Presbyterianism: Does It Matter?

Does It Matter?

On 24th August 1662, some two thousand of the finest preachers of the gospel England has ever seen were ejected from the Church of England because they refused to fall in line with the "Act of Uniformity" framed by the civil authorities. One of the objectionable requirements of this act was that ministers who had been ordained by a presbytery must submit to re-ordination by a bishop. This they would not do. The blow inflicted on the Church of England is one from which it has not to this day recovered. Likewise, no reader of Scottish / Irish church history can fail to be aware of how constantly the question of church government comes to the fore. Shall the Monarch have control of the church? Shall the church be governed by bishops or by assemblies of ministers and other elders? These questions crop up with amazing regularity and men were willing to suffer and die for what they considered the right answer to them.

Much Ado about Nothing? 
To many Christians today these historical convulsions over issues like church government are a relic of the past only and convey an atmosphere which they find uncongenial. The early Covenanters, for example, with their insistence that the form of church government must be Presbyterian displayed a rigidity that, it is thought, should be left behind us in the history books. Is this correct?

Is Common Sense Enough? 
Surely, it may be said, we can just sort out church organisation in the same way as any other body such as the Women's Institute, the Tennis Club, or the Musical Appreciation Society? A bit of common sense is all that is needed to work out what will best facilitate the spiritual functions of the Church.

Whose Church Is It Anyway? 
The problem with the "common sense" approach is that it overlooks one vital truth. The Church is the Church of Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the body. This means that the Church is dependent upon Christ for its life and the gifts of the individual members (1 Corinthians 12:12&13; Ephesians 4:7-12). It also means, however, that the Church is to consciously submit to the authority of Christ. This is true of the individual and family lives of the members, but it is also true of the life of the church as an organisation (Ephesians 5 23, 24).

In fact, we shall find later that Christ gave the necessary gifts for the offices He has appointed in the Church. This being so, we cannot expect the gifts necessary to be provided for church-officers we invent.

What are the Options? 
It would probably be impossible to determine the number of possible ways of governing the church. Historically however, there have usually been three main ways that have found support; Episcopalian, Independent and Presbyterian.

1.  Episcopalian. This name comes from the Greek word 'episkopi', which means 'overseer' (translated 'bishop' in the King James version 1 Timothy 3:1; Titus 1 :7 etc). On this view there are three basic kinds of church officer, the Bishop, the Presbyter (often very wrongly called 'priests') and the Deacon. The second and third of these are office bearers in the local congregation while the bishop exercises authority over a wider area and the local officers within that area are answerable to him. Along with these three bas with these three basic strands of office, various subdivisions usually exist, i.e. Archbishops, Canons, Archdeacons etc.

2. Independent. Independents hold that Church government stops with the local congregation and that any meeting of office bearers of several congregations is simply for advice and consultation and that no wider body outside the local congregation may exercise authoritative discipline over that congregation. 
Independents are often, although not always, congregationalists as well. By this term we mean that the office bearers do not act directly under Christ but as the representatives of the congregation. The congregation is the final court of appeal on earth under Christ.

3. Presbyterian. Presbyterians reject Independency but also a reject a hierarchy of offices. There is no higher office than the local elder (Greek 'presbuteros', hence 'presbyterian'), but elders from several congregations can meet together in what are normally called presbyteries or synods for acts of government over several congregations together.

As well as these basic views of the government of the church within itself, there are differing views over the relationship of church and state. Rejecting the Roman Catholic view of the church (i.e. the Papacy) controlling the civil ruler, some Protestants have held that the civil ruler (at least if Christian) should govern the church. Others hold that the church and state should have no connection whatever. A third view is that the church and state are separate, both to be governed under Christ and His Word, but with certain specific duties to each other assigned by Christ.

Does God Only Bless Presbyterians?

God has blessed the labours of men who held to different views of Church government. Spurgeon was an independent. Whitefield was ordained by a bishop. Yet God blessed their preaching to the conversion of multitudes to Christ. Is it not, we may say, a little presumptuous of us to stand for a principle which some of the great Christians of the past have differed? This would mean however, that we simply become non-committal on every issue on which some eminent Christians of the past have not been able to agree. We would end up only accepting those matters which have the "unanimous consent of the fathers" (to borrow the Roman Catholic phrase).

No, even though disagreeing with some of the godly, we are still required to follow all that we are convinced to be according to the Word of God. Certainly we must keep a sense of proportion. Right views of church government are not the answer to all the Church's problems, though it can greatly affect the long-term welfare of the Church. Church government isn't everything, but neither is it nothing. We are not free to ignore anything in the Word of God. Can it ever be in the interest of the Church to do so? Well? What does the Bible teach?