This represents the fourth and final post in a series by guest contributor 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 (which flow from Scripture). You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
It has been my contention that neither experience nor reason are sufficient grounds to argue that church government matters. At the same time, both experience and reason validate the central concerns we see in the Old and New Testaments: (1) Appropriating the metaphor of shepherding to denote the comprehensive care he exhibits for his people, God shows particular concern for his sheep (Psalm 23; John 10:1-21); (2) God governs his people through appointed under-shepherds (Psalm 77:20); (3) The way in which God’s under-shepherds care for a central concern to God himself (Ezekiel 34); (4) Therefore, God, through his fully inerrant, infallible, authoritative, clear, and inspired Scripture, spells out how it is his sheep are to be cared for (1 Peter 5:1-5).
In other words, God has ordained the means by which he governs his church. And these means are spelled out in the pages of Scripture.
Why should I convince you to be Presbyterian? I would like you to consider three benefits that a Presbyterian polity has that exhibit the same concerns God has for his people.
First, Presbyterian government takes the nature of Christ’s present reign seriously. If Christ is the King, then the Pope is not. If Christ is the King, then the pastor is not. In other words, the power that the elders and deacons have are (to put it crassly) not legislative, but executive. Or to put it in more classical terminology: the power that church officers hold is not magisterial, but ministerial.
Note what I am not saying. I am not saying that, if Christ is king, then there is no authoritative structure whatsoever. The New Testament makes it clear that there are certain men in the church who are entrusted with specific duties and responsibilities that mandate a certain amount of authority be given (1 Tim. 3:5; Heb. 13:7, 17-18; 1 Peter 5:1-5). That is not the issue. The issue is the nature of such authority.
The elders are God’s under-shepherds. They are the means by which and through which Christ governs his people. They have a real authority, but at the same time this authority is a delegated authority. They do not have the right to enact new laws ex nihilo, but do have the God-entrusted responsibility of bringing the good and necessary consequences of the gospel to bear onto the daily lives of its members. (More on that in a moment.)
Second, Presbyterian government takes the fact that Christ rules his church (singular)seriously. Christ does not rule a bunch of independent churches. No, he rules his church. Christ’s kingdom is not comprised of a cluster of individual autonomous churches. This is not ancient Greece. We are not dealing with a host of churches divorced from one another who have the right to self-governance however they so please. Rather, Christ has laid down clear principles that are to be obeyed by all his people throughout the world.
My point here is that Presbyterianism takes seriously the interrelationship between various churches. In Acts 15, we see the first General Assembly (if I can be so anachronistic, and somewhat polemical), which brought the implications of the Gospel to bear on Jew/Gentile relations. Should Gentiles be circumcised? Nope. Why? because it infringed on the nature of justification through faith alone by grace alone (Acts 15:7-11). The nature of the gospel dictates how Christians relate to one another. Yet the issue of circumcising Gentile Christians was not a matter of personal opinion or taste, nor was it left to the local church to make up its own mind on the matter. Churches were not free to accept or reject the decree of the assembly as they saw fit. The assembly sent letters to the churches providing clear directives on how and why it was to be obeyed. In other words, the ordained ministers took Christ’s accomplished works and teachings, thought through the implications as it came to bear on a particular situation, and informed the rest of the churches how they were to act with respect to the question of circumcision.
In short, Acts 15 demonstrates (1) that Christ’s under-shepherds have, not a magisterial (or legislative) authority, but a ministerial (or executive) authority; and (2) that there is a close connection that exists among individual churches. Regarding the first point, Episcopalian (i.e., hierarchical, top-down) models of government fail to exhibit a ministerial use of church authority. Regarding the second point, Congregationalism fails to maintain close relations among themselves and other churches.
Third, Presbyterian government takes the reality of sin in the lives of both church officers and the laity seriously. Checks and balances are ensured to protect elders from congregational anarchy on the one hand, and are put in place to protect the laity from pastoral tyranny on the other. For instance, consider the fact that no accusation is to be entertained against a church officer unless there are two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). This keeps individuals who are resolved to destroy the reputation of an elder from wielding too much power. Or consider the ways in which the BCO ensures that a congregation cannot give a teaching elder the boot if his preaching against sin hits a little too close to home for the congregation. (Recall Jonathan Edwards’ fate at Northampton.) At the same time, 1 Timothy 5:19 implies, then, that if an elder has acted unlawfully, he is to be held accountable for his actions. The Bible is clear, in fact, that teachers in the church are to be held to a higher standard of accountability (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:4-9), because they will be held to a stricter judgment at the Last Day (James 3:1).
Our present form of church government, in other words, is the means by which Christ governs his church now. Christ is not an absentee landlord, but is one who is present with his people, and is one who rules his church by his Word and by his Spirit. Presbyterian polity rejects any attempt to legislate new morality, but at the same time entrusts office-bearers with real, legitimate authority to execute Christ’s commands as it comes to bear on the lives of individuals in particular situations and circumstances by good and necessary consequence. And Presbyterian polity takes into consideration the reality of sin, to shield office bearers from unruly congregants, and to defend its members from power-hungry pastors.
To sum, ecclesiastical polity is not a matter of personal preference or individual taste, nor can we let reason alone dictate how we are to organize our churches, as if the church was simply just another voluntary association. Rather, we must let Scripture determine the way in which the church is organized and governed. The Bible tells us clearly that Christ presently reigns. He is not the CEO of a series of autonomous franchises, but rules his one church, singularly. And because Christ rules his one church by his Word and His Spirit through appointed (sinful!) office-bearers, who themselves are entrusted with the governance of (sinful!) sheep, Christ has instituted a system of checks and balances that take into account the reality of sin, all the meanwhile without undermining his present theocratic governance.
In other words, Christ rules his church, and his form of government is Presbyterian.