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Volume 7, Issue 6: Presbyterion

Presby With a Small "p"

Douglas Wilson

In our last column we identified the three basic options for the government of the broader church. Those options, again, were no broad government independency , top-down government episcopacy , and representative government presbyterianism .

The first question we must ask is whether the Bible has anything to say on this debate in the first place. Is this debate over church government comparable to a debate over which way the Bible requires us to arrange the chairs Sunday mornings? Or is a certain form of church government jure divino divine law? To answer, all who admit that the church is a divine institution, of which Christ is the Head, must also acknowledge it must therefore be governed according to His Word, and by His authority. Otherwise, we would have to say the governing of Christ's church can be according to the inventions and whims of men . Clearly, in Bannerman's words, "the presumption is strongly against the notion that Church government is a matter of human arrangement and determination solely."
An argument for presbyterianism follows, but it is important to remember that the word presbyterian refers to a position, and not to a denominational affiliation. Indeed, being presbyterian in conviction excludes the possibility of joining many Presbyterian churches. We must be careful to set aside any confusion created by human sin or inconsistency on the part of others, or prejudice on our part. For biblical believers, the issue must always be "What does the Bible teach?"
Three basic arguments for presbyterian church government are presented below. Of course, no one argument addresses all the issues, but taken together, they do exclude the only alternatives.
The first thing to consider is the nature of covenantal continuity with the church of the Old Testament. The earliest Christian churches were synagogues (Jas. 2:2; 5:14), and the synagogue system was presbyterian in form. As the Christian church expanded out into the Gentile world, it was not built de novo , from scratch. The establishment of episcopal or independent government would require a change from how God's people had been governed for centuries. The Lord certainly could have made such a change, but He would not have done so without informing His people of it. Nothing in the New Testament indicates a disruption of the system of church government, and in manifold instances we see the governmental continuity displayed in the transition from the Jewish Church to the International Church. Church officers are called by the same names ( presbyteroi ); believing churches and synagogues were identified as one and the same; the first great controversy which troubled the Christian church (which, incidentally, was over whether a non-Jew could even be a Christian) was settled in a Christian Sanhedrin, and so on. All these factors, taken together, exclude both episcopacy and independency. If the Lord had intended the time of transition to the New Covenant to be a time when the forms of government would also change, He would have revealed that change to us. What He does reveal to us is how the early Christians took over the basic forms of Jewish church government and adapted them, with minor and revealed variations, to their new situation.
Secondly, the Bible excludes the possibility of independency by using the term church , in the singular, to refer to collections of local churches. Independency requires that the scriptural use of the word "church" refer only to a local assembly (1 Cor. 16:19), or to the universal, invisible company of the elect (Eph. 5:25). But the Bible clearly identifies historical local churches , taken together, as historically a church . The direct implication of this is governmental unity.
For example in Acts 2:47, we are told that the Lord added to the Jerusalem church on a daily basis. But that church had at least three thousand members at Pentecost, and thousands more soon after. The Jerusalem church was clearly a church with multiple congregations (Acts 2:46), with a unified government (Acts 6:1-7; 11:30). The same thing is true elsewhere Ephesus provides a good example of a city with multiple congregations (Acts 19:20), and unified government (Acts 20:17). One of the Ephesian congregations met in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (1 Cor. 16:8,19). But if we have church government which extends beyond the walls of Priscilla and Aquila's home, this clearly excludes a principled independency.
This leads to the third point the requirement of unity. Christ prayed that His disciples would have true love for one another, and that their unity would be obvious to the world. This unity certainly includes the warmth of Christian fellowship, and can be displayed when members of separate congregations can transcend their differences to fellowship together. But that which they have to transcend is corporate sin . True Christian churches have no business keeping to themselves our Lord forbade it. Unity includes a hosts of practical governmental details receiving the baptism administered by other churches, communing with saints from other churches, and so on. Biblical unity in government is obedience.

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