The Problem with Presbyterianism is… Presbytery

Dear friends,

            This week’s article is a rerun on an article I wrote a couple of years ago since I am supposed to be on “vacation” this week. In the past week, I have been contacted by three ministers in two different denominations (one in the PCUSA and the other two in the Presbyterian Church of Australia) who had just recently been sent the article below. One of the pastors in Australia is going to interview me by zoom next week. This article speaks to the primary problem of the Presbyterian system as it is exercised today. True Presbyterianism operates by the principle that all ecclesiastical authority is ministerial and declarative. There are few Presbyterian denominations in the world today that would qualify as truly Presbyterian by that definition, even those that call themselves grassroots denominations. While conservative focus their attention on trying to win General Assembly votes, the liberals and progressives focus on getting their candidates ordained and taking control of the lower courts. Thus, the conservatives lose even when they think they are winning. 

Vanguard Presbytery: The Problem with Presbyterianism is. . . Presbytery

            The title of this message will come as a surprise and a dismay to many Presbyterians. Presbytery is the genius of our system, so we think. How can Presbytery (which is Scriptural by the way) be our problem? The right of appeal from a lower court to a higher court (after which the American system of jurisprudence is modeled) is the bedrock foundation for Presbyterianism. How can that court be our chief nemesis? We must remember what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often said that we have to watch our strengths because they become our biggest problem areas. So it is with Presbytery.  

            Here is the problem with Presbytery. Presbyteries everywhere function contrary to the Constitution of their denomination whenever they choose to do so with virtual impunity. That has been true in all Presbyterian denominations and all nations and all time periods. Presbyteries never really get into trouble if they violate the Constitution. A light verbal reprimand is the most that ever happens to them. Process errors will be corrected by the higher court with a simple directive. But if Presbytery is guilty of more egregious errors, nothing is done to them. This problem with Presbyteries cuts across all boundaries between conservatives and liberals/progressives. It applies to each alike. 

            As a former member of the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA for four terms, I saw enough instances of Presbyteries violating the Constitution to last a lifetime. Over forty-four years in the ministry of the PCA, I saw many other violations which never made it before the General Assembly for adjudication. In 2008, I was the prosecutor for the SJC in the trial of Louisiana Presbytery for harboring Steve Wilkins and his theological errors. The SJC was instructed before deliberations on that case that no General Assembly in American Presbyterian history had ever sanctioned a Presbytery. Louisiana Presbytery was found guilty by a vote of 11-7 following that trial in March of 2008 and the Presbytery had to have the sanctions read to them before the General Assembly a few months later.  

            Some people may think it is a great thing that only one Presbytery has ever been sanctioned by a General Assembly in American Presbyterianism, but I disagree. Just as sessions can and do err, so also Presbyteries can and do err. Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3 says:

All synods and councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help to both.   

            No Presbytery should be accorded deferential treatment when they err. Their actions are not the rule of faith. Their pronouncements are not the voice of God. Their violations of the Constitution are not to be countenanced any more than a similar violation by the lower court would be countenanced by that same Presbytery. Yet, these are the kinds of things that I have seen during my life in the ministry:

·      Presbytery harboring theological errors and immorality with impunity (except in the lone case of Louisiana Presbytery in 2008).

·      Presbytery receiving allegations against a minister or a church without the Scriptural requirement of it being based on the mouths of two or three witnesses (Cf. Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Matthew 18:16; and, 1 Timothy 5:19). 

·      Presbytery receiving allegations against a minister or a session without allowing the party alleged to be in error to face his accusers or respond to the allegations.

·      Presbytery unconstitutionally removing a session and placing a commission over the congregation.

·      Presbytery ignoring the Scriptural requirement that no party is to be allowed to bring an allegation against someone else without first proceeding through the steps of Matthew 18:15-18.

·      Presbytery violating its own Constitution in appointing judicial commissions.

·      Presbytery usurping authority through bullying tactics and forcing pastors to leave their churches without justification.

·      And many more such things. 

            The Presbyterian Church was begun in America in 1706. In the three hundred fourteen years of its existence, there is that one instance—and only one—in which Presbytery received more than a slight slap on the wrist. Presbytery has sanctioned many pastors and churches, but has functioned without fear of any reprisals from the General Assembly for most of its time in this country. Presbytery after Presbytery has acted unconstitutionally on repeated occasions with near unanimous impunity. Is there any wonder then that Presbyterian denominations continue to go astray? 

            The excuse I often hear for why Presbyteries are allowed to get away with unconstitutional actions is that our system of government does not allow us to correct anything other than process errors. Not true. I have reviewed every Book of Church Order of every Presbyterian denomination that I could find and every one gives the higher court, the General Assembly, the right to correct the lower court in the same way that Presbytery can correct a pastor or a Session. The PCA BCO 14.6a and g says that “The General Assembly shall have the power:

a. To receive and issue all appeals, references, and complaints regularly brought before it from the lower courts; to bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in practice, injuriously affecting the Church; to decide in all controversies respecting doctrine and discipline;

g. To suppress schismatical contentions and disputations, according to the rules provided therefore.

            No book of polity that I have found limits the powers of the General Assembly to merely correcting process errors while ignoring error or immorality. Such a practice is straining on gnats and swallowing camels.

            The effect of this erroneous thinking is that it emboldens Presbyteries to rule through intimidation and by fiat authority. Every pastor and church should tremble when they hear those dreaded words, “We are from the Presbytery and we are here to help you.” Ben Wilkinson, one of the founding fathers of the PCA, once told me about a Presbytery Committee visiting with a church, “If they stay around long enough, they will burn the whole church to the ground.” 

            So, what is the practical problem with Presbytery not being subject to any form of discipline from the higher court? Here it is. They forget that they are under authority. They think they are the authority and their actions are clothed in divinity. They develop a God complex. Is it any wonder then that Presbyterian denominations only remain conservative for about 30-40 years? How could they last any longer when we esteem them as an infallible court that replaces an infallible person? As someone has jokingly said, “Presbytery is papacy written small.” Such authoritarianism is wrong no matter the name. There is neither an infallible Pope nor an infallible court. 

            A dear friend of mine wrote me last week to look over everything with respect to Vanguard Presbytery one more time. He admonished me that if Vanguard does not start right it will never be right. So, on my morning walks, it came to me that the problem of Presbyterianism is Presbytery. Presbytery cannot be allowed to function as an infallible court with impunity if we want to erect a truly Scriptural Presbyterian denomination. All courts err—even Presbytery. Thus, Presbytery should not be allowed to be authoritarian, but should be encouraged to be the protector of good order while following the same. We will be adding protections to the proposed BCO of Vanguard Presbytery to prevent an infallible court, but everything depends on the blessing of God if any denomination is to remain pure.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Destin, FL

Author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision;

Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia   

Email me at: to be added to my email list. 

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