Our form of Church government is Presbyterian. The English word presbyter comes from the Greek word meaning elder. One of the distinctive features, then, of Presbyterianism is rule by elders.
There are two kinds of elder.
- There is the teaching elder, who is the minister of the Word, the pastor, who is called by God and ordained by the Church to preach the Word.
- And there are ruling elders, who are men from the congregation who join with the minister in governing the Church and exercising spiritual oversight.
This distinction is clearly taught in the New Testament: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).
Besides these, there are to be no other office-bearers in the permanent New Testament church of Christ apart from deacons, who are responsible for the temporal affairs of the church.
While this aspect of the Church is not essential to salvation, still it is a point of divine revelation, and therefore cannot be overlooked. How can the whole counsel of God be conserved if a scriptural government is not established and maintained?
While we agree that the rigid detail of organisation which marked the Old Testament Church is not to be looked for in the New, which enjoys greater liberty, yet we do assert that the principal features of the new mode of government may be clearly discerned in the history of the early Christian Church as given in the New Testament. So Scripture does teach the right form of Church Government, as the linked article makes clear. The whole Church of Christ must follow the pattern laid down in the Word of God.
An examination of the main principles which entered into the polity of the Church of the apostles shows that the form of Church government was Presbyterian. The central feature of this system of ecclesiastical government is that it entrusts the rule of the Church under Christ to presbyters or elders in their corporate capacity.
The following six principles characterised the government of the early Christian Church (see Witherow’s Apostolic Church):
- The office-bearers were chosen by the people.
- The office of a bishop and an elder was identical.
- There was a plurality of elders in each Church.
- Ordination was the act of a presbytery – that is, of a plurality of elders.
- There was the privilege of appeal to the assembly of elders; and the power of government was exercised by them in their associate capacity.
- The only Head of the Church was the Lord Jesus Christ.
Only Presbyterianism conforms to all six of these principles. The Episcopal system, where the Church is ruled by a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops as in Anglicanism, does not conform to even one of these principles. Independency, which advocates that each local congregation can fulfil Scriptural church government within its own limited bounds, conforms to only some of them.
Presbyterianism, the only system that has the approbation of Scripture, is therefore of divine right, established by the will of Jesus Christ.
The Westminster Assembly gave much attention to the question of church government. The fruit of their labour was The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, which can be read at the link.
The full title of the book mentioned above by Thomas Witherow is The Apostolic Church – Which Is it?, which can be read at the link. Witherow was Professor of Church History at the Presbyterian college in Londonderry in the 19th century. His book deals with the issues very clearly, and has helped many to come to Scriptural views on church government.