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Presbyterian Government

Even though the way that a church’s government is structured is not an essential of the faith, it is still an important consideration. CPC is not accidentally or incidentally Presbyterian; rather, we believe that Scripture teaches that churches should be formally connected with one another, and each should be led by elders and deacons. This is the form of government that is assumed in Acts 15, which is why we’re only half joking when we say that the Jerusalem Council was the first General Assembly.

The evidence for a presbyterian form of government in Acts 15 can be summarized in three categories. First, the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem were vitally connected to one another. They don’t stand alone in matters of doctrine and practice, which is why the church in Jerusalem gets involved with issues in Antioch. Second, these churches are represented by selected leaders. Beyond Paul, Barnabas, and the apostles, elders were present at the Jerusalem Council. Elsewhere in Acts, elders are identified as the local leaders of individual congregations. Finally, the decision that was made in Jerusalem was binding. It was not merely pious advice, but something that was written down and taught to the churches.

Synthesizing these points of comparison, Acts 15 reflects a form of government in which individual congregations are connected in a binding way to the whole church through a plurality of elders representing congregations. This form of government, in broad strokes, is the form of government that guides CPC and the PCA today. In short, our church is organized according to the principles of Scripture.

Now, you might wonder why this matters. Isn’t this just a preference? Not really. As Herman Bavinck notes, Christ is a “king who still continually rules his church personally from heaven.” And yet, “he nevertheless employs people in this process and therefore to that extent gave his church the power of government.”[1] Broadly speaking, Bavinck notes that we are all involved in this government. “In the church, we are not governed by Cain’s cry: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We are all members of one another.” More narrowly, however, “Christ has also instituted a specific office, the office of the presbyter (elder), by which he governs his church.”[2]

Interestingly, Bavinck gives a great reason for why rule by more than one elder is a wise form of government: “ministers are weak and sinful people and need supervision. If the council of elders and the gathering of neighboring churches do not assume this role, the local church becomes a plaything of the pastor or else is in need of a superintendency or episcopate.”[3] To that, I add a hearty amen, knowing my own heart, and also a thanks to our elders.

But more to the point of why we are presbyterian over against all other forms of government, Bavinck’s argument helps us see the value of the presbyterian form of government. On the one hand, superintendency or episcopacy just moves the identified problem up one level. Now, the bishop is the one who requires checks and balances by other bishops, and so a hierarchical form of government ultimately cannot satisfy this problem.

On the other hand, independent churches risk becoming the corporate version of this problem. Separated formally from neighboring churches, an independent church is without checks and balances and vulnerable to every wind of doctrine. That many independent churches establish informal relationships with one another only reinforces the wisdom of the presbyterian form of government.

At the end of the day, no form of government will guarantee faithfulness; only the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives can do that. But we are called to use wisdom, and so we pray that we are faithfully reflecting the wisdom of Scripture in the way that our church teaches and guides the sheep.

At the same time, I acknowledge that we are often functionally independent. Beyond hosting a presbytery meeting every once in a while, we hardly ever get involved in the work of the larger church in New Jersey. I think we lack something in this functional independency because our neighboring PCA churches have members who are gifted in complementary ways to our own gifting. And so, my hope and prayer is that we will find ways to work with and to serve sister congregations so that we might be even more presbyterian than we already are.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), 4.421. [2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.421. [3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.422.

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