Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 3
Alongside the top-down, poimenical (shepherding) authority of Presbyterian governance, which is elders within graded church courts, stands the other fundamental component of church authority, suffrage, which is the nominative, deliberative and electoral power of any Christian congregation over its very own overseers. The ternary testimony of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and post-apostolic church history is pregnant with evidence for the inherent right of Christian members, those who hold ordinary office in Christ’s church, to choose their own pastors, elders and deacons.
We will now demonstrate that members of the church actively taking part in the procurement of its officers through identification, nomination, deliberation, voting and investiture, is not just “on the business side” or a matter of adiaphora (morally indifferent). Suffrage might not be a here-I-stand-I-can-do-no-other hill to die on such as justification by faith alone, but it’s also not as trivial a matter as disagreeing about the color of the sanctuary carpet or what time Sunday morning worship should start. The essential electoral rights of God’s people has deep theological underpinnings in the apostolic blueprint, which is how God designed his church.
Dr. James Bannerman (1807-1868) was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and from 1849 until shortly before his decease, served as Professor of Apologetics and Pastoral Theology at New College, Edinburgh. In what has become one of the key historical texts of ecclesiology, 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 I. The Congregational Principle as opposed to Presbyterianism
“The system of Presbyterianism requires that every proper means be employed, in the way of explanation, persuasion, and instruction, to secure the concurrence of the members in the acts and proceedings of the rulers of the Christian society.”
(The Church of Christ, p. 824)
In 1727, John Currie, Minister of the Gospel at Kinglassie, Scotland, in his work entirely dedicated to defending suffrage, positively asserted the church body’s right in this matter, as well as negatively warned of the dangers of robbing it from the people or the people giving it up. Currie wrote,
“It has a melancholy aspect, so many of her sons do openly impugn the Church’s right to elect her own pastors, yet I hope the greatest part will never go in to any overture, depriving the Spouse of Christ of this her Bridegroom’s gift, grant and legacy. I hope the most are still of this Reformation principle with Calvin and Calderwood, that impia ecclesiæ spoliato est, rapina est, sacrilegium est, that it is an impious robbing of the Church, rapine and sacrilege, to settle any minister, whether the people call and consent, or not. … As to the validity of arguments adduced for proving the people’s right to choose their pastors, I must leave to others to judge, hoping they will be satisfying to such as are unprejudiced, owning the sacred Scriptures to be a complete rule, and the supreme judge of controversies. …
Now, being to treat, not of an immediate, but of a mediate call to the Ministry, not of an extraordinary, but of an ordinary call, not of the internal, but of the external call, not of ordination, which is part of the ministerial call, but of the election of ministers, the other part thereof, not of the jus summum … which is the prerogative of the King of Zion, only from whom all the authority of his ambassadors is derived, but of the jus delegatum, or of that delegate right which Christ has given unto the constitute churches, to choose the overseers of their precious souls. …
As it is the right of the Lord’s people, in Christian congregations, to choose the overseers of their immortal souls, so this is a right that is not inalienable by them, a right they cannot entrust to others, a right they cannot part with, a right they cannot give away to magistrates, heritors, town council, elders, presbytery, bishops, patrons, or to any else. Christ, the Head of the Church, commands his people to stand fast in the Liberties wherewith he hath made them free, Gal. v. 1. And there he cautions against being intangled with any yoke of bondage. The Church in this case is not sui juris, and though she would, she cannot justly give away her right to any other, nor can her right be taken from her.”
(Jus Populi Divinum, or The people’s right to elect their pastors; Made evident by Scripture, confirmed from Antiquity and Judgment of foreign Protestant Churches and Divines since the Reformation, as also from the Books of Discipline, Acts of General Assemblies, and Sentiments of our best Writers in the Church of Scotland, pp. iv-v, 2, 16)
Congregational election of officers, of course, is predicated on the Christian society having a body of members who are able to vote.
The necessity of church membership
The most basic office of the church is membership, and in Presbyterian theory, clergy should never underestimate the importance of and potential for influence by individual church members and families.
Thomas Smyth in 1843 wrote,
An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church
Chapter 6. Fellowship of the church
Section 1. Of the nature and necessity of church fellowship.
279. Is a knowledge of the true nature, constitution, and design of the church, important to all its members?
It is important; for otherwise they will be in ignorance of those duties which they are under obligation to discharge as members of the church.
(Ezekiel 44:5, 8, Matthew 5:9)
280. Who are members of the visible church of Christ?
Those who have been admitted into it on profession of their faith and obedience, together with their children.
281. Is it the duty of all, or only of some, to become members of the church of Christ?
It is the unquestionable duty of all who hear the Gospel, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; and then to become members of his visible church.
(Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9, I John 1:3)
282. What are the ends [purposes] of church fellowship?
The ends of church fellowship are: that Christians may hold forth the doctrines of the Bible; maintain the ordinances of the Gospel uncorrupted; promote their mutual holiness and edification; and thus become fitted for glory.
(Philippians 1:12, Colossians 1:12, 2:2)
283. What are the privileges of members of the church?
The participation of the Lord’s supper, the baptism of their children; pastoral oversight; the sympathy and prayers of the church; the special promises of God; and the right of deciding upon all matters referred to them relative to the spiritual interests of the church.
(Psalm 147:19-20, Isaiah 4:5-6, I Timothy 4:10, Acts 2:42, Romans 9:4)
Section 2. Of the duties of church members.
286. What duties do members of the church owe to the church itself?
They are bound to support it; to take a deep and active interest in all its concerns to seek its prosperity by all lawful means; and cordially to submit to its discipline.
(I Corinthians 16:2)
In modern Presbyterian denominations, members take vows, as do church officers. Everyone who enjoys definite responsibilities and privileges in the church also promises to submit to authority. For instance, according to The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America,
“The minister may then address those making a profession in the following terms:
(All of) you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
The minister may now briefly admonish those making a profession of faith as to the importance of the solemn obligations they have assumed; then baptism may be administered, if there be present any candidates for the ordinance, and the whole concluded with prayer.”
Some Christians disagree with the concept of members needing to take vows, however, it must be considered that with any power comes responsibility. So others would say that it is logically disparate for members to exercise the right to identify, nominate and vote for church officers, file complaints against actions or delinquencies of church courts, and appeal disciplinary rulings, unless they themselves have promised to submit to their shepherds in like manner that their shepherds have vowed to care for them.
Most Protestants even in different types of governance structure would agree that church membership underlies every aspect of the church including its worship, fellowship, discipline and governance. Church membership, or having one’s name “on the books,” is not just a modern contrivance with little basis in Scripture, as some have speculated. Presbyterians believe that a church’s session, or body of elders, should be under the Presbytery, the regional governing body, for the same reason that the church’s session believes people should become members of the church: because it’s impossible to oversee, much less give an account for someone who isn’t actually under the session (cf. Hebrews 13:17).
Ergo, Presbyterians would argue that if elders are not in any defined relationship with a specific group of Christians, then their eldership is essentially impotent because it cannot carry out its God-ordained purposes of ensuring doctrine, order and discipline (cf. Acts 20:7, I Corinthians 5:2-5, 10:16-17, 11:17-34, Ephesians 4:11-16, Colossians 2:19).
Suffrage as an integral component of Presbyterianism
Dr. James Bannerman labeled the fifth dimension of the church as the word is applied in the New Testament as “the body of professing believers in any place, as represented by their rulers and office-bearers” (The Church of Christ, p. 14). This belief is grounded in Scripture as well as history. In Acts 6, scholastically regarded as the origin of the diaconate or deacon board, the entire church body was involved in identifying and selecting the men who would become deacons according to the criteria assigned by the apostles.
(Acts 6:1-7) “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Scripture seems to provide some flexibility for the clergy’s unilateral appointment of officers, because in the apostolic period when the church was just starting to spread geographically, it is plausible that evangelists unilaterally appointed elders of incipient congregations (cf. Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). Thus, it’s important to point out that the situation of Acts 6 certainly dealt with an established particular church. In a transcribed sermon delivered at Saint Andrew’s Chapel, in Sanford, Florida, R.C. Sproul identified Acts 6 as the origin of the diaconate.
“These seven men were obviously men of great faith, great ability, and great commitment, and they were set aside and consecrated by the laying on of hands to give themselves to service (diakonia), to minister to the needs of people in the church. This is how the diaconate was founded. Here they are simply called ‘the seven,’ but out of this group of seven the institution of deacons was established in the early church.”
(Acts, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, R.C. Sproul, pp. 127-128)
Since the congregation’s participation in the selection of these deacons is inescapable in this Bible passage, then Sproul’s positive identification here affirms the basis for congregational election of church officers.
General principles of Scripture and expedient rules of order
Teaching Systematic Theology (ST519) at Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Douglas F. Kelly asserted, “The Lord has seen fit in the New Testament revelation to leave quite a few details as to the outworking of the governmental life and structure of the church open that it can be adjusted from time to time and from country to country and from political situation to political situation.” Also, Francis Schaeffer in the mid-20th century wrote on the proper balance between form and function of government in the living, breathing, adapting entity which is Christ’s body.
Along similar lines, Bannerman observed,
Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter II. The Rule or Law of Church Power
“… although there is not any discretion allowed to the Church itself in regard to its laws or its institutions, yet there is a discretion permitted to the Church in regard to matters simply of ‘decency and order.’ However difficult it may be to draw the line between them—and the difficulty probably has been not a little exaggerated—there is a distinction which, in one shape or other, must be recognized and admitted by all, between the fundamental laws and institutions revealed and appointed by Christ for His Church, and those matters of arrangement and circumstance and detail, which may be necessary for the carrying out those laws into execution day by day, or may be expedient for the proper observance of those institutions. … But that, after the laws and institutions of the Church had been directly or indirectly revealed and appointed by Christ, there was some power left to the Church itself to fill in the details of arrangement and order and propriety, not essential but expedient to the former, there can, I think, be no doubt both from the statements and the silence, the utterances and the reserve of Scripture on the subject. As to such matters of order or expediency as, for example, the hour of public worship on the Sabbath, the order of the service, the number of diets each Lord’s day, the length of time appropriated to each, and such like—all conducive more or less to the proper discharge of the duty connected with them, and all requiring to be fixed or arranged in one way or another—there can be no doubt that a discretionary power in determining them has been left open to the Church. To have fixed by positive law such details, would have been contrary to the whole analogy of Scripture, which deals far more largely in general principles than in special regulations or precepts. …
The Scripture standard can alone determine the distinction; and it is only by the application of Bible examples and rules that the line can be drawn which shall decide where the discretion of the Church in such matters as these begins, and where it ends. The rule of the apostle is the clearest and most applicable, which seems to intimate that the discretionary authority of the Church is limited expressly to the things of ‘decency and order?‘ ‘Let all things,’ says he, in reference to the liberty allowed to the Church in making arrangements in ecclesiastical matters, ‘Let all things be done, decently, or in good form, and according to order.'”
(The Church of Christ, pp. 226-227)
Yet, in all this, Presbyterianism broadly resolves that in jure divino government,
“The fundamental principles of Apostolic church government have been retained, and are legitimately applied in the circumstances and under the conditions which are peculiar to our own age and country.”
(Presbyterianism, John MacPherson, p. 9)
Therefore, the Scriptures exemplify that Christ intends the entire church body to share his mediatorial power by delegating it partly to members in the responsibility of electing our own officers, and partly to those officers in all other decisions (Acts 6:1-7, 15:22-25, I Corinthians 12:31, Ephesians 4:1-16).
The Book of Church Order of the PCA, in particular, stresses that Christ invests his power in his body as a whole and that the members — non-officers — exercise power in one way: the choice of those officers whom Christ has appointed in his Church. In all other ways, power is exercised by these officers so chosen. According to what Presbyterians understand is the principle of congregational appointment established in Acts 6:3, the officers of the Church must be chosen by the people before they take on the responsibilities and duties of office. Another scholar has stated,
“The power resides in the body as to its being; in the officers as to its exercise.”
(Notes on Ecclesiology, Thomas E. Peck, p. 85)
Modern Presbyterian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), concur in their Books of Church Order. For example:
BCO Preface, II.6
“Though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of officer investiture, the power to elect persons to the exercise of authority in any particular society resides in that society.”
“The power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth. This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His church.”
“The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.”
Congregational election of overseers as part of a larger church system
There is an immense corpus of ancient Jewish historical precedence which undergirds these claims of modern Presbyterian denominations. However, the electoral power of a church congregational for its overseers should not exist autonomously: it is integral to a larger, bottom-up and top-down church system that recognizes a hierarchy of church courts, a system that is basically republican.
Chapter Second: Presbytery Republican Both in Its Doctrinal and Ecclesiastical Systems
“Presbytery republican in several other particulars, with testimonies in its favor. …
Here there is a subjection without slavery, for the people are subject to the pastors and assemblies; yet there is no assembly wherein every particular church hath not interest and power, nor is there any thing done but they are, if not actually, yet virtually, called to consent unto it.
Such is the correspondence between the doctrines of our church, our ministry, our eldership, our ecclesiastical assemblies, and the essential principles and characteristic outlines of this great and free commonwealth. From the delineation we have given of our system, we may challenge the inquirer, to bring it to the test of every principle which we have laid down as a constituent element in republicanism. Sure we are that no discordance will be found between the two, when fairly considered; but a most entire and perfect similarity.”
(Complete Works, Volume III, Thomas Smyth, pp. 51-52)
Chapter 31: Of Synods and Councils
“First, assemblies are to ‘determine controversies of faith’ and make judgments about ethical and theological issues (what used to be called ‘cases of conscience’). Councils can help settle troubled minds, and sort out troubling disagreements. This is just what James and others with him did at the council of Jerusalem in their debate about the treatment of the Gentiles (Acts 15:19, 24, 27-31). … synods and councils are ‘to receive complaints’ (including appeals) and make determinations about them. It seemed to the Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly that it was a principle of the light of nature, a seemingly intuitive truth revealed by God, that synods and councils were needed as courts of appeal for accusations of administrative injustice—procedural faults or unfairness in the hearing of a case at a local church. Just as Jesus directed people to make an appeal to the church, (Matt. 18:17-20), so, by way of analogy, people should be able to make an appeal within the church as we see, again, in Acts 15. …
The authority of church assemblies is twofold. First, their decisions are to be received with reverence and submission ‘for their agreement with the Word’. The Word of God is always to bind the consciences of Christians, and those who speak truly from it should be heeded.
Second, ‘decrees and determinations’ of councils are to be received because of the ‘power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word’. God has given power to the church, and it is a significant fault if someone ‘refuses to listen even to the church’ (Matt. 18:17; cf. 17-20). God has employed synods in his service as one instrument to be used in government, and we are to heed their determinations not just as we would another Christian speaking truth to us, but as a duly appointed assembly of the church of Christ speaking truth to us.”
(Confessing the Faith: A reader’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chad Van Dixhoorn, pp. 415-416)
“We call ourselves ‘Presbyterians’ because we have a representative and connectional form of church government in a Church governed by elders (presbuteroi). Collegial leadership by a plurality of elders began in the days of Moses (Numbers 11), was enhanced in the synagogue movement beginning in the 6th century BC, was continued in the NT (Acts 14:23) as the apostolic practice, continued until the mid-2nd century AD, and was restored by John Calvin and John Knox in the Reformation of the 16th century. So the system … has deep roots … both biblically and historically.”
(An Inquirer’s Guide to the PCA, L. Roy Taylor, p. 2)
“… the PCA is a connectional church. Not only are we joined together by a common faith and doctrinal understanding, but also by a common view of the church. We believe that churches do not exist independently of each other. They are joined together with churches that share a common faith and doctrinal commitment. Presbyterianism not only indicates a particular church style or form of government but also a connectional approach.”
(An Inquirer’s Guide to the PCA, Charles Dunahoo, p. 12)
In other words, Presbyterian denominations such as the PCA believe apostolic precept and example jointly put forth that church government originates with the congregation and extends past the congregation. Therefore, the local congregation exists in a relationship of mutual accountability and submission with other local congregations. An independent and autonomous church by definition is non-denominational, so it cannot convene and participate in synods and councils with other congregations, and the visible church as a whole.
Rabbinical roots of the covenant assembly’s electoral rights
Besides the direct Scriptural evidence for congregational appointment of officers, there is evidence that the principle is traced throughout Jewish history. Being so far removed from the first century, we can easily forget how much the early church resembled the Jewish religion in many aspects, including ecclesiology. Dr. Kelly has pointed out,
“The government of the church is rooted in the Old Testament. It does not start out from scratch. It is not a new invention with no signposts towards it. Christianity did not deal itself to be a new religion any more than the Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin thought that they were a new religion. They thought they were the catholic religion reformed according to Scripture. … So, the Christian church, none of its leaders, including its Lord and then his chief apostles, would ever have thought they were setting up a new religion disconnected from or undercutting the Old Testament … but they were bringing out the truth of God’s Old Testament revelation. We’ll remember that when we think of church government. You would not expect church government just to appear out of nowhere. … Central to Old Testament church government are elders. They exercise both civil and religious functions. Even before Moses there were elders as part of the societal fabric. But elders come to a new prominence during the Mosaic period [Jethro and Reuel] … Elders represented the people, you know, the patriarch sitting in the gate of the village. What was the significance, do you think, of ‘sitting in the gate’? Public visibility. It’s not in secret, and the people would stand around, so the fact of ‘sitting in the gate’ for the elders means two things: visibility and accountability. If you can pull off a fast one in the dark, they can’t get you. When it’s in public, it puts a restraint upon you. … so ‘sitting in the gate’ was visibility, accountability of the elders to the people whom they represented. So they were not lords and masters, they were more civil servants in the best sense of the word.”
Apparent evidence in Scripture for the praxis of congregational appointment of overseers in the covenant assembly is found early in redemptive history, at the beginning of Deuteronomy, and is tied to the necessity of delegation in matters of justice and discipline.
(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.”
Some might reasonably say that this indicates electoral, representative government as part of civil law, not religious law. Be that as it may, it is also worthy of consideration that Moses, who instituted representative government here, was also the one who ordained Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel’s religious order (Leviticus 8). In any case, the argument for representative government solidly stands on the rest of the evidence in ancient Israel.
Ever since the Dispersion when the Hebrews were scattered around the known world, the model of synagogues exploded throughout the Near East and with it, the organizational structure, including elders who were selected by members of each synagogue. At least ten men were required, as individuals or representing their families, in order to form a particular synagogue. The synagogue found its historical governmental continuity with the pre-exilic people of God in the wilderness by borrowing the ancient institution of the eldership, which is traced to the Levitical order, during the time of Moses (cf. Numbers 11).
There were basically two functions of eldership: teaching and ruling, which eventually were adapted by the apostolic church and therefore Presbyterianism into two distinct but equal positions within the same class.
Part III. The Church from Time of Exile to that of Our Lord
Chapter III. The Synagogue System
3. The Organization of the Synagogue.
“The eldership or presbytery of the synagogue.
There is universal agreement among all competent scholars who have studied this subject, that the whole authority of the synagogue in every normal instance was in the hands of a small body or consistory of elders. These were either chosen directly by the people, as seems to have been the rule in the congregations of the Dispersion, or nominated by the Sanhedrin of the nearest town, or the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, with concurrence of the congregation, as appears to have been done in Palestine. The general principle acted upon in all cases is laid down as follows in the Codex Berakoth (f. 55a): ‘Rabbi Isaac says: They appoint no one as a shepherd … over any congregation without first consulting it.’
… Vitringa, pp. 828-835. Wünsche, der Babylonische Talmud, Leipzig 1886, S. 67. Weber, altsyn. Paläst. Theol. S. 137. There is an interesting passage in the Life of Alexander Severus, by Aelius Lampridius, in which it is stated that the Emperor was accustomed to consult the people, and seek their consent, in the appointment of governors and rulers of different sorts in the provinces, giving as his reason for this ‘that the Christians and the Jews were wont to act thus in the nomination of their priests for ordination (in prædicandis sacerdotibus qui ordinandi sunt), and that the rule should much more be observed in the appointment of rulers to whom the goods and lives of men were to be entrusted.’ Scriptores Hist. August. (Herm. Peter’s ed.), Lipsiæ 1884, i. p. 283; c. xlv. 7. Comp. c. xix. p. 261, as to the Emperor’s practice in the appointment of senators.”
(The Scripture Doctrine of the Church: Historically and Exegetically Considered—The Eleventh Series of the Cunningham Lectures, David Douglas Bannerman, pp. 134-135)
“The rights and duties of all individual members in the congregation were strongly emphasized.
In the synagogue there was no hierarchy and no caste. Every member of the congregation, who was not put out of communion or suspended from privilege temporarily for some offence, had a recognised place and voice in the congregation. Its office-bearers were chosen without regard for Levitical or priestly descent. None were appointed ‘without consulting the people.’ …
A simple but strong and elastic organization of a Presbyterian and representative kind was developed and brought into practical operation in every part of the civilised world.
In the synagogue system at its best, we see a democratic government of the highest type, acknowledging the aristocracy of the wisest and fittest to rule, combining a vigorous executive with a full and fair expression of the mind and feelings of the people. It was by this Presbyterian organization, on a broad and popular basis, which united strength with elasticity and capability for adaptation to varied circumstances, that the Diaspora was enabled to hold their ground everywhere throughout the Empire in the face of general dislike and frequent persecution. What Dio Cassius says of the Jewish community in Rome was exemplified all over the known world: ‘Often crushed down, they yet grew again mightily … so that they even succeeded in fighting out for themselves … the free exercise of their peculiar laws.’ It was the synagogue organization which formed in great measure the secret of their success.”
(ibid., pp. 160-161)
During the Dispersion, when elders were nominated by the sanhedrin, they were installed with the congregation’s concurrence — if anyone in the congregation disagreed with the spiritual qualifications of an elder nominee, they could state their objections in stated meetings, and the congregation had the power to veto. The elder was “consecrated,” or set apart to office by the laying on of hands, particularly when teaching was involved in the eldership. But there appears to have no anointing with oil as there had been in the past with priests. Three elders were required to perform an ordination.
In the Church of Scotland, candidates to the eldership historically have been brought forward by the existing elders in referendum and the congregation has had the opportunity to weigh in on the electoral process. Generally, American Presbyterianism has tended to follow the procedure of the synagogue during the Second Temple period of congregational nominations to the floor, and then voting to narrow the pool of candidates. But with either model, every member in good standing has had a recognized voice in considering the spiritual gifts and qualifications of individuals among them who might become officers.
Concerning the practice of discipline, the quorum of the smallest court by which any judicial sentence could be pronounced was three elders, and it was known as Beth Din, or the “house of judgement,” in each Jewish community. At least one of that court’s members had to be trained in Scripture. This requirement prefigures the modern Presbyterian session, in which ruling elders (lay elders) and teaching elders (scribes specially trained in the law of God) jointly rule in matters of discipline.
Among the rulers of the synagogue was the legate or “deputy of the congregation,” who led public prayer. This representative’s importance seems to have increased over time, in proportion to the growth of the liturgical element in the synagogue services from just before the New Testament on into the later period. The leader of the synagogue was sometimes called president or head of the session/consistory. Though he was appointed chairman and he presided over the eldership, he was of the same order as the rest of the group, and he could be removed from office. Most scholars think that the notion of the Christian bishop probably is derived from this structure. This also prefigures the parity, or equality of authority between elders, that has long been a mark of Presbyterian polity, which holds that Scripture regulates a hierarchy of church courts and not a hierarchy among individual elders (Acts 15:22-25, I Peter 5:1). The pastor has sometimes been referred to as primus inter pares — “first among equals” — with the other elders on the session.
As mentioned, there were two equal forms of eldership: teaching and ruling. In connection with teaching, a professional class naturally was developed, known as the sofer, or scribe, trained in Scriptural law and traditional interpretation. For instance, after the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls and the temple, Ezra was of this order, who was a ready scribe in (Nehemiah 8:1) “the book of the law of Moses which the LORD, that the LORD had commanded Israel.” Here, Ezra brought the Scriptures before a large congregation in the street, and explained their meaning. Other scribes who assisted Ezra (Nehemiah 8:7-8) “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Christ ascribed to this office a certain value by New Testament times (Matthew 23:2). By this period, there were those among synagogue eldership who were especially qualified to speak on religious subjects. They generally led the synagogue on Sabbath days, and also taught the children how to read and write, massive portions of the Tanakh (the complete Hebrew Bible containing the Law, the Prophets and the Writings), as well as traditional ways of understanding the text and applying its wisdom to daily life. One presumes that the young Jesus was taught by such an elder out of the synagogue. This order of Hebrew scribe is whence Presbyterianism derives the professional office of teaching elder.
More proof of the continuity of the trained scribal office into the New Testament covenant community is found in the Gospels and the pastoral epistles. In Matthew, the Gospel account that is specifically concerned with proving Jesus as the Christ from the Hebrew Scriptures, after Jesus told ten parables to his disciples, he affirmed the necessity of Old Testament teachings, as well as what were emerging as New Testament teachings.
(Matthew 13:51-52) “‘Have you understood all these things?’ They said to him, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.'”
The men whom Christ instructed to draw from the entire counsel of Scripture are the same who would become apostles and establish the new-covenant church after Christ’s ascension. From the Greek noun transliterated thesaurou, this is the treasury of words that Paul received, which was passed on to Timothy, who then consigned it to his own disciples.
(II Timothy 1:13-14) “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.”
(II Timothy 2:1-2) “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
(II Timothy 3:16-17) “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Republican election in Ancient Rome
It is well-known that Ancient Rome was structured as a republic, ruled not by monarchs, but by the people, with legislative power vested in the people’s assemblies. Yet, as Dr. Valentina Arena, who specializes in Roman history at the University College London explained, this system did not guarantee equal participation to all citizens, mostly because of logistical obstacles on people’s ability to traverse to the Campus Martius or the Forum in Rome, where the assemblies called by a Roman magistrate took place.
“A res publica, the Roman philosopher Cicero claims, is a legitimate form of commonwealth if, and only if, the people are the sovereign power, and they entrust their sovereignty into the capable hands of the elite.
At the beginning of the constitutional debate in de re publica [a dialogue on Roman politics by Cicero, written in six books between 54 and 51 BC], Cicero effectively says: ‘res publica, then, is the property of a people (res populi). A people, further, is not just any gathering of humans assembled in any way at all; it is a gathering of people in large number associated into a partnership with one another by a common agreement on law (iuris consensu) and a sharing of benefits (utilitatis communione).’
The construction of the definition of a res publica as res populi in terms of a property metaphor allows Cicero to state that in any legitimate form of government, the populus should own its own res. In order to do so in any meaningful way, it is necessary that the people should possess the right to manage and administer it. This, in turn, is tantamount to the possession of liberty and the ability to exercise it.
Tracing the development of the Roman constitution as the historical incarnation of the best form of government, Cicero showed how Rome came to acquire that matrix of civic and political rights essential to the establishment of the citizens’ status of liberty.
Of these rights, the most important was the right to suffragium. This provided the people with a certain degree of political participation, thereby guaranteeing that they were the de facto owners of their own property, which they could administer as they wished. In this form of government, the powers of this sovereignty were entrusted to an elected aristocracy, which would conduct the affairs of the people while keeping in mind the common advantage, and in accordance with a common sense of justice.”
(Elections in the late Roman Republic: how did they work?, HistoryExtra, Valentina Arena)
Thomas Smyth’s identification of the Christian society as “a great and free commonwealth” has elements in common with the great and free commonwealth that Rome recognized as its civil society, and is why the PCA Book of Church Order states, “The power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth. This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His church.”
Membership electoral rights as common to secular and sacred societies
So, just because Ancient Rome was structured as a republic, with the people having the inherent right to elect their own representatives, does that make it incumbent on the church to ensure the same right? No, we have already established that this principle is lawfully inherited from ancient Judaism. What we seek to demonstrate here is that the inherent, inalienable right of those ruled to choose those who rule is something that is revealed “by the light of nature,” in other words, a reasonable truth that is discernable through the natural revelation of creation, not only by those who possess the special revelation of the Holy Scriptures.
The Westminster Divines, who wrote the main confessional statement of Presbyterianism, recognized this:
The Westminster Confession of Faith
Chapter I. Of the Holy Scripture
“6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced by Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
Expanding on this notion of basic membership rights of a society which are revealed in nature and evinced by reason, Bannerman taught,
Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter I. The Source of Church Power, or the Headship of Christ
Section I. The Headship of Christ
“There seem to be at least two things implied in the simplest notion of an organized and regular society, which is in any degree independent and self-acting. First, it must have its office-bearers. Whatever may be the character and objects of the association, secular or sacred, and whatever be the manner in which its officers are appointed, whether by rotation, or succession, or election of the members, it is essential to every society of a regular and orderly kind, to have office-bearers to represent the mind of the community, to conduct its business, and to act on its behalf. … this, from the very nature of the case, seems to be essential to it, that the members at large should have organs who represent them, and are invested with something of their power and rights, and act on behalf of the whole. In other words, every society, be what it may, must have its office-bearers. Second, it must have its laws, to bind both members and office-bearers, to regulate their conduct in reference to each other and to foreign parties, and to determine the course and order of their transactions as a society. For internal regulation and external action it is necessary, unless the society is to fall into utter confusion and disorder, fatal to its very existence as a community, that the doings both of its members and office-bearers should proceed upon some settled principles or fixed rules. This necessity is equally unavoidable, whether the society be a private or a public one, and whatever be the manner in which its laws are enacted, or the authority by which they are imposed. Come from what quarter they may, whether from internal or external sources, some regulations or fixed principles of action are necessary for every community, if it would exist or act at all.
These two things, then, are essential to every society, whatever be its nature or objects—namely, office-bearers of some kind, and laws of some kind; in other words, a general power for government, and order, and action in the society of some sort, and coming from some quarter or another. And such a power we actually find to belong to the Church of Christ, in common with every other orderly society; and it is, in fact, equally as in the case of other societies, essential to its wellbeing, and even necessary to its existence. Without some such power the Christian Church must cease to exist as a society at all. …
There is a certain power of self-government and self-action belonging to and exhibited by such societies. From what source is that power derived? The answer is obvious. The power of authority and action that they possess is derived from the voluntary consent and appointment of the members surrendering their own power, and committing it, under certain conditions or limitations, to a few selected from their number. There are office-bearers and laws in such private and voluntary societies, as there must be in all societies; but the office-bearers are appointed directly or indirectly by the consent of the members at large, and the laws are enacted and imposed by the society itself. The office-bearers act by a power delegated from the other members; and the laws are binding in consequence of an authority emanating from the whole body of the association. …
The power of the Church is derived from a higher source than the consent or delegation of its members; it is of positive institution and Divine warrant, and not from the same origin as that of a voluntary and private society.
In one sense, doubtless, the power of authority and action belonging to the Church is derived from the consent and permission of its members; for it is by their own voluntary act and choice that they become and continue members of the Church, and so place themselves under the administration of that power. In this respect, and it is an important one, Church power exists by the permission or consent of the members; and the Church has all the rights and standing of a merely private and voluntary association. But in addition to this, the power of the Church is directly from God, being exercised or enforced, not only or chiefly because of the permission or consent of its members, but because it is a positive Divine institution, apart altogether from that consent. The direct Divine appointment of Church power, as an ordinance of God in the Christian society, is cumulative and not privative of the existence of that power by the permission or approbation of its members. There is a positive institution by God in addition to the voluntary submission to it of man. …
we have undeniable examples in Scripture of the exercise of a power, not of advice merely, or even of authority, wielded by the permission or appointment of the members, but of rule and authority by warrant and positive institution of God; the power, in short, of ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’
On grounds such as these, which do not require to be illustrated in detail, because they must be familiar to every reader of Scripture, we are warranted to say, that there is a real power of authority and action belonging to the Christian Church, derived from a higher source that the consent or delegation of its members; and that, in addition to the rights it may have as a merely voluntary society, it has a power ordained by God for government among its members, and for the attainment of its ends as a Church of Christ. So clear and abundant is the evidence that the Christian Church is something more and higher than a voluntary association of Christians, and that the power of the Church is not merely the surrender, under certain limitations, of the rights of all the members into the hands of a few for the good of the society, but it is rather the positive institution of Christ, having its origin and warrant directly from Him. In other words, the source of Church power is not in the members, but in Christ.”
(The Church of Christ, James Bannerman, pp. 196-201)
Part III. Matters in Regard to Which Church Power is Exercised
Division III. Church Power Exercised in Regard to Discipline
Chapter I. Nature, Design, and Limits of the Discipline of the Christian Church
“The power to regulate the matter of the admission and the exclusion of members, as well as their conduct while they continue members of that society, belongs to the Church by the light of nature itself. It is an inherent right vested in every voluntary association of whatever nature it may be, and necessary to its existence and well-being as an orderly society.
The very conditions necessary to the subsistence of an organized body of men, and the order implied in combined operations, obviously require that they shall agree on some fixed principles both of union and action,—a compliance with which forms the terms of their admission into and continuance in the society as members, and departure from which must entail the forfeiture of the privileges of membership. No society created for a common end, and requiring a common action, could possibly subsist upon the principle of being compelled to admit, or to continue to regard as its members, those who transgressed its regulations, or set themselves in opposition to the ends for which it is established. There must be in every voluntary association a right to impose its own laws on its members,—a power to refuse admission to such as give no guarantee for their conformity with the rules and ends of the society,—and, when no other remedy is sufficient, authority to deprive of its privileges and expel from its fellowship those who perseveringly and systematically depart from the order and obligations of the institution. If a society be a lawful association at all, it must have this right to exercise the power of order and authority over its members which is necessary to the very ends for which it is instituted. The existence of the right as belonging to the Church, in common with every other lawful society of men, is clearly demonstrated from the light of nature itself.”
(ibid., pp. 704-705)
The Reformation’s recovery of presbyterial principles
Ecclesiologists such as John Calvin, James Bannerman and his son D. Douglas Bannerman were very familiar with rabbinical as well as Patristic writings, and their scholarship was heavily indebted to the early church fathers such as Cyprian and Jerome. For instance, Cyprian taught that there is only one “bishop” of the church, Christ, and that all earthly bishops, or elders, merely participate in the one bishopric. Calvin thought through this truth in terms of the one priesthood of Christ, to which all true worshippers lay claim. Thus, Presbyterianism does affirm a bishopric: a bishopric that is distributed throughout the Presbytery and also throughout the body, comprising “a spiritual commonwealth” — even a priesthood of all believers.
Calvin, one of the most formative figures of the Reformed tradition, traced congregational appointment of church officers to be both biblical and historical. In Book Four of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin relied not only on Scripture, but also drew from long-standing Roman practice of representative government elected by the people, arguing at great length for what later would become Presbyterian polity.
Calvin organized the Geneva Consistory in Switzerland, and also was instrumental in founding the Geneva Academy, which later became the University of Geneva in 1559. Through the Consistory and the Academy, Calvin trained ministerial candidates from other parts of Europe. Dr. S. Donald Fortson III, Professor of Church History and Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, teaching a lecture called “Foundations of Protestant Theology” in the American Presbyterianism course, said,
“The city of Geneva became the showplace of Europe, attracting Protestant students as well as refugees fleeing persecution in other parts of the continent for safe haven there in Geneva. During their sojourn in Geneva, these refugees, these visitors were exposed to the theology and reforms of Calvin and were able to witness firsthand the implementation of these ideals. The newly enlightened guests then returned to their native countries carrying the principles of Calvin with them, and thus his ideas spread. Now, Calvin’s passion was to establish in effect what we might describe as ‘a holy commonwealth’ in the city of Geneva: a place where every sphere of human life honors God. His activist Protestant faith flowed out of his understanding of the sovereignty of God. If God is sovereign, he will accomplish his purposes in the earth and this optimism was the driving force behind all that Calvin accomplished. …
In thinking about the influence of Calvin on the continent and our connections to Presbyterianism, certainly Presbyterians are deeply indebted to the theological heritage from the great Protestant thinker, John Calvin. Reformed views of salvation, the church, sacraments, discipline, polity, all have their roots in the Genevan Reformer and the Christian leaders that built upon Calvin’s seminal insights in the next generations. Presbyterian emphasis on education, cultural engagement, political involvement and social service all have links back to Calvin’s comprehensive reform of the city of Geneva. We often talk about a ‘Reformed world and life view,’ and that’s a phrase that present-day Calvinists use to describe this all-inclusive vision of bringing every aspect of human life under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
John Knox learned church governance principles from Calvin and brought them from the Swiss Reformation back to his native Scotland. Knox was instrumental in primarily writing the Scots Confession, and with Andrew Melville, Robert Bruce and others, he founded Presbyterianism. Calvin’s momentous arguments are immortalized in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Book Fourth: Of the Holy Catholic Church
Chapter 4: Of the state of the primitive church, and the mode of government in use before the papacy.
“First the bishop, for the sake of preserving order, presided over the presbyters or pastors. The office of bishop. Presbyter and bishop the same. The institution of this order ancient.
A bishop is the same as presbyter. And before dissensions were introduced into religion by the instigation of the devil, and it was said among the people, I am of Paul, and I of Cephas, churches were governed by a council of presbyters. Afterward, that the seeds of dissension might be plucked up, the whole charge was devolved upon mandatory rescripts, preventions, and the like. But they all conduct one. Therefore, as presbyters know that by the custom of the church they are subject to him who presides, so let bishops know that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than in consequence of our Lord’s appointment, and ought to rule the church for the common good.”
(Com. Epist. To Titus, c.1, Jermone, as quoted in the Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.4.2, trans. Beveridge)
Chapter 3: Of the teachers and ministers of the church. Their election and office.
“The election of pastors does not belong to one individual. Other pastors should preside, and the people consent and approve.
The next question is, Whether a minister should be chosen by the whole church, or only by colleagues and elders, who have the charge of discipline; or whether they may be appointed by the authority of one individual? Those who attribute this right to one individual quote the words of Paul to Titus ‘For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city’ (Titus 1:5); and also to Timothy, ‘Lay hands suddenly on no man’ (I Tim 5:22). But they are mistaken if they suppose that Timothy so reigned at Ephesus, and Titus in Crete, as to dispose of all things at their own pleasure. They only presided by previously giving good and salutary counsels to the people, not by doing alone whatever pleased them, while all others were excluded. Lest this should seem to be a fiction of mine, I will make it plain by a similar example. Luke relates that Barnabas and Paul ordained elders throughout the churches, but he at the same time marks the plan or mode when he says that it was done by suffrage. … They therefore selected (creabant) two; but the whole body, as was the custom of the Greeks in elections, declared by a show of hands which of the two they wished to have. Thus it is not uncommon for Roman historians to say, that the consul who held the comitia elected the new magistrates, for no other reason but because he received the suffrages, and presided over the people at the election. Certainly it is not credible that Paul conceded more to Timothy and Titus than he assumed to himself. Now we see that his custom was to appoint bishops by the suffrages of the people. We must therefore interpret the above passages, so as not to infringe on the common right and liberty of the church. Rightly, therefore, does Cyprian contend for it as of divine authority, that the priest be chosen in presence of the people, before the eyes of all, and be approved as worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony (Cyprian, Epist. lib. 1 ep. 3). Indeed, we see that by the command of the Lord, the practice in electing the Levitical priests was to bring them forward in view of the people before consecration. Nor is Mattias enrolled among the number of the apostles, nor are the seven deacons elected in any other way, than at the sight and approval of the people (Acts 6:2). ‘Those examples,’ says Cyprian, ‘show that the ordination of a priest behooved not to take place, unless under the consciousness of the people assisting, so that that ordination was just and legitimate which was vouched by the testimony of all.’ We see, then, that ministers are legitimately called according to the word of God, when those who may have seemed fit are elected on the consent and approbation of the people. Other pastors, however, ought to preside over the election, lest any error should be committed by the general body either through levity, or bad passion, or tumult.”
“In the ordination of bishops the liberty of the people maintained.
In electing bishops, the people long retained their right of preventing anyone from being intruded who was not acceptable to all. Accordingly, it was forbidden by the Council of Antioch to induct anyone of the unwilling. This also Leo I carefully confirms. Hence these passages; ‘Let him be elected whom the clergy and people or the majority demand.’ Again. ‘Let him be elected who is chosen by the clergy, and called by the people, and let him be consecrated by the provincials with the judgment of the metropolitan.’ So careful were the holy fathers that this liberty of the people should on no account be diminished, that when a general council, assembled at Constantinople, were ordaining Nectarius, they declined to do it without the approbation of the whole clergy and people, as their letter to the Roman synod testified. Accordingly, when any bishop nominated his successor, the act was not ratified without consulting the whole people. Of this you have not only an example, but the form, in Augustine, in the nomination of Eradius (Augustine, Epist. 110 ad Eradium). And Theodoret, after relating that Peter was the successor nominated by Athanasius, immediately adds, that the sacerdotal order ratified it, that the magistracy, chief men, and whole people, by their acclamation approved.”
In a single observation, Calvin masterfully affirmed both congregational power and clerical power as coalescing in the bottom-up, top-down, presbyterian administration of Christ’s church.
“The form of ordination in the ancient church. …
For after saying that the people had the power either of choosing worthy or refusing unworthy priests, he immediately adds, For which reason, we must carefully observe and hold by the divine and apostolic tradition (which is observed by us also, and almost by all the provinces), that for the due performance of ordinations, all the nearest bishops of the province should meet with the people over whom the person is proposed to be ordained, and the bishop should be elected in the presence of the people.”
Modern Presbyterian preservation of congregational electoral rights
On congregational suffrage and the rights and benefits of members, Thomas Smyth instructed,
An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church
Chapter 3. Officers of the church
Section 6. Of ruling elders
133. Whom do ruling elders represent in the church?
As the pastor represents the ministry, so ruling elders represent the members of the church.
134. By whom are ruling elders chosen to their office?
As they represent the members of the church, so are they elected to their office by them.
135. How are ruling elders invested with their office?
Having been called by the church, and elected by it, they are solemnly set apart to their office with prayer, or with prayer and the imposition of hands.
Section 7. Of deacons
146. How are deacons elected to their office?
They are elected by the suffrages of the members of the churches to which they belong; and are set apart by prayer and the imposition of the hands of the pastor and elders.
Section 8. Of the election of officers.
147. Have the members of churches an undoubted right to choose their own pastor, elders, and deacons?
Yes; churches, in common with all other free societies, have this privilege.
(Acts 1:15-26, 6:5, II Corinthians 8:19)
148. How should church members discharge this duty?
In a spirit of meekness, humility, peace, and prayer; with a supreme regard to the glory of Christ and the spiritual interests of the church; and without partiality or respect of persons.
(Philippians 2:3, Acts 1:24, I Corinthians 10:31, James 3:17)
Chapter 7. Relation of the Presbyterian Church to other denominations and to the world.
Section 5. The advantages and claims of the Presbyterian church.
324. What claims, then, has the Presbyterian church on all her members?
She is scriptural in her character, ordinances, and doctrines; apostolic in her forms, officers, and order of government and worship; adapted to secure the religious liberty and prosperity of all her members, and to extend the blessings of salvation to the ends of the earth.
325. What other advantages does the Presbyterian church possess, to recommend her to all her members?
In her government there is found ample provision, according to the word of God, for the preservation of order, free from all confusion; of peace and unity, free from schism and division; of the truth as it is in Jesus, free from all error and heresy; of piety, free from all scandal and profaneness; of equity and right, free from all maladministration, whether ignorant, arbitrary, or tyrannical; of the honor and purity of Christ’s ordinances, free from all contempt, pollution, and profanation; of the comfort, quickening, and encouragement of the saints in all the ways of Christ; and of the honor of God and of our Lord Jesus, in all the services of the sanctuary.
326. Name some of the further advantages possessed by members of the Presbyterian church?
They possess the right of choosing their own pastors and elders; they are neither subject to the spiritual despotism of a priesthood, nor to anarchy and misrule; they can bring any matter, — whether it be unfaithfulness in ministers or elders, or in the other officers and members of the church, or errors in doctrine, — before the church courts, composed of an equal proportion of clergymen and of representatives of the people, chosen by themselves, for investigation and decision; and they have the privilege and power, when their rights as citizens of Zion are assailed, of appealing from one church court to another.
As mentioned earlier, present-day American Presbyterian denominations set forth clear methodology for the God-ordained duty of a congregation to hold meetings and elect its pastors, ruling elders and deacons. For example, in the PCA Book of Church Order:
“No one who holds office in the Church ought to usurp authority therein, or receive any official titles of spiritual preeminence, except such as are employed in the Scriptures.”
“Every church should be under the pastoral oversight of a minister, and when a church has no pastor it should seek to secure one without delay. A church shall proceed to elect a pastor in the following manner: The Session shall call a congregational meeting to elect a pulpit committee which may be composed of members from the congregation at large or the Session, as designated by the congregation (see BCO 25). The pulpit committee shall, after consultation and deliberation, recommend to the congregation a pastoral candidate who, in its judgment, fulfills the Constitutional requirements of that office (e.g., BCO 8, 13-6 and 21) and is most suited to be profitable to the spiritual interests of the congregation (cf. BCO 20-6).
The Session shall order a congregational meeting to convene at the regular place of worship. Public notice of the time, place, and purpose of this meeting shall be given at least one week prior to the time of the meeting.”
“Method of voting: The voters being convened, and prayer for divine guidance having been offered, the moderator shall put the question:
Are you ready to proceed to the election of a pastor?
If they declare themselves ready, the moderator shall call for nominations, or the election may proceed by ballot without nominations. In every case a majority of all the voters present shall be required to elect.”
“Form of call: The terms of the call shall be approved by the congregation in the following or like form:
The ____________________ Church being on sufficient grounds well satisfied of the ministerial qualifications of you, ____________, and having good hopes from our knowledge of your labors that your ministrations in the Gospel will be profitable to our spiritual interests, do earnestly call you to undertake the pastoral office in said congregation, promising you, in the discharge of your duty, all proper support, encouragement and obedience in the Lord. That you may be free from worldly cares and avocations, we hereby promise and oblige ourselves to pay you the sum of $___________ a year in regular monthly (or quarterly) payments, and other benefits, such as, manse, retirement, insurance, vacations, moving expenses etc., during the time of your being and continuing the regular pastor of this church.
In testimony whereof we have respectively subscribed our names this ___________day of____________________, A.D.________.
Attest: I, having moderated the congregational meeting which extended a call to ______________ for his ministerial services, do certify that the call has been made in all respects according to the rules laid down in the Book of Church Order, and that the persons who signed the foregoing call were authorized to do so by vote of the congregation.
Moderator of the Meeting”
“If any church shall choose to designate its ruling elders and deacons, or a committee to sign its call, it shall be at liberty to do so. But it shall, in such case, be fully certified to the Presbytery by the minister or other person who presided, that the persons signing have been appointed for that purpose by a public vote of the church, and that the call has been in all other respects prepared as above directed.”
“Questions for Ordination. …
8. Are you now willing to take the charge of this church, agreeable to your declaration when accepting their call? And do you, relying upon God for strength, promise to discharge to it the duties of a pastor?”
“The pastor and associate pastor are elected by the congregation using the form of call in BCO 20-6. Being elected by the congregation, they become members of the Session.”
“All communing members in good and regular standing, but no others, are entitled to vote in the election of church officers in the churches to which they respectively belong. A majority vote of those present is required for election.”
“The congregation consists of all the communing members of a particular church, and they only are entitled to vote.”
“Whenever it may seem for the best interests of the church that a congregational meeting should be held, the Session shall call such meeting and give public notice of at least one week. No business shall be transacted at such meeting except what is stated in the notice. The Session shall always call a congregational meeting when requested in writing to do so:
… e. by one hundred (100) of the communing members of a church of more than seven hundred (700) such members.
Upon such a proper request, if the Session cannot act, fails to act or refuses to act, to call such a congregational meeting within thirty (30) days from the receipt of such a request, then any member or members in good standing may file a complaint in accordance with the provisions of BCO 43.”
According to Presbyterianism, which is deeply rooted in the Old Testament covenant community, our Lord has decreed that those who are ruled share the right with those who rule over them to identify the spiritual qualifications of their own overseers. The practical outworking of that is often regulated by rules of expediency that each church will find to be in keeping with the apostolic instruction that (I Corinthians 14:40) “all things should be done decently and in order.”
(Featured image: The skyline of modern Edinburgh, Scotland, including New College in The University of Edinburgh, where James and Douglas Bannerman taught theology. photo: ZO Magazine)
Other articles in this series:
Why ecclesiology is important for Christians, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 1
God’s apostolic model for elders in graded church courts, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 2
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