Being Presbyterian (in the local church)

Being Presbyterian (in the local church)

As discussed in the last blog post (which you can read here), a Presbyterian church is a church governed by elders. That doesn’t seem radical to most Christians. After all, churches of most different brands have elders of some type. It hardly seems distinctive. However, Presbyterian churches do run differently to other brands of churches. Today we’re going to think about how that works in the local church.

Elders need to be chosen carefully. That’s pretty clear from passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They must be men of good standing in the church and community, who lead their families well and have a standard of godliness that is a model for others. It’s not always easy to find men who fit these Biblical criteria. All churches that take the Bible seriously will only elect elders who fit these criteria. Presbyterian churches do this but also make sure that all elders are trained well. This means trained in theology, to have a strong understanding of the Bible and how it fits together, as well as being trained in practical ministries like counselling and leadership and teaching. All elders need to be trained well and then assessed by the denomination; this ensures that elders have knowledge to the required standard and ordination has not been just because we know or like someone. The local church needs to be confident in the men who serve as elders, and we have systems in place to try to ensure that that confidence is reasonably placed.

Presbyterian churches recognise two categories of elders: teaching elders (commonly called pastors) and ruling elders. They have the same authority in the church but different functions. The teaching elders have teaching and sacraments as a major part of their ministries, while the ruling elders serve in leadership and pastoral care to a greater degree. It is always important that there is more than one elder so that too much responsibility is not placed on one person. That always leads to problems.

It is in how decisions are made in the church that the Presbyterian system is most distinctive in practice. Who decides to start a new ministry or stop an existing one? Who decides on future directions for the church and how to deal with pastoral issues? Who sets the calendar for church activities and ministries? It is the elders in the local church. It is not the congregation, though they will be consulted as needed and enlisted as required. This has some advantages. It means the leadership of the church can be quicker and more nimble; if something needs to be done, it can simply be done. No politics need to be played, no searching for a majority vote is needed. This also means that key ministry decisions are made by those who are the most trained in theology and with a track record of godliness. It is a disaster if decisions are only made by what is popular or what feels good; sometimes hard decisions need to made for good reasons, and turning them into a popularity contest might mean they never get made at all.

Let’s not pretend the Presbyterian way of doing things is perfect! Like all earthly leadership systems, it has drawbacks. All structures of leadership in the church fall down if ungodly people are in the positions of authority. Presbyterian churches ensure there are multiple elders in each church and that they are carefully chosen and well trained, but they are still sinners. More checks and balances don’t remove the possibility of ungodliness or heresy; it just reduces the chance of it. Another potential problem is that the emphasis on godly eldership in the local church can sometimes discourage people who are not elders from serving. Oh well, some think, the elders will do that! No, a healthy church needs everyone in ministry, all serving in different ways, like is outlined in places like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. The elders oversee ministry; they are not to do it all.

See, the brand over the door does mean something when it comes to churches. Different churches do run differently and for different reasons. Presbyterian churches are distinctive in how the local church is organised; they are also distinctive when it comes to how they relate to sister churches. But that’s something to think about in the next blog post.