Governance and Doctrine of the Presbyterian Church

Unlike the Catholic Church where the leading authority belongs to the bishop, the Presbyterian Church has a different system of governance where the role that equals that of a bishop belongs to the Elders. The notable thing about this, the factor that really differentiates between the two sides is the fact that while there is only one figure of the bishop in the Catholic Church, there is a whole group of Elders who may even be noted as the “church board” when suited. However, the usual terminology used for the group is either classis or presbytery. This structure is implemented right down to the local Presbyterian churches. These elders are responsible for the running of each individual church and when talking about a whole group of presbyteries, the term used to identify them is synod. All synods and presbyteries join together to form what is called a general assembly which is usually found at the national level. The person responsible for the way the churches are conducted is an ordained member of its governance and is known as “minister of the word and sacrament” or simply a “teaching elder”.

Governance History Explained

Church LawIt was only in the beginning of the Presbyterian Church that an Elder was considered to be of the same rank as a bishop and the distinction between the two came when the norm for multiple elders was brought in. St. Gerome clearly pointed about the flaw in singularity of the leadership in “In Epistle Titus” that such a position caused a corruption of mind by the devil which resulted in development of factions. That is why the whole concept of joint council for governance was introduced. The first ever implementation of the system was conducted by John Calvin himself in the year 1541 in Geneva church.

What is Congregationalism?

This is a particular part of the Presbyterian Church governance as unlike other churches, individual congregations of a church are not independent from the higher authorities and are bound to answer to the higher power which may be the group of synods and general assemblies. One of the biggest roles of these ministries is to ensure that the conduct of the Presbyterian Church meets its standards even at the lowest level and no church congregation goes unaccounted for. The result therefore is an effective system of governance that helps keep the whole practice and its ideologies intact when put into practice.

What is a Synod?

The role of a synod comes in when a particular branch of the church becomes too large to be handled by a single body. At that moment, the presbyteries are divided into multiple presbyteries that come under a single synod. As far as the United Church of Canada is concerned, these synods are referred to as either General Council or conferences. The difference between the governance of a synod from a presbytery is that its commissioner acts through their own judgment instead of being instructed by the presbyteries. There is also a position of a clerk and moderator for a synod and the members don’t meet that often either. There are some exceptions too though like the Presbyterian Church of America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church which have no intermediate governing body and are directly under the general assembly.

What is a General Assembly?

This is the highest ranking court in all of Presbyterian system of governance. The members of this come from all presbyteries and they are called commissioners. In order to conduct its business, the general assembly elects its own moderator who is in charge of the meetings that may be held during a given time period. The usual length of moderation lasts a year and the meetings also happen at the same interval. If however, there are to be special circumstances, some of the power of the general assembly which is actually quite wide ranged may be removed. An example of this is the practicing of the Barrier Act by the Church of Scotland through which, all the major changes in the church’s governance are to be made only after consulting the local level presbyteries.

Final Word

The firm belief of the Presbyterian governance in a multi-member ruling system is believed to be extracted directly from the way it is described in the New Testament and that the earliest churches were also governed in the same manner. The concept of episcopacy is believed to be only a form of contingency that was applied in rare cases where there was a need for such an implementation.