The Ministerial Obligation is provided in the PCA Handbook for Presbytery Clerks, year after year. All teaching elders must sign the same Confessional Subscription (BCO 13-7) corresponding to the same ordination vows (BCO 21-5) in order to be ordained, and their presbyteries must retain these contracts on file.


Editor’s note: This essay first was published as “The jure divino basis for parity between teaching elders and ruling elders,” on September 18, 2020, as Appendix II in the Complaint of Peter Benyola versus the Central Florida Presbytery, elevated on December 7, 2020, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, becoming SJC (Standing Judicial Commission) Case No. 2020-13. It is only retitled here. 

Part I: Form of Government
Chapter 8: The Elder
8-1. This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor. As it is his duty to be spiritually fruitful, dignified, and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder. As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayer, he is termed teacher. These titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office.
8-9. Elders being of one class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders. They should, moreover, cultivate zealously their own aptness to teach the Bible and should improve every opportunity of doing so.

The PCA has clearly codified its position of parity: teaching elders and ruling elders are two distinct orders within the same office, yet equal in voting/formal authority as well as access to participation in the Church courts. The PCA believes Scripture regulates a hierarchy of church courts and not a hierarchy among individual elders (Acts 15:22-25, I Peter 5:1). Scripture indicates two basic functions of eldership: teaching and ruling, and Presbyterianism long has recognized these as discrete offices within the same order (I Timothy 5:17). The pastor has sometimes been referred to as primus inter pares — “first among equals” — with the other elders on the session. The PCA also says the presence of both teaching elders and ruling elders at Presbytery is integral to the function of the gradation of the Church’s courts. In contrast, the Session at Saint Andrew’s, even now that it has modified its constitution, persists in its disparity between elders, because in tacitly communicating that teaching elders are subject to Presbyterian discipline and yet ruling elders are not, this Session has effectively stratified its teaching elders from its ruling elders. Classes within a church’s eldership is a feature of prelacy, and Douglas Bannerman warned of the dangers of presbyters who rule over others in a graduated scale, manipulate and abuse authority. 

There are also reasons explained in the history of the covenant community for a senior pastor to preside over congregational meetings, especially those in which the congregation must deliberate and vote on important matters of a church’s constitution and how church officers are selected. 

Bannerman the younger wrote, 

Part III. The Church from Time of Exile to that of Our Lord
Chapter III. The Synagogue System
3rd. The Organization of the Synagogue.
The president of the eldership.
In the consistory or council of elders by which each synagogue was governed, one was appointed president or chairman. He was called the head of the session or consistory … or in the Hellenistic congregations the gerusiarch … from his presiding over the eldership or presbytery. … He appears generally to have held this position ad vitam aut culpam, but could be removed from it for a time or permanently by the votes of his colleagues, subject, as it seems, to the intervention of the Sanhedrin, where the decision was not a unanimous one, or if the matter was referred to them from the inferior court. The same rule held in the case of the president of the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, of which we shall speak presently; only with this difference, that as the Sanhedrin was the highest court, there was in it no room for reference or intervention.
As to the position and functions of the presidents of the Jewish synagogue elderships, Vitringa sums up his careful examination of the evidence bearing upon this point as follows: ‘There were presidents of this kind in those greater consistories which flourished both before and after the overthrow of Jerusalem in Canaan, and in the more celebrated places beyond Canaan such as Alexandria, Antioch, Damascus, and in Babylonia. It is not to be denied that such a president was distinguished by a dignity and authority beyond the other presbyters who along with him constituted the synedrium. But it is to be observed—
‘(a) That the president of a council (senatus) of this kind was always held to be of the same order and office (ordinis et officii) with the rest of the council of which he was the most distinguished member; and, what is more, that he was always subject to the council, who could remove him from his office at their pleasure (quotiescunque volebat). We must therefore compare this president of a Jewish presbytery with the presidents of civil or legal courts, such as we find in many countries. In such cases the dignity of the president’s position obtains for him a greater authority and honour with the public, and gives him certain other prerogatives; but he is not thereby removed from the order and class of the other members of the court over which he presides. The rectors of our modern universities supply an illustration of this. Thus all the members of the great and venerable supreme council in Jerusalem, the president not excepted, were alike included under the names ‘Sanhedrin,’ ‘House of Judgment,’ Elders, Presbytery, Gerusia, and such other titles proper to that court. It is therefore sufficiently clear that each of those ecclesiastical councils of which we speak constituted a homogenous body of men, of the same class and order (ejusdem generis et ordinis). For any superior dignity attaching to the president was reflected upon the whole council from whom he derived it.
‘(b) In these ordinary ecclesiastical consistories … which existed in less populous places, the dignity of the head of the consistory … was hardly greater than that of any of his colleagues. (præses perpetuus), but was of the same order and office with the rest of his colleagues, and of the same power, since he could do nothing save with them and through them. He was distinguished from them in point of dignity in no respect whatever, save that he held the first place among a body of men of his own order, rank, and office.’”
(The Scripture Doctrine of the Church, D. Douglas Bannerman, pp. 138-141) 

Functions of the elders of the synagogue.
In each synagogue the duties of the eldership thus constituted under their president were comprehended under the two general departments of teaching and ruling. To the first of these some reference has already been made. It may be added here, that in connection with a learned or professional class naturally grew up, known as scribes … These were men specially trained in the knowledge of Scripture law and its traditional interpretation. Ezra was at once a priest of the line of Aaron, and also ‘a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the Lord the God of Israel had given.’ But it is in the latter capacity that he is chiefly spoken of, and as such he was foremost in ‘bringing the Scriptures before all the congregation’ in the great gatherings of Jerusalem after the restoration, ‘giving the sense and causing them to understand the reading.’ But in later times the systematic study and exposition of the Scriptures, from causes on which we cannot dwell here, passed more and more into the hands of men who were not of priestly families, but sprung from the ranks of the people. Their influence grew with the spread of the synagogue system. The scribes were the natural leaders in a religious community. Their lives might often be unworthy of their position, but the theoretic value of their teaching was acknowledged by our Lord Himself: ‘The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these observe and do; but do ye not after their works: for they say, and do not. … They love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.’
As indicated in the words of Christ now cited, these trained teachers filled the highest places in the synagogue elderships. The scribe or scribes in every congregation were those among its elders specially qualified to speak on religious subjects, and ordinarily expected to do so when the Scriptures were read on sabbaths or week-days. ‘The lectures and exhortations in the synagogues were not indeed confined to appointed persons. Any one capable of doing so might stand up to teach in the synagogue at the invitation of the ruler. But as in the courts of justice the learned doctors of the law were preferred to the laity, so too in the synagogue their natural superiority asserted itself.’
By the influence and under the presidency of the scribes, schools for the regular instruction of the young in Scripture knowledge grew up in connection with almost every synagogue, where the most hopeful of the youth of Israel sat eagerly at the feet of the teachers of the law. Touching instances are recorded of the thirst for sacred learning, and of persistent self-denial in order to obtain it, in connection with the poorest families.
Through the teachings of the scribes especially, both in the school and the congregation, the synagogues became centres of religious instruction and influence for the ends described in such glowing terms by one of themselves. ‘What are our houses of prayer … in every town,’ he asks, ‘but places of instruction in prudence and manhood, temperance and righteousness, piety and holiness, and every virtue with respect both to things human and things Divine?’
The contrast which sometimes existed between the ideal and the actual in this matter may be seen in the words of an apostle who was contemporary with Philo, and who had sat at the feet of Rabban Gamaliel, ‘the glory of the Law:’ ‘Thou bearest the name of a Jew and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God, and knowest His will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth. Thou therefore that teachest another, teachest not thyself? … Thou who gloriest in the law, through thy transgression of law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
Under the head of ‘ruling’ in the synagogue came the control of everything connected with the arrangements and order of worship in the congregation, the administration of discipline among its members, the management of its financial affairs, and the care of the poor and afflicted in connection with it.”
(ibid., pp. 141-144) 

Relations of different synagogues to each other.
In every Jewish presbytery of any size, whether it had the oversight merely of one congregation or of several, the plan was usually adopted of having an executive or acting committee for the more efficient transaction of business. This was obviously in itself a reasonable arrangement. It corresponded to the well-known threefold division of the Greek communes … and it was commended to the Jewish mind and feeling by such precedents from the history of Israel as that of the seventy men chosen from the general eldership of the people to bear the burden along with Moses, and that of the central board appointed by Jehoshaphat. The members of this executive were chosen from time to time by the congregation from the general body of the elders.
There was thus a distinction which appears repeatedly in the inscriptions on Jewish tombs between one who was merely an elder of the synagogue,—which seems to have been a position held ad vitam aut culpam,—and one who, in addition, was an ‘archon,’ or member of the executive of the eldership or presbytery.
The election of archons was usually an annual one, being held as a rule in September, which was the beginning of the civil year with the Jews, and also the season of their greatest religious fast and festival, the day of Atonement and the feast of Tabernacles. Any archon might be re-elected; and the appointment was sometimes for a period of years, or even, as it seems, for life. Such a mark of confidence on the part of the members of the synagogue was naturally held to be a special honour, to be noted as such in the inscription on the tomb of the office-bearer who had enjoyed it.”
(ibid., pp. 149-150)

Part VI. From Antioch to Rome—The Gentile Christian Church
Chapter IV. Organization of Apostolic Church in Second Period of Its History
3. Relation of the elders to each other.
Presidents of presbyteries.
In the meetings of the elderships of single congregations, and in the larger and more representative assemblies, as when ‘the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus’ met together for common counsel and action regarding the affairs of the Christian community in that great city, or when ‘the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem came together to consider of this matter’ of the admission of the Gentiles, some one must have acted as president. Every council or conference must have a chairman or president of some kind, whether appointed at each meeting, or for a longer term, or for life.
The analogy of the synagogue elderships would naturally be followed in the Church in this as in other respects. By apostolic injunction, ‘special honour’ was to be given to those presbyters who, besides ‘ruling well,’ laboured in the Word and in teaching. This would naturally lead to such a ‘minister of the Word’ presiding, as a rule, in the meetings of the congregation, and of its eldership, as the scribe or Rabbi had been wont to do in a village synagogue. Where a congregation enjoyed the services of several elders of teaching gifts, or where representatives of several congregations met in conference, considerations of seniority, or acknowledged fitness for the work specially in hand, would determine who should fill the chair. Often it might seem best on various grounds to have a standing president. In times of difficulty or persecution, some Christian teacher of impressive personality, and of sound and tried judgment, might be felt on all sides to be the leader whom God had raised up for the Church, and who must preside in her counsels. A good instance of this may be found in the position held in the Church at Jerusalem, in the second section of its history, by James the Lord’s brother. …
Setting only the apostles aside, he was undoubtedly the most honoured and influential member of the Hebrew Christian community, the man who would, as a matter of course, be expected to preside and take the lead in any meeting of importance in connection with the affairs of the Church.
On the other hand, there is not the slightest evidence that James the Lord’s brother held any position different in rank or order from the other presbyters of the Church at Jerusalem with whom he acted. In the earliest passage bearing on the point, we find that the commission from Antioch for relief of the brethren in Jerusalem and Judæa is not addressed to James, nor even ‘to James and the elders who are with him,’ but simply ‘to the elders.’ It is to ‘the apostles and elders at Jerusalem’ that the appeal is made from Antioch regarding the admission of Gentile converts. It is ‘the apostles and elders at Jerusalem’ that the appeal is made from Antioch regarding the admission of Gentile converts. It is ‘the apostles and elders’ who are ‘gathered together to consider of this matter.’ Who presided at the council is not stated. James, as well as Peter, took a leading part in the discussion; and his proposal was finally accepted by ‘the apostles and the elders, with the whole Church.’ But the official letter and ‘the decrees’ run in the name of ‘the apostles and elders that were at Jerusalem,’ the president, whoever he may have been, not being referred to in the slightest degree. …
It is worth noting here how distinctly the eldership or presbytery of Jerusalem, although meeting now without the presence of a single member of the original twelve, identify themselves with the eldership which came to the decision which they quote. They refer to that judgment as theirs, and as still valid, citing its technical language, and make a practical proposal to the apostle with the view of carrying out its spirit and purpose. They do not seem to feel that their authority is at all weaker than it was then for all who come within their jurisdiction; and the president simply acts as the mouthpiece of the court. …
The variety of arrangement, compatible with Presbyterian principles, as regards such a president, may be illustrated from the practice of our own Church. In the ‘Kirk-session,’ or congregational eldership, the ‘minister’ is the perpetual president; and none except a ‘minister of the Word’ in full standing may preside. In the ‘Deacons’ Court,’ or joint meeting of elders and deacons, the pastor presides ex officio, if present; but in his absence the chair may be taken by any member of the court. In the Presbytery or Synod,—representing the eldership of the district or province,—the moderator is usually appointed for six months, or a year, being chosen by rotation or free election from the ministers of the congregations within the bounds. In the General Assembly or Supreme Court of the Church, the moderator holds office during the sittings of the House, but has certain functions which continue for a year.”
(ibid., pp. 548-551) 

“That a leading presbyter might sometimes ‘love the first seat’ among his brethren, and make an unwarrantable use of the influence and authority connected with it, was to be expected, human nature being what it is even in Christian men. Instances of this kind were to be found in the annals of the Jewish synagogue elderships, and of ‘the presbytery of Israel’ in Jerusalem. In what is perhaps the latest document of the New Testament, the Third Epistle of John, the aged apostle speaks with strong reprehension of ambitious tendencies of this sort on the part of leading men in some of the Churches of Asia. ‘I wrote somewhat unto the Church; but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them (or over them …), receiveth us not. Therefore, if I come, I will bring to remembrance his works which he doeth, prating against us with wicked words; and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and them that would he forbiddeth, and casteth them out of the Church. Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good.’”
(ibid., p. 553)

3rd. Unity of the Church; relation of local Churches to each other and to the Christian society as a whole.
“The position and work of the apostolic deputies furnish a valuable and suggestive precedent, which has not been followed in all branches of the Reformed Church as it might have been, with respect to the importance of entrusting special powers at times to men of special gifts for organization and administration. Such men, under suitable safeguards against prelatic developments, may act, and have acted, most usefully as eyes and hands to the ordinary elderships of the Church, as superintendents or overseers of special departments over wide districts, or in responsible and honourable missions in the general interests of the Church and the cause of Christ at home and abroad. Such men sent forth with special temporary commissions in apostolic times, as under the ancient synagogue system, did not a little to maintain and express the essential unity of the apostolic Church in the second portion of its history.
We have traced the growth and development of the Church of Christ, so far as our limits would allow, to the close of the New Testament period. Of the shortcomings of the work no one can be more conscious than its author. He can at least say that he has honestly sought to see and to speak the truth regarding this great subject, as set forth in Scripture. May the result be for the glory of God, and for the good of His Church on earth.
‘Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be the glory in the Church, and in Christ Jesus, unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen.’”
(ibid., p. 569)

Expounding on Presbyterian endurance to prevail through the Revolution, a pastor cited in 1876, 

Chapter II. Presbyterianism a representative republican form of government.
“Speaking of the Presbyterian system, Alexander Henderson writes:
‘Here is superiority without tyranny; for no minister has a papal or monarchical jurisdiction over his own flock, far less over other pastors and over all the congregations. Here is parity without confusion and disorder; for the pastors are in order before elders. Every particular church is subordinate to a presbytery, the presbytery to the synod, and the synod to the national assembly. Here is 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.’”
(Presbyterians and the Revolution, the Rev. W.P. Breed, D.D., pp. 30-31)

John Murray asserted that without parity, there is no true plurality of elders. 

VI. Chapter 28. The Form of Government
“The principle of parity is to co-ordinate with that of plurality. Strictly speaking there can be no plurality if there is not parity. For if one is in the least degree above the others, then, in respect of that hegemony, there is no longer plurality. Plurality applies to all government of the church, and there must therefore be parity in the plurality. There is not the slightest evidence in the New Testament that among the elders there was any hierarchy; the elders exercise government in unison, and on a parity with one another.
This principle has oftentimes suffered eclipse within the presbyterian fold. It has come to expression within presbyterian churches by the entertaining of the notion that to the minister of the Word belongs priority or pre-eminence in the government of the church. It is true that the minister as a teaching elder has his own distinctive function in the preaching and teaching of the Word. He labours in the Word and doctrine. It is natural and proper that his knowledge and experience should be given due respect in the deliberations which must be undertaken by the elders in the exercise of the government of the church. But it cannot be too strongly emphasized that, in respect of ruling, the minister of the Word is on a parity with all the others who are designated elders. When this is discarded, then there ensues that type of clerical hierarchism which has reached its logical outcome in what is known as hierarchical episcopacy, and it is the first step in the abandonment of the institution of Christ. Ministers of the word in presbyterian denominations are not immune to the vice of autocracy, and they are too ready to grasp at an authority that does not belong to them. This evil, which has marred the witness of churches professing presbyterian government, only illustrates the need for constant vigilance, lest the elementary principles of presbyterian government be violated and desecrated. It is not only by erroneous theory that presbytery is prejudiced, but also by practice which subtly annuls the theory professed. …
We have found that the kind of government set forth in the New Testament is that of a plurality of elders or bishops exercising oversight on a parity with one another. It is all-important to take account of the fact that it is on the local level that this must, first of all, be applied. It is in the local assembly, or congregation of God’s people, that the ordinances of Christ’s appointment for his church are regularly administered. The importance of the local congregation is therefore paramount and it is in the local congregation that the presbyterian principle must first be exemplified. If it is not preserved and practised at this point, it is not in operation at all.”
(Collected Writings of John Murray Volume Two: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology, pp. 346-348) 

Teaching the stewardship principles of the Second Helvetic Confession, one ecclesiologist said, 

“There are foundational gifts. There are edificational gifts. The foundational gifts are the source, they’re the norm, they’re the pattern of the edificational gifts. That means, therefore, that the authority of edificational gifts is always that of a stewardship. It’s an authority that’s accountable to a higher authority. That’s what a stewardship is. And therefore, successful stewardship is measured by faithfulness to Christ and to the apostolic foundation. …
This is why it’s such an egregious and grave matter when we take to designing ministries at our own whim, to doing church our way, okay? Who do we think we are?”
(ST519: Ecclesiology and Sacraments, Reformed Theological Seminary, Scott Swain) 

One of the founders of the PCA, also the coordinator of Christian Education and Publications (now Committee on Discipleship Ministries) from 1977 to 2012, has asserted our parity. 

“Church officers are required to submit to the Westminster Standards and to believe that the system of doctrine they contain best reflects in summary form what the Bible teaches. … What has maintained the PCA’s high level of commitment to those Standards has been the agreement that it is not up to the individual officers to determine what is essential to the system, but rather it is a collective judgment made by the church courts to whom the officers are accountable. … Even considering the different levels of commitment and understanding of the Standards, the history of the PCA’s actions reveal the consistency of our doctrinal commitment. The actions of the church courts and the preaching and teaching of the word reflect that confessional commitment.
This commitment may matter more today as postmodernism continues to sweep through our culture suggesting that beliefs are merely individual matters and choices and that no one can insist that others believe just like they do. Each person becomes his or her own standard; hence, the Bible is privately interpreted and the church’s doctrinal system is disregarded. People are free to believe and interpret those beliefs in their own way. In this context, our confessional Standards become a good unifying check and balance. They keep us in touch with the church that has gone before us in history. …
The PCA recognizes that there are two types of elders: teaching elders and ruling elders. Both have equal authority in overseeing and shepherding the Church. One of the concerns that led to the formation of the PCA was that the Presbyterian system of governance as practiced in the mainline church was becoming increasingly hierarchical in its practice. … A problem has developed that could threaten this principle of parity and the grassroots nature of the PCA. Fewer ruling elders are participating in the General Assembly and presbytery sessions. That has caused a large number of clergy to speak and rule at those levels. With postmodernism’s challenge to authority and the strong reaction of the younger generations against what they perceive as authoritarian leaders who lord over people, the concept of parity and the priesthood of all believers is necessary to keep the laity involved in oversight of the church and ministry.”
(An Inquirer’s Guide to the PCA, Charles H. Dunahoo, pp. 11-14)

The second Stated Clerk of the PCA from 1988 to 1998, and Professor of Biblical Studies at Covenant College from 1967 to 1988 after spending ten years in the pastorate, has written, 

“In the governance of the Church, there is parity in Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders which means each one has an equal vote, none has veto power over the others. …
Ruling elders are elected by each congregation at a meeting called for that purpose. The Session of the church ordains and installs Ruling Elders following appropriate instruction and examination. The Ruling Elders must also meet the high spiritual requirements delineated in Scripture and the BCO. Only qualified men may be chosen to serve as Teaching or Ruling Elders. Using the model of Acts 6, the PCA requires that the congregation be involved in the nomination and election of their officers.”
(An Inquirer’s Guide to the PCA, Paul R. Gilchrist, pp. 17, 19)


The points set forth in this essay are integral to a broader systematic view of Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiology. For important further study, refer to the Fundamentals of Presbyterianism 2020 article series, which then became Appendix VI in the September 18, 2020 Complaint of Peter Benyola versus the Central Florida Presbytery (cf. SJC 2020-13): 
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 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

The divine command for an unpresbyterated church to submit to the Presbyterian courts (originally Appendix III in the Complaint of Peter Benyola versus the Central Florida Presbytery)
The libertine menace of an unenforced Confessional Subscription (originally Appendix V in the Complaint of Peter Benyola versus the Central Florida Presbytery)

ecclesiology, polity, Presbyterianism