Sunday, January 16, 2011


(For an elaboration of the following Blog post) click audio: The Function of Presbyterianism


“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31.

Presbyterianism is simply Presbyter-ism or Elder-ism. For the word “Presbyterian” is simply the Anglicization of the New Testament Greek word presbuteros, meaning presbyter or elder.

The function of Presbyterianism is to glorify God. Therefore if the glory of God is its chief end the church must follow God’s Word if she is to function the way God intended. This Presbyterianism seeks to do in every aspect of its ecclesiastical life, including its system of church-government

Presbyterianism does not claim the Scriptures reveal every minute detail of church government. However, it does hold that its general principles, and general structure of function, are clearly set forth.

The Beginning of Presbyterianism

“Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14.

Presbyterianism begins with the Triune God. It has been said that God is a Presbytery, i.e., ‘a multitude of counsellors.’ God is three Persons, yet one God. The Trinity is the original One and Many. His Church reflects His oneness and manyness. For the one universal church is made up of many regional and local churches.

By its system of local and regional church councils (or counselling bodies), which are sometimes called Sessions, Presbyteries, and Assemblies, (though sometimes also called Consistories, Classis, and Synods), Presbyterianism seeks the safety of a multitude of counsellors. The various councils are the "multitude of counsellors" and are made up of "a multitude of consellors." These also serve as checks and balances within the Presbyterian system of church government.

The Structure of Presbyterianism

“But now are they many members, but yet one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:20. “Let all things be done decently and in order.” 1 Corinthians 14:40.

As there are many members in the Godhead, so there are many members in His Church. And as the many members of the Godhead function as one in unity, so Presbyterianism by its church structure seeks to function as one in unity. There is equal ultimacy in the Trinity, which is to say, that the rights of the many do not negate or overrule the rights of the one, or vice versa. Thus, in Presbyterianism, the rights of the individual members of the church are protected by the counsel of the many.

No one person or body of persons is permitted to “lord it over” any other person or body of persons. Thus, unlike those hierarchical systems of church-government such as Romanism and Anglicanism, or those of the Independents’ systems of church-government, such as the Baptists and Congregationalists, the Presbyterial form of church-government reflects the ontological nature of the Triune God.

The Scriptures are the final authority in any dispute that may arise. And if any person or body of persons is unhappy with a particular person or body of persons' ruling on the disputed matter, they may appeal that decision in the appropriate "court of appeal." The first court of appeal is the local Session, then secondly the Presbytery. The Assembly may also be appealed to.

The Local Session

The local Session comprises of a plurality of elders, viz., one Teaching elder and at least two governing or Ruling elders. And whereas the Governing or Ruling Elder is ordained as such at the congregational level, i.e., by Session, the Teaching Elder is ordained by the court of Presbytery.

One of the duties assigned to the Teaching Elder is that of Moderator of Session. Though all church work may be deemed as spiritual work, the Session has the responsibility to oversee the non-temporal affairs of the local church or congregation. The temporal affairs are the domain of the local congregation’s Deacons.

Sessions tend to meet at least quarterly, though they are at liberty to meet more frequently than this.

The Presbytery

The Presbytery is a body made up of all the Teaching Elders in a district, along with at least one Ruling Elder selected from each congregation. Though he represents his respective congregation before Presbytery, his main function is to assist in the oversight of those churches under his Presbytery’s oversight.

The Presbytery may at times have to deal with disputes over ministerial conduct and also disputes over doctrine sent to it, either by congregational members through Session or by Session itself. Presbyteries are at liberty to also form committees who may meet to deal with specific issues.

It is sometimes said that each “Presbytery is the master of its own business” in its own designated region. This is erroneous since each Presbytery is simply a body of servants serving in the Church (of which the Lord alone is Master). Since this phrase is very misleading it should be avoided lest hierarchicalism creep into the Church and a single man or body of men begin to lord it over others.

Cases that are legal in nature, and cases that are doctrinal may be referred by the Presbytery to the Assembly for its deliberation and deliverance.

Presbyteries tend to meet at least quarterly, though they are at liberty to meet more often than this.

The Assembly

The Assembly is made up of representative Teaching and Ruling Elders from each Presbytery. These assemble usually to deal with the administration of things such as church real estate, property finances, Age Care Homes, Hospitals etc. Also, the Assembly deals with church doctrine and changes or alterations to its church law (or code); as well as any legal problems that may have arisen.

In places such as Australia and America a National Assembly may also be formed to cater for the church at a national level. Hence there may be State Assemblies and National Assemblies.

State Assemblies tend to meet annually, though quarterly meetings are held to take care of and implement Assembly business by its various committees.

National Assemblies usually meet at least every three or four years.

The Function of Elders

“…ordain elders in every city…  a bishop should be blameless, as a steward of God…” Titus 1:5&7.
“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in word and doctrine.” 1 Timothy 5:17.

In Presbyterianism elders have two main functions at the local church level, viz., they are to “rule well” and they are to “labour in word and doctrine.” Presbyterianism, unlike the hierarchicalism of the Roman and Anglican churches, sees elders and bishops as interchangeable. Whereas elder designates the office, bishop (i.e., overseer) alludes to the function of the office.

When the Apostle Paul in Acts 20 was farewelling the Ephesian elders he also referred to them as bishops. They were to oversee the flock and “…feed [i.e., shepherd] the church of God…” Acts 20:28. Therefore, not only are elders rulers, they are at the same time shepherds of the flock under their care. Therefore the function of the eldership at the local level is to lead and feed the flock.

Ordinarily an elder who shows gifts in this area is set apart to labour in word and doctrine. He is the Preaching or Teaching elder. However, this doesn’t mean that the other elders do not need to be able to teach, for they ought to be. But, it simply means that the Preaching Elder looks after the pulpit and the dispensing of the sacraments, and also with the other elders exhorts the members of the congregation from the Word from house to house.

All elders are to keep order in the local congregation, watching out for false teaching, disruptive members, i.e., those things that might give the Devil a toehold to destroying the congregation. Therefore, elders need to be men fitting the qualifications for eldership as laid out in Scripture.

The Function of Deacons

“And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.” 1 Timothy 3:10.

“It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honourable report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”  Acts 6:2b-3.

Deacons are called, not to serve the elders, but to serve the local congregation in works of mercy. They are to look after the temporal affairs of the church. In New Testament times deacons would have been very busy looking after the health and physical wellbeing of orphans and elderly widows. However, it would seem that deacons are seen to be less needed in countries where there is a social or welfare system, and therefore there are perhaps less deacons than there ought to be for a healthy church.

There is a sense in which all Christians are called to serve. But that there is a special office of deacon in the church cannot be doubted from Scripture. Unlike Elders who are called by God to rule the flock, Deacons are called only to serve it. Whereas, the former primarily nurture with spiritual sustenance, the latter primarily nurture the flock with physical sustenance.

Many Presbyterian churches have a Board or Committee of Management to manage the temporal affairs of the church, such as building maintenance etc. Again, this perhaps is another thing that has helped obscure the minds of congregations, from seeing their need of deacons.

The Ministry of the Presbyterian Church

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…” Matthew 28:19-20a.

The ministry of the Presbyterian Church is equipped to bring the knowledge of the Triune God to the nations while teaching them to obey all His Commandments. It is one of the main functions of Assemblies and Presbyteries to assist local congregations to minister Biblically. To minister is to serve.

In terms of the “Great Commission” each local congregation has a threefold ministry: 1. Ministry to God, i.e., Worship. 2. Ministry to the Saints, i.e., Nurture and Mercy. And 3. Ministry to the World, i.e., Witness. Worship testifies of love for God. Nurture and Mercy testifies of love for neighbour. And Witness testifies of love for God and neighbour. Thus the church obeys the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself. (Mark 12:29-31).

The duty of the eldership is to ensure that God is properly worshipped and served by themselves and the congregation, and that the congregation is properly nurtured. And the duty of the deaconate is to ensure that mercy is administered to the congregation. This is a major part of the whole church’s witness to the nations, as it is the outward expression of the congregation’s inward love for God and neighbour.

In Presbyterianism the whole congregation is encouraged to witness to the world by doing all things to the glory of God. Therefore, God is not to be set aside only to be served on the Lord’s Day, but rather He is to be served in every aspect of the congregation’s life: at work and at play; in marriage, in the family, in politics, in education, etc.

Main Sources
The Church – Edmund P Clowney
The Institutes of Christian Religion – John Calvin
Biblical Church Government – Kevin Reed
Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Vol. 2, Theories of Eldership – RL Dabney
Biblical Presbyterian Eldership - Francis Nigel Lee
Westminster Confession of Faith – The Form of Presbyterial Church Government

Click on my "Presbyterianism" post at my website:

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