God’s apostolic model for elders in graded church courts

Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 2

Presbyterian governance structure is multilevel, and its top-down component is the authority of those in Christ’s church who hold special office, elders who make up its several judicatories, or courts. This is poimenical authority: the ministerial and declarative power of shepherds and overseers, which the Westminster Divines identified as jure divino: by divine law.

According to the replete examples of Scripture, these courts which govern in regular gradation are: 

  1. The session or consistory, which is the body of elders over the local congregation, comprised of teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders (lay elders);
  2. The presbytery or classis, which is the judicial organ of a region, comprising all of a geographical area’s teaching elders and ruling elders who are delegated to represent their parishioners; and
  3. The synod or general assembly, which is the highest court of the denomination, consisting of teaching elders and ruling elders as delegated from their respective presbyteries to represent the member congregations of those presbyteries. 

According to classic Reformed theology grounded in the example of the Scriptures no ruling body of a particular church autonomously rules, that is, without checks and balances. Every church judicatory with all its officers must be accountable with review and control in its jurisdiction of the Lord’s doctrine, order and discipline. 

Why do the safeguards built into the church’s governance system matter? The gospel of salvation is central to the Christian faith and it is therefore most important to it, yet the centrality of an object is located by its relationship to objects that are marginal. So, church government is not at the center of the Christian faith, but it is one of the secondary doctrines that protects the gospel as the primary doctrine. When Christians negotiate doctrines at the margin, we render vulnerable the critical doctrine at the center. 

To be Presbyterian is to be ‘confessional’

Presbyterianism, being historically Calvinistic and Reformed, is essentially and markedly “confessional,” meaning, that it is founded upon a written confession of faith. The confessional standard which is most widely used in Presbyterian churches around the world is The Westminster Standards, consisting of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It affirms the basic biblical form of church government:

The Westminster Confession of Faith
Chapter XXXI. Of Synods and Councils
“1. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils: and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.”

Aside from this general article which is only a brief summary among all the other essential doctrines of the Christian faith, certain authors of the Westminster Assembly in the city of London undertook to dedicate a robust exposition specifically for the defense of Presbyterianism, Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici. Presbyterian polity generally asserts, 

“Jesus Christ our Mediator has laid down in his Word a pattern of Presbytery, and of one Presbyterial government in common over several single Congregations in one Church, for a rule to his Church in all later ages.”
(Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, or The Divine Right of Church-Government, originally asserted by the Ministers of Sion College, London, December, 1646, repr., rev. and ed., David Hall, p. 200) 

In The Church of Christ, the Scottish Presbyterian James Bannerman said this “work contains an extremely able, thorough, and satisfactory discussion of most of the points relating to the nature of Church government as a Divine institution, and to the power or authority of the Church, its seat and exercise.” One of Bannerman’s contemporaries across the Atlantic, Thomas Smyth, the American Presbyterian who wrote the Presbyterian catechism, called Jus Divinum “a work of admirable and overpowering argument.”

The rabbinical roots of Christianity

As mentioned in part 1 of this series, the basis of New Testament church order is found in the model of the synagogue: the local congregation’s voting power of its elders, and the regional governing body’s review and control over every particular congregation’s eldership. That sanhedrin was an assembly of elders from the local congregations. So there were checks and balances in the Jewish synagogue system coming from the bottom up, as well as from the top down. 

We tend to forget how very “Jewish” early Christianity was, probably because we live two millennia removed from the New Testament. Besides this, some scholars have speculated that the reason that the influence of Judaism on early Christianity is obscured is that much of our modern scholarship is derived from 18th- and 19th-century German thought, which in many ways, particularly higher criticism, was heavily anti-Semitic, in which higher critics often denigrated the Old Testament. Many of the commentaries and theologies greatly de-emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the early church. This might not have been intended on the part of Western Europeans, but many were not attuned to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, which greatly inhibits the ability of scholars to understand much of the New Testament.

The church of Christ was, in a real sense, a Christian synagogue. The strongest New Testament evidence of this is in Acts 1 through 15 as well as Galatians, which show how widespread was the difficulty among the thousands who were being saved in the Mediterranean world, to draw the distinction of what is Jewish and what is Christian. 

Teaching the lecture “The Church as the Fulfillment of the Old Testament” in the Systematic Theology (ST519) Ecclesiology & Sacraments course at Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Douglas F. Kelly discussed the origins of the synagogue: 

“It’s not absolutely definite, but it’s probable that the synagogue originated in connection with the Babylonian Captivity. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed, and yet the people wanted to worship on the Sabbath day, hear the Word and pray, and so Babylon is probably where the synagogue was developing. Some have argued it was sooner … but at least by that time.”

In Nehemiah chapters 8 and 9, speaking of the gathering of the people for worship and the exposition of the law in Jerusalem, we find all the elements of a synagogue service: public prayer and thanksgiving in the congregation, hearing of the “amen” by the men and women who had understanding of what was being said, and preaching of Scripture from a raised platform of wood by Ezra, resulting in spiritual impressions among the audience. The synagogue system with meetings for worship and preaching under elders spread not only in Babylon, but throughout the Dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient Near East. They set up synagogues wherever they went. By the time of the New Testament and Josephus, there were synagogue buildings all over Israel. Just as the covenant assembly is gathered, at times it has been called to be scattered. 

The Greek word for synagogue that is sometimes translated as “assembly” occurs in many places in the New Testament, and in James’ letter, there is strong evidence that the gathering place of some early Christian congregations was directly referred to as a synagogue. James was written to “the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion” (James 1:1). These were Jews by birth and they became Christians (1:2). 

D. Douglas Bannerman, a Scottish ecclesiological scholar, observed that in name and reality, the synagogue was the congregation of Israel, localized. In other words, the synagogue is the whole people of God as they “materialized” in a particular community. 

Bannerman describes that while the temple was a very ornate and beautiful building with splendid and complex liturgy, in contrast, the standard synagogue was relatively very simple and plain in appearance and in liturgy. The ancient synagogue had very little paraphernalia, but had a chest at one end of the building containing scrolls which were copies of the law. There was a teacher’s seat on a slightly raised platform, with a pulpit of wood, such as in Nehemiah, and congregational seating with women on one side and men on the other side, which is still not uncommon in synagogues today. Instead of passing around an offering plate, a collection box was at the door of the synagogue, such as was found later in the Highlands churches in Scotland. The design of the building of the synagogue as well as its liturgy was centered around the preaching of the Word of God and regular prayer. Dr. Kelly observed, 

“It was in such a synagogue as that, that our Lord Jesus was raised up as a child … rabbinical scholars … think there was a lectionary, that is to say, it was in all the synagogues in Israel and around the Mediterranean world, there was probably a set lectionary so that each synagogue was on the same passage each Sabbath. If you were a visiting person, they would often ask you to preach, but they would hand you the scroll of the law at the particular portion where the people of Israel were for that Sabbath day. Some have disputed that … but some pretty substantial rabbinical scholars say that the lectionary was set where you got through the entire Law and Prophets once every three years. … it was centered around the Word. On the Sabbath, Jesus went into his home synagogue at Nazareth … where they handed him the scroll of the law. And what was he to read that Sunday? ‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the good tidings.’ They chose the passage. He didn’t choose it. … The one that Isaiah had spoken about has showed up in the flesh in the synagogue at Nazareth [Luke 4:16-30].”

Biblical meaning of ‘Presbyterian’

“Presbyterian” comes from the Greek noun transliterated presbuterion, describing a body or council of elder-overseers (cf. I Timothy 4:14). So Presbyterianism most basically means “governed by elders,” and more specifically and historically, it means the church is governed by a session of member-elected elders, as part of a graded system of church courts that extends past the local congregation. 

Presbyterian, therefore, is not just a title or a formality, as it prescribes multiple layers of government that offer vital accountability and protection for church members as well as officers. The essence of this plurality of leadership is safety in numbers. Power that is too concentrated in an individual or small group is prone to abuse of authority and corruption. Presbyterian polity distributes responsibility to mitigate liability. Of course, Presbyterianism doesn’t guarantee that the church that follows its system is immune to error; but it does buttress the gospel and Christ’s body with additional safeguards that an independent, autonomous polity cannot provide.

As we mentioned, traditional, orthodox Presbyterianism usually is conjoined with the Calvinistic view of anthropology (the doctrine of man) and theology proper (the doctrine of God). Calvinism assumes the basic corruption of human beings, rather than the basic goodness of human beings as a result of the Fall and the effects of sin having touched every part of our being. Since Calvinists do not believe in the general goodness of mankind, rather the general depravity of mankind, then even those who have experienced the new birth are not exempt from the basal proclivities of sin. Man is a power creature who needs ecclesiastical restraint, accountability and structure and Presbyterianism, as it is Scripturally, principally intended to operate, is a system meant to help protect everyone in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ from the potential of the worst in each other and in ourselves. 

In Presbyterianism, accountability is not simply about making sure that officers and members are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Accountability is about providing support, resources and shared wisdom from other members, congregations and courts of the denomination. 

Since Thomas Smyth’s An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church is so comprehensive and thorough a treatment of the major components of Presbyterianism — albeit imperfect in some of the less critical ideas it asserts — it bears on the conscience of this writer to truncate it by singling out only a few of its questions and answers for this series. Nonetheless, here are just a few: 

An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church
Chapter 4. Courts of the church.
Section 1. Of ecclesiastical courts in general. 
149. What is meant by an ecclesiastical court? 
An ecclesiastical court is an assembly of those who have the original and inherent power or authority of executing laws and distributing justice according to the constitution; and, in general, to order whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under their care. 
150. Is it lawful, for the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, that the rulers of the Christian church should meet in regularly organized courts? 
It is both lawful and necessary. 
(Acts 15:6, Matthew 18:15-20, I Corinthians 14:33) 

Section 2. Of the church session. 
154. What scriptural authority is there for the church sessions, or, as they may be termed, congregational presbyteries? 
Scripture teaches us, that there was a plurality of elders in the churches formed by the apostles; to whom was committed the government of the church, and who, in order to act together, must of necessity have met in council. 
(Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5)
155. What further evidence does Scripture afford, for such church courts? 
The titles, given by the Holy Spirit to ecclesiastical offices and officers, are such as impart a power of judging causes; and express the same authority which the elders in Israel were accustomed to exercise in ecclesiastical matters. 
Section 3. Of the presbytery.
165. How is the presbytery, considered as a court of the church, constituted?
A presbytery consists of all the ministers, and one ruling elder from each congregation, within a certain district.
166. What is the extent of its jurisdiction?
The authority of the presbytery extends to its own members, and to the several sessions and congregations belonging to it.
167. What is the design and use of a presbytery?
It is a court of appeal from church sessions; it affords an opportunity for mutual consultation and advice; it is a bond of visible union; an authority, to which common submission is due, and by which is ordered whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under its care. 
168. What is the Scriptural warrant for presbyteries, as courts of the church? 
The first argument is found in the ordinance of God, instituted by Moses, by which particular congregations were taught to bring their hard and difficult controversies to a superior ecclesiastical judicatory. This order was reestablished by Jehoshaphat, who established an ecclesiastical senate at Jerusalem, to receive complaints and judge causes brought before them. This form of government is also commended unto us by David, as the praise of Jerusalem. So that the ecclesiastical assemblies and synagogues in Israel were not independent, but were under the government of superior courts. 
(Deuteronomy 17:8-12, II Chronicles 19:8-11, Psalm 122:4-5)
169. But how does this establish any authority for such courts now?
Because they formed no part of the ceremonial law, but were based upon the principles of common and perpetual equity; and therefore are such courts equally in accord with the Divine will, and advantageous to the church now.
(cf. WCF 19.4, WLC 120)
170. What other argument can you give for the establishment of such courts in the Christian church? 
They are required by that rule of discipline laid down by our Lord, for its government: tell it unto the church. For, since Christ here gave no rule, the Christian church not being organized, but appeals to one already familiar, he must have referred to the practice of the synagogue discipline already described; and must, therefore, be considered as teaching that particular churches are not independent, but are to be in subjection to superior judicatories.
(Matthew 18:15-20)

The same catechism asserts the formal unity of all particular churches of Christ’s body, as well as the error of congregations that refuse to submit to this lawful order of Christ’s church. 

Section 6. Of the Presbytery concluded. 
180. Is it necessary that all churches should be thus united together in one presbyterial government? 
All the churches of Christ are certainly under obligation to conform to that primitive and scriptural order which is divinely authorized. 
(Philippians 4:9) 
181. Why are they under this obligation? 
Because the church, being a divine institution and not a mere voluntary or human society, particular churches are not at liberty to set aside any of the rules of Christ’s kingdom, and are therefore bound, if they have opportunity, to combine themselves into presbyteries for spiritual government. 
182. Do they, by neglecting this order, commit evil? 
Yes; all that neglect it offend against the communion of saints, and walk not as members of the Body of Christ. 
(Romans 12:5, I Corinthians 12:25, Ephesians 4:16)
183. Do congregations, and their members, owe submission to the decrees of their presbyteries? 
Such decrees are recognized by Jesus Christ, so far as they are in accord with his statutes, as contained in the Word of God; and to resist them, therefore, is, in such a case, to despise the authority of Christ. 
(Matthew 16:19, cf. Isaiah 8:20, Acts 4:19) 
184. Of what sin are churches guilty, who thus reject the scriptural determinations of their ecclesiastical courts? 
Those churches which reject the sentence and determination of their church courts, when consonant to Scripture, commit a double sin; first, by transgressing against the written word of God; and secondly, by despising the ordinance of God, and throwing contempt upon the authority of his officers. For churches are just as much bound to their superior courts as are individual members to their particular churches; that is, so far as they act according to the truth and will of God. 

Ancient Israel’s congregational unity under common government

The roots of Presbyterianism’s representative form of government, order and discipline is evident in the Torah when Israel was a nascent nation. 

(Deuteronomy 1:9-18) “At that time I [Moses] said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. May the LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” 

Presbyterianism does not conflate polity with the gospel of Christ, nevertheless it contends that polity is very important because the Lord has appointed ecclesiastical means to preserve and “guard the good deposit” for his people (II Timothy 1:8-14). The jurisdiction of doctrine is held not only at the level of a local session, but also through the church’s graded courts. 

Presbyterian principles carried into the New Testament

Presbyterianism finds its New Testament evidence that the visible church exists beyond the local congregation in Acts 15, which catalogues the Jerusalem Council. Here, delegates from local congregations were sent to participate in what is considered the first synod of the apostolic church, when the apostles participated as equals with elders to deliberate and formulate responses to questions from the Gentile churches that petitioned the apostles about doctrine and practice. 

“Because the issue has great significance for the clarity of the gospel and the unity of the church, when it could not be resolved in Antioch, it is referred to a wider circle of leaders, the apostles and elders of the ‘mother church’ in Jerusalem.”
(The Reformation Study Bible, footnote on Acts 15:2) 

Dr. James Bannerman taught,

Part IV. Parties in Whom the Right to Exercise Church Power is Vested
Chapter V. The Independent System of Church Polity as opposed to the Presbyterian
Section II. The Independent Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism
“The single name under which the several distinct and separate congregations at Jerusalem are spoken of as ‘the Church’ there, is of itself sufficient to prove that they had a common bond of union in their subordination to one ecclesiastical government or polity. There is no other explanation that can account for it. This view of the matter is confirmed by the fact that the office-bearers in the Jewish capital are uniformly spoken of, not as the elders or deacons of this or that congregation belonging to Jerusalem, but as the elders and deacons of the Church there. When Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem with a contribution to the poor saints there, it is said to be sent to the elders by the hands of the messengers from Antioch. In the sixth chapter of Acts we find the apostles associating together as rulers of the Church for the ordination of deacons at Jerusalem. In the fifteenth chapter we again read of the apostles and elders met together in a Church assembly or court for the regulation of certain ecclesiastical affairs. From first to last, in the accounts we have of the Christians at Jerusalem, divided as they undoubtedly were into many congregations, we still read of one Church, of one body of office-bearers, of one set of apostles and presbyters ruling and ordering the common concerns of all. So very clear and conclusive is the evidence to prove that the different congregations at Jerusalem were united under one ecclesiastical management, and subject to one ordinary government.
It would not be difficult to enlarge to almost any extent the argument which demonstrates that in the New Testament the word Church is frequently used to denote a number of different congregations, united and represented by one Presbytery or body of office-bearers. Upon grounds to a great extent similar, it might be argued, as that in the case of Jerusalem, so also this was exemplified in the Church of Corinth, of Antioch, and of Ephesus. The multitude of converts which can be proved to have existed in those cities, and the great number of office-bearers which were attached to them, demonstrate that these Churches did not consist of single congregations, but of many. And this fact is decisive of the argument between Presbyterians and Independents.
… We have a very conclusive proof of the lawfulness of Presbyterial association among the rulers of the Church, not merely in the case of the elders of closely neighboring congregations, but on a larger scale, in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. The Synod or Council assembled at Jerusalem for deciding the controversy which troubled the apostolic Church about the obligation of the Mosaic law on Gentile converts, is a precedent for the union of the office-bearers of the Church for the purpose of government, which very clearly establishes the lawfulness and authority of Church courts. …
On the arrival of the deputies in Jerusalem, ‘the apostles and elders,’ as we are told, ‘came together for to consider of this matter.’ After considerable consultation, and, as it would appear, some difference of opinion on the subject, they gave forth their judgment, and commissioned certain members of the Council to carry the decision to the Churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Now, in this narrative we have all the elements necessary to make up the idea of a supreme ecclesiastical court, with authority over not only the members and office-bearers within the local bounds of the congregations represented, but also the Presbyteries or inferior Church courts included in the same limits. First, we have the reference of a question of doctrine and duty by the Presbytery of Antioch to a Council or Synod at Jerusalem; for that the Church of Antioch consisted of various congregations under one Presbytery, can be sufficiently proved in the same manner as in the instance of Jerusalem. Second, we have deputies sent from the Churches of Antioch, and also, it would seem, from Syria and Cilicia, to take part in the Council. Third, we have these representatives or commissioners meeting with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, and, after due deliberation and discussion, ministerially declaring the law of Christ on the question in debate, and issuing a decree on the point, not only to the Christians of Jerusalem, but to the brethren in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The precedent recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, gives warrant for more than the association in a joint government of the office-bearers of neighboring congregations,—it proves, in addition, the lawfulness of a subordination of courts in the Christian Church. …
Such is the evidence afforded by the history of the Synod at Jerusalem for the lawfulness and right of association among the office-bearers of the Church, for determining controversies of faith and matters of government. There are other passages of Scripture which give warrant for the same thing, although furnishing no example so detailed and particular of Synodical association. … In these and other instances we have distinct Scripture warrant for the lawfulness of Presbyterial association, and sufficient proof that the scheme of Independency is irreconcilable with apostolic practice.
Looking back upon the whole argument, and upon the positions which we have been led to adopt in the course of it, we see at last the Presbyterian platform rising to our view in all its Scriptural simplicity and authority. Step by step has the discussion been narrowed, until at length we are shut up to that scheme of Church polity, the form and principles of which we see exemplified in the constitution of the Church to which we belong. It is not in the arrogant claims of the Romish Church on behalf of her supreme Pontiff to single and uncontrolled dominion over the whole body of the faithful, that we recognise the form of that primitive Church in which Peter was an elder among fellow-elders; it is not in the pretensions of a third order of diocesan bishops, with exclusive right to ordain and to rule, that we acknowledge the successors of the Presbytery at Jerusalem or Antioch; it is not in the Church system—or, rather, no Church system—of Congregational Independency, that we see an approach to the model exhibited for our imitation in the apostolic Church,—but in the fashion and principles of a Church which recognises no pontiff and no hierarchy, but a college of elders equal in honor and in place, owning among themselves only the aristocracy of genius and of piety, of learning and of zeal, in which they shall have rule and leadership whom God has graced with the birthright of high gifts and the better heritage of His Spirit; which asserts an authority without a lordship over God’s heritage, and makes the office-bearers, not the slaves of the members, nor yet the members the slaves of the office-bearers in the Christian society,—in a Church which unites Scriptural order with the Scriptural freedom, and where Christian liberty is sheltered beneath the shadow of Christ’s Crown, do we willingly acknowledge the successor of the Church of the New Testament Age.”
(The Church of Christ, James Bannerman, pp. 848-850, 853-854) 

In Bannerman’s five forms of the church’s existence, he refers to “a number of congregations associated together under a common government” (p. 12, cf. p. 845) as the fourth dimension of the church. Presbyterians believe this Scriptural example of common government over the particular churches is perpetual and ordinary. Though the office of apostle was extraordinary to the first century of the church — the apostolate was impermanent, unique in time — in this situation the apostles exercised only their eldership and not their apostolic authority, participating as equals and not “pulling rank” on the elders (cf. Acts 20:17, 18, 25, I Peter 5:1). 

Thus, elders as part of a larger church body are the continuing form of church government. The Jerusalem Council was the first such conference for the Christian church, but presbyterial councils in the holy city were quite customary in Judaism. Biblical history in many places indicates that various congregations’ elders or bishops gathering together to deliberate constitutes a covenant assembly: a church. 

James Bannerman’s son, D. Douglas Bannerman, who continued his father’s work, in 1887 traced this biblical-theological lineage of the church. 

Part III. The Church from Time of Exile to that of Our Lord
Chapter III. The Synagogue System
“General results of the Synagogue System in its relation to the Scripture doctrine of the Church; principles embodied in and illustrated by it.
The synagogue system embodied and strengthened this sense of religious unity,—of a real world-wide fellowship of faith and obedience. It also supplied the means for giving it effective practical expression. The unity of each congregation was represented and expressed by its own eldership. Where neighbouring synagogues stood towards each other on an independent footing, their elders met, as opportunity offered, more or less formally, for consultation and co-operation in matters of common interest. The elders from every synagogue in great and prosperous Jewish communities, such as that of Alexandria, met in a common presbytery … under a common president, as a court of authority and oversight for all the congregations represented. The sense of unity throughout all the fellowship of Israel was further strengthened by the constant resort of pilgrims, ‘devout men,’ in whom the spiritual life of the synagogues was fully represented, to Jerusalem at the three great yearly festivals. References and questions bearing on religion went up with them continually to the elders of Israel in Jerusalem, and decisions and replies went forth by the same channels, or by special messengers of the Sanhedrin (apostoli) into every land. The high council of the elders, ‘the presbytery of the people,’ meeting under the shadow of the holy and beautiful house of the Lord in Jerusalem, was looked upon as the highest representative of the unity of all the synagogues, and of the scattered people of God in all countries.
What did all these things mean? What light do they throw upon the mind of God for His Church under the new dispensation for which such centuries of Providential preparation had been made in so many converging lines? The answer is to be found in the teaching and action of our Lord and His apostles as recorded in the New Testament, alike in what they say and do, and in what they refrain from saying and doing.”
(The Scripture Doctrine of the Church: Historically and Exegetically ConsideredThe Eleventh Series of the Cunningham Lectures, David Douglas Bannerman, pp. 155, 162) 

Modern American Presbyterianism

Modern Presbyterian denominations — such as the PCA, of which this author is a member — have primary, secondary and tertiary standards that form the subscription for its ordained officers: they respectively must “believe” the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith and practice, “sincerely receive and adopt” the Westminster Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrine found in Scripture, and “approve” of the form of government and discipline of the Church, which is The Book of Church Order. When seeking ordination, exceptions to Scripture are never allowed (obviously), while specific and few, doctrinally non-critical exceptions to the secondary standards often are allowed. 

The third Stated Clerk of the PCA General Assembly wrote,

“Our brand of Presbyterianism has been called Non-Hierarchical Presbyterianism, democratic Presbyterianism, or grassroots Presbyterianism. Our connectionalism is spiritual, not legal. Our churches, presbyteries, and General Assembly are separate civil entities that voluntarily bind us together. We are bound together by Three Mutual Commitments of Presbyterian Connectionalism: Doctrinal Fidelity through a binding theological standard (Westminster Standards), Accountability through connectional church courts and discipline, and Cooperative Ministry (we should minister together and can accomplish more together than independently).”
(An Inquirer’s Guide to the PCA, L. Roy Taylor, p. 5) 

Scripture teaches that the universal and invisible church exists beyond the local congregation, because, 

(Ephesians 5:25-27) “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 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.” 

This context from Ephesians is where Presbyterianism bases its obligation for members to “submit … to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace” (BCO 57-5.5). All God’s people, being baptized into Christ, are ordained and called to serve in the church as prophets, priests and kings: this is general office. Bannerman identified this with the first and second dimensions of the church. Since Christ is the Prophet, Priest and King as Head of the Church, then we are fundamentally brothers and sisters, whether of general office or special office. As Christ employs offices and parcels out his gifts to the church, these mediatorial blessings serve as instruments of his threefold ministry. In stewarding them well, we are showing each other and everyone else what it means to be faithful disciples of our one Master and Lord. 

Though the invisible church is what connects all Christians, the 20th-century Scottish theologian John Murray pointed out that the emphasis of the New Testament is not on the invisible church, but on the visible church: the institution. 

Presbyterian principles in Psalmnody

In addition to the centrality of the straightforward preaching of the Word, scripted prayers and extemporaneous prayers specifically for the Jewish congregation, the ancient synagogue also regularly used the Psalms of David in its music. In the 16th-century Reformation, the Psalter was restored to worship in Europe, and was the major worship of the Christian churches until roughly the 18th century, when hymns became part of worship music along with the Psalms. By the middle of the 19th century, in American Protestantism, Psalms were largely discarded and hymns became dominant. Among many Presbyterian groups and especially the Dutch Reformed, Psalms remained in great use. 

Psalm 122, a Song of Ascents by David, is about the unity of the tribes of Israel when they worshiped together in Jerusalem, often for the festivals. The Psalm also refers to the thrones of judgment in the house of David. Hundreds of years later when the synagogue system took form, as Bannerman recounts, the Jews would send their elders as delegates/representatives of the congregations to convene in Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin (high council) sat. Since Jerusalem is where the tribes of Israel customarily gathered, it was natural that by Acts 15, the first synod of the early church also took place in Jerusalem. What made Jerusalem such a special and secure place is that it is the place where God dwelt. 

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah.”
(Psalm 46:4-7)

The fulfillment of David’s kingship, of course, is in Jesus Christ. He continues to rule as king and head of his church, and David’s royal city awaits the return of the king. The fulfillment of Psalm 122 is literal for us because we have inherited the presbyterial system of the ancient covenant community, and its fulfillment is spiritual because Christ unites the church through his Spirit applying his blood (Ephesians 2:14-22, 4:4-6).

“I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’ 
Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together,
to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD,
there thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
‘May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!’ 
For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’ 
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.”

 

(Featured image: John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation, in the Parish Church of St. Andrew’s, on June 10, 1559. Oil-on-oak panel attributed to Sir David Wilkie, R.A., 1785–1841.)

 

Other articles in this series:
Why ecclesiology is important for Christians, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 1
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

Covenant theology, ecclesiology, polity, Presbyterianism, systematic theology