It only now remains that we compare the Presbyterian system with the standard of the law and of the testimony. The term Presbyterian is derived from the word presbytery, because the leading characteristic of this form of Church Government is, that it entrusts the duty of ruling the Church to the presbytery – that is, to the presbyters or elders of the Church in their assembled capacity. But let us bring it, as well as the others, to the Scriptural standard.
In the Apostolic Church, we have mentioned frequently already, that popular election was an admitted principle. It is so with Presbyterians. In all Presbyterian Churches throughout Britain and America, with the single exception of the Established Church of Scotland, the members of each congregation invariably elect their own office bearers. The privilege has been sometimes abused, as what good thing has not been abused by the sin and infatuation of man? But it is a Scriptural privilege that the Apostolic Church bequeaths us, and Presbyterians have often shown that they count it more precious than gold.
In the primitive age, the office of bishop and elder was identical. An elder was not inferior, in point of official standing, to a bishop, nor a bishop to an elder. It is so in the Presbyterian Church. Every elder is a bishop, or overseer of the flock; and every bishop is an elder, one whose office is to rule in the house of God. There are two departments in the office of the elder – that of teaching, and that of ruling; but the office itself is one.
There was a plurality of elders or bishops in each congregation of the Apostolic Church. Such is the practice in every Presbyterian Church at the present day. There is in each of their congregations a number of persons ordained to the office of the eldership, one of whom at least gives himself to the work of the ministry in its various departments, particularly that of public instruction, while the others give their principal attention to ruling in the Church of God.
Teaching and ruling, as we have already stated, are different departments of the same office; and, while there can be no doubt that those appointed to the office have, in the abstract, a right to fill both departments, yet, in practice, it is found more convenient and beneficial for the people that each elder give most of his attention to that department whose duties he is best qualified to discharge. All elders, being bishops, have an equal right, according to the Scriptures, to preach, baptise, administer the Lord’s Supper, and ordain; but these duties it is arranged to devolve on one of the elders, called by distinction the minister, who is specially trained to his work, and is, by general consent, admitted to possess most gifts and attainments, and who, in consequence, is the best qualified to make these ordinances edifying to the Church; while the majority of the elders only rule, visit the sick, superintend Sabbath-schools, conduct prayer-meetings, and make themselves useful in other ways.
Presbyterians, therefore, maintain a plurality of elders in every Church; and, as it was in apostolic days, it is customary among them for elders to rule who do not labour in word and doctrine. Any unprejudiced person may see from 1 Timothy 5:17, that the office of the eldership divided itself into two great departments of duty in primitive times, even as at present. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in word and doctrine.”
Dr. King’s comment on this text must, for sense and truthfulness, commend itself to every intelligent man. He says:
These words could suggest to an unbiassed reader only one meaning, that all elders who rule well are worthy of abundant honour, but especially those of their number who, besides ruling well, also labour in word and doctrine. Of course, the passage so interpreted, bears that, of the elders who rule well, only some labour in word and doctrine – that is, there are ruling elders, and among these teaching elders, as we have at the present day (Exposition and Defence, p. 115).
We are tempted thus to insert the true exposition of this celebrated passage, of which we have been often charged by our opponents as giving interpretations the most grotesque and extravagant. But the reader is requested to observe that the point which we have particularly in view at present is, that the Presbyterian, like the Apostolic Church, has, in every congregation, a plurality of elders.
Office bearers were set apart to their distinct spheres of duty in the Apostolic Church with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. The Presbyterian Church, in its several branches, is the only one known to us that carries this Scriptural principle invariably into practice.
In the Apostolic Church there was recognised the privilege of appeal and the right of government. This privilege is not only admitted, but it is one of the most distinguishing principles of Presbyterianism. Should any difference arise in a congregation, the members are competent to settle the matter without appeal, if they please; but, should this fail, it is equally competent for them to refer the whole matter, either for advice or decision, to the assembly of elders met in presbytery. The highest ecclesiastical court known to the system is the Presbytery; the Synod being the name usually given to the presbytery of a province, and the General Assembly being the name that convenience has attached to the presbytery of a nation. The General Assembly has jurisdiction over a Synod only because it is a larger presbytery.
Hence, that subordination of Church Courts, which some injudicious friends of Presbyterianism speak of as being a main feature of the system, is a mere accidental arrangement, which experience has proved conducive to union and strength, but which is by no means essential to the existence of the system. This is proved by the fact that a denomination, without either Synod or Assembly, and possessing no Church court whatever except a district presbytery, is, nevertheless, a complete Presbyterian body. Let there be only one assembly of elders to which a congregation can submit an appeal, and the apostolic principle is preserved.
It is not even certain that representation is a main feature of the system, although a virtual representation is the result of existing arrangements. There is representation so far as that a few office-bearers, chosen by the people on their first admission to office, transact business for the many. Nor are all office-bearers privileged to find admission to the higher courts; for, although all elders are, in the abstract, equal in point of official power, and have, of course, equal right to sit in presbytery, yet, for convenience sake, it has been agreed upon that only a part of them shall at the same time exercise this right. In the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, it has been the immemorial custom, and long experience has only served to confirm its advantages, for two elders, the teaching elder or minister, and a ruling elder, to take their seats in presbytery. The result of these arrangements is, that a virtual representation occurs, and the system enjoys all its advantages; but to say it is a main pillar of Presbyterianism is contrary, in our opinion, to the facts of the case.
Were the platform of the presbytery so widened as to give every elder a seat in our Church courts, this would, in a great measure, do away with representation, and would be unwise for many reasons, but would not shake a pillar of the system. In the meantime, whatever may be thought of the principle of representation and the subordination of Church courts, there can be no doubt that the Presbyterian form of government, in common with that of the Apostolic Church, secures to the people the right of appeal to the assembly of elders, and grants to the assembly of elders the right of government – a privilege which, so far as known to us, is enjoyed by no denomination that is not, in point of government, Presbyterian.
In the Apostolic Church, the Lord Jesus alone was King and Head. This is a truth acknowledged by all Presbyterians, and practically acted upon by all, except a very few, who, owing to their connection with the State, have been charged with a virtual departure from the principle. All Presbyterian Churches rank among their most cherished, as well as distinctive principles, that Christ alone is King and Head of His Church. As a denomination, Presbyterians have ever held that the Church, independent of the civil rulers, has supreme jurisdiction in all spiritual matters, and that its office-bearers are bound to exercise that jurisdiction in conformity to the mind of Christ, as expressed in His Word. The doctrine of the Supreme Headship of Jesus Christ over His Church is one to which Presbyterians have always been warm in their attachment.
We find, then, on minute and patient examination, that the six main principles of government that were, by inspired men, established in the Apostolic Church, are all recognised and practically carried out among Presbyterians. We know no other denomination in the world, of whose form of ecclesiastical government the same statement could be made without departure from the truth.