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Volume 7, Issue 5: Presbyterion

Denomination Blues

Douglas Wilson

The relationship that should exist between the various local churches of Christ has long been a subject of debate among Christians. Of course, such debate does not mean that Scripture is silent on the important subject of broader church government. Rather, it really tells us more about the attitude of Christians toward such government than about the teaching of the Bible on church government.

Historically, three views have prevailed. The first relationship exists when local churches are bound together by means of a "top-down" hierarchy. This is called episcopacy, coming from the Greek word for bishop episkopos. Churches governed in this fashion include the Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and others. Of course, it should go without saying that the use of a biblical word to describe a system does not necessarily mean it is a biblical system. That has to be determined by a careful study of the biblical requirements for church government.
The second relationship is that of no formal relationship between churches. In other words, each local church is governmentally independent of every other local church. Not surprisingly, this is called independency. Churches governed this way would include Baptist and Congregational churches. Each local congregation constitutes a separate denomination.
The third relationship is presbyterian. In this form of government, the churches are tied together through "bottom-up" representation. Each church, for example, sends several representative elders to a regional meeting, called a presbytery, or, in the continental tradition, a classis. There may be an intermediate level called a synod, and churches send representatives annually to a national gathering, usually called a general assembly. The "higher" gatherings are not really higher at allthey may not originate or legislate any ecclesiastical bright ideas; they may only hear appeals or memorials brought to them by the local churches. Presbyterian and most Reformed churches are presbyterian.
Having gotten this straight, we must then factor in the problem of labels and bottle contents. In a perfect world, things would be what we called themhealth food would be healthy, guaranteed savings would be, and so on. But this is a fallen world, and we can find, for example, both "independent" and "presbyterian" churches which are episcopal.
Usually there are two culprits causing this mixup in labels. The first is the problem of a charismatic and influential leader. In an association of independent churches, the influence of a particular teacher may become very powerful. His teaching becomes the standard, and, like it or not, he becomes "the bishop. " I recall a number of years ago our church was charged with not being "in submission" to some other church. This would be a reasonable accusation if the one making it were advocating a form of episcopacy, but this was coming from someone who was staunchly in the independent tradition. Actually, he just thought he was.
The second culprit is bureaucracy. When an association of independent churches, or the representatives of presbyterian churches, makes the mistake of establishing a permanent headquarters somewhere (minimum requirements: one desk, one phone, one file cabinet), a certain type of bureaucratic mind is attracted to the important task of getting the papers on the left side of the desk over to the right side of the desk. A person with this mindset soon learns where all the levers under the desk are locatedwhat they can do, and how much they can control. Thus a bureaucratic bishopric is born, which soon dominates the representative meetings of the churchsetting agendas, controlling missions, determining budgets, and so on.
As we consider these issues, we are not to determine which system is correct through looking at the choices of godly men down through history. In the first place, each system of government has been adorned with numerous saintly men. Making a decision this way would be impossible. We must also remember that some men may have been providentially placed by God in their church, while entertaining serious doubts concerning the government of it. For example, the great theologian Jonathan Edwardsan independent ministersaid that "as to the presbyterian government, I have long been perfectly out of conceit of our unsettled, independent, confused way of church government in this land, and the presbyterian way has ever appeared to me most agreeable to the word of God, and the reason and nature of things . . ."
In addition, although there are three basic governmental options, the line of demarcation between them is not always necessarily obvious. For example, the presbyterian James Bannerman once said that the independency articulated by John Owen was presbyterian enough for him. And, in issues to come, as we go on to examine the details of church government, the anarcho-presbyterianism which will be advocated here will look like independency to some presbyterians, who may themselves be too close to episcopacy, in my opinion. Put another way, we must examine all the issues very carefully.
In the final analysis, we must resort to Scripture in order to address two basic questions. The first concerns whether Scripture reveals an authoritative pattern of church government at all. Perhaps God left this matter unaddressed, leaving it up to local circumstances interpreted by a sanctified common sense. But if this first question is answered positively, it leads naturally to the second question. "Which pattern of church government is revealed through the Old and New Testaments?"

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