Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
In the special issue of March 15, 1986, I wrote an article entitled “We and Our Elders,” in which I gave an analysis of one difference between the Reformed and the Presbyterian systems of church government. I will quote the opening pertinent paragraphs.
The relation between believers in the church and the elders is often incorrectly viewed as similar to that between citizens of the United States and their State or Congressional Representatives. Ours (USA) is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in which (according to our constitution) the power rests in the people who are governed. That is, the power rests in the people themselves. Because this kind of representative government is part of our country’s heritage, some get the notion that the church runs that way too. In the church of Christ, though, believers are not the basis of authority.
Reformed churches differ from most Presbyterian churches in their views of church government. One of these differences is exhibited in the relation between believers and elders in the church. This difference in viewpoint touches on the positive purpose of this article.
A distinctive character of Presbyterianism is the teaching that “ecclesiastical power is given to the people, and is by them conferred on the Elders, so that the latter exercise this power in the name of the people, and consequently are subject to the people.” That is, believers hold in themselves ecclesiastical right to rule by virtue of their general priesthood, or office of believer. Believers then confer this right (or power) on the particular men whom they elect to serve as elders in the church. (See Heyns’ Handbook for Elders and Deacons (1928) p. 16. Heyns quotes Charles Hodge from his Church Polity and the PCUSA “Form of Church Government” to support this. If this presentation is not correct, though, I would welcome some of our Presbyterian brethren to give us their insight.) This view seems to do justice to the reformational principle of the priesthood of all believers; that is, that we are all “prophets, priests, and kings.” Both Presbyterian and Reformed people of God believe in this important principle. How it is applied is the question . . . .
Pastor Stephen Larson from the Beverly Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, Calif. responded graciously with the following letter that I believe will be helpful for all. (Note: The reference in the letter to the “Protestant Reformed Churches” is not a reference to our denomination, “The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, but, I believe, to churches that have their roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.)
April 12, A.D. 1986
Dear Brother in Christ and in the Reformed Faith: Grace and peace be to you in the name of him who alone can save, Christ Jesus our Lord!
Thank you for your recent article in the Standard Bearer concerning the office of elder. I found the article as a whole true to the Scriptures and therefore useful for edification and encouragement, and I am sure that it will be so used within the churches.
I would, however, offer a response to your “plea” for correction concerning the difference between the Presbyterian and Reformed views of the office of elder. I must first grant that you correctly portrayed the views of Chas. Hodge concerning the office. I do judge, however, that his views were more than slightly influenced by a desire to see Presbyterianism and American Republicanism as counterparts, and as part of this phenomenon, it seems to me that he re-wrote the nature of the office of elder to more parallel the idea of representative government. Of course, he was not alone in this sentiment, and I cannot say how widespread it became within the PCUSA. In the Form of Government of 1839, we read “Ruling elders are properly the representatives of the people, chosen by them for the purpose of exercising government and discipline, in conjunction with pastors or ministers. This office has been understood, by a great part of the Protestant Reformed Churches, to be designated in the holy Scriptures, by the title of governments . . . .” However, this section was not included in the original Form of Government, and seems to have been added as a result of the rising tide of Republicanism in the USA.
On what I would consider to be the more “historic” or faithful side of Presbyterianism, we have the Form of Government of the GPC, which rightly states that, “Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, besides the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto.” No mention is made of elders as “representatives,” and as such I believe that the OPC has returned to the original Reformed and Presbyterian view, viz., that we in electing elders are not so much choosing men, as much as recognizing those to whom Christ has given the commission and gifts for service in His church (cf. also the Book of Church Order of the PCA, which says much the same in other words).
I recognize that this is a debatable issue, with some saying that Hodge represents the main line of Presbyterians, and myself and others insisting that his was a temporary aberration. Still, I do think that you overstated the position when you portrayed this as a difference between Presbyterianism and Reformed churches. If anything, I am afraid that I would have to portray it as an example of a church that sometimes valued nationalism more highly than adherence to the Scriptures that God had given.
Yours in Christ,
Steve Larson, pastor
I thank the brother for responding to my request for a Presbyterian’s view on this question. I appreciate his desire to help us understand an important branch of the reformation churches and I believe his letter does this.
There is obvious disagreement among Presbyterians about the historic Reformed position on this subject. Because in our day the historical question is often ignored, I appreciate the desire to answer the historical question here. We should all remember, though, that the final answer is always Scripture. Thus, I agree with Pastor Larson when he states that this doctrinal position was a result of the church valuing nationalism “more highly than adherence to the Scriptures . . . .”