Presbyterian church governance

From Academic Kids

Presbyterian governance of a church is typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. It was developed as a rejection of rule by hierarchies of single bishops (episcopalian church governance). This theory of government is strongly associated with Swiss and Scottish Protestant Reformation movements, with the Reformed churches, and more particularly with the Presbyterian church - the first Presbyterian church was the Church of Scotland. John Calvin was influential in its formulation. Presbyterianism is constructed on specific assumptions about the form of the government intended by the New Testament:

  • A bishop is the highest office of the church (there is no Patriarch or Pope over bishops),
  • Bishop and elder (or presbyter) are synonymous terms. Bishop describes the function of the elder (literally, overseer), rather than the maturity of the officer.
    • The function of preaching (the ministry of the Word) and the administration of the sacraments is ordinarily entrusted to specially trained elders (known as ministers) in each local congregation.
    • Pastoral care, discipline, leadership and legislation are committed to the care of ruling assemblies of presbyters among whom the ministers and other elders are equal participants.
  • All Christian people together are the priesthood, on behalf of whom the elders are called to serve by the consent of the congregation (priesthood of all believers).

Thus, the presbyters (elders) govern together as a group, and at all times the office is for the service of the congregation, to pray for them and to encourage them in the faith. The elders together exercise oversight (episcopacy) over the local congregation, with superior groups of elders gathered on a regional basis exercising wider oversight.

Historically, Presbyterians have opposed to the concentration of government in specific individuals, or small elite groups. Presbyterianism is thus a concillier method of church government (i.e. leadership by the group or council).

Presbyterians typically have viewed this method of government as approximating that of the New Testament and earliest churches. However, sometimes it is admitted that episcopacy was a form of government that was used very early in the church for practical reasons. Some Presbyterians are more adamant, that prelacy is in itself corrupt and rebellious against the Word of God.

Presbyterianism is also distinct from Congregationalism, in that individual congregations are not independent, but are answerable to the wider church, through its superior courts (presbyteries and assemblies). Also, the ordained ministry possesses a distinct responsibility for preaching and sacraments. Congregationalist churches are sometimes called Presbyterian, but the difference is that every local congregation is independent, and its elders are accountable to its members rather than to a presbytery. Thus they are Presbyterian only at the level of the congregations, which are united with one another by covenants of trust. Reformed Baptist churches are sometimes organized with Presbyterian government, on the Congregationalist model.

In a Presbyterian church, elders make decisions for the local congregation, through a ruling body called the Kirk Session (Latin. sessio from sedere "to sit"). The members of the Session are the minister (short for "minister of the Word and Sacrament", sometimes called a "teaching elder"), and the other elders (sometimes called "lay elders" or "ruling elders"). The elders are persons chosen from among the congregation and ordained this for service. Beyond that, practices vary: sometimes elders are elected by congregation, sometimes appointed by the Session, some denominations ordain elders for life, others have fixed terms.

Ministers are also elders - and are equal in status - but have a distinct ordination and distinct function. They are the primary preachers and teachers, celebrants of sacraments, and usually preside over the Session (chair). In theory, the minister is not the head of the Session - typically enjoying only a casting vote. (In reality, the minister is often regarded as 'the leader'). Technically, Presbyterian churches do not distinguish between clergy and laity - all are God's people and all are priests - simply exercising different functions.

The English word, "priest" is derived by way of the Old English word prester from the Greek word, "presbyteros" (elder), from which the English language also has the word, "presbyter" . However, as with the words "bishop" and "clergy", the word "priest" is not normally used by Presbyterians to describe the office of any elder.

In Presbyterianism there are sometimes further distinctions between the minister and the other elders. Some denominations of Presbyterians consider the minister to be a member of the presbytery (i.e. the regional assembly of the church), rather than of the local congregation. Other Presbyterian denominations enrol the ministers as members of their congregations.

The office of deacon has different meanings among different Presbyterian churches. In some churches deacons exercise responsibility from practical matters (finance and fabric)- either separately or together with the elders. Other churches have similar offices but use different designations.

In Presbyterianism congregations are united under the leadership of the regional presbytery (sometimes called a Classis). Presbyteries, in turn, may be under the jurisdiction of higher courts (synods, or General Assemblies). These courts again are composed of presbyters (elders and ministers) drawn from the congregations.

Until the 20th century, only men had been eligible for the office of "teaching" elder (minister of the word and sacrament) or "ruling" elder, world-wide. This is widely not the case, any longer; although, it is usually considered a demarcation issue, distinguishing "liberal" from "conservative" churches with Presbyterian government.

Also see

External link

World Alliance of Reformed Churches (


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