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The Pastorate and the Presbytery

A Brief Explanation of What a Presbytery Is & Why Pastors in Presbyterian Denominations are Members of Them

by Mark Horne

Version 1.3 Revised 10/2/2007
Copyright © 1999, 2007
A belief in the primacy of the local congregation of the Church, I think, reflects the gut feeling of most North American Evangelicals. As a result, the form of Church government universally held in all the historically Reformed Anglo-American denominations is somewhat jolting to most of us when we first hear about it. We are primarily a nation, after all, of congregationalists. The New England Congregationalists, as some of the first settlers of our country, contributed greatly to our national and religious culture. Now, a great many of our Evangelical congregations, whether Baptist, Evangelical Free, or Christian & Missionary Alliance, or other, are congregationalist in form. Furthermore, there are many independent churches that, whether by principle or providential events, have no form of government beyond the local congregation.Furthermore, virtually all the popular material promoting the Reformed Faith is devoted to proving TULIP or infant baptism. Even material ostensibly promoting the principles of Reformed church government glosses over the most basic historical facts of Presbyterianism; and, of course, does not provide the alleged Biblical rationale that once lead to this now largely unacknowledged traditionIf we believe that worship and Church environment are important in forming us as American Evangelicals, then we have to acknowledge that our instincts in this area may have been formed by our past and present church environment. It ought to be worthwhile to consider if our instincts are correct or not, according to the Bible.It is not my intention, necessarily, to prove to anyone that everything about the way presbyterians do things is the only way they can be done. Rather, I want readers to simply appreciate why I and others have thought that this form of church order has Biblical warrant. This is meant to be a first word, not the last word.THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

Since the Jerusalem Church was the first after Pentecost, it seems good to start with it [1]. After Peter’s sermon, about 3,000 people were baptized and became part of that first Church (Acts 2.41), bringing up the total to around 3,120 (Acts 1.15). That’s a pretty big church. And we find that they worshiped
“in the various private homes” (Acts 2.46; NASB margin reading). This makes sense. With that many people meeting with only private homes available as meeting places, they would need several.

Very soon afterward, another 5,000 men (along with any of their wives and children) joined the Jerusalem Church (Acts 4.4). By this time we easily have a church of ten thousand people, yet the church continued to grow explosively (Acts 6.1, 7).

The point here is that the Jerusalem Church consisted of several congregations and yet was considered one church-“the church and the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15.4). When Paul met with “James and the elders” (Acts 21.18) they told him there were in the Jerusalem Church “many ten-thousands . . . among the Jews of those who have believed” who were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21.20; NASB literal reading). That huge number, notice, only included the Jewish Christians who were deeply concerned enough about the law to be worried about Paul and what they had heard about him. It does not include those who were less concerned or the converted Gentiles. The Jerusalem Church under the oversight of “James and the elders” was a “mega-church” by today’s standards if they all meant in a single structure for regular public worship. But there is no indication whatsoever, from Scripture, uninspired history, or archeology, that the Jerusalem Church met in such a structure. Rather, everything indicates that they met in many different house-sized congregations [2].

All the evidence indicates that this situation was not unique to Jerusalem. Consider that the Apostle Paul wrote “to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1.2). New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hays writes:

We do not know the number of Christians in Corinth, but archeological investigations have provided the basis for some informed guesswork. Because Christians met in private homes and had no public buildings, the size of their gatherings was limited by the size of the villas of the most affluent members of the community. According to the calculations of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, such houses could have accommodated no more than thirty to fifty people for the common meal. It is, therefore, likely that there were several separate house church gatherings, meeting in the homes of leaders such as Stephanas (16:15-18). Over time, such house church communities might have developed different practices and even acknowledged different leaders, thus exacerbating the problem of factions within the community [3].

Furthermore, in his second epistle, Paul addresses “the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia” (v. 1, emphasis added). So not only is it likely that there was more than one house-congregation in Corinth, but the Church is seen as being over the surrounding region.Ephesus is another example. It is addressed as a single “church” in Scripture under a single “angel” (Revelation 2.1), who ruled, presumably, with a group of elders/bishops (Acts 20.17, 28). Yet Paul preached there for thee years (Acts 20.31) resulting in tremendous growth (Acts 19.18-20). Aquila and Pisca/Priscilla moved to Ephesus with Paul (Acts 18.18-19) and established a congregation in their home there (1 Corinthians 16.19). It is extremely difficult to believe, however, unless one wishes to dare say the reports of the growth of the Church in Ephesus are exaggerated, that the congregation in their house was the only one in the city.

Yet these congregations ruled by an “angel” with elders/bishops are called not only the (singular!) “church” but “the flock” (singular again!) under their care (Acts 20.28).

There are other references to city-churches (1 & 2 Thessalonians 1.1; Revelation 2-3). While a church can sometimes refer to a single congregation (Romans 16.5), it also seems to apply to the many congregations in a single region. Even if some of these city-churches were small enough to be single congregations, it is still inescapable that a group of congregations in a city is just as much a church as a city with only a single congregation. For, in that case, both are equally being called churches, and the church in a city with a single congregation would continue to be the church in that city even if it grew into many congregations with many pastors. A region consisting of several congregations with their assembled elders is just as much a Church as a single congregation.

That, at least, has historically been the belief of Reformed Christians. We all know, for example, that John Calvin led the Genevan Church. But the Genevan Church, like the Church of Jerusalem, consisted of several congregations. The pastors who were supported full time to teach and lead in worship sat on a council along with some others who ruled the Genevan Church with them. That is the model which has developed into the system now in place in presbyterian and
Reformed denominations.

This hopefully give you the prima facie reasons why Reformed denominations have not held that “the local congregation has primacy in the structure of biblical church government.” Rather, they have typically held that several congregations in a region under their assembled elders have primacy in the structure of Biblical church government. Biblically speaking, this assembly with it’s congregation has good claim to the designation, “church.”

My main point, however, is that it is very unlikely that the “presbytery” to which Paul refers (1 Timothy 4.14), was the council, session, or consistory or a single congregation.


Until I come, give attention to the reading, to exhortation, and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things; for as you do this you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4.13-16; NASB).

The apostle Paul, in exhorting Timothy to single-mindedly pursue his vocational commitment, reminds him of a ceremonial laying on of hands performed by a presbytery or board of elders. In the same letter, Paul warns Timothy: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Timothy 5.22; NASB). This warning is given in a paragraph devoted to instruction on how to deal with elders (5.17-25).

In the Bible, to be ordained by someone or some group ordinarily means to be accountable to that person or group. Paul himself took part in the ordination ceremony (2 Timothy 1.6), and he exhorts him as if he were his father (1 Timothy 1.2, 18; 2 Timothy 1.2; 2.1), encouraging and adjuring him in his vocation (1 Timothy 5.21; 6.13; 2 Timothy 2.14; 4.1), and checking on him (1 Timothy 3.14; 4.13).

Ordination entails a relationship of accountability. One cannot simply ordain a man and walk away from the resulting ministry as if he has magically turned that person into a pastor. As Paul informed Timothy, when one ordains another to office, one becomes responsible for what he does with that office. This means that Timothy was responsible for thoroughly examining anyone he might ordain.

Thus, the presbytery or classis–the board of elders over a specific region of churches–in Reformed denominations is responsible for ordaining men called to be the pastors of specific congregations. They examine these men because they are responsible for what he does in the office which they give him.

In Matthew 19.6, Jesus objects to divorce saying, “what God has joined together, let no man separate.” The only reason this statement has the force of an argument is because of the commonly acknowledged principle that a status conferred by an authority cannot be removed by a lower authority.

In one sense, of course, all such relationships are instituted by God and cannot be ended apart from His action. However, typically we treat the authorities which God used to initiate a relationship as the ones with the right to act on His behalf to end a relationship. For example, a marriage ought not be unilaterally ended by a spouse even if he or she has just cause. Ideally, the civil magistrate should adjudicate the matter since the God’s law requires the state to recognize and protect marriage. For a Christian, there must be appeal to and investigation by the Church.

Likewise, if a Christian sees a fellow church member living in unrepentant sin, even after privately confronted, that Christian has no authority to simply bar the offender from the Lord’s Table or excommunicate him. Rather, membership in a local congregation is conferred through the session/consistory/council, and that status can only be removed by the same authority, or one equivalent to it (in the case of someone baptized in one church who then transfers his membership to another church).

The same reasoning applies to presbyteries. They are the authorities who ordain men to be pastors in local congregations. They are responsible for these men. They confer the pastoral office and they are the only ones who can remove it. A local congregation, to be sure, can dissolve a pastoral relationship, but they can’t simply depose a man from office. They can bring charges if necessary, but the presbytery has to make a decision as to whether the man should keep or
lose his office.

Imagine a local congregation trying to depose Timothy. Of course, they could bring charges against him, but the presbytery who ordained Timothy would have to hear the charges and arbitrate the matter. They are the ones who gave Timothy his office and they are the ones who can take it away [4].

Now if one doesn’t want to call this relationship “membership,” I don’t want to argue over words. But by ordination a person becomes one of the elders in a “board of elders”-in other words, a presbytery. He is accountable to this group and can be deposed by them, in which case he is no longer an elder in the presbytery. This certainly sounds a lot like “membership,” and I haven’t seen anyone make a Biblical case for any other way to operate [5].

I should also mention the more practical issue of evaluating someone who’s vocation is to teach.


The Apostle James writes the following warning: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” This eschatological expectation has typically been treated as a model for how the Church should deal with the teaching ministry in this life. Jesus’ warning, “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way….” (Matthew 5.25-26), has been understood as advising us, if we know we will be more strictly judged in the next world, to set up stricter examinations in this one.

Now, while a great deal of pastoral work involves other things, such as living out a godly example, or exhorting the congregation or reminding them of things they already know, it also includes teaching them things they haven’t yet learned. Thus, in terms of knowledge of the Bible, Theology, Church History, etc, a congregation is not typically equipped to evaluate a potential pastor. If it were so equipped, then the pastor would be unnecessary as a teacher. James’warning dictates that only a few in a congregation be teachers.

Thus, in a pastor’s capacity as teacher of the congregation, it has seemed needful that he be tested and evaluated by other teachers who are able to do so–those trained in the disciplines deemed necessary for the office [6]. Furthermore, while some sins are evident to all, other sins in the area of false teaching may require an investigation by other teachers in order for a decision to be made. This works both ways. Sometimes a pastor can teach something which seems fine to the congregation that is in fact extremely dangerous. Other times, a pastor can teach something highly controversial in the congregation that in fact is perfectly orthodox and Biblical. For the protection of both parties, other teachers need to be involved [7].

Thus, even apart from the Biblical data about presbytery ordination, something quite close to presbyteries would have to develop in order to protect teachers and congregations. The bottom line is that pastors must be accountable to someone lest they lord it over their congregations and mislead them. Someone needs to be able to remove him from office even if the congregation has been fooled by him. Likewise, someone needs to be able to protect the pastor in his office, even if the entire congregation is convinced that he is some sort of heretic [8].

While it may be possible, and in some situations necessary, to identify a pastor exclusively in terms of his relationship with his congregation, it is very difficult to do so. Historically, this has been tried with Congregationalism. In such churches, the pastor is accountable to the congregation. Period. So, if Jonathan Edwards attempts to practice Church discipline, then the congregation simply gets rid of him (which is what happened). On the other hand, if the pastor is not accountable to the congregation, then is he accountable to no one? Multiple elders in a congregation can help, but differences in formal or self-education mean that elders cannot always be sure how to decide a conflict regarding their pastor’s teaching [9]. In an organization wherein all controversies are to be finally settled by an appeal to documents written in two dead languages, other teachers are needed [10].

And of course, the teachers are going to need help in evaluating others. Thus, a person is recognized as a teacher by other teachers and becomes part of that group of teachers recognizing others. Again, this looks like membership.


My basic argument has been {1} that a “church” in the New Testament was at least as likely to be several congregations under an assembly of elders as a single congregation; {2} that this assembly of elders ordained pastors; {3} that anyone so ordained would be accountable to this assembly; {4} that the assembly to whom a pastor is accountable is also the organization with the ability to depose him if necessary; {5} that anyone so ordained would be part of this assembly as an elder; and finally {6}, that points {3}, {4}, and {5} mean membership, whether one wants to call it that or not.

Secondly, I have also argued, albeit less thoroughly {1} that not many are to be teachers; {2} teachers are to be judged more severely in the next world; {3} teachers should be more stringently examined in this world (from {2}); {4} in the area of teaching, only other teachers are likely to be able to properly evaluate a pastor both for the sake of the pastor and the congregation (from {1}); {5} that this situation leads to something identical to presbytery membership or quite close to it.


Hopefully this brief introduction and explanation gives the reader some idea of what is going on in traditional presbyterian polity. It is my hope that realizing the practitioners of presbyterianism have been following what they understand the Bible to teach, and understanding some of the basic principles involved, the process will not seem so strange, even for those who still have serious reservations about it.

1 Of course, there were probably “churches” throughout Galilee and Judea during Jesus’ ministry. He apparently not only had followers who traveled with Him, but also followers who remained in their homes in the towns and villages and provided him support when He and his fellow-travelers (literally!) were in the area. (Thus, Matthew 18.17 is probably not anachronistic but is a direction made to communities in place at the time Jesus spoke the words.)

2 Incidentally, it may be that the large number of Christians mentioned in Acts 21.20 were not restricted to the city and immediate vicinity. In Acts 9.31 we read: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace.”

Now, this singular use of the word “church” may be insignificant. After all, in English parlance, it is not uncommon to say “The church throughout the Sudan is suffering persecution.” The singular noun can cover a group of churches without implying anything about their affiliation. However, it might mean that the Jerusalem Church included scattered congregations in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. If that was the case, then Galatians 1.22 would be one of the very few cases where different individual congregations are probably denoted by the plural word “churches.”

A piece of evidence (not absolute proof) that the congregations throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were one Church under the assembly of “James and the elders” would be the way in which Samaria was evangelized by Philip (Acts 8.5-25). Notice that after Philip preached and baptized, “the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God” and “sent them Peter and John” (Acts 8.14). This sort of ecclesiastical commission is not sent to any of the recipients of evangelism farther away (e.g. Ethiopia-Acts 8.26-40). It would make sense that the commission to Samaria was sent because Samaria was considered within Jerusalem’s sphere of influence.

Whether the Jerusalem Church consisted only of the congregations in and around the city, or also included Samaria and Galilee, it definitely included many congregations.

3 First Corinthians: Interpretation, a Biblical commentary for teaching and preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 6-7.

4 This does not mean they have control over his congregation or how he directs them. Rather it means that the morality of his conduct and orthodoxy of his teaching are their concern.

5 It might help to remember the cosmopolitan character of the teaching ministry in the New Testament. Though Timothy ministered in several places with the Apostle Paul, especially in Ephesus, he was originally from the region around Lystra (Acts 16.1-2). We don’t see, in the New Testament, preachers and teachers being from the same Church where they served. Rather, people like Timothy, Apollos, and Titus are sent or left in locations where they are especially needed. There is no evidence anywhere of someone from a local congregation being made a teacher or pastor. No one is asked to become a teacher of his Church, but rather those already recognized as teachers are called to serve congregations. See 3 John 5-12 for an example of a conflict between a local leader of a congregation and the international teaching ministry. The point here is that teachers who make their living from the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9) are not ordained by the elders of a local congregation and therefore cannot simply be deposed by them. Timothy was an evangelist and teacher and preacher long before he came to Ephesus. The Ephesians did not have the authority to take that status away from him because they never gave it to him.

6 Needless to say, this does not absolutely necessitate seminary education, even though that is what most Reformed denominations now require. While I think that seminary training is a legitimate development from Biblical principles, with benefits and liabilities, it is not necessary as an end in itself. But even without seminary, the fact remains that some will be charged with teaching, and others will not. Those charged with teaching, and supported in doing it full time, will probably be better educated in the things that are needful than those who have another vocation from which they make a living, even if they are also elders.

7 Of course, all authority can be abused. However, evil husbands do the same to their wives, parents to their children, pastors and sessions to their congregations, and civil magistrates to their subjects. Despite all the dangers of abuse of authority, God has nevertheless given authority to sinful men, in the Church no less than any other area of life.

8 In an age of radio “ministries” and televangelists, it is not hard to imagine this happening. It is quite common in some congregations to find people who think that the premillennial second coming of Christ, or the special covenantal status of ethnic Israel is an absolute requirement for orthodoxy. Pastors often find themselves in dire straits when they teach Biblical and reformed doctrine.

9 I mention this in addition to the Biblical data that suggests a pastor is not ordained simply by a session. Thus, the removal from office, or vindication, needs to be decided by presbytery.

10 “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.8)

Copyright © 1999, 2007

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