Debates over the method of church government have absorbed much energy and time. Particularly, those who favor a congregational or independent model of church government have insisted throughout the decades that the New Testament presents no other model, and that if it does, the peculiarities of the apostolic age rendered that model unique to that time. Those who make that argument satisfy themselves that independency is the only way of governing the church that preserves the liberty of every believer to be his own priest.
Still, such arguments must concede the reality that there was a definite model of church government in place during the apostolic age, regardless of whether that model was to become extinct upon the deaths of the apostles. One of the apostles, John, continued to live, it appears, until the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. Thus, when it comes to the Biblical record, there can be no mistaking the evidence that the church of the apostolic age reflected the government by presbyters or elders that underscored the fact that churches existed in the bonds of a holy relationship that bound one congregation to the others.
Some rely on antiquity of an institution as an indicator of its historic validity and effectiveness. By that argument, the emphasis of the New Testament, relatively soon after the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, was on the interdependency of the various congregations that had come into existence. The Council that met at Jerusalem, of which we read in Acts 15, featured the attendance of the “apostles and elders.” The account of the meeting of the Council indicates that the apostles and elders met on an equal basis. There is no indication that the apostles sought to overwhelm the elders in the decision making on the issue that was before the Council.
Statements by some of the apostles elsewhere in the New Testament reinforce the idea that there was an equality of authority and esteem in the government of the church. Peter identified himself as being “also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). Both 2 John and 3 John begin with the apostle identifying himself as “the elder.” The argument that in some fashion the elders were subservient in the government of the church in the apostolic age finds little support in the statements of Peter and John.
Paul wrote to Titus, one of his protégés, to remind him that one of the chief ways of establishing order in the churches in Crete was for Titus to ordain elders in every city of the island. Such an approach was to emphasize as well that the elders were to be local figures for whom the members of local congregations voted to be their representatives. Nevertheless, the implication of the ordination was that the elders were functioning in addition as representatives of Christ in the congregations. The importance of that relationship appeared in the exhortations of Hebrews 13:7 and 17 in which the people of the congregations were to subject themselves to the rule by the elders. Thus, the existence of a plurality of elders was plainly apparent during the time in which most of the apostles were still living.
The New Testament also demonstrates that there is no room for the concept of independency or autonomy among the churches of the New Testament world. The various congregations did not have the option of dissenting from the decision of the Council of Jerusalem. “And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). The decision of the Council was the result of collaboration, and it focused on fundamental issues on which all the churches had to agree. This collective decision on matters of fundamental policy lies at the heart of the way in which Presbyterianism functions. The individual congregations, under the rule of their elders, retain the ability to design activities and to render decisions as fits their local situation. But they are not at liberty to ignore or dissent from decisions that are binding on all of the congregations for the sake of their collective testimony.
The importance of that collective testimony lies at the foundation of another function of Presbyterianism to which the New Testament bears witness. The presbytery alone exercises the power to ordain men to the ministry of the gospel, whether in preaching the Word or in assuming the rule over a congregation. The apostle Paul reminded Timothy that his induction into the gospel ministry was the result of the collective action of the presbytery. “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (1 Timothy 4:14). It is true that Paul’s use of the word is the only occurrence of the term “presbytery” in the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul meant that some representation of the whole church acted in setting Timothy apart to the ministry of the gospel.
The presbytery reflects the need for the various far flung congregations to be accountable to each other so that the message of the gospel of Christ should not fall into disrepute. It is a body of men whom Christ has called to be His under-shepherds that operates under the solemn charge to care for the souls under its charge. There is a regional or even continental aspect of that responsibility, and there is a local aspect of the responsibility as well. Each congregation expresses its testimony through its vital connection to the other congregations whose elders provide representation in the presbytery. The elders are also responsible in each congregation to watch over the souls under their immediate care so that the whole church may advance in the holiness and fear of God.
Rev. David G. Mook is the minister of Phoenix Free Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Arizona. He serves as clerk of the presbytery of the FPCNA, chairman of the Constitutional Documents Committee, and is an adjunct professor in the field of practical theology at Geneva Reformed Seminary.