Pastoral Letter: The Blessing of Good (Church) Government

Brothers and Sisters,

In a few weeks, we’ll be inviting our members to nominate church officers. I’ll have more to say about that soon. For now, I’d like to use my next few weekly letters to go over the basics of our form of church government (also known as our polity). Enjoy!

Tuesday was a very presbyterian kind of day around here. We (Rick Allen, Richard Jennings, Al Williams, and I) spent the morning at Grace Presbyterian in Cookeville for a meeting of the Nashville Presbytery. We spent the evening (along with Bob Allen and Jim Callicott) in a session meeting on Zoom. Fine “elderly” times were had by all.

Generally speaking, these two assemblies (we call them “courts”) are where elders gather to oversee not just our individual congregations but the regional church (cf. Acts 9:31 and the singular word “church” used to cover a broad area). Our General Assembly is the highest court, where elders gather from across the country to oversee the denomination.

Having spent the past 5 years in a congregational church (2 of them as its senior pastor), I was reminded Tuesday of the truth, goodness, and beauty of our polity that I’d missed for all those years. For those of us who may be fuzzy on what it means for us to be presbyterian, I thought I’d share that truth, goodness, and beauty with you today.

First, we believe presbyterianism to conform to the truth of the Bible’s teaching on how Christ runs His Church. That’s a big statement; not all Christians believe the Bible has much to say on these matters. And lots of those who do have opted for other forms of polity. Our Baptist brothers and sisters, for example, think that congregationalism is the way to go.

Presbyterian government goes back to Numbers 11, where Moses’ complaint about the grumbling Israelites prompts the Lord to give him elders to help bear the load. That paradigm of leadership-by-elder continued through the exile, when Israel was cut off from the temple and had to set up synagogues for worship. There, elders continued to lead the people.

This was the system that existed when Jesus came onto the scene in the New Testament. It was the backdrop against which the apostles set up elders (Greek: presbyteros) to lead the churches (Acts 14:23). These elders were called to exercise oversight and shepherd the flock of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1-5).

The qualifications for elders were (and still are) stringent, focused largely on moral character over technical competence (1 Tim 3:1-7; Ti 1:5-16). We see from 1​ Tim 5:17 that there are two classifications of elders: those who rule (ruling elders) and those who, in addition to ruling, focus their labors on teaching (teaching elders). In the PCA, we call the latter “pastors” or “ministers,” but the Bible is clear that all elders are pastors and vice versa.

Elders aren’t the only officers in the church; God has also given deacons (Acts 6; 1 Tim 3:8-13). Deacon (Greek: diakonos) literally means “servant.” The deacons’ responsibility is to tend to the physical/practical needs of the church. In doing so faithfully, God’s people are blessed and the elders are enabled to focus on ministering the Word and shepherding.

Because, as presbyterians emphasize, godliness (the highest good we can pursue) is based on truth, our polity is also good for God’s people. We see its goodness in Acts 15. There, we see that a dispute arose in one of the local churches: what do we do with the Gentiles?

The church recognized that, for the good of its own people and the broader church, that question needed to be dealt with at a larger assembly composed of all the apostles and the elders (v. 2). The assembly featured argument and deliberation under the leadership of a moderator: in this case, James (vv. 6-21).

Instead of allowing the loud, influential Pharisees to shut down the universal spread of the Gospel, this “Jerusalem Council” ensured that every voice in the argument could be heard and, most importantly, the Word of God given its proper due.

The result was a binding decision “of the whole church” impelled by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:22-29). The spreading of this decision to the local churches not only gives us a paradigm for presbyterian government today, but it became the means by which the Good News was advanced, God was glorified, and the people (Jew and Gentile alike) were blessed.

Because presbyterianism is true and good, it is also beautiful. In the western philosophical and theological tradition, beauty has been closely associated with order—the right relationship between a whole and its parts. Presbyterianism offers, in my humble opinion, the best system for coordinating the church’s many parts (elders, congregations) with its catholic whole.

While one would be hard-pressed to describe the parliamentary workings of a presbytery as “beautiful,” there is nevertheless a kind of beauty to be observed when all things are done “decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40).

This kind of painstaking attention to good order in the church’s doctrine, worship, and government can make us way too stuffy at times. But it also helps explain why a pastor friend could say to me just a few weeks ago, “I’m a Baptist, but all the books on my shelf are written by Presbyterians.” Our penchant for order makes us virtuous nerds for the Lord.

Presbyterian polity is true, good, and beautiful. But, of course, we know that even redeemed human beings are not yet what we will be (1 John 3:2). This side of glory, there will always be a chasm between our theory and practice. Our polity may be true, but we’re not always true to its practice. It may be good, but we’re not always good at its application. It may be beautiful, but even the “perfect church in America” is capable of getting downright ugly.

Where this touches down for you, as a part of this congregation, is the assurance that in everything we do we seek to be governed by the Bible. Because God has told His people how to order His church, we’ve not taken it upon ourselves to cut our constitution out of whole cloth as though Christ’ church were no different than the local Kiwanis club.

All of this—our form of government and even the men God calls by way of His people to serve as officers—comes as a gift from our heavenly Father’s gracious hand for the good of His people. We do not constitute the church; Jesus does. Even when we lay hands on a man to ordain him, we’re not the ones who confer the authority to lead and serve; God is.

If all of this has sounded like ecclesiastical jingoism, then I pray you’ll forgive me. We may disagree with other believers on this point, but presbyterians have always held that our form of government is essential to the well-being of the church and not its being.

As disordered as other forms of polity may be, their churches are nevertheless true churches populated with genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s not forget that as we pray for and partner with neighboring churches for the advance of the gospel in Mount Juliet.

I hope this has helped you understand a bit more about what it means to be “presbyterian.” If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of our polity, especially the distinct form it’s taken in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, please click here.

In Christ (The Only King and Head of the Church) Alone,