This represents the second in a series of guest posts by Charles Williams, Ordained Elder at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler (OPC). The series contain four parts: An Argument from Experience, Reason, Scripture, and the Benefits of Presbyterianism. You can read part 1 here.
Part 2: Reason.
If experience is an insufficient means of convincing you to be Presbyterian, I figured the second thing I could do is point to reason. We could look to the fourth century BC thinker Aristotle – without question one of the most influential thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition. He was the pupil of Plato, and the tutor to Alexander the Great. Aristotle is renowned for many things, one of which being the manner in which he contemplated the nature of politics in Greece.
Greece, of course, was not a homogenous nation-state like we think so today. Rather, it was a region composed of hundreds of independent city-states (poleis), each polis with its own self-governing constitution. Aristotle examined the constitutions of 158 city-states, and categorized them all according to the manner in which they were ruled. If the leaders exhibited virtue (virtue being defined in relation to one’s fidelity to the common good), then the city-states were ruled by one (monarchy), by few (aristocracy), or some form of mixed rule (democracy – though it must be admitted this looks nothing like what we would consider democracy to be today). If the leaders were a bunch of knuckleheads, then these three good forms of government could devolve into its evil-doppelgangers: tyranny, oligarchy, or anarchy.
So far, so good. Fast-forward 2,500 hundred years (because nothing ever important happened between ancient Greece and the American Revolution, right?) and one could easily recognize the influence Greco-Roman political theorists held over the framers responsible for organizing the great American democratic experiment. Careful considerations of other forms of political governance simply validate the contention that democracy is the best form of government – or, to paraphrase Churchill, the least worst of all possible forms.
(And If you don’t believe me, you need only let Dennis the Constitutional Peasant fill you in on why you are, in fact, wrong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOOTKA0aGI0.)
On the one hand, such arguments are reasonable. We do need a form of government that prevails against the threat of anarchy. Congregationalism in all its forms (Baptist, non-denominational churches, or the recent and ambiguous concept of “networks” – whatever that means) fails to combat that. But we also need a form of government that prevails against the threat of tyranny. Herein lies the failure of Episcopal (i.e., Roman Catholic, Anglican) modes of government.
From this perspective, Presbyterian adequately has in place a system of checks and balances intended to combat the tyranny of the clergy and the anarchy of the masses.
But here’s the problem: Presbyterian polity is not simply a sanctified version of American democracy. Though it has certain affinities with democratic forms of government, at its heart, Presbyterianism is not democratic. Rather, it is essentially theocratic in nature. One merely need to look at the Book of Church Order (BCO) in two leading conservative Presbyterian denominations: the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) to recognize this. In neither case does the BCO begin by talking about “the rule of the people by common consent” or that the goal of Presbyterian polity is to provide equality to all, etc. Rather, the first chapter in Presbyterian polity reminds us of the fact that Christ is King over his church.
The Protestant Reformations concerned themselves with a lot more than simply discussions of the nature of the Lord’s Supper – though this was pivotal. They were concerned with more than matters of soteriology – though this was central as well. It can be argued that what lay at the heart of the Reformations – be it Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, or even Tridentine Catholic reforms – lay a concern for a reform of church worship. And for the Calvinistic tradition, the bedrock – that is, the starting point – of Reformed ecclesiology was this: as King, Christ governs his church.
Reasonable political theorists point to democracy as the Simon & Garfunkel of political polity, when in reality it is more like Hall & Oates or (even worse) The Eagles. In failing to take into account the reality of the nature of sin in all people – not just the haves to the exclusion of the have nots – democratic models have merely opened up the door for sinful people from all kinds of economic, racial, gender, and sexually-oriented backgrounds to grasp for power. They still haven’t dealt with the problem of inequality and oppression which stems, not primarily from the macro-structures of economic blah-blah-blahs, but from the sinful human heart.
In other words, not only experience but also reason constitutes insufficient means to convince you why you ought to be Presbyterian. Whereas experience simply points to church polity as being a thing of personal preferences, reason would probably point you more in the direction of democracy. And democracy just won’t cut it. To cite one famous guy who probably somewhere said it: “That dog won’t hunt.”
The Bible is clear: Christ is King. If he governs his church now (cf., Ephesians 1:20-23), then we ought to consider what else the Bible says regarding how Christ governs his church. To put it bluntly: if I am to convince you that church government matters, and that that the proper form of church government is Presbyterianism, then neither experience nor reason can be the grounds for argumentation. We must look to the Bible itself to see what it says.