If Not Independency or Hierarchy, Then What?

The courts of the United States only recognize two forms of church government—hierarchy or congregationalism. The first question, therefore, that is considered in all church cases before the civil courts is whether the denomination is hierarchical or congregational. The answer to that question determines how the court rules in the case. I agree that there are only two forms of church government, but I disagree with the courts of the US. A congregation can be both hierarchical and congregational (or independent). A denomination can be both hierarchical and, supposedly, grassroots. This ecclesiastical schizophrenia causes all kinds of problems. There is a better option—Scriptural Presbyterianism. There are only two types of churches—those that are hierarchical and those that practice true elder rule per the Scripture. I do not at all mean the type of Presbyterianism (or even elder rule) that is so prevalent today and, sadly, has mostly represented Presbyterian denominations for centuries. Someone once said that ‘presbytery is prelacy writ small.’ That is too often true, but that is also not true Scriptural Presbyterianism.     

There might be some readers of this newsletter who pastor Independent churches or are members of one. There certainly are many well-ordered, well-governed Independent type churches. Yet, the tendency of all denominations—Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, Independent, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc.—is to move in the direction of hierarchy. It is the exception rather than the rule for churches and denominations not to be hierarchical. The exception always proves the rule, otherwise it would not be an exception. I am not singling out Independents or Congregationalists. I am speaking about the problem of hierarchical church government. Thus, I want to lay out the principles of Scriptural church government. 

First, true Scriptural church government is by elder rule and those elders are selected by the congregations where they serve.While the Scripture gives only the barest of details about the selection of leaders by their congregations, those sparse details are also very clear concerning the congregational involvement. Following Judas’ betrayal of Christ, Peter assembled the congregation of 120 persons and asked them to put forth names for someone to be selected as the apostle to take Judas’ place. When deacons were elected in Acts 6:1-6, it was “the congregation of the disciples” who were asked to “select seven men of good reputation” (Acts 6:2, 3). Then, it was the church—not the Apostles or some hierarchical bishop—who set apart Paul and Barnabas for the great work of taking the gospel into Asia Minor.

Second, true Scriptural church government promotes and protects the right of appeal for every church member.True independency in church government cannot do this. Twice in my ministerial career I have served as the chairman of an ad-hoc appeals court for churches that were independent. They were “ad-hoc” because if a church is independent there is no appeal to a larger, wider body of elders without setting up an ad-hoc body that has no real spiritual authority over the matter. Matthew 18:15-18sets forth the process of discipline and simply says, “tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). Paul told Timothy to not neglect the gift bestowed on him “through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery” (1 Timothy 4:14). Then, there was a dispute that arose in the early church concerning the evangelization of the Gentiles and receiving them into church membership without first circumcising them. To resolve that dispute, the Church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to meet with the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem. These illustrations represent three different levels of church government—the local (church elders), the regional (presbytery) and the general/national/international (General Assembly).  Thus, if a member of the church is dissatisfied with the decisions of the lower court, he can appeal to the next level for consideration of the matter. In each instance, the higher curt becomes wider and larger in numbers which helps to promote more justice in the decisions. 

Third, true Scriptural church government is the power of moral suasion—not the power of force or coercion. Moral suasion means to urge or persuade. It is at this point that Presbyterians too often become like Papists. Presbyterians (and many other denominations and churches) think that their committees, boards, and agencies have all the wisdom necessary to determine God’s will that must then be obeyed fully by their “subjects.” Scripture nowhere gives such power to the church. The church can only speak authoritatively where the Bible speaks clearly. In every other case, the church advises, urges, and tries to persuade. Yet, committees of all church courts still get confused on this matter. 

One time in my early ministry the Advisory Committee of my presbytery was, supposedly, giving me advice. I listened. I considered it. Then, I went in another direction. The committee came back to me and made it clear that their advice was not just advice—they expected me to do what they “advised” me to do. One member told me, “Dewey, we prayed about what we told you and we feel the Holy Spirit was leading us in our advice to you. Why did you disobey us?” My response was: “Well, I prayed about it also and I felt the Holy Spirit was leading me to a different conclusion of the matter.” They did not like my answer, but I think they knew I was right. 

Another time, I was in a presbytery meeting where a member of the committee spoke to the body: “We all know there are problems in this church. We want the presbytery to give us the authority to meet with the pastor and elders and advise them on what to do.” I stood up and replied: “If you want to give them advice, you do not need the permission of presbytery. Call them up and ask them to meet you for a cup of coffee. Listen to them and tell them what your thoughts are. But if you want the power to tell them what to do, presbytery does not have that power. Our power is urging, advising, and persuading, but not forcing.” Too many Presbyterian church courts operate on a bad definition of what advice is. And they are not alone. That is the problem with most all denominations and congregations. The desire to lord it over others is the besetting sin of the church. Yet, 1 Peter 5:3 says, “nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” 

Fourth, true Scriptural church government exercises proper discipline according to the revealed will of GodI realize that this is the place where many people will feel that all discipline by the church courts is hierarchy. Yet, there are great differences between the proper discipline of Scriptural church courts and the improper discipline of a hierarchy. 

In Scriptural church courts, the discipline is according to the clear teaching of Scripture—it is ministerial and declarative. It is according to the written Constitution or Bok of Church Order which should be based on the Scripture. The aim of such Scriptural discipline is to glorify God, to promote the good of the church, and to reclaim the sinner. Discipline in a hierarchy, though, is by fiat authority. Such discipline is based on the whims of the people in power. Such hierarchical tyrants will reason like this: “We are your elders and you are responsible to obey us. If you disobey us, you are disobeying God.” That is the very opposite of Scriptural church discipline. That is spiritual abuse. 

Scriptural church discipline includes more and more elders in the decisions as the matter is appealed to the higher courts. Yet, in a hierarchy it is just the opposite. The further up the denomination a matter goes, the fewer and fewer people are involved in making the decisions for the denomination. I saw that problem on a General Assembly Judicial Commission where I once served. Originally, the decisions were not final until they were voted up or down by the whole Assembly. Then, that became too “impractical” and too slow so the whole matter was changed. The Judicial Commission proposed that the Assembly give it the authority to have the final decision on all judicial cases. Thus, that Judicial Commission became the de facto hierarchy of that denomination. That is the danger of hierarchy. The desire for efficiency and timeliness leads to hierarchy.  

In a denomination which practices true Scriptural discipline the disciplinary matters should come to the court instead of originating with the court. In a hierarchy, the little cabal of self-appointed keepers of the church or denomination are always looking for ways to impose rules on those under them. Sometimes it might be a missions committee that proposes rules to bind every lower court to their oversight as the experts on all matters. That happened in my former denomination where the home missions committee got most every presbytery to agree that no mission church, whether with or without financial support from the presbytery, could be started unless the organizing pastor was first assessed and approved by the General Assembly’s committee. That might seem reasonable, but it is hierarchy at its worst. It is rule from the top down.

A few weeks ago, someone posted a question on my congregation’s webpage about a Facebook ad we were running. This person asked why we didn’t stay in the PCA and help them turn the denomination around. I have to admit that is a question that has become old and tiring to me, especially when almost every day brings fresh evidence that the progressive dominance of the denomination is stronger and deeper than most want to admit. But here is how I answered that question. I wrote that Vanguard had been able to start new churches that would not have been allowed to be started in the PCA, even though at least one of those churches is in an area where there are no PCA churches. I told this person that we were doing kingdom work as a result of starting Vanguard Presbytery. 

Now here is where the rubber meets the road in this whole question of Scriptural church government. Do you trust the session of your congregation or the courts of your denomination to uphold the Scripture in all their decisions? Will the church courts discipline heresy and immorality? Will they follow the rules or will they find fanciful ways to get around them? Today it is someone else’s ox that is being gored, but tomorrow it could be your ox that is gored? If that happens, would you be satisfied with that outcome? Those are important questions to ask about any denomination. There are some good congregations in almost every denomination. That is a given. But what about the church courts? Are they tyrannical and hierarchical?  Or, are they practicing Scriptural church government?

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL  

www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.com   Please mail any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540    

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