The Form of Presbyterian Church Government
Six Biblical Principles for Governing Christ's Church
Note: These are the lecture notes for the third 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.
Since the church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” (WCF 25.2), we are not free to govern the church in any way we wish. If the church is indeed Christ’s kingdom, then we must obey the mandates of the King in how we structure his church. That is, we must draw the form of church government directly from what the Scriptures themselves teach.
Now, many raise an objection at this point, asking whether the form of church government is all that important. After all, even Presbyterians would not say that the form of church government is essential to salvation. Why, then, should we make such a fuss over it?
This is an old objection, one that an Irish Presbyterian named Thomas Witherow (1824–1890) answered powerfully. While he acknowledged that it is right to distinguish our views on church government from the first-tier, credal doctrines that are essential for salvation, he further argued that this point does not make our views on the form of church government unimportant. He wrote:
But if all the other truths of revelation are unimportant, because they happen to be non-essentials, it follows that the Word of God itself is in the main unimportant….Though every statement in the Scriptures cannot be regarded as absolutely essential to salvation, yet everything there is essential to some other wise and important end, else it would not find a place in the good Word of God….The law of the Lord is perfect. Strike out of the Bible the truth that seems the most insignificant of all, and the law of the Lord would not be perfect anymore.1
If King Jesus lays down certain precepts for the governing of his kingdom, we sin greatly if we ignore them.
Importantly, this does not mean that we are suggesting that the Bible was written to serve as a treatise on church government, or that it addresses every possible question we may have. Once again, Witherow is helpful to clarify two principles about what we can reasonably expect from the Bible on the subject of church government:
1. The apostles, writing to Christians who were themselves members of the apostolic church, and of course well acquainted with its organization, did not judge it necessary to enter into detailed descriptions of the Christian society. To do so would have been unnatural. They do occasionally state facts bearing on church government, and hint indirectly at prevailing practices. These hints and facts were sufficiently suggestive and intelligible to the persons originally addressed, but by us, who live in a distant age, in a foreign country, and among associations widely different, they are not so easily understood.
2. They do not even arrange such facts as bear upon the question in systematic order. If man had had the making of the Bible, it would have been a very different book; but as that circumstance was not left to our option, we must take it as we find it. On examination, we see that it teaches nothing in scientific order. Even morality and doctrine are not there arranged in regular system, but are conveyed in detached portions, and our industry is stimulated by having to gather the scattered fragments, to compare them with each other, and to work them up into order for ourselves. So ecclesiastical polity is not taught in Scripture methodically. But away over the wide field of revelation, facts and hints and circumstances lie scattered, which we are to search for, and examine, and combine, and classify. Now, all do not agree in the arrangement of these facts, nor in the inferences that legitimately flow from them, nor in the mode of constructing a system from the detached material.2
All this acknowledges that we must insist that the Scriptural principles for the form of church government are of vital importance, and we must do all that we can to contend for what Christ has laid down for the government of his church. Nevertheless, we must also take a good degree of humility into this effort. We must ask hard questions of ourselves (especially regarding whatever system of church government may be most familiar to us), and of the text of Scripture. We must allow others to ask penetrating questions about why we do what we do, and (again) allow those questions to drive us back to the Scriptures.
This humility does not mean that we classify every question as “debatable.” Instead, this should drive us to distinguish between the biblical principles for church government laid down in Scripture, and the various circumstances which “are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word” (WCF 1.6).
The Biblical Principles for the Form Church Government
In this class, we will examine six biblical principles for the form of church government:
The word “church” has only one meaning; however, “church” has various applications in Scripture.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of his church; however, King Jesus administers the rule of his reign through officers.
King Jesus originally gave five offices in the New Testament church; however, he now works through the two offices of elder and deacon.
King Jesus endows his church as a whole with authority; however, that authority is exercised on behalf of the whole congregation by a plurality of elders.
King Jesus alone gives officers to his church; however, King Jesus calls his officers by the election of the church.
King Jesus assigns the elders of each particular church to oversee its own congregation; however, King Jesus also calls the elders of various churches together to oversee each other and all the churches collectively.
We will examine the biblical warrant for each of these principles in turn.
Principle 1: The word “church” has only one meaning; however, “church” has various applications in Scripture.
The New Testament word for “church” (ἐκκλησία; ekklēsia) literally means “a calling out.”3 Beyond this literal meaning, the word refers to an assembly. The Scriptures use this word in a common sense to describe the pagan “assembly” at Ephesus that turned into a riot in defense of the goddess, Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19: 32, 39, 41).4 More frequently, the word “is applied, in its sacred sense, to the church of Christ, which is a society of men called of God, by the gospel, unto the faith and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of God in him.”5
When the word “church” appears in this sacred sense, the word has only one meaning: “an assembly of the people of God—a society of Christians.”6 Nevertheless, while the word has one meaning, Witherow offers this caveat: “Though the meaning of the word church is always the same in Scripture, let it be observed that its applications are various. It is applied, at the pleasure of the writer, to any society of Christians, however great, or however small.”7
Along these lines, there are five ways that the word church is used in Scripture:8
Any particular congregation. Paul gives special greetings that Paul gives to specific churches in someone’s house.
Colossians 4:15  Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (ESV)
Romans 16:5  Greet also the church in their house…. (ESV)
Several congregations, described jointly as a single church. Congregationalists (e.g., Baptists) sometimes argue that church only takes the first sense, referring to a particular congregation. This assertion is flatly contradicted by the word’s usage in Scripture.
1 Corinthians 1:2  To the church [note: singular] of God that is in Corinth… (ESV); cf. 1 Corinthians 14:33–34  …As in all the churches of the saints,  the women should keep silent in the churches [note: in the context of v. 33, describing all churches everywhere, v. 34 clearly refers to the churches (plural; i.e., your churches) in Corinth. Corinth therefore was a church, composed of many churches.].... (ESV)
Acts 2:46  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes [note: after 3,000 people believed (Acts 2:41), these people attended temple together but then separated to break bread in individual homes, which contained individual churches; cf. Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15].... (ESV); cf. Acts 8:1  …And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem [the many individual churches in Jerusalem are also considered one church]…. (ESV)
Acts 9:31  So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria…. (ESV): “...a clear instance of the word church being applied to the Christians of a country, viewed as one collective society, though in reality divided into many separate congregations.”9
An assembly of the overseers of the church, assembled as a court of the church. Congregationalists argue that the entire congregation has a role in judging cases of church discipline because they limit the meaning of the word “church” to mean “particular congregation.” Again, this is not the correct usage in the most significant such passage where church appears:
Matthew 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (ESV): “In such an injunction our Lord referred to the synagogue Court known and established among the Jews, which had its elders and officers for the decision of such matters of discipline; and in the expression ‘the Church,’ which He made use of, the Jews who heard Him must have understood the authorized rulers, as distinct from the ruled, to be the parties who were determine in such controversies.”10
The whole company of God’s people from all ages, gathered as one in Christ (i.e., the invisible church). This appears frequently to describe the whole church for whom Christ died. We will look at just a small sample of the various uses of this sense of the word church.
Ephesians 5:25–32  Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,... This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (ESV)
Colossians 1:18  And he is the head of the body, the church…. (ESV)
The body of all those who publicly profess faith in Christ, along with their children (i.e., the visible church). This application is very close to #2; however, this definition also captures the mixed-multitude nature of the visible church, like the church of the Old Testament, especially by the covenantal inclusion of children.
Acts 8:3  But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (ESV)
1 Corinthians 7:14  For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (ESV)
Importance for Presbyterianism: Presbyterianism uniquely recognizes (1) the particularity of individual congregations, (2) the connection between particular congregations, AND (3) the joint oversight for the whole church, as exercised by the courts of the church. We will return to unpack the significance of each of these definitions for the “church” in the Sixth Principle.
Principle 2: The Lord Jesus Christ is the only Head of his church; however, King Jesus administers the rule of his reign through officers.
Jesus Christ is declared throughout Scripture to be the only head of his church, which is his body:
1 Corinthians 11:3  But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (ESV)
Ephesians 1:22–23  And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church,  which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (ESV)
Ephesians 4:15–16  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (ESV)
Colossians 1:18  And he is the head of the body, the church…. (ESV)
Colossians 2:19  …and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (ESV)
Nevertheless, Jesus administers the rule of his reign through officers. To understand the picture, we Americans must leave behind our notions of a constitutional republic, and instead think about the nature of a monarchy. In a monarchy, the Sovereign commits the establishment of a government in his name to ministers—one minister leading the whole government (the prime minister), and the other ministers having charge over other departments of the government (e.g., the foreign minister, the minister of state, etc.). The Crown retains the reign of the country; however, it is the ministers who establish the rule (i.e., the government) of the Crown’s reign.
This is the system of government that Scripture describes for Christ’s kingdom:
1 Corinthians 3:5–9  What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each…. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (ESV)
1 Corinthians 4:1  This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (ESV)
1 Timothy 5:17  Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (ESV)
Hebrews 13:17  Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (ESV)
We should even remember that the Great Commission was given to the disciples particularly, and not to all Christians generally:
Matthew 28:16–20  Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them…. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)
Importance for Presbyterianism: The Roman Catholic Church denies the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ over the church by attributing to the pope the unbiblical and unhistorical designation as the visible head of the church on earth (Christ being the invisible head of the church). On the other hand, Congregationalism denies the ministerial role that Christ entrusts to the officers of his church to establish the rule of Christ’s reign. Presbyterianism maintains the proper biblical balance that insists upon the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ, while also affirming the ministerial role of officers.
Principle 3: King Jesus originally gave five offices in the New Testament church; however, he now works through the two offices of elder and deacon.
If King Jesus establishes the rule of his reign through officers, we must inquire into the identity of the officers. Originally, Christ appointed five offices in the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, elders, and deacons (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 3:1–13; Tit. 1:5–9). The first three were “extraordinary offices,” who were “endowed with supernatural gifts and extraordinary authority.”11 The latter two were “ordinary offices,” which were established perpetually in Christ’s church.
Christ himself selected apostles to be his “witnesses” (Acts 1:8)—witnesses to the totality of his public ministry, “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” and, particularly, “[witnesses] to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). While most apostles were directly appointed by Jesus Christ himself (Luke 6:13), Matthias (who replaced Judas) was selected by casting lots (Acts 1:26). Paul was directly appointed by Jesus, but “last of all,” as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8).
The apostles exercised Christ’s authority doctrinally (Matt. 16:17–19) and in discipline (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5:3–4). The authority of their ministry was confirmed by miraculous signs: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor. 12:12). The Scriptures indicate that the ministry of the apostles was temporary. We do not see new apostles appointed to replace the old, and we do not see other people replacing their function in the church. Apostles were appointed for a temporary purpose.
Prophets in the New Testament did not possess the same authority as did the apostles, but their ministry overlapped with the apostles in significant ways, so that Paul insists that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). The prophets were involved in two major ministries. First, the apostles sometimes foretold the future (Acts 11:27–28; 21:10–11). Second, the prophets “had the power of declaring the mind of God generally, and without reference to the future, being inspired to preach or proclaim Divine truth, as it was revealed to them, in an extraordinary manner by the Spirit.”12
We must remember that in the early church, the New Testament had not yet been written. The early church therefore studied the Old Testament Scriptures, but the prophets in the early church functioned by giving immediate, inspired revelation from God to accurately build up the church in the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Today, we do not need ongoing prophets in this sense, since we have the authoritative word of God laid down for us in writing in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
Smyth writes: “Evangelists were extraordinary officers, suited to the infant state of the church, who were commissioned to travel under the direction and control of the apostles, that they might ordain ministers and settle congregations, according to the system laid down by Christ and his apostles.”13 There are two individuals who are explicitly identified as evangelists, and one who is implicitly so.
First, Acts 21:8 identifies Philip (one of the seven deacons appointed in Acts 6) as an evangelist. This helps explain why Philip preaches in Samaria (Acts 8:5), baptizes men and women there (Acts 8:12), and then leads the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ and baptizes him (Acts 8:26–40). He does this not so much in the capacity of his office as deacon, but in his office as evangelist.
Second, in 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul urges Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Timothy accompanied Paul on his journeys (Acts 16:3), and Paul also sent Timothy to minister on his behalf (Phil. 2:19–24).
Third, Titus clearly functions in a similar manner to Timothy. Titus accompanies Paul on his labors (Gal. 2:1), and Paul sends Titus on his behalf (2 Cor. 8:16–24). We get a particularly concise definition of the work of an evangelist in Titus 1:5: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you….”
One of the two perpetual offices in the church is the office of elder (1 Tim. 3:1–7). This office of elder (πρεσβύτερος; presbyteros) is referred to by a number of terms, including “overseer/bishop” (ἐπίσκοπος; episkopos; Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:7), “pastor/shepherd” (ποιμήν; poimēn; Eph. 4:11); “teacher” (διδάσκαλος; didaskalos; Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; Heb. 5:12; Jas. 3:1). Smyth argues that the “angel” of each of the seven churches in Revelation are also pastors of those churches (e.g., “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write…”).14 We know that these all refer to the same office because of the way that the words are used interchangeably (e.g., “elder” and “overseer/bishop” in Acts 20:17, 28).
The role of an elder is to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (1 Pet. 4:2). Elsewhere, Paul insists that this shepherding requires elders to “rule” in the church, especially by preaching and teaching the word of God (1 Tim. 5:17). In general, the ongoing work of elders is to exercise the keys of doctrine and discipline—to preach/teach the word of God, and to minister the word of God to the church.
The office of deacon is the second of the two perpetual offices in the church (1 Tim. 3:8–13). This office was originally established to assist the elders in the church’s work of mercy ministry, since it is not right for elders to “give up preaching the word of God to serve tables….But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4). Thus, the office of deacon is an honorable role of spiritual service by ministering to the physical needs of people.
Importance for Presbyterianism: Presbyterians deal carefully with the (admittedly) scattered biblical data about church office. We recognize that three of the offices were important, but extraordinary (and, therefore) temporary. But, we also recognize that Christ has given only two perpetual offices of elder and deacon. This excludes an additional office of “bishop” in some Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican), where “bishop” is understood to be a hierarchical position that individually oversees lower churches and priests. Even the advocates of such systems of government flatly acknowledge that this view is nowhere recognized as Scripture, but they hold that the office legitimately develops through church history. Presbyterians take our polity of Scripture, which leads us to a different method of overseeing the churches—namely, through a plurality of elders organized in a graded court system. We will turn to this topic next.
Principle 4: King Jesus endows his church as a whole with authority; however, that authority is exercised on behalf of the whole congregation by a plurality of elders.
As we saw above in Principle 2, the Bible speaks about the church as the body of Christ, where Christ is the head of the church. Since the idea of headship conveys authority, the head/body imagery conveys the idea of Christ’s authority over his church. Paul makes the meaning of this imagery clear in Ephesians 5:
Ephesians 5:22–24  Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV)
Headship deals with authority, and those under the headship of another must submit to their head.
By confessing that Christ is the sole head of his church, we mean that Christ alone possesses authority in his church. Christ has, however, entrusted to the church certain powers related to the keys of the kingdom: the key of doctrine (Matt. 16:13–20) and the key of discipline (Matt. 18:15–20). By these keys, Christ promises that whatever his church binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever his church looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. The doctrine of the keys of the kingdom does not mean that the church has the power to legislate her own doctrine, but to declare it; not the power to make magisterial pronouncements, but to minister what Christ has taught.
To whom, though, has Christ given these keys? In one sense, it is clear that Christ has given this authority to the whole church, since the church of the living God is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In another sense, though, Christ has charged his officers with establishing the rule of his reign (as we have seen). Specifically, he has directed that this authority be exercised by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Tit. 1:5).
For Presbyterians, the biblical imagery of the church as a body, made up of different members, is key (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–31). Presbyterian theologians will often relate the idea of authority with the sight of the body, as exercised by the eyes. On the one hand, not everyone is an eye to exercise sight, and yet the ear may not say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” for if “the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Cor. 12:16–17).
Furthermore, leaders should not think too highly of themselves: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). The eyes alone exercise the function of sight; however, the eyes do so on behalf of the rest of the body. That is, their sight is a gift to the rest of the body, enabling the rest of the members of the body to work according to their own gifts.
The question of where church authority is vested, then, is complicated. James Bannerman gives a clear, but nuanced, answer: “in the first instance, the power of the Church has been committed by Christ to the whole body of believers; while…in the second instance, Christ has appointed a government peculiarly in the hands of Church officers.”15 Authority belongs to the church as a whole, but it is exercised uniquely by the officers.
Importance for Presbyterianism: Presbyterians have a high view of church authority, but they combine that with an extensive system of checks and balances. So, Presbyterians do not apologize for upholding the biblical doctrine that Christ exercises the rule of his reign through a plurality of elders in his church. On the other hand, they do not see the elders as somehow exalted above the rest of the church. Rather, the elders exercise Christ’s authority on behalf of the rest of the body of Christ.
Principle 5: King Jesus alone gives officers to his church; however, King Jesus calls his officers by the election of the church.
The Scriptures declare the glorious truth that Christ gives officers as gifts to his church:
Ephesians 4:7–11  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.  Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”  (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?  He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers… (ESV)
In a very real sense, Christ alone selects his elders.16
Nevertheless, we also see the truth that churches must select their own leaders:
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 principle was forged out of a period of church history where churches were saddled with pastors who did not have the training or the desire to shepherd the sheep. Many believers suffered under a pastor that was a “hired hand” who “cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:13). These shepherds neglected the sheep, and the sheep languished from it: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” (Ezek. 34:2). After searching the Scriptures, the church recognized the cherished fact that Christ gave his people the ability to choose their own shepherds. This is not an infallible protection, but it is an important protection in the pastoral care of God’s people.
Importance for Presbyterianism: Presbyterian recognizes the role of the congregation in calling officers. All officers are elected by the congregation, rather than being assigned by some outside authority. In the case of pastors, congregations must vote to call pastors and presbyteries must examine and approve pastors. In the case of ruling elders and deacons, congregations must vote to call these officers, and the session examines and approves them for office. By this process, church authority rests on the consent of the governed and benefits from rigorous doctrinal and character examination before ordaining and installing men to office.
Principle 6: King Jesus assigns the elders of each particular church to oversee its own congregation; however, King Jesus also calls the elders of various churches together to oversee each other and all the churches collectively.
As we saw earlier, the pattern of the early church was to install a plurality of elders to oversee every particular congregation (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). Related to this is a critical principle for biblical polity: a graded court system.
The classic text for a graded court system is in Acts 15. There, a dispute arose in Antioch by those who were teaching that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). In Antioch, “Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question” (Acts 15:2). In Jerusalem, the church (along with the apostles and elders) greeted them (Acts 15:4), and then the “apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). The lower church court was able to send a question up to a higher church court, where their question could be considered.
Although the Apostle Peter says many important things in the debate (Acts 15:7–12), as well as the Apostle Paul (Acts 15:12), it is an elder, James, whose speech carries the day (Acts 15:13–22). The decision is made, and the decision is carried to other churches, who were “strengthened in the faith, and…increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:4–5). The higher court answered a question from a lower court, and carried that decision to other churches under the oversight of the higher court.
This system is not new to the New Testament, but was inherited from the Old Testament/Jewish method of overseeing the church. While each synagogue had a bench of elders to oversee the local congregation, there was also a regional governing council, called the “Presbytery,” and the high council, called the “Sanhedrin.”17 The word “Presbytery” (i.e., council of elders) appears in three places in the New Testament:
When day came, the assembly of the elders [πρεσβυτέριον; presbyterion] of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes…. (Luke 22:66)
“...as the high priest and the whole council of elders [πρεσβυτέριον; presbyterion] can bear me witness….” (Acts 22:5)
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders [πρεσβυτερίου; presbyteriou] laid their hands on you. (1 Tim. 4:14)
The connectional, graded court system has been God’s plan to oversee his church since the days of Moses, when Jethro encouraged his son-in-law to establish a system of graded courts for people to take their disputes (Ex. 18).
Importance for Presbyterianism: One of the greatest strengths of Presbyterianism is the connectional nature of the church. Each church is not an island to itself. Rather, each church is overseen by the elders and churches in the nearby region, and each church helps to oversee the other churches. As disputes arise, those disputes can be considered in presbyterian courts, with the right to appeal to higher graded courts in the pursuit of biblical justice. This does not mean that the courts never err; however, it is a great safeguard against too much power being concentrated in the hands of too few. More than that, our graded court system is not based on human wisdom or expediency, but on the clear teaching of God’s word.
Thomas Witherow, “The Apostolic Church: Which Is It? An Inquiry at the Oracles of God as to Whether Any Existing Form of Church Government Is of Divine Right,” in I Will Build My Church: Selected Writings on Church Polity, Baptism, and the Sabbath, ed. Jonathan Gibson (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2021), 86–87.
Witherow, “The Apostolic Church,” 99, emphasis added.
Walter Bauer et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 303.
Thomas Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church: For the Use of Families, Bible-Classes, and Private Members (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1841), 5.
Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, 6.
Witherow, “The Apostolic Church,” 93.
Witherow, “The Apostolic Church,” 94.
These definitions and prooftexts are all taken from Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, 6–12.
Witherow, “The Apostolic Church,” 97.
James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church (1869; repr., Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 15.
Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, 37.
Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 753.
Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, 39.
Smyth, An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, 47–50.
Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 290.
“It may be fairly concluded, therefore, that these passages teach us that God alone makes elders.” (Lawrence R. Eyres, Elders of the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1975), 7.)
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), 193 (§2–12).