A Fundamental Flaw

I’m writing this article in the midst of a lot of turmoil going on in our church right now.

Many people who grow up in a certain lifestyle have difficulty figuring out whether they hold their beliefs through a conscientious decision, or whether they’ve come to that conclusion by default. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a member of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, later Olive Street Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t hold Christian beliefs, and more specifically, Christian beliefs that are Reformed, and Presbyterian (definition). My belief in a Presbyterian form of Church government has always had some reservations, and recently those “theoretical” reservations have expressed themselves in the life of our church. Hence, the writing of this article.

Presbyterianism, according to Wikipedia, “is a method of church governance typified by the rule of Assemblies of presbyters, or elders.” This article assumes that the reader has a basic understanding of the different forms of Church government, so I won’t go into a defense of Presbyterianism. I believe that of the different forms, Presbyterianism is the most Biblical, and there are plenty of resources out there that will offer the pros and cons of each. My goal is writing is instead to offer a critique of Presbyterianism as a Presbyterian, with the hope that it will serve to strengthen an already Biblical form of government.

One of the strong points of Presbyterianism is that it recognizes and codifies the apparent contradiction that God calls totally depraved men to lead His Holy Bride. While God has promised that the church as a whole will grow and thrive, the individuals who make up that church have received no such promise. We have no ability to divine the hearts of anyone in the church, including the leaders, and while God does call leaders who truly love him, He also allows hypocrites and liars to be called into leadership positions.

The reason I say that Presbyterian government recognizes and codifies this contraction is because while Presbyterianism recognizes the authority of elders in the church, it also recognizes that any single elder can be a reprobate, and that the safest way to ensure God’s working through the elders is to spread the responsibility out amongst a large number of elders.

In contrast, the Episcopalian form, in my opinion, concentrates too much power in the hands of the upper hierarchy of the church government. It fails to take into account the fact that the depravity of man applies even to those ordained to church offices. The checks and balances present in Presbyterian governments do not exist as much as in the Episcopalian church structure.

So, let’s discuss a hypothetical situation that could happen in a Presbyterian church. A congregation has a session of elders, made up of a teaching elder (pastor) and three ruling elders. A significant percentage of the congregation has decided that the session is no longer representing the congregation and would like to remove those elders and replace them with elders who do represent the congregation.

Their options are rather limited, but the PCA Book of Church Order does provide a means by which a congregation could change the leadership on the session:

  1. The congregation can nominate men who do represent them to the session
  2. The congregation can hold a congregation meeting to remove the elders from session
  3. The congregation can ask the Presbytery to replace the session
  4. The congregation can ask other sessions in the Presbytery to ask the session to look into the issues in the church

The problem with all these examples is that the congregation is expected to follow a process in order to make changes in the church. However, if the leaders of the church are not doing their job in training the people (which in this situation is very likely), then the congregation will not know what they’re supposed to do to remedy the situation.

In short, the removal of bad leadership requires a strong congregation, but a strong congregation rarely exists under bad leadership. The analogy is that of a country who’s citizens are starving under a tyrannical king. The people can never overthrow the king because they are starving.

Now, it is true that the PCA provides certain measures by which other churches can provide mutual oversight and accountability, and perhaps this is where the fundamental flaw actually lies. It seems that it should not be the responsibility of the sheep to oust those in authority, but instead we ought to require that those who are in positions of mutual accountability oversee each other. In the case of the PCA, the churches should each be overseeing the other churches in the Presbytery. This is not a case of an authority looking down, a la Episcopalian government, but those equal in authority overseeing each other.

Without this active oversight, I’m afraid that this Presbyterian experiment cannot work. We hear from our leaders our requirements to submit to their authority, yet there is no authority or accountability for them to submit. The congregation sees this hypocrisy and will act with their feet, looking for a better church. In order for the Presbyterian form of government to continue, and not devolve into a glorified version of Congregationalism, that mutual authority needs to be quickly enforced.


  1. Mike Harnish

    We’re keeping you, your family, and OSPC in our prayers.

    With regard to your prescription in this post: What’s to stop a few rogue sessions from other churches from intervening where they’re not wanted? Seems to me awfully presumptuous, even elitist, for those sessions to presume that the sheep from the problem congregation have been cowed or misled into a “false consciousness” (to use Lenin’s term) by their Session. Their only concern should be the original session’s *failure to act* on a doctrinal matter or one of public scandal (BOCO 33.1).

    I believe the answer to my question above is simply “Presbytery,” because any referral by other sessions must always invoke a higher court (immediately – as in BOCO 33.1). Agreed?


  2. Tom

    Thanks for checking in. :-)

    As you say, I would assume then the relationship between churches would be protected from the “rogue churches” by the authority of the Presbytery, in the same way that a Session would protect members of a congregation from rogue members espousing heterodoxy or just plain odd doctrines.

    For example, if a couple hardcore Ezzo families joined and tried fixing the rest of the families in the church, I would assume that the oversight of Session would come into play. But that danger does not disqualify or make void the Biblical concept of “peer-to-peer” accountability in the Church.