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Church Government in the Presbyterian Tradition

I have been heartened by your consistent stand for the ancient landmarks, most recently church government (cf. the Standard Bearer, Feb. 1, Feb. 15, March 1). I wait with anxious anticipation the arrival of each issue. 

I have written to add one element to that discussion, an element which, I believe, distinguishes the Presbyterian from the Continental tradition. 

As I understood your exposition, you see the denomination as a federation of congregations, who voluntarily cede a portion of their spiritual authority to regional and denominational assemblies. I take this to imply that the local congregation can also revoke that authority. 

In contrast, you correctly reject the evils of episcopal government (authority coming down from an individual), and congregationalism (the sovereignty of the local congregation in isolation from those in other places). Dr. Lester DeKoster has bought into that American heresy of individualism: “just me and my Bible.” 

Bible-believing Reformed Christians reject both episcopal monarchianism and Baptistic egalitarianism. Christ alone is head of the Church, and He has chosen certain men (neither alone man, nor all men), through whom to rule His church. 

In the local church, these men constitute the session/consistory. You talked about this level, but I think that this is the only level you would refer to as the church. 

In the Presbyterian tradition we go beyond this. In the Form of Government of my own Orthodox Presbyterian Church (chapter XIV), we read, “A regional church consists of all the members of the local congregations and the ministers within a certain. district . . . . The presbytery is the governing (body? – DJE) of a regional church.” This use of “church” is based on such passages as Acts 9:31, “. . .the church throughout all Judea . . . .” Note the singular. 

And also the church in general is, indeed, the church. The Form of Government (chapter XV) says, “The whole church consists of all the members of its regional churches. The general assembly . . . is the governing body of the whole church . . . .” References to the church universal abound in Scripture, e.g., Acts 12:5I Corinthians 10:32, and Ephesians 5:23

Government by elders in the local congregation is seen in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. For the church at large, we see the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The presbytery is less clearly evident, but can be seen by way of analogy to session and general assembly, and also in the references in I Timothy 4:14, and in the church at Antioch inActs 13

Thus, unlike our Continental brethren, Presbyterians see the presbytery and general assembly as integral to our understanding of the church. They do not function by delegated or voluntary authority, but by divine authority, under the headship of Christ and the discipline of His Word. 

My belief is that God gave great wisdom to the men of the Westminster Assembly and the Synod of Dordt, and it is only at great peril that Dr. DeKoster removes those ancient landmarks. 

Christopher S. Cole

Charlotte, NC