The following article was originally published on the Presbyterian Polity blog at pcapolity.com.
What makes this church over here Presbyterian and that church over there Episcopalian or Lutheran or Congregational or Baptist or Pentecostal or Anglican or Independent? In other words, what’s in a name? From where do we derive the nomenclature which we have adopted to describe various expressions of Protestant Christianity? The answer is not simple, but the question is certainly worthy of our attention.
Whereas several denominational names refer to historical origins (e.g., Lutheran and Anglican), and some names express theological distinctives (e.g., Pentecostal and Baptist), others communicate something about the form of ecclesiastical polity or government operative in their respective bodies (e.g., Episcopalian, Congregational, and Independent). Our own designation of Presbyterian falls into the latter of these three broad categories.
A Presbyterian church is governed by a session (or board) of elders (i.e., presbyters, derived from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος, as used in Acts 20:17, Jas. 5:14, and elsewhere). However, the word “Presbyterian” is more closely related to the term used to describe the regional body that oversees the ministry of local congregations. This regional body is called a “presbytery” (derived from the Greek word πρεσβυτέριον, as used in 1 Tim. 4:14).
Simply put, the presbytery in a given geography is made up of elders drawn from the various local churches located therein. Beyond the regional presbytery exists the national presbytery, which in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is known as the General Assembly.
Unlike in denominational associations or conventions, both the regional presbytery and the national General Assembly are expressions of the Church within its defined geographical bounds. When the presbytery meets, the Church within a particular region is called to worship and deliberation. When the General Assembly meets, the Church within a particular national geography is called to worship and deliberation.
Every local church is connected to every other local church in a given denomination as various expressions of the national Church in which they maintain membership. The closest connections between congregations exist within the various presbyteries that constitute a national denomination. Thus, when we read of “three thousand souls” being added to the Church rolls in Jerusalem in Acts 2:41, we understand that to mean that three thousand individuals were baptized and then distributed among several congregations that were forming at that time in Jerusalem and its vicinity, creating what we might call the “Presbytery of Jerusalem.”
Local church sessions, regional presbyteries, and the national General Assembly function as graded courts or jurisdictions of church business from one geographical level to the next. The PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) expresses well this gradation, “The Session exercises jurisdiction over a single church, the Presbytery over what is common to the ministers, Sessions, and churches within a prescribed district, and the General Assembly over such matters as concern the whole Church” (11-4). The higher church courts oversee and review the ministry efforts of the lower courts within their jurisdictions as they examine records (i.e., sessional minutes and presbytery records), hear appeals in cases of church discipline, and give guidance on the best course of action for cooperative ventures in foreign and domestic missions, Christian education and publication, and diaconal relief and philanthropy.
One of the great joys of Presbyterianism as described above is the practical outworking of regional connectionalism when ministers are ordained and installed. The presbytery appoints commissions made up of presbyters for the purpose of conducting the worship services that formally mark the ordination of men to specific works within the bounds of that presbytery (see 1 Tim. 4:14 for biblical precedent). In the past, ordination and installation services took place on weekdays to allow for travel and participation by presbyters and church members from across a presbytery’s bounds. Today, if a church is hosting an ordination and installation service, it is appropriate for other churches within the presbytery to make reasonable accommodations for their members to participate.
In conclusion, Presbyterianism is a system of ecclesiastical polity that structures the governing bodies of the Church in local, regional, and national levels (presbyteries) populated by elders (presbyters). This arrangement is not merely useful and practical, but also eminently biblical and doxological, exalting the glory of God. We read in Revelation 4:9-11, “And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.’”