If evangelicals didn’t care about ecclesiology, then how did we end up with so many denominations that differ on the use of authority and polity? It’s true that evangelicals have largely relegated ecclesiology to a second-tier issue, with regard to the gospel and salvation. Yet even second-tier issues are important, and we should not allow our significant agreement on the most important matters obscure the need to continue discussing the Bible’s teaching on church government.
In this article Mark Jones makes the case for why you should be a Presbyterian. See also Hunter Powell’s argument for why you should be a congregationalist.
Despite what you may think, Presbyterian ecclesiology is not primarily defined by churches governed by elders, but by churches governed by presbyteries. Presbyteries can encompass the elders of a local church, a regional church, and what is termed a “general assembly.” This view is established from the oneness of the visible church. Based on the sufficiency of Scripture, Presbyterians hold that the church is governed jure divino (by divine right). There are certain fixed principles in the government of the church. We hold that Christ has blessed the church with the Scriptures, church officers, and sacraments. In doing so, Christ has “ordained therein his system of doctrine, government, discipline, and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom” (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order).
While there is much that Presbyterians and classic congregationalists can agree on, nevertheless, against the congregationalist view, Presbyterians affirm the authority of presbyteries beyond the local church. That’s the crux of the issue between Presbyterians and congregationalists: authority.
Primacy of the Universal Church
Presbyterianism holds to the idea of a universal visible church as the goal of ecclesiology. This principle arises from the scriptural idea of church unity. The Nicene Creed speaks of “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The Scriptures are clear about the oneness of the visible church, for there “is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5; see also John 17:20-23).
In the New Testament the word church (singular) appears to be applied “to something intermediate between a single congregation on the one hand, and the catholic or universal church on the other” (see Acts 8:1; 11:22; 15:4; Eph. 4:4-5), according to William Cunningham in his Historical Theology. Cunningham notes that the church in Jerusalem could not have met together in the same place (there were no basketball arenas for sale then), and therefore met in several places. “Yet,” Cunningham says, “these distinct congregations are still spoken of repeatedly as the church which was at Jerusalem; and this church, consisting of several congregations, is represented as being under the superintendence of one united body of apostles, and presbyters, or elders” (see also Acts 6:1-6; 15:2). Note also the implication of Acts 9:31 whereby the singular word church refers to all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.
Binding Power of Presbyteries
Following from the idea of a universal visible church, whereby each congregation has a necessary connection with other congregations, Presbyterians maintain that the visible church must be governed—not simply “advised”—beyond only the local, particular congregation. Proving this point effectively refutes congregationalism.
Acts 15 is the standard text for Presbyterians on this matter. Acts 15:2 shows us that the elders of the Jerusalem church received Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to discuss matters of doctrine and practice. The elders in Antioch had “appointed” and sent Paul and Barnabas. Those who made the decisions at this Jerusalem council were apostles and elders (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4). Non-ordained members of the church didn’t have an official role at this council. Congregationalists wishing to argue against a Presbyterian interpretation of Acts 15 typically suggest that this meeting should not be taken as normative for the church since the apostles acted in a prophetic manner under supernatural guidance. But there are too many factors that prove the apostles functioned as ordinary ecclesiastical officers.
Why did the apostles even choose to discuss the matter if they received supernatural guidance on it? Why did the apostles debate the matter upon “grounds derived at once from God’s providential dealings, and from statements contained in the Old Testament Scriptures,” Cunningham argues, if they were under special prophetic illumination? The nature of the council’s deliberation proves the “dogmatic and diatactical power of a court of the church,” Guy Waters writes in the highly recommended How Jesus Runs the Church. The assembly resolved a doctrinal matter (Acts 15:24, 27), and the assembly exercised a power of order by telling other churches to refrain from certain practices (Acts 15:28-29). Acts 15 proves that doctrinal matters in one church or several churches have necessary implications for all churches in a binding manner because of the decisions of a higher court (Acts 15:22-23).
As Donald Macleod notes, “From the very beginning the church had a unified, collegial leadership extending to all its congregations. That leadership was directly involved and consulted at every critical point in the development of the emerging people of God: the reception of the Samaritan church (Acts 8:14), Peter’s mission to Cornelius (Acts 11:1ff.) and Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9). The idea of totally isolated, fully autonomous churches is wholly alien to the New Testament.” Classical congregationalists attempt to get beyond the problem of isolation, but they only do so to the degree they embrace Presbyterian principles.
Keys of the Kingdom and Elders
To whom do the keys of the kingdom belong (Matt. 16:17-19)? The whole body are the recipients of the power described, for the “power of the whole is in every part,” Thomas Peck writes in his Notes on Ecclesiology. This means that the body possesses power insofar as they elect church officers (Acts 6:3; 14:23; Tit. 1:5), whereas the officers possess power as to its exercise. Only the elders, as elected by and representative of the members of the church, have the power to “bind and loose” (Matt. 16:19). An elder has ministerial and declarative power, not legislative power. They simply execute the law of Christ (see WCF 20.2). In each church a plurality of elders is assumed or commanded (Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Tit. 1:5, 7; 1 Peter 5:2). These elders may either be teaching elders or ruling elders (1 Tim. 5:17).
In many congregational churches the governing authority ultimately resides in the local congregation, but it’s not always clear where in that congregation the final authority resides. Many congregational divines affirmed the use of synods, but rejection of the advice of other ministers is only “unwise,” not impermissible. Ecclesiastical discipline from other presbyters is invalid.
What mechanism is in place to protect and build up the unity of the visible church if congregationalism is accepted? False teaching destroys unity, but the mechanism for dealing with false teaching under congregational ecclesiology is left to the congregation itself. Particular congregations need the protection of other congregations, just as pastors need the protection and (sometimes) discipline of other pastors. It’s good that my congregation can appeal to my presbytery if my teaching becomes suspect and the elders and I refuse to see my problem. That other elders can have authority over matters of doctrine in our church is our strength, not a weakness—for they may provide a more objective assessment of the problem in question (Prov. 11:14).
Moreover, in many congregational churches it’s entirely possible for the Calvinistic minister to leave, only to be replaced by an Arminian one. Presbyterians have mechanisms for preventing such a drastic shift. I’ve learned a lot from my congregational friend Hunter Powell (the leading scholar of Puritan ecclesiology today), such as how much the Congregationalists needed the state to regulate true religion in the hope of achieving ecclesiastical unity. With today’s separation of church and state, however, congregationalists have no such recourse for establishing wider church unity. And so one of the flaws of congregational ecclesiology is its crass independency and inability to regulate true religion on wide scale. Presbyterianism has a better mechanism in place to deal with false religion and establish true religion (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith).
Guy Waters observes, “Presbyterianism is essential to the well-being (bene esse) but not to the essence (esse) of the church. Non-acceptance of Presbyterianism is, therefore, no barrier to receiving a non-Presbyterian person as a Christian, or a non-Presbyterian church as a true branch of the church, provided that he in fact holds fast the only Head of the church, Jesus Christ.” Thus, in the PCA we welcome any who are Christians as a regular member in our church, even if they are an anti-paedobaptist. If someone belongs to Christ we have no grounds for barring him or her from visible communion in Christ’s body. Our desire for unity—objectified in our terms for membership—is our glory and Christ’s glory (John 17:20-22), and this glory is best realized in the form of government known as Presbyterianism.