Presbyterian Church Government

Presbyterian Church Government


When denominations were forming in the 16th century, denominations often took their names from the type of church government they adopted.  The names Presbyterian, Episcopal and Congregational reflect this.  The reason this was done was simply because in general all denominations subscribed to the same theology, Reformed, their differences were found only in their church government.  Today if these denominations were to again name themselves it is questionable whether they would all choose these same names.  The reason is that now they do not all subscribe to Reformed theology and therefore the great distinctions between them do not rest in their church government but more fundamentally in what they actually believe. 


The New Testament provides some details about church government and the qualifications and work of “elders” (presbyters) in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20, and 1 Peter 5.  The English words “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” reflect three distinct Greek words that describe different facets of the same office.  Acts 20:17 and 28 definitively demonstrate that all three titles are wrapped up in the one office.


The New Testament prescribes elders as overseers (bishops) and shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock.  In order to focus on prayer, the study of the Word, and leadership, the Apostles and elders delegated certain responsibilities to spiritually mature men known as “deacons” (Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3).


Additionally, we read, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).  In this passage we see the distinction between elders who rule (administer), and those who have the additional responsibility of “preaching and teaching.”


Thus Presbyterian churches have both “ruling,” or administrative elders, and “teaching” elders.


Acts 15 describes the first Council of the church, comprised of apostles and elders.  It is difficult to miss the obvious “connectionalism” of the early church.  Although both Peter and Paul were highly esteemed by the church, and outstanding among the apostles, yet neither were “independent” operators.  They had to answer to the general assembly in Jerusalem.  The important principle here, that should not be missed, is that the individual minister and the individual church are accountable to the greater church of Jesus Christ.  That is exactly what we find in Acts 15. 


So, from our brief study so far, we have learned two points of importance that are Presbyterian distinctives: 


First, churches are administered by, and ministered to, by both ruling and teaching elders.


Second, the local church is subject to the authority of the greater Church through church councils.


To evaluate the quality of a church’s government, we must determine specifically what church polity is responsible for.  In considering the function of church government, we can see that there are seven significant elements in the administration of a church.  They are:


The source of authority The ordination of ministers The call of the pastor The finances of the church The admission and discipline of members The doctrines of the church Actions by the congregation


In the application of these seven issues, there are three types of church government possible.  These are Episcopalian (Anglican), Congregational and Presbyterian. 


The Episcopal (Anglican) System – Monarchy or Prelacy


Although the following distinctives are not embraced in an ironclad fashion by every Episcopal (Anglican) type church—especially in our era, yet, in general, these points are substantially correct.



The hierarchy of cardinals and bishops ordain the clergy, appoints the local pastor with the consent of the vestry (lay council elected by the congregation). 



The higher authorities supervise the allocation of the church’s financial resources.





Examples of this type of church government are the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, and the Methodist church.


The Congregational System – Democracy


Congregational churches differ greatly among themselves, yet these distinctives substantively characterize this type of church.


The congregational form of church government had roots in Reformation-era England, but found fertile soil in New England, where it became the ecclesiastical counterpart of “town meetings.“  It has obvious appeal to the democratic mindset.



The counsel of the greater church is often not sought, and if sought it certainly has no actual authority in the matter.



The finances are approved by a popular vote of the congregation.




Committees are chosen from among the ranks to administer the day-to-day supervision of the church.


Examples of this type of church government are Congregationalists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Brethren, most Community churches, Bible churches and non-denominational churches. 


The Presbyterian System – Republic


Although Presbyterian churches across the globe differ at points, yet these distinctives substantially define a true Presbyterian church.



Both the Presbytery and congregation must work in tandem and harmony in this effort.


That approval is not arbitrarily withheld but the Presbytery does look carefully at the qualifications and faith of the pastor.


Many Presbyterian churches request that the elders obtain budgetary approval from the congregation.


Checks and balances are important in Presbyterianism.


Written in 1648, it remains very popular with Bible believing Presbyterians.



An example of this type of Church government is the Presbyterian Church.


Although Presbyterians see their form of church government to be the most balanced and reasonable of the options, that is not the primary reason for its adoption.  More importantly, Presbyterians see the Scriptures as defining the office of elder, giving it great honor and authority, and see its operation at the counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15.  These scriptural elements demand the adoption of Presbyterian Church government.


The American republic was modeled after the Presbyterian form of government, with limitations on authority and separation of powers.  The primary author of the US Constitution was James Madison.  He had studied under John Witherspoon at Princeton University.  Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman and university president, was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.  At least fourteen signers were Presbyterians.

Ralph E. Bass, Jr. has an undergraduate degree, BA, in Bible from Bob Jones University, and several graduate degrees: a M.A. in Counseling from Webster University, a M.Div. in divinity studies from Erskine Theological Seminary, a Th.M. in theological studies from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and a Th.D. in theological studies from Reformation International Theological Seminary.

Dr. Bass was for a number of years a biblical counselor, a pastor, and as a teacher and school administrator in several Christian schools. He is married and has five children and seventeen grandchildren.