God the Holy Spirit) and that God in the Scriptures has laid down a pattern not only of doctrinal truth and personal and corporate (Church and Society) behaviour and practice, but also the framework and many of the details of the structure and organisation of His Church. The believers duty and responsibility (and sin if he fails this) is to seek out the word and will of the Lord for His bride the Church, and seek earnestly to make all things ‘according to the pattern shown on the Mount’. That the Bible does regulate means (without offence to other sincere Christians who do not see or accept this) that there is a ‘Divine Right’ (Jus Divinum) in Church government and polity, and the enlightened believer had a duty to seek it out, apply it as truly as he may, and wholeheartedly join with that polity. The closer believers and Churches get to Scripture, the closer they approach each other.
Historically Christian Churches have either been structured by the secular State in artificial patterns modelled on the military or civil hierarchies of the nations, or in stark contrast, have been gathered and organised at the ‘grassroots’ local level on the principle of independency and self-sufficiency. Between these two norms lies the middle way, the way that consciously endeavors to apply the Biblical pattern. Broadly speaking that way is Presbyterianism. Seen in this fashion we do not argue for one choice among many. Our plea is for submission in faith to God’s word. Our polity is subject always to review and improvement and fine-tuning according to that word. Without boasting (for we owe everything to God in His sovereignty) we claim that our polity is as near as we can make it to the Biblical pattern, and we challenge others to consider it in that light, and prayerfully weigh up their own responsibilities before the Lord in this important matter.
Existing Presbyterians, fallible and fallen humans as we all are, are certainly guilty of sloth in failing due study of their polity, safeguarding it constantly by the benchmark of the Bible, knowing just why they are Presbyterians. If that is your situation this book is an essential read and resource for you. It should be on the ‘regular reading’ list of every officer and member, and used in Church and home to educate our children.
Christians seeking a Church to join, perhaps new converts or new arrivals in an area should understand their solemn responsibility before their Lord to find out and adhere to the local Church that stands most firmly on the regulative pattern of God’s word (not the one that pleases us most at first sight- Churches are emphatically not goods on display in the shopping mall!) Here is a great guide and help to you. Remember that the choice you make involves the honor of God Himself- and He is interested in that!
What, in brief outline, are the bones, the core, of Scriptural Church polity?
Firstly, we must note that Scripture is a unified whole, one revelation unfolding redemptive history from Genesis to Revelation. Older Testamental patterns continue, unless shown to be typological, that is spiritually fulfilled in the coming and atoning ministry of Christ Jesus. Thus the Jerusalem Temple is fulfilled in the world wide Church, the Priests in the Christian ministry (and the priesthood of all believers), the sacrifices in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on Calvary’s cross and its commemoration in the bloodless Lord’s Supper, and circumcision in the bloodless rite of baptism. The Synagogue pattern for local gathered worship had nothing typological about it, and as the Book of Acts and the Epistles show us that the earliest, Apostolical, Churches were synagogues of those recognising and united by faith to the Messiah. The Reformers and their successors attempted to revive this pristine polity, with its flexibility and adaptation to all nations and situations, for the Church restored. It is this polity that we call Presbyterianism. No other denomination echoes the Biblical Synagogue structure so closely.
Secondly, the Synagogue pattern at the time of Christ, and Presbyterian polity following it in later ages, incorporates a wonderful system of ‘checks and balances’ between the rights and responsibilities of the membership and the Elders locally, and between local Churches and the wider denomination, from the Church on your doorstep to the Church across the nation. Domination by a hierarchy on the one hand, or chaotic ‘majority rule’ on the other are prevented. This arrangement of representative government has even been noted and imitated by some of the best democratic governments in the world, as its simplicity and strength surely betray something beyond mere human devising.
Thirdly, the Church is governed, according to this pattern, by its Eldership. Elders are recognised by the people for their God-given gifts, trained and set aside ‘by the laying on of the hands of the Presbytery’ (1. Timothy 4:14), and comprise those who both teach and rule (Pastors or Teaching Elders) and those who rule but do not preach (Ruling Elders). Elders represent the people, but are not subject to majority Church decisions: as in any truly representative democracy they listen to and serve the people, but they do so from a point of superior gifts, training and calling which the people recognise and defer to in Scriptural submission. The local elders, under the chairmanship (or moderatorship) of the Pastor or Teaching Elder constitute the ‘Church Session’: the Presbytery within the local Church. To demonstrate in practice the true organic unity of the Church local elders meet with representatives from other nearby sister Churches to consult and pool experience and wisdom, constituting combined or joint government and oversight of those Churches. Similarly this wider Presbytery chooses delegates to broader or regional Presbyteries, and they in turn send delegates to the widest or National Synod or Presbytery (usually held annually and called the ‘General Assembly’ of the Church). By this simple and flexible arrangement every Church member is present, though their representatives, at all levels of the Churches operation, has a voice that can be heard, and is indeed a part of an organic whole, the visible Church of Christ. Issues that are proper to the local Church are dealt with there without question: matters requiring a wider consultation, a broader consensus of knowledge and experience, or due appeal to the broader Church are dealt with at the appropriate level. There are really no higher or superior Courts (just as there are no superior ranks or officers beyond the Eldership): just a broader and wider trawl of the conjoint wisdom and experience God has gifted across length and breadth of the Church. At all levels submission to the decisions of the appropriate Presbytery (although subject to appeal in special cases) is voluntary: that is Pastors and Elders and people recognise that the combined and joint wisdom of the many is superior to the views of any one man (however ‘gifted’) and thus promise due submission in the Lord to this wider pool of spiritual experience. This godly deference recognises that the healthy functioning of a Church requires a team effort: the task is beyond any one man alone and unaided. It avoids the authoritarian rule of a hierarchy, and the often no less authoritarian rule of the one-man (mini Pope) syndrome experienced in many Independent Churches.
But we must ask ourselves seriously: is this pattern, which we attempt to follow and apply in Presbyterian Churches really and truly the Biblical one? As we have seen there simply is not a whole variety of potential ways of structuring Churches. There have only ever been three basic alternatives, whatever variations there have been are still are within these groupings: Episcopacy (or hierarchy), Presbyterianism (or corporate democracy) and Independency (or absolute local democracy).
The Episcopalian system rarely makes attempt at having a Scriptural mandate or pattern. It is an historical development within the early Church under the Roman Empire, which was greatly promoted by the converted Emperor Constantine, with a view to dealing with the Church as a rigidly structured ‘third estate’ along the lines of the Roman Army and Civil Service, with a head man or commander in chief that the Emperor could consult (and instruct!) and who could then pass orders ‘down through the ranks’. Episcopalianism is usually urged from expediency and pragmatism, rather than from any Scriptural mandate of Divine Right.
On the other extreme Congregational Independency sees each local Church as self sufficient and self standing, a microcosm of the invisible Church universal, spiritually united with all those who love the Lord Jesus in sincerity but independent in government from all other assemblies militant on earth. But it is here and now, in time and on earth, that Christ calls his Church to witness to and represent Him, and He regards that Church as being not disparate members but one organic whole: a single spiritual person, one body corporate, the Bride of Christ. When an Independent Church disclaims and refuses any form of joint rule or government with other Churches of like mind, any horizontal links with other parts of the Church militant on earth whilst claiming only vertical union with the Church invisible and triumphant in heaven, rejects anything that seems to restrict local autonomy or sovereignty it is, sadly, ignoring God’s own teaching on the unity of the body of Christ on earth. "For the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole body were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body." (1. Corinthians 12: 12, 14-20, KJV.) You see that in Independency the concept is that each local ‘body part’ of the bride of Christ is self-contained, and has no real organic connection with any other part except the Head, Christ. Scripture shows that the body is indeed one, a corporate ‘person’ and not disjoined members. This mandates professing and Bible obeying Christians to recognise and seek to exercise and demonstrate that bodily unity. Independency cannot do that.
But note carefully, on the other side, the teaching of verse 19: "If they were all ONE MEMBER, where were the body?" This verse should be a warning to all Episcopal Churches, for it clearly forbids the concept of the Church having one visible head on earth, or indeed of any hierarchy, or persons or Churches ruling above and over others. If you have a ‘head Church’ or ‘Head man’ (Pontiff or Archbishop) in effect the body is become all head, and where indeed is the co-equal body?
Between these two extremes, so carefully warned and guarded against in God’s word, there lies a Church polity based, as we have seen, on God’s tried and tested Older Testamental Synagogue system, and which endeavors to demonstrate and apply to ‘organic whole-one body on earth’ principle, without either disintegration on the and, or domination on the other. That polity is Presbyterianism, and it is more true and correct, more God pleasing (and will undoubtedly enjoy more of His favor and blessing) the closer it adheres to that Scriptural concept. And here we pause to openly acknowledge an historical failing amongst many, perhaps most, Presbyterian Churches. We have been too swayed by the world, too influenced by the lure of Church power and ‘big names’, too forgetful of the fact that the only name to be named with awe within the Church is that of Christ Jesus, that the elders are co-equal servants of Christ, and that the Church is all the vital, vibrant, living body of Christ on earth. When the world and its agencies feel a need to consult or approach ‘the Church’ at any time it naturally seeks an authoritative spokesman, it desires to ‘go to the top’. This may be a Pope or Archbishop, President of the Conference, or even a long-term ‘Moderator’. This pattern began, as we have seen, with the Roman Emperor Constantine who died in 337 A.D. It provides a convenient interface between the secular State and its agencies or the media and the visible Church. But it is, let it be said, a totally wordily concept, un-Biblical and un-Spiritual. The world’s structures desire the Church to be like itself, and far too often the Churches (even our Presbyterian Churches) have fallen for the lure and compromised in greater or lesser degree. And this is only possible when the Church loses sight of her spiritual nature, and her organic nature. Consider the Church as being (as it is) a body- a corporate person, made up of many parts, organs, members. Now ask this question: where within the body is the soul located? In the head or the heart alone? Clearly not- touch the body anywhere and you touch a place inhabited by, animated by, the soul. Then it is also true of the body called the Church. You do not need to go to a ‘head’ to get a contact with the body. Does anyone desire an answer from the Church? Let him approach the nearest, local, Congregation. It is a vital part of the body and competent to answer on behalf of the whole body. If the question is one that goes beyond the local Church, then the procedures are in place to pass it along to the wider ‘courts’, and if necessary right along to the national ‘General Assembly’, for consideration and reply by the very widest representative trawl of the wisdom of the Church. The world may have to wait a while for its authoritative response, but who said that the body of Christ must move to the world’s pace? This is Biblical, and this is Presbyterian. We dilute this wonderful and flexible structure, if we drift into any centralism or incipient ‘hierarchy’, and sadly our Churches have been prone to forget this. For that reason also a fresh study of Presbyterian polity is greatly needed, and this book is a very timely one.
If the questions are, as I believe, ones of obedience, of honoring God, of seeking His will prayerfully and honestly, then they concern the very health and well-being of the body of Christ on earth, and along with that her prospects of growth and success in our day. The issues are serious, and far transcend the mere ‘choice of a Church to join’, or those of rival systems and ‘polities’. If God has spoken, it is obedience and faith in His children to heed and seek, as best they can, to obey.
I believe that this book will aid them in doing just that.
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There are many Churches and Denominations on the evangelical scene around us, claiming faithfulness to Christ and the Scriptures, and yet, paradoxically, readers of the New Testament quickly sense that this was never what was intended, that ‘something has gone wrong somewhere’. Do Bible believing Christians (increasingly a beleaguered minority in modern society) simply accept this situation? If not, what can be done? One approach may be to seek an external, mechanical ‘unity’, based on tolerance of difference and a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to doctrine and practice. We have seen in our days how his view leads evangelicals little by little into the ecumenical movement, association with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and beyond that into the ‘inter-faith’ movement.
To avoid this danger there is really just, at root, one alternative: the view of the Reformers and Puritans and their successors, the firm belief that unity can only exist in the truth, that the truth lies in the Bible (with the interpreting aid of
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