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What is Presbyterianism?

by Mark Horne

copyright © 1999

PRESBYTERIANISM is a term referring to a system of government in the Church. It is commonly contrasted with Congregationalism and Episcopalianism. Presbyter is a Greek word that is translated as “elder” in our English New Testaments. Thus, Presbyterianism is commonly defined as “rule by elders.”

This is a misleading definition. Be wary of it.


PRESBYTERIANISM can just as well refer to “rule by Presbytery.” Presbytery, in the Presbyterian system, is the most basic unit of Church government. It refers to the assembled presbyters who rule over several congregations. The Church in the New Testament and afterwards viewed the congregations in a metropolitan area as one Church. The Jerusalem Church and the Church at Ephesus were both larger than one congregation, but they were ruled by an assembly of elders. These presbyteries had the power to ordain ministers; as the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy: “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” (1 Tim 3.14; NASB).

Presbyterianism can thus be contrasted with both (a) Episcopalianism and (b) Congregationalism, in the following way:


Later in church history, to risk vast oversimplification, these Presbyteries came to be ruled by bishops (episkopoi in the Greek; commonly translated as “overseers”). In the New Testament Church under the Apostles, bishops and presbyters were the same people holding one identical office. There were certain men who seem to have had come to prominence among the assembled presbyters, such as James the brother of the Lord in the Jerusalem church and the angel of the church of Ephesus. Remember, in both these cases it is virtually impossible that these churches were single congregations. Rather, they were multiple congregations with multiple pastors. In time, however, after the New Testament was complete and the Apostles were dead, these prominent pastors came to be seen as holding a separate office which would be entered into by a separate ordination. This dogma is what is now known as Episcopalianism; that the each region of congregations should be ruled by a single bishop.

Thus, Presbyterianism does not deal primarily with whether or not a single congregation should be ruled by “elders” but whether a region of congregations should be ruled by a single bishop or an assembly of presbyters. In other words, Presbyterianism means “rule by Presbytery.”


After the Reformation, various splinter groups came up with a new theory of Church government called “Congregationalism.” Congregationalism does not mean that a congregation must be ruled by a democratic vote of all members. Some congregationalist churches may operate in such a fashion, but there are plenty of congregationalist churches who are ruled by “elders” or the pastor. How these congregations govern themselves is not to point at issue, but rather that they govern themselves. The essential point of Congregationalism is that all broader church governments are merely associations which ultimately “advise” only.

Thus, the issue between Presbyterianism and Congregationalism is not an issue of whether or not “elders” rule, but whether the presbytery rules the congregations within a district or each congregation rules itself. The issue is not “Which office?” so much as “Which assembly?”


WHILE THE debate between the different views is not primarily a matter of office, but of assembly, Presbyterianism does necessitate a set doctrine regarding office in the Church. Because the early disagreement was with diocesan (regional) bishops, not congregationalists, a great deal of the early debate was, indeed, set in terms of office.

Quite simply the Presbyterian position is: once the Apostolic office passed away (along with any other supernaturally gifted offices), the Church has been left with one and only one office of Minister, Pastor, Bishop, Presbyter, or Evangelist which is bestowed upon a person by one and the same ordination. While Ministers may have slightly different functions (so that a minister in an established congregation is often called a “pastor,” while one planting a congregation is called an “evangelist.”), they hold the same office.

This is why even defining Presbyterianism as “rule by presbyters,” is inadequate. According to Presbyterian doctrine, all presbyters are also bishops (In Greek: episkopoi. Thus, Presbyterian churches are ruled by bishops. If the issue was only a matter of office, then the terms “Presbyterianism” and “Episcopalianism” would tell us nothing about the respective positions of those who hold to them. They are interchangeable terms as far as Presbyterianism is concerned, if the names deal primarily with office.


PRESBYTERIAN, and indeed all Reformed churches, have also involved rule by laymen who represent the congregations in Presbytery when they are appointed to attend them. The reason for this is that the Reformation opposed “clericalism.” Of course, the name, “clericalism” could mean different things to different people, but in this case it means the monopolistic control of the Church by the clergy. The Reformed churches contended that laymen were originally involved in the government of the Church through representatives. These representatives are commonly called ruling elders. Ruling elders join with a pastor in the governing a congregation. They are also sit in presbyteries and all higher courts.

The difference between ruling elders and ministers at presbytery, is that a ruling elder cannot automatically vote in a presbytery meeting. They must first be appointed by the local congregation of which they are a member. The pastor, on the other hand, is not a member of a local congregation, but a member of the presbytery. He votes at presbytery meetings as a matter of right, even if and when he is without a congregation (though he must find a new work within a certain amount of time to remain a minister of the Gospel in the presbyter).

It is worth pointing out that there is nothing in the name “Presbyterianism” which makes ruling elders, as they are called, the exclusive property of presbyterians. Congregationalists can have ruling elders, and, episcopal denominations could allow laymen to have a say in the government of the church along with the bishop, if they so desired, without thereby ceasing to be Congregationalists or Episcopalians. However, it is the Reformed Tradition which has been the most emphatic in maintaining that laypeople have a say in the government of the Church, through their representatives-ruling elders.

It is very important to realize that, in terms of power, the ruling elders almost invariably outnumber the Pastors at the congregational level. In all broader assemblies, they are usually about equal. Thus, the clergy (ministers) do not have a monopoly of power over the Church, but are joined by laypeople (through their representatives, the ruling elders). The term “ruling elder” comes from lists where the gift of rule is listed separately from the gift of teaching, and from the “elders in the gate” in Israel who governed along with the Levites (ministers of the Word). It should not be thought to derive from the “presbyters” of the New Testament Church who were also bishops and ministers of the Word.

If ruling elders and ministers both occupied one and the same office, then the entire presbyterian system would be overturned. For then the ruling elders would be clergy, and thus the Church would be under the thumb of clericalism. Or else the ministers of the word would be nothing more than laymen who happened to pastor the Church full time. And the entire Reformation Tradition would sink into anabaptism in departure from all historical Christianity.


To summarize then, Presbyterianism means

1. regional churches of several local congregations

2. governed by the assembly of their pastors and other area ministers (i.e. presbytery)

3. who are joined by elected laymen appointed to represent their congregations in the rule of the Church.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the way a presbytery is run is usually also reflected in each congregation’s government. A pastor is joined by ruling elders in the government of the local congregation. Upon being elected by the congregation, the pastor with the ruling elders who are already in office (commonly called the “session”) ordain a person to be an elder. Typically, there are more lay governors (ruling elders) in the session than ministers.


Now as to how much of this can be defended as Biblical is a question outside the scope of this brief paper. My point is simply to warn readers from buying the version of “Presbyterianism” that is popularized on the majority of the web pages which discuss the subject. I would highly recommend looking at the Westminster Assembly’s Form of Church Government as a place where one might discover for oneself what historical Presbyterian polity is.

copyright © 1999

1 Comment »

  1. Is it ok to use the term prebyterianism to describe a general political system or does it only pertain to christianity? Do any of the parties advocate this?

    Comment by paul tram — April 19, 2010 @ 2:33 am

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