The organization of the Christian church

Presbyterians, including the Continental Reformed, in the 16th and 17th centuries sought to return to the structure of the apostolic church. The Bible, in Ephesians 4:11-12, tells us of various officers with authority to teach and administer sacraments in the church.

 And [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

Of these apostles, prophets, and evangelists were acknowledged to be extraordinary insofar as they had revelation by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This kind of inspiration has only occurred in special periods of church history, leading to the writing of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. In the five centuries that elapsed between these Testaments, we read in Jewish history that there were no prophets (1 Maccabees 9:27; 14:44). With the close of the New Testament canon following the completion of the Book of Revelation, the purpose of these extraordinary offices has been fulfilled. The apostles were also eyewitnesses of and immediately appointed by Christ, and were confirmed by accompanying signs and wonders. The evangelists, meanwhile, were mediately appointed through the apostles to assist them with propagating the gospel and ordaining ordinary church officers.

Presbyterians acknowledge the perpetuity of a fourfold church office comprising pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. The first three are all considered elders, or presbyters, and have qualifications in common which are listed in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Nevertheless, though all elders must be apt to teach, a distinction is made between teaching elders, i.e. ministers (pastors and teachers), and ruling elders on the basis that ministers are given in particular to labour in the word and doctrine, and therefore employed in full-time ministry (1 Timothy 5:17). Ruling elders have been appointed since the time of Moses (Numbers 11) to assist the priests and Levites in the government of the Jewish church.

Furthermore, a distinction is made between pastors and teachers, although these two offices are commonly conflated. Pastors must also be teachers, but – as the Westminster Standards acknowledge – some may be more gifted in exposition of the Scriptures, teaching doctrine, and convincing gainsayers than they are in application. Such people are “of most excellent use in schools and universities”, e.g. as seminary professors. A comparison is here drawn with the teachers of the law, or scribes, in the Jewish church, such as Gamaliel (Acts 5:34), who taught in schools connected to synagogues.

No distinction is made by Presbyterians between presbyters/elders and bishops. Both words are used interchangeably in the New Testament; elder is taken to denote the spiritual maturity of the officer, whereas bishop (from the Greek word episkopos, meaning overseer) is taken to denote his function. In the earliest centuries of the Christian church, the Didache and writers such as Clement also seem to use the words bishop and presbyter interchangeably. Jerome in his letter to Evangelus wrote that “the apostle clearly teaches that presbyters are the same as bishops”, distinguishing them only from deacons. Calvin in his commentary on Titus disapproves of the title of bishop being transferred to one alone when God gave it in common to all presbyters, though he does not disagree with the practice of choosing a moderator in a consistory of bishops (presbytery). It is a matter of convenience that a presbytery should delegate certain responsibilities to a moderator, yet the permanent designation of the title bishop in the early church to one particular overseer in relation to other presbyters has led to the rise of episcopalianism. Crucially, the moderator in a Presbyterian church has no unilateral authority: the presbytery is not below him, but rather as a body appoints him, and he is the organ of the presbytery. Authority is held collectively in the plurality of elders, who all have parity, so that the Bible tells us that ordination, for example, is through the laying on of hands of the presbytery (1 Timothy 4:14), rather than a bishop. This parity of elders is also evident in the collective judgement reached at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). The unilateral authority of the bishop in the episcopal polity seems to be more grounded in the office of evangelist, who had authority over elders of local churches, including that to appoint them (Titus 1:5), than it does in any biblical or historical use of the word.

The fourth perpetual church officer is the deacon (from the Greek word diakonos, meaning servant), whose qualifications are laid out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Deacons are treated separately from elders. To this office, in the words of the Westminster divines, “it belongs not to preach the word, or administer the sacraments, but to take special care in distributing to the necessities of the poor.” Deacons give particular attention to the practical ministry of mercy so that elders do not have to leave their spiritual duties to serve tables.

Now, a word should be said about the difference between Presbyterian and Congregationalist, including Baptist, churches. Congregationalist churches have the same officers, yet their polity posits that every congregation is independent from all others, without any external jurisdiction, and that authority therefore resides in the entire membership of the church. To the contrary, there is in the Scriptures a clear appeal to higher courts, or synods, than the local church, seen again in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), whose elders came from several congregations, and whose judgement was binding in nature on these respective congregations. The Westminster divines also identified the church of Ephesus as one consisting of multiple congregations:

That there were more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus, appears by Acts xx. 31, where is mention of Paul’s continuance at Ephesus in preaching for the space of three years; and Acts xix. 18, 19, 20, where the special effect of the word is mentioned; and ver. 10. and 17. of the same chapter, where is a distinction of Jews and Greeks; and 1 Cor. xvi. 8, 9, where is a reason of Paul’s stay at Ephesus until Pentecost; and ver. 19, where is mention of a particular church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, then at Ephesus, as appears, Acts xviii. 19, 24, 26. All which laid together, doth prove that the multitude of believers did make more congregations than one in the church of Ephesus. 

After this model Presbyterian churches are organized into a hierarchy of assemblies: at the bottom is the session, composed of elders of a local congregation, then the presbytery, and at the top is the synod. The Presbyterian polity promotes accountability and, as the presbytery may depose and replace unsuitable elders of local congregations, helps to protect them from false prophets. It is opposed both to the tyranny of episcopalianism, which gives an unbiblical degree of authority to individual men, and to the anarchy of independency, which gives an unbiblical degree of autonomy to congregations.

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