liberty of conscience, and the Church has liberty to set the terms of communion, how are conflicts between these two liberties to be resolved? The third preliminary principle answers this question:
3. Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.
Membership in the Church is voluntary; no member has been coerced into joining, but freely choose to do so based on agreement with the doctrines and practices of the Church. If a member persistently and unrepentantly transgresses the teaching and practices that the Church requires for membership, this Preliminary Principle states that it is the duty of the officers of the Church to censure and/or cast out the erroneous or scandalous. This must never be a personal vendetta or flex of power, though, but must be done only “observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.”
The point of this principle is not to make officers of the church litigious and overly scrupulous with members of the Church. Rather, the point is to explain that officers must be the ones to cultivate, exercise, oversee, and enforce the peace, purity, and unity of the Church. No member can be compelled to believe something against his conscience, and no Church can be compelled to receive or keep a member who is disqualified from membership. Only the officers, however, are empowered to deal with such conflicts.
This principle may seem to end at an ominous note; however, the following principles will help explain the checks and balances on officers from misusing or even abusing this authority.
Fourth Preliminary Principle: Godliness Requires Truth
The fourth principle explains why we take doctrine so seriously:
4. Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according to our Saviour’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). No opinion can be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon the same level.
On the contrary, there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
The reason we protect (1) the individual’s right to conscience, (2) the Church’s right to set the doctrinal terms of admission, and (3) that Church officers have a responsibility to cast out the “erroneous,” is that godliness requires truth. Now, truth certainly may sometimes be misused to “puff up” instead of to edify (1 Cor. 8:1). Nevertheless, genuine love/godliness is impossible apart from truth. In other words, truth alone may not be sufficient for godliness, but truth is necessary for godliness. False doctrine produces bad fruit, and good doctrine is a necessary precondition for holiness.
Fifth Preliminary Principle: Forbearance on Third-Tier, Convictional Issues
If the fourth principle articulates the need for truth, the fifth principle identifies the limitations of the truth that we may know in this life:
5. While, under the conviction of the above principle, it is necessary to make effective provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
This principle has a special focus on teachers, since teachers will be the ones teaching the doctrine that is so essential for godliness (Fourth Preliminary Principle). Churches must give careful examination to anyone who would seek to be a teacher (Jas. 3:1). Nevertheless, we recognize that there is much that the Bible does not definitively answer, so it would be a mistake to require absolute certainty on issues that go beyond what the Scriptures teach (First Preliminary Principle). The upshot of this is that we all—teachers, private Christians, and Churches alike—must all exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
What, then, are the points of forbearance? One common way of describing this difference is of the difference between the following:
Credal (First Tier) issues like the Trinity and justification by faith alone
Confessional (Second Tier) issues like infant baptism, church government, etc.
Convictional (Third Tier) issues like politicians to support, schooling options, etc.
All Christians must hold to the credal issues, or they are not a Christian at all. If someone will not affirm the credal doctrines, we will not receive them into membership or (if they are already members), we will pursue church discipline to bring them to a knowledge of the truth.
Confessional issues are also of the deep importance. Nevertheless, we recognize that confessional issues are less clear in the Bible (and, hence, more debatable). They are, however, issues on which every truly Christian church must interpret one way or another. So, we do practice infant baptism, and we do so because we believe that it is biblical. Furthermore, we will preach, teach, and practice these confessional issues as thoroughly biblical.
Even so, we relate to those who do not agree with us on confessional issues in a different way than we relate to those who do not agree with us on credal issues. If someone holds to the biblical credal issues, we regard that person as a brother in Christ, even if they disagree on confessional issues. We even allow those who disagree with us on confessional issues into membership, so long as they can affirm the credal issues as summarized in the PCA membership vows. These issues are important, and they may cause a person to move to another gospel-preaching church, but we still recognize that they are Christians.
Finally, we have no official positions on the convictional issues. We will neither teach, preach, nor discipline over convictional issues.
For our teachers, we require that they hold to both our credal and confessional distinctives; however, we do not investigate their convictional positions, since we do not believe that we have biblical warrant to do so. Our teachers will teach about credal and confessional issues, but they will not direct the church on convictional issues. While we should be unified on credal and confessional issues, it is on the convictional issues that we should exercise forbearance toward each other.
Sixth Preliminary Principle: The Power to Elect Resides in the Society
The Fifth Preliminary Principle insists on the importance of doctrinally sound teachers (since godliness is founded on truth; see Fourth Preliminary Principle); however, this does not mean that anyone who can pass a theology test can insert himself as an officer in a church. Also, this does not mean that a Presbytery has a right to foist a pastor onto a particular church. On the contrary, the church must call their leaders:
6. Though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of officer investiture, the power to elect persons to the exercise of authority in any particular society resides in that society.
This is an important biblical principle that we see in the New Testament: the church chooses her leaders. We see this in at least two contexts:
Acts 6:3–5:  Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. (ESV)
2 Corinthians 8:19  And not only that, but he [Titus] has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will. (ESV)
This is one important check on the power of church officers: they must be elected by the church in the first place! In the election of pastors, the congregation calls the pastor, but the Presbytery examines the pastor for his doctrine. Unless both the congregation and the Presbytery approves of the pastor, he cannot become the pastor of that church.
Seventh Preliminary Principle: All Church Power is Ministerial and Declarative
The Church has power; however, the nature of that power is strictly limited:
7. All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience. All church courts may err through human frailty, yet it rests upon them to uphold the laws of Scripture though this obligation be lodged with fallible men.
The power of the Church is only ministerial and declarative. That means that the Church can only do two things: (1) to minister God’s Word, and (2) to declare God’s Word. The Scriptures alone are the “only rule of faith and practice.” We can only teach God’s Word and to apply it to peoples’ lives.
Notice here the term “church courts.” The Church is not the legislative branch of Christ’s Kingdom, since Christ himself is “the only lawgiver in Zion.” Furthermore, the Church is not the executive branch of Christ’s Kingdom, since that prerogative belongs to King Jesus alone. The Church, however, has “courts” which judge difficult cases on the basis of God’s Word. Although we are frail, so that we both can err and do err, our task is to “uphold the laws of Scripture.”
Eighth Preliminary Principle: The Church is Spiritual
The eighth preliminary principle flows from the ministerial and declarative nature of the church:
8. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church.
The Church must not be coercive. While the Church must seek the discipline of the members of the Church, that discipline is “purely moral or spiritual,” which we accomplish through teaching and censures. The greatest censure, however, is excommunication. So, we do not apply the kinds of penalties that the civil government can compel, such as fines, imprisonment, or execution. The most we do is to cut people off from the membership of the Church—and even then, we do so in the hopes that they will repent from their sins and return in repentance and faith in Christ (1 Cor. 5:5).
Conclusion to the Preliminary Principles
The section of preliminary principles ends with this exhortation:
If the preceding scriptural principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of government and discipline, applied with pastoral prudence and Christian love, will contribute to the glory and well-being of the Church.
Note here the explicit claim that these are “scriptural” principles—that is, that they arise from the Bible. That has been a theme we have seen from the beginning, that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Even our preliminary principles must be biblical! As such, these principles should be “steadfastly” adhered to, with both “vigor and strictness,” and “pastoral prudence and Christian love.” If so, then, these principles will both glorify God and build up the Church.
III. The Constitution Defined
The definition of the constitution of the PCA may be surprising:
The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word Of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.
Notice that the Bible is not a part of our constitution. The reason for this exclusion is clear: the Bible is above our constitution. All of our constitutional documents are (1) written to reflect the teaching of the Bible, and (2) able to be amended to better reflect the teaching of the Bible, should we discover error in our documents. The Bible, however, is entirely free from error, so that it must be our norming norm, standing above all our other governing documents.
One important point for the PCA is that the Directory for Worship is not constitutional in its entirety. There are a few provisions that are fully constitutional authority, including material on membership and the sacraments (BCO 56, 57, and 58), as well as our statement on the nature of marriage in BCO 59-3. The rest of the Directory for Worship is what is called “pious advice”: helpful perhaps, but not binding on PCA officers or churches.
The fact that the rest of the Directory for Worship was never adopted as constitutional has contributed to widespread diversity within worship in the PCA. Two worship services by two different PCA churches may seem like they have very little in common with one another. This situation is constitutionally permissible, even though significant problems arise from it.
The Ministers of Sion College, ed. by David W. Hall, Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici or The Divine Right of Church-Government (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, 1995; Originally Published in 1646), 7 (§1–2).
Morton H. Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, 6th ed. (Taylors, SC: Presbyterian Press, 2007), 15.
F. P. Ramsay, An Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1898), 8.
Ramsay, Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline, 9.
Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order, 17.
Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order, 17.
Ramsay, Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline, 9–10.
Robert C. Cannada and W. Jack Williamson, The Historic Polity of the PCA (Greenville, SC: A Press, 1997), 4–5.
“The modifications are primarily linguistic, not in content.” Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order, 19.
“Appendix A: Preliminary Principles Adopted in 1788 by the Synods and Adapted by the First American General Assembly in 1789,” in The Historic Polity of the PCA, 49–51.
“Appendix A: Preliminary Principles Adopted in 1788 by the Synods and Adapted by the First American General Assembly in 1789,” in The Historic Polity of the PCA, 49.
Smith, Commentary on the Book of Church Order, 20.
“Minutes of the Forty-Eighth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America” (MGA48) §48-25, p. 25–26.
“Committee on Review of Presbytery Records Minority Report” in MGA48, p. 630–33.