Definitions

teaching-elder

Presbyterian polity

Presbyterian polity is a method of church governance typified by the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of elected elders usually called the session or consistory, though other terms, such as church board, may apply. Groups of local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or classis; presbyteries can be grouped into a synod, and synods nationwide often join together in a general assembly. Specific roles in church services are reserved for an ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament.

Presbyterian polity was developed as a rejection of governance by hierarchies of single bishops (episcopal polity), but also differs from the congregationalist polity in which each congregation is independent. In contrast to the other two forms, authority in the presbyterian polity flows both from the top down (as higher assemblies exercise considerable authority over individual congregations) and from the bottom up (as all officials ultimately owe their elections to individual church members). This theory of government developed in Geneva under John Calvin and was introduced to Scotland by John Knox after his period of exile in Geneva. It is strongly associated with Swiss and Scottish Reformation movements, and with the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.

Basis

Presbyterian polity 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" (Koine Greek "episcopos") and "elder" (Koine Greek "presbyteros") are synonymous terms. Episcopos means literally overseer and describes the function of the elder, rather than the maturity of the officer.
    • Preaching (the ministry of the Word) and the administration of the sacraments is ordinarily entrusted to specially trained elders (known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, sometimes called a "teaching elder") in each local congregation, approved for these tasks by a governing presbytery, or classis, and called by the local congregation.
    • Pastoral care, church 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 (see priesthood of all believers), on behalf of whom the elders are called to serve by the consent of the congregation.

Presbyterianism uses a conciliar method of church government (that is, leadership by the group or council.) 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.

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, synods and assemblies.) Also, the ordained ministry possesses a distinct responsibility for preaching and sacraments. Congregational churches are sometimes called "Presbyterian" if they are governed by a council of elders; but the difference is that every local congregation is independent, and its elders are accountable to its members, and congregationalism's wider assemblies are not ordinarily empowered to enforce discipline. Thus these are ruled by elders only at the level of the congregations, which are united with one another by covenants of trust. Reformed Baptist churches are sometimes organized to be governed by elders, on the congregationalist model.

Offices

The Elder

There are two types of elder; the teaching elder (see The Minister below) and the ruling elder. The teaching elder is also a ruling elder. An excerpt from Miller (1831) expands this.

In every Church completely organized, that is, furnished with all the officers which Christ has instituted and which are necessary for carrying into full effect the laws of his kingdom, there ought to be three classes of officers, viz: at least one Teaching Elder, Bishop, or Pastor — a bench of Ruling Elders — and Deacons. The first to "minister in the Word and Doctrine," and to dispense the sacraments ; — the second to assist in the inspection and government of the Church ; — and the third to "serve tables;" that is, to take care of the Church's funds destined for the support of the poor, and sometimes to manage whatever relates to the temporal support of the gospel and its ministers.

The elders are persons chosen from among the congregation and ordained for this service. Beyond that, practices vary: sometimes elders are elected by the congregation, sometimes appointed by the session, some denominations ordain elders for life, others have fixed terms, and some churches appoint elders on a rotation from among willing members in good standing in the church.

In addition to sitting on the session and other church courts, ruling elders have duties as individuals. Again, Miller (1831) explains,

It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation; and, for this purpose, to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made "overseers."

The Minister

See also Holy Orders#Presbyterian churches

A presbytery sets apart one or more teaching elders, or ministers of the word and sacrament'. Usually they are known as pastors or ministers, and serve as clergy for the church.

Ministers may be considered equal in status with the other elders, but they have a distinct ordination and distinct function. They are the primary preachers and teachers, celebrants of sacraments. There are sometimes further distinctions between the minister and the other elders. Some Presbyterian denominations enroll ministers as members of their respective congregations, while others enroll the minister as a member of the regional presbytery.

Until the 20th century, only men had been eligible for the ministry or eldership world-wide. This is widely not the case any longer; although it is usually considered a demarcation issue, distinguishing "liberal" from "conservative" churches that practice presbyterian government. ''See also: Ordination of women

The general assembly of a denomination often decides on what grounds a person may be ordained, but the ordination of ministers is the right of the presbytery, and the right to extend a call to a minister is the privilege of the members of the parish or congregation.

The Deacon

The office of deacon has different meanings among different presbyterian churches. In some churches, deacons exercise responsibility for practical matters of finance and fabric, either separately or together with the elders. In some cases deacons administer the welfare matters of the congregation, while a separate board of management or trustees administers the other material business of the congregation, such as its endowments, salaries and buildings.

Governing bodies

The Session

Elders make decisions for the local parish through a ruling body called the session (Latin. sessio from sedere "to sit"), sometimes the Kirk session, church session, or (in Continental Reformed usage) consistory. The members of the session are the minister (sometimes called a "teaching elder"), and the other ruling elders (sometimes called "lay elders").

The minister will usually chair or preside over the session. All elders have an equal vote in the session. In theory, the minister is not the head of the session; he or she typically enjoys only a casting vote. In reality, though, sessions often regard the minister as 'the leader'.

The Presbytery

In presbyterianism, congregations are united in accountability to a regional body called the presbytery, or, among Continental Reformed bodies, the classis. Presbyteries are made up of a minister and an elder from each parish, as well as other clergy such as theological college professors, chaplains, and retired ministers. When there is a larger number of ordained ministers than ruling elders, additional ruling elders are appointed to redress the imbalance. The commissioners of the presbytery are expected to exercise their own judgement and are not required to vote according to the whims of a majority (or minority) in their congregations.

The officers of a presbytery are a moderator and a clerk. The moderator acts as chair of presbytery meetings and has a casting, but not deliberative, vote. As with the moderators of synods and assemblies, the moderatorship is a primus inter pares position appointed by the presbytery itself. The moderator is addressed as "moderator" during meetings, but his/her position has no bearing outside of the presbytery meeting and affords him/her no special place in other courts, although typically the moderator (if a member of the clergy) will conduct worship at ordinations and other ordinances which are seen as acts of the presbytery.

The clerk takes minutes and deals with the correspondence of the presbytery, and is often appointed for an indefinite term.

Presbyteries meet at a regularity between monthly and quarterly.

The Synod

In denominations too large for all the work of the denomination to be done by a single presbytery, the parishes may be divided into several presbyteries under synods and general assemblies, the synod being the lower court of the two.

Often all members of the constituent presbyteries are members of the synod. Like the commissioners to presbyteries, the commissioners to synods do not act on instruction from their congregations or presbyteries, but exercise their own judgement. A synod also has a moderator and clerk, and generally meet less often than the presbytery.

Some presbyterian churches have no intermediate court between the presbytery and the general assembly.

The General Assembly

The general assembly (or general synod) is the highest court of presbyterian polity. Each presbytery selects a number of its members to be commissioners to the general assembly. The general assembly is chaired by its own moderator, who is usually elected to a one-year term. He or she is addressed as moderator during meetings, but like the other moderators, his/her position has no bearing outside of the assembly meeting and affords him/her no special place in other courts. He or she presides over meetings of the assembly, and may be called on in a representative function for the remainder of the year.

The clerk and deputy clerk of the general assembly administer the minutes, correspondence, and business of the assembly. In some cases a separate business convenor is appointed to deal with the agenda. General assemblies meet less regularly than their subordinate courts, often annually.

The powers of the general assembly are usually wide-ranging. However, they may be limited by some form of external review. For example, the rules of the Church of Scotland include the Barrier Act, which requires that certain major changes to the polity of the church be referred to the presbyteries, before being enacted by the general assembly.

Cultural influences

  • Robert Burns published a brief irreverent poem, On A Celebrated Ruling Elder, as an elegy for a Scottish Presbyterian.

Beyond Presbyterianism

As a form of church governance, small-p "presbyterian" polity is not limited to those denominations that call themselves Presbyterian. The term has been used to describe representative democracy in churches.

See also

References and notes

External links

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