A composite image of the lantern ceiling of Westminster Abbey. Drawn up by the 1646 Westminster Assembly as part of the Westminster Standards to be a confession of the Church of England, it became and remains the “subordinate standard” of doctrine in the Church of Scotland, and historically has been the normative confessional standard for most Presbyterian churches worldwide.

Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 1

In Christian theology, ecclesiology is the study of the church, the origins of Christianity, the church’s relationship to Jesus Christ, its role in salvation, its polity, its discipline, its destiny and its leadership.

Ecclesia was used by the scribes of the Septuagintthe ancient version of the Hebrew Bible in Greek, which was familiar to the New Testament authorsfor the word congregation, as it appears in our version of the Old Testament. It is on this account that in the New Testament instead of the word congregation, we have church, which is the same as kirk or assembly. The suffix -ology literally means a word, a branch of knowledge or science.

Whenever people use the word “edify,” they usually mean it by its common definition which is to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge. It is from the Latin noun aedes meaning a house or temple, and its root is aedificare, a verb meaning “to erect a house.” As Scripture calls the covenant assembly a holy temple built up unto the Lord, for Christians to study the doctrine of the church is a literally edifying activity in many ways.

Ecclesiology as one in several parts of systematic theology

In order to understand the role of ecclesiology, we must consider it among other areas of theology, specifically, systematic theology. First, systematic theology itself is a branch of theology among several branches including exegetical theology, biblical theology, historical theology, apologetic/polemical theology, and ethical theology. Different Christian traditions and schools of thought recognize several branches of theology, but these are the major branches which are distinct from each other yet all inextricably related.

Systematic theology, in particular, deals with what the whole Bible teaches about a given topic and its relation to other topics. It often refers to an organized and comprehensive presentation of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Many systematic theologies have been written throughout church history especially since the Protestant Reformation. Dr. Louis Berkhof, who wrote one such systematic theology which is widely read, stated that systematic theology “seeks to give a systematic presentation of all the doctrinal truths of the Christian religion” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 58). He explained that this is a “constructive” task, for it builds a structure of thought that brings each doctrine into clear formulation and organic relation to other doctrines. It is a “demonstrative” task, for it shows how every part of the system is deeply rooted in the Holy Scriptures. It is a “critical” task, for it neither jettisons the theological systems of the past nor blindly accepts any one of them, but compares all things to God’s Word in order to defend orthodox Christianity while deepening our understanding of God’s revelation.

Systematic theology itself may be divided into a number of different loci. In the fairly recently published Reformed Systematic Theology Vol. 1 by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, they propose an order of loci that is derived from a historical pattern in various systematic theologies:

  1. Prolegomena (Greek for “things spoken before”): preliminary questions about theology and the doctrine of the Word of God.
  2. Theology Proper: the doctrine of God (Greek theos), including God’s decree, providence, angels, and the demons.
  3. Anthropology: the doctrine of man (Greek anthropos), his creation in God’s image, the covenant with Adam, and man’s fall into sin and misery.
  4. Christology: the doctrine of Christ’s (Greek christos) person and work, including the covenant of grace and Christ’s offices, incarnation, humiliation, and exaltation in order to accomplish redemption.
  5. Pneumatology: the doctrine of the Spirit’s (Greek pneuma) person and work in and through redemptive history, including his empowerment of Christ and the church for missions.
  6. Soteriology: the doctrine of salvation (Greek soteria), the application of redemption by the Holy Spirit for the conversion, growth, and glorification of God’s people.
  7. Ecclesiology: the doctrine of the church (Greek ecclesia) and the means by which God applies grace to his people, such as the Word and sacraments.
  8. Eschatology: the doctrine of “last things” (Greek eschatoi), such as death and Christ’s return to judge the world and bring the kingdom of God in all its glory, including heaven and hell.

Earlier systematic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, later affirmed by Herman Bavinck and many other Reformed scholars, set forth that systematic theology approaches everything in its view from a very specific perspective: God and all things in relationship to God. Paul’s majestic doxology, or “word of glory,” caps his systematic explanation of God’s counsel in salvation, with (Romans 11:36) “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” Following the apostle’s example, this is the doxological perspective that the discipline of systematic theology seeks as it analyzes various doctrines: “from him and through him and to him.” From a God-glorifying angle, systematic theology informs us with truths that accord with godliness, leading to lives of authentic worship in spirit and truth.

We could spend a lifetime fleshing out the nuances of each of these major systematic subject areas briefly defined, as many more qualified scholars already have. So for our purposes here, we shall focus on the locus of ecclesiology, which entails the nature of the church in its various meanings that Scripture sets forth. For instance, the invisible church is the worldwide body of Christians, transcending denominations and traditions, as all those who are truly united to Christ by faith. The visible church is institutional: the congregational assembly where people outwardly identify as Christians, where takes place the preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline.

Different streams of Christendom and even traditions within Protestantism understand ecclesiology differently, and that necessarily shapes various forms of governance structure. The major configurations of Protestant church governance structure are Congregationalism, Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism.

Various biblical meanings for the word ‘church’

One famous Scottish Presbyterian scholar, James Bannerman, Doctor Divinitatis (1807-1868), taught every dimension of ecclesiology in his university lectures that were eventually compiled into his massive The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church. In his words, “There are five different but closely allied meanings of the term ‘Church’ to be gathered from Scripture.” Verbatim:

  1. The word Church signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour. (cf. Matthew 16:18, I Corinthians 3:16-17, II Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 5:21-32, I Peter 2:5, Revelation 21:2, 9, 22:17)
  2. The term Church is made use of in Scripture to denote the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ. (cf. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-49, Acts 2:47, I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11-12)
  3. The term Church is frequently employed in Scripture to denote the body of believers in any particular place, associated together in the worship of God. (cf. Acts 2:41, 47, 4:4, 5:14, 14:23, 8:1, Romans 16:3-5, I Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15)
  4. The word Church is applied in the New Testament to a number of congregations associated together under a common government. (cf. Acts 5:11, 8:1, 15:1-41)
  5. The word Church is applied, in the New Testament, to the body of professing believers in any place, as represented by their rulers and office-bearers. (cf. Acts 6:1-7, 14:23, 15:22-23)
    (The Church of Christ, Part I, Nature of the Church, Chapter 1, The Church as Defined in Scripture, pp. 7-14)

Ecclesiology is weaved throughout the entire fabric of Scripture, although Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is especially concerned with the ecclesiological category.

(Ephesians 2:11-22) “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

The church of the Lord Jesus Christ, although a figurative structure, may be likened to a literal structure, in that it has an architect, a builder, schematics, a foundation, building materials, building equipment, project managers, construction statutes and ordinances, a production schedule, and what have you.

Ecclesia, “the called-out ones,” is a covenant assembly, a temple that is metaphorically built to be God’s holy sanctuary: the place where God dwells, the place where God’s glory is revealed, the place where God is worshipped, and the place where the blessings of Messiah are poured out.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687), a Genevan-Italian Reformed scholastic theologian, set forth several reasons to orient us to the necessity of studying the doctrine of the church (Institutes of Elenctic Theology 18.1.1). His first is that “the church is the primary work of the holy Trinity, the object of Christ’s mediation and the subject of the application of his benefits. For he came into the world and performed the mediatorial office for no other reason than to acquire a church for himself and call it (when acquired) into a participation of grace and glory. Hence, the offices and benefits of Christ, having been explained, the order demands that we discuss the church, to which alone they are destined and come to be applied.”

Turretin, in claiming that the church is “the primary work of the holy Trinity,” means that among all of God’s external works creation, providence, his ordering of history to its divinely appointed end the church is the zenith of his work. At this apex of the Lord’s accomplishment, he is gathering and perfecting the saints. In saying that he is “the object of Christ’s mediation and the subject of the application of his benefits,” he is answering the question, “For whom did Christ die?” The answer is the church. The location of his benefits, where the blessings of his saving work are procured and poured out, is in the church. After having discussed Christology the person and work of Christ logically, the next topic is ecclesiology.

Dr. Scott Swain of Reformed Theological Seminary has taught, “Ecclesiology is the direct implicate of Christology.” That is, we might not fully understand Christology unless we understand how Christology leads to the church: its creation, its preservation, and its perfection under King Jesus’ reign and rule.

Building the Lord’s structure according to his apostolic blueprint

According to what plan does a builder build a house? The builder must have in mind some sort of blueprint that he and his team should go by, and his activity in building is aimed at realizing that structural picture in his mind’s eye.

Consider the feature photo of this article, which is a composite upward image of the immense nave ceiling at the Westminster Abbey in London, England. A composite image is several photos taken at different angles merged together to get the entire perspective of one object. (This is an article series about Presbyterianism, and the Westminster Abbey obviously is Anglican rather than Presbyterian, but we’ll just appreciate the beauty of the image and go along with the illustration.)

As we read in Ephesians 2, God has revealed his plan to unite Jews and Gentiles through Christ, through the gospel, as one body, built up as a temple. The purpose of redemption is that his covenant people are his holy sanctuary, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, walking in his presence, serving and worshiping him, the special beneficiaries of the intimacy and blessing of having God among them.

We recall that in Exodus, the external sign and symbol of the purpose of the Lord’s redemption was the tabernacle. When the time arrived for the Israelites to build the tabernacle and craft all its paraphernalia, 

(Exodus 25:1-2, 8-9, 40) “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel … And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. … And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.” 

(Exodus 29:45-46) “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.”

The Lord instructed Moses exactly how to build the tabernacle with its contents in every detail, and Moses was to follow the Lord’s specifications to the letter. God brought Israel out of Egypt “that I may dwell in their midst,” making them his covenant assembly. The identity of Israel as God’s covenant assembly is closely related to the concept of the tabernacle as God’s sanctuary. The tabernacle that was built in the wilderness and later the temple that was built in the Promised Land both were constructed according to the pattern that God assigned Moses on the mountain.

The reason such specific commandments for worship were given to Israel is because they were dealing with a holy God: as finite and fallen creatures, with hearts, minds, intellects and wills distorted by sin, we do not know how to approach a holy God unless he tells us how to approach him. We only know how to worship this great and mysterious God insofar as he reveals that we should worship him. This is the basis for Reformed theology’s so-called regulative principle of worship. 

What was happening at Sinai was that God from his heavenly throne room was touching down to earth: the mountain was the place where heaven and earth met. There, Moses was revealed a heavenly blueprint for the tabernacle which was a terrestrial facsimile intended to prefigure the celestial authentic. That tabernacle was according to the true architectural design, but it was only an earthly model for the actual construction of the heavenly and eschatological tabernacle where God’s people would dwell. 

(Hebrews 8:1-7) “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’ But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.”

Jesus Christ was not simply another prophet revealing God’s will. It is in and through Christ that God’s ultimate purpose for his church is revealed (Hebrews 1:1-4). This is how the Old Testament culminates in the New Testament, and how the New Testament is understood only with the background of the Old Testament.

Besides Ephesians, Paul in several of his other epistles developed the temple analogy of the builder and his workers, showing how the suffering of the apostles the back-breaking work of brick-laying prove the sturdiness of the edifice that will endure the test of fire in eternity.

(I Corinthians 3:4-17) “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

(II Corinthians 4:7, 5:1-3) “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. … For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.” 

(II Timothy 1:8-14) “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

(Ephesians 3:14-21) “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

(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.”

God is building his church through secondary causes: we are the church, and somewhat counterintuitively, the church builds the church. There is a lot of accountability in Paul’s temple-building metaphor: we as God’s workers are accountable to the foundation, to be true to the cornerstone. No one can lay a foundation other than what the Lord already laid, and we are called to build upon his foundation wisely, carefully following the apostolic blueprint, the pattern of sound words of his instruction. Our work must square with that design. But even instruments which cause the erecting of the building have no intrinsic power to accomplish anything, which is why prayer is crucial to the entire building project. Peter further iterated Paul’s point that although this is our calling, the Lord himself strengthens us for the monumental task.

(I Peter 4:10-11) “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Cross-testamental continuity of Reformed ecclesiology

Notice the connection of the following two passages from both Testaments of Scripture. The Old Testament teaches:

(Exodus 19:2-6) “There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

The New Testament teaches:

(I Peter 2:4-10) “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,’
‘A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

“A living house” has a dual sense: a lineage of priests, and a house in the sense of a temple. The church is God’s building project, and Christ is the mediatorial instrument by which God builds the church. And yet, the church is also his body, with Christians as its members. It is in Christ, the true and faithful temple-builder, that David’s aspiration to build for the Lord a permanent structure is realized, and the Davidic Covenant itself finds its ultimate fulfillment and a true Davidic king to rule forever (II Samuel 7, I Kings 8, cf. I Kings 2:4, Revelation 3:7, 22:16).

Reformed ecclesiology is a two-testament ecclesiology: it sees in Scripture the story of one true God, fulfilling one redemptive purpose, on behalf of one covenant community. Reformed hermeneutics thus determines that the methods God prescribed for his covenant assembly during the Old Testament are legitimately carried forward into the New Testament as normative for practice, except where there is an explicit New Testament redirective otherwise. 

Presbyterianism defined

Reformed theology finds its basis for New Testament church order in the Old Testament system of the synagogue, which was government by congregationally elected elders as part of a larger system of connected synagogues. To be presbyterian is to govern a church by a body of elders. But to simply govern by a plurality of elders is not what it means to be presbyterian, by the biblical definition or by any historical definition of this word. Presbyterianism, defined, is a polity — church governance structure — consisting of a plurality of elders elected by the congregation, which is represented by that session of elders in a graded system of church courts. The people elect their own elders, otherwise their elders do not represent them. Church officers represent in practice whoever choose them, logically, whether those are members or other officers. If elders are unilaterally appointed by elders, then we should not be surprised when those elders rule in the interests of those who rule, not of those who are ruled. Yet, the spiritual qualifications for church officers (I Timothy 3, Titus 1), which almost all are character-related, are identified in men not only by the clergy, but also by the laity (Acts 6:1-7, II Corinthians 8:19). 

Several questions and answers from An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, by the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D.D. (1808-1873), are helpful to understand what historical, orthodox Presbyterians claim to believe their title means throughout history and today. This catechism was published in New York in 1843 by an American Presbyterian, the same year that a tectonic event was unfolding across the Atlantic Ocean in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which we’ll explore later in this series.

Chapter 2. Government of the church.
Section 2. Of the Presbyterian form of church government.
64. What form of church government do you believe to be most agreeable to the word of God, and therefore to be most properly entitled to the claim of divine right?
That plan of church government which is denominated Presbyterianism.
69. Why was the term “Presbyterian” applied to those by whom it is now received?
When those scriptural principles on which the equality of ministers, and the government of the church by presbyters depend, were subverted or denied, this name was adopted to hold forth the attachment of those who embraced it, to that form of church government, and to those doctrines which are sanctioned by Scripture, in opposition to those forms and doctrines which are founded on human authority, and which had usurped their place.
(Acts 14:23, I Timothy 4:14)
71. What are the essential principles of the Presbyterian form of church government? 
The supreme Headship of Jesus Christ; the official equality of its ministers; the office of ruling elders, as representatives of the people; the election of the officers of particular churches by church members; and the authority of its several courts.
72. What is further essential to the constitution of the Presbyterian church?
It is essential to the constitution of the Presbyterian church that all her pastors be equal in authority; that the government and discipline in each particular church be conducted by a bench of presbyters or elders and not by all the communicants; and that all the several churches be bound together under the authority of presbyteries and other courts of review and control, as circumstances may render expedient and necessary.
73. Is it, then, necessary, in order to constitute any particular church Presbyterian, that it should be in formal connection with a presbytery? 
It has certainly been the unvarying doctrine of the Presbyterian church, founded on the word of God, that all particular churches should be united together, under one presbyterial government; and that any church, therefore, which remains in a state of isolated independency, or goes back to that condition, cannot be considered as a truly Presbyterian church.
74. What do you mean by the supreme headship of the Lord Jesus Christ? 
By the supreme Headship of the Lord Jesus Christ, I mean, that under him the whole number of the elect shall be collected into one house and family of God; that he has given to the catholic visible church the ministry and ordinances, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world; that he does, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto; and that further, besides the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no other Head of the church having authority to legislate for it, or to frame laws and institute officers, binding on the consciences of men.
(Psalm 2:6, Matthew 28:20, I Peter 5:3)

“Presbytery,” or a council of elders, is derived from a Greek word in many places in Scripture, in which the ministers of the church are called presbyters or elders. The King James Bible literally translates presbuteriou:

(I Timothy 4:14) “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.”

Many Christians even today believe that Presbyterianism is the polity that most closely follows the New Testament model, which itself is not an innovation of the primitive church. It is largely accepted as academic that a representative form of church government is traced in the New Testament not only through the first-century Christian church, but also through centuries of the Jewish synagogue system and even back to the Levitical priestly order, when the institution of offices began in Exodus. The remaining question for Christians after the apostolic age is whether or not the ecclesiological principles of the Old Testament warrant prescription also to the New Covenant. For Reformed theology, the answer is, of course, yes. The form of church government we’ve inherited is basically Jewish. 

Ecclesiology’s relevance for all Christians

Ecclesiology — the theology of the structure and nature of the Christian church — is a somewhat recondite, or at least, not a priority topic for most Christians. If we’re to be honest, most of us give little thought to church government until offenses occur that require remediation, or we begin to notice the vexatious symptoms of poor leadership decisions and trace them to the source, which often is structural and systemic. Meanwhile, many modern scholars have articulated the importance of ecclesiology for everyone. 

“We can easily assume a posture of resigned indifference toward the government of the church. It is particularly on such occasions that we must remember that biblical church government is the visible expression of Jesus’ present reign, and that church government is Jesus’ good and wise provision for the gathering and upbuilding of his church. Biblical church government is itself good, and Jesus works good through it for his church.
To understand the government of the church is to know and to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. … Such attention to the government of the church is inseparable from the believer’s discipleship. To show concern for the church is to show concern for Jesus. To seek the good of the church is to seek the glory of Christ. To care about and to be zealous for the government of the church is to prize and to cherish the reign of Jesus. May the Spirit of Christ work in his church increasing zeal for and attention to the government of the church until the day when Jesus ‘delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power,’ and God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:24, 28).”
(How Jesus Runs the Church, Guy Prentiss Waters, pp. 149-151) 

“Although Presbyterian churches, and some other Reformed churches, still maintain this practice in the use of presbyteries and general assemblies, the current of modern Christianity has drifted away from a respect for councils, their creeds, and their rulings on controversies. It seems that not only this confession, but the Word of God itself is calling us to heed councils not less, but more. The Westminster assembly did not overstep its bounds in calling Christians to receive the decisions of councils, at least those consonant with the Word of God, with ‘reverence and submission’.”
(Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 31: Of Synods and Councils, Chad Van Dixhoorn, p. 417) 

“Why is the doctrine of the church so important? As you know, the doctrine of the church hasn’t been that terribly important to North American Evangelicals … in North America at least, the church has tended to be a kind of subordinate doctrine. We’ve wanted to major on good majors like the gospel, and so forth, but in some cases, it has led Evangelicals to neglect ecclesiology, to underestimate the importance of the sacraments, and so forth. Well, this situation is a declension from true and healthy Protestant Christianity.”
(ST519: Ecclesiology and Sacraments, Reformed Theological Seminary, Scott Swain) 

“Paul laid plans for the transition from apostolic to post-apostolic Christianity in his Pastoral Epistles. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, he laid out a normative pattern for the church in the post-apostolic era. At a basic level, the church needed a stable, orthodox doctrinal testimony (a form or pattern of sound words) and a form of government, overseers and deacons. In short, Paul saw that the most important practical thing the church needed was a practical doctrine of the church herself. To survive after the death of the apostles, the church needed to be governed well in accordance with agreed doctrinal standards. …
Thus, a clear understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the church should be a priority for all Christian ministers, elders, deacons, and indeed informed lay people. Only when one knows what the church is can one fully grasp what her task is and what tools the Lord has provided for the accomplishment of that task. …
Bannerman, along with others such as Robert Smith Candlish and William Cunningham, was one of the finest ministerial minds in the generation of Scottish churchmen who lived through the events of the Disruption of 1843. Then, approximately one third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland left to form the Free Church of Scotland over the issue of patronage, or the question of who had the right to call a minister to serve a congregation: the patron or the congregation itself. The point may now seem for many to be somewhat antiquarian, but it goes to the heart of the issue of ecclesiology: the nature and administration of church power. Bannerman’s later writings on ecclesiology thus emerged from his own very practical experience of ecclesiastical debates and discussions.
… The church is God’s creature, not the invention of human beings. Indeed, the analogy between creation and the church which Paul draws in Colossians 1:15-20 makes this clear. And if the church is God’s creature, then the message she speaks, the rules she lives by, and the power she exerts are to be regulated by God and thus by God’s word. Hence, Bannerman’s approach to practical theology is, first and foremost, theological, because it has to do with God’s revelation.
Bannerman’s work is a very thorough treatment of ecclesiology which repays careful reading and reflection. It is worth noting, however, that at the very heart of the work lies the vital question of church power, its nature and extent. It is perhaps not overbold to say that mistakes made on this particular question will tend to vitiate the understanding of the church as a whole. …
Bannerman’s answer to the nature of the church’s power is straightforward: as Christ is head of the church, he is the source of her power. Because he is the source of her power, he is also determinative of the character of her power. That power is ministerial and spiritual and is exercised in three connected areas: the doctrinal, the sacramental, and the disciplinary. These are, of course, three marks that many in the Reformed tradition ascribe to the church: the preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the appropriate implementation of discipline.”
(Foreword to Bannerman’s The Church of Christ, Carl R. Trueman, pp. xi-xiv)

“I am thrilled to see this classic work on Presbyterian polity being reissued. And if you think ‘thrilled’ and ‘Presbyterian polity’ don’t belong in the same sentence, that’s just one more reason we need Bannerman’s book. In a day where the doctrine of the church is often thought obscure, irrelevant, and even divisive, Bannerman reminds us just how much our forefathers thought about this topic and just how much the Bible has to say on these issues. This big book on the nature and order of the church is more helpful, more contemporary, and more important than you might think.”
(endorsement of Banner of Truth’s re-release of Bannerman’s The Church of Christ, Kevin DeYoung)

The measure of biblical ecclesiology

As we observed earlier, different streams of Christendom have contrasting approaches to ecclesiology and criteria to gauge how a church is legitimate and true, which approaches further must shape their respective governance structures.

For instance, the Roman Catholic Church purports its legitimacy as the truest Christian church through “apostolic succession,” which it claims through the ordination of popes through the ages all the way back to the first century. So any priest who is in fellowship with the bishop of Rome has the power of grace under his authority to forgive sins and to effect transubstantiation through the Eucharist. Protestants do not claim this extravagant exclusiveness, however, to say that Protestants do not believe in apostolic succession would be an overcorrection of Rome’s claim. Protestants do believe in this concept, though it is not traced through men. Rather, for Protestants, a given church’s “apostolic succession” is proven in its apostolic fidelity, that is, how true that church is to the foundation of doctrine laid by the apostles in the New Testament.

A 20th-century theologian said that apostolicity is the concrete criterion for discerning the identity of the true church. In other words, we know how faithful a church is by observing how closely it follows the apostolic blueprint. During the time of the Reformation, the most distinguishing mark of a Reformed church was the place it afforded to Christ in its ecclesiology. The Reformers believed that Rome’s fundamental error was in exalting the bishop of Rome to his prelatic position, which functionally dethroned Christ from his rightful position over the church. Since Reformed theology understands who Christ is in relationship to his church, ecclesiology is inextricably linked to Christology. Presbyterianism, in claiming to be biblical, is corrective of the Roman Catholic concentration of power which principally, and therefore practically, denigrated Christ’s authority and how he delegates it to his body. 

Congregational appointment of officers is in the spirit of the New Testament, in that “general office” of the royal priesthood serves Christ’s threefold ministry as our Prophet, Priest and King. The church as a royal priestly people assembles at Mount Zion to gratefully receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, to offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. Throughout the sermon of Hebrews, its author calls upon the entire congregation to be engaging in prophetic, priestly and kingly work. Everyone in the church should be committed to mutual prophetic exhortation and mutual pastoral oversight: 

(Hebrews 3:12-13) “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” 

(Hebrews 12:15) “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” 

For the imperative Greek “see,” the author used the plural present participle active verb (V-PPA-NMP) transliterated as episkopountes, meaning, to exercise oversight (cf. I Peter 5:2). As the word is elsewhere used by the apostles, it could be translated, “Exercise pastoral oversight toward each other,” with church officers as well as members looking out for roots of corruption that would threaten the creedal marks of the church: unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. 


For the purposes of our study, we will look at the polity of Presbyterianism, which is subsumed under the locus of ecclesiology, but which of course overlaps with other theological loci. Presbyterianism in its various forms ingeniously distributes Christ’s ministerial and declarative authority throughout both the clergy as well as the laity. In this way, justice is accessible to Christ’s entire body, with church power theoretically functioning both top-down and bottom-up.

Presbyterianism, a representative form of church government, when it was recovered during the Protestant Reformation was intended to functionally come alongside Republicanism, a representative form of civil government. Just as Christians are citizens of a popular sovereignty that is terrestrial, exercising our civic duty to vote (Romans 13:1-7), so also we are citizens of a much greater popular sovereignty that is a heavenly kingdom, the city of the living God (Hebrews 12:22-24). As a people endowed with such dual citizenship, one is intrigued to wonder how the transcendent holy nation of the Lord Jesus Christ would be impacted if all its citizens would bring to its elections more of the sense of responsibility, the concern, the enthusiasm and the intensity that we often seem to bring to our country’s elections.

Teaching Ecclesiology and Sacraments at RTS, Dr. Swain mused,

“The church isn’t just kind of a temporary institution. One day the institution of marriage will cease. One day the institution of the state will cease. … One day, any number of cultural institutions will have realized their purpose and all that will remain will be their good fruits in the eternal kingdom. But the institution that will last forever is the church. And the reason that the church will last forever is because it’s the place where the eternal God dwells, where his glory is manifest, and where his glory is returned unto him in praise. … Remember [John] Piper’s thing? ‘Mission exists because worship does not.’ … The church does not exist merely for the sake of mission. Mission exists to build the church. Now, the special and striking feature about the church, of course, is that … it has this significant place in God’s ultimate purpose to be the place where his glory is supremely revealed and where his glory is supremely rendered back to him through his people. But the church is also God’s ordained means for fulfilling this end.
… The church exists to proclaim the excellencies of God. … It’s the institution designed to glorify God ultimately. … Does the church exist to preach the gospel to the nations? Yes. Is preaching the gospel to the nations the ultimate purpose of the church? No. … Preaching the gospel to the nations is a means to the ultimate end of glorifying God, of building the church, of worshiping God. … when we start thinking of means and ends, it has a very helpful role to play in practical reasoning, how we make decisions about how we do things as a church. … If, let’s say, missions is the ultimate end, well, then what should we do? We should order everything we do as a church to that, and we should measure everything we do as a church whether it’s contributing to that, right? Conversely, if the glory of God is the ultimate end, then what does that mean? Then we need to order our missionary work and anything else the church does, by the standard: Is it serving God’s glory?”

Any Christian who attends church is inevitably engaging with ecclesiology. Any church with any kind of governance structure, or even if it doesn’t have much of a governance structure nonetheless has a polity, albeit a weak one. Therefore, any Christian who goes to church is also engaging with polity. Church government, whether or not we find it interesting, is an inescapable fact for the Christian. It is in our faces every Sunday morning of our lives. So it behooves us all to study the history and functions of church government, understand how it affects our worship experience, discipleship and the reception of Word and sacrament, how church government may succeed and how it may fail, and to take an active part in polity. It duly serves the glory of God for us to so do.

As we explore how church power is supposed to work as God, the architect and builder designed his own church, we should uncover that every member’s fulfillment of his active part in church government is not just duty and responsibility, but also joy and privilege.


Other articles in this series:
God’s apostolic model for elders in graded church courts, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 2
God’s decree of congregational right to elect church officers, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 3
God’s design for orderly discipline in graded church courts, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 4
The folly of corrupt clergy who rape Christ’s bride of her electoral rights, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 5

ecclesiology, polity, Presbyterianism