Presbyterianism: The Right Connections

The Right Connections

We have been looking so far mainly at the local congregation. Now we move to the question of connections. What should be the connection between one congregation and another? What should be the connection, if any, between the Church and the state? We look at the first of these questions this time.

No Hierarchy 
Episcopalians favour the idea of certain ministers acting as "bishops", that is as a higher level of minister with authority over several congregations and their office-bearers.

That the word "bishop" itself refers to the same office as "elder" (see previous sections) in the New Testament is usually acknowledged nowadays even by those who favour this view. Nevertheless, terms apart, appeal is made to the case of men like Timothy and Titus as justification for a higher office with wider authority outside the local congregation.

This is not on. The role of Timothy and Titus differs from that of, say, a Church of Ireland bishop in several ways. They acted under the direction of the apostles and as their assistants. Today there are no apostles to assist. Their call like that of the apostles, involved direct revelation not promotion (1 Timothy 4:14). They did not stay permanently in the one place but only for a time to help establish and settle a church (e.g. Titus 1:5). We find them constantly on the move at the direction of the Apostle Paul.

One Body 
The church is described as the body of Christ of which he is the Head (Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:23 etc.). There are not several bodies of Christ only one. This idea is prominent in 1 Corinthians 12. In verses 27-28 we read 'now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular and God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers.

Gifts For the Body 
The list includes offices like the apostles which were not based in a particular congregation and other temporary gifts that were given only while scripture was still being completed. Nevertheless, it also includes the continuing gifts and offices that are linked to a particular local congregation. This means that the gifts given to individuals in the local congregation are for the benefits of that congregation first of all, but not only so. The list includes the gift of "governments" (verse 28). Just as the labours of the minister are not confined to his own congregation, but his gifts are to be used to some extent to edify other parts of the church, so ruling gifts of the eldership are to find wider application.

Church and Churches 
The word "church" is used of a single congregation. It is also true that several congregations can be called churches (1 Corinthians 11:16, Galatians 1:2). At the same time, the people of God as a whole even on earth, are called "the church" (singular), (Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6). Christ builds one church (Matthew 16:18). Also in the larger cities where several congregations undoubtedly existed, the group of congregations is still called the church and the elders of that group are called the elders of that church. So, for example, in Jerusalem the vast numbers of believers and the number of apostles preaching regularly indicates that they would have met in several congregations (Acts 12:24; 21:20) yet we find reference to "the church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1 cf. Acts 12:5, and 15:4). At Ephesus a church met in the house of Aquilla and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19 - written from Ephesus - see Acts 19) yet this could hardly be all the Christians at Ephesus (Acts 19:18-20). Still we find reference to the church at Ephesus and the elders of the church (Acts 20:17 and Revelation 2:1).

All of this leads us to conclude that there where several congregations were in close proximity and rendered it geographically possible, the elders exercised a joint oversight over those congregations together. This is also in line with the practice in the Jewish synagogues. Where there were several synagogues in one city, they governed by what we would call a presbytery of elders of all those synagogues. The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, though including priests which do not exist in the New Testament church, was essentially an eldership body and acted rather like the Synod or General Assembly of a Presbyterian church.

A Biblical Synod 
Acts 15 contains an account of the action taken when men brought in heresy at the church at Antioch (verse 1). Paul and Barnabas referred the matter to the elders at Jerusalem (verse 2). After discussions, decisions were reached (verses 19-23). The people concurred in the decisions (verse 22) and joined in the greetings sent to the church at Antioch etc (verse 23), but the decisions were those of the "apostles and elders" only (see Acts 16:4). It was an act of government, not of apostles only but of elders also. Thus, when there are no apostles, such councils or synods are part of the proper function of the continuing eldership of the church. This unity of government can transcend even cultural differences such as that between Antioch and Jerusalem.

There are many lessons in Acts 15 on how presbyteries and Synods should use their authority, but they must wait until later. What is clear is that for a congregation to remain independent when wider fellowship in church government (as well as in other ways) is possible is a mistake. Episcopacy rightly recognises the need for unity in church government but wrongly invents a hierarchy of office to achieve it. Presbyterianism expresses the biblical teaching that since the disappearance of the apostolic office the connecting link between congregations in church government is through the elders meeting in wider and therefore higher assemblies which for convenience we call presbyteries, synods etc.

Individualism Restrained 
In today's world where everyone wants to "do his own thing", Christians have to resist the temptation to think they don't need the fellowship and oversight of the church. Individual congregations must resist that temptation also by seeking fellowship with other congregations and expressing that fellowship even in joint church government by the elders of such congregations acting together. Isolation can easily lead to doctrinal and practical eccentricity in the individual Christian or congregation. We need the checks and balances of biblical presbyterianism. " ... yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble". (l Peter 5:5).