A ‘presbyter’ is the Biblical office of elder. ‘Presbyterianism’ is the rule of Biblical elders. We are presbyterian because we believe that the Bible clearly teaches this as the form of government for Christ’s Church.
Order of Contents
An Introduction to the Biblical Warrant for Presbyterianism
It was not Christian lay persons or the local session of elders that received the Keys of the Kingdom of Christ to bind and loose, but the apostles as representatives of the universal visible Church (Jn. 20:22-23; Mt. 28:16,18-20;16:18-19; Eph. 4:11-12), which authority has descended upon the regular and continual presbyteries of the Church (1 Tim. 4:14).
In Matt 18:15-20, the classic text on Church discipline, the ‘church’ has the power of the Keys of government. What does the word ‘church’ mean in this passage?
In the Old Testament, matters of great weight were prescribed to be appealed to the Levitical officers in Jerusalem (Deut. 17:8; see this in practice in 2 Chron. 19:8). As George Gillespie argued (in Aaron’s Rod, p. 188), the Hebrew equivalent of the word ‘church’ is often used to designate these great assemblies of elders and rulers of Israel (1 Chron. 13:2,4; 29:1; 2 Chron. 1:3, etc.). And that which is commanded to, and performed by, the elders (Dt. 19:12; Josh. 20:4), is also said to have been done by the congregation (Num. 35:24; Josh. 20:6; Ex. 12:3,21), as the elders are the congregation’s legal representatives. “It was not, therefore, to any assembly, but to an assembly of rulers that causes were brought in the Old Testament.”
In the day when Christ spoke, before the New Testament Church was separate from the synagogue, the word ‘church’ referred to the ecclesiastical, judicial, ruling assemblies of the synagogue, and excommunications (according to the Jewish practice) were not binding if pronounced by fewer than ten men (see Aaron’s Rod, pp. 23-4). These ruling assemblies of elders alone had the power of excommunication, and are called ‘presbyteries’ in the Greek of Luke 22:66,71 and Acts 22:5.
In the New Testament the word ‘church’ often refers to greater, judicial assemblies, the body of regional overseeing office-bearers and the body of regional congregations (see the Greek of Acts 19:38-9; Acts 11:22; 2 Cor. 2:6; Acts 13:1-3; 20:17,28; 21:18-19; etc.). The 1800’s, Southern Presbyterian, Thomas Smyth demonstrates in detail that there were presbyteries at Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Samaria and Corinth in his Ecclesiastical Catechism, pp. 69-75.
1 Cor. 5:1-5 is the only description of an excommunication that we have in the New Testament, an example of exercising the Keys. It is clear from 1 Cor. 12:20,28 and 14:3,22,24 that there were many regional office bearers in the congregations at Corinth that sat judging as a college of elders, 1 Cor. 14:29. When Paul tells them to excommunicate the offender, it is with his regional judicial authority (1 Cor. 5:3-5), and we know from 2 Cor. 2:6 that it was done by ‘many’.
The congregation does not have the power of the Keys to excommunicate as they are ruled, not rulers. To be a ruler to oneself is not to be under authority. Rather, it is Christ that rules his visible Church from heaven through the earthly officers He sets over his people (Eph. 4:11-13). For lay persons to vote another member out of the church is the equivalent of the children of a family kicking out their sibling by popular vote.
Thus, ‘Church’ in Matt 18 does not mean the congregation or the local session, but the whole Church, in its various levels of ruling government, which alone has the full root of delegated authority from Christ to rule over his flock.
Biblical Warrant for Presbyteries
Binnie, William – The Associating of Neighboring Congregations under a Common Representative Government, p. 131, two pages, from his The Church
Smyth, Thomas – Of the Presbytery 1841 6 pages in question and answer format. From his Ecclesiastical Catechism, pp. 67-75,
Smyth demonstrates in detail that, by apostolic practice, there were presbyteries at Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Samaria and Corinth. Be sure to look up all the scripture references, and then tell your friends.
Baillie, Robert – ‘A Discourse Anent Episcopacy, 1638’ in Religious Controversy in Scotland, 1625-1639 ed. David G. Mullan in Scottish History Society, Fifth Series, vol 11 (Edinburgh: Scottish Historical Society, 1998), pp. 149-191
Presbyterianism, 1863, p. 514, ten pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 2
Testimony of the Reformers as to Presbyterianism, 1863, p. 525, 9 pages, from his Historical Theology, vol. 2
Berkhof, Louis – The Government of the Church, 1950, 32 paragraphs, from his Systematic Theology
Berkhof gives the Dutch perspective on modified-presbyterianism, which gives less authority to synods and more authority to the local congregation. For the classic, Biblical view of presbyterianism, see any of the Scotch writers.
Aiton, Thomas – The Original Constitution of the Christian Church: wherein the Extremes on Either Hand are Stated & Examined, to which is added an Appendix containing the Rise of the Jure Divino Prelatists, and an answer to their Arguments by Episcopal Divines (Edinburgh, 1730) vol. 1, 2 (Appendix)
Aiton (or Ayton, 1694-1739) was a Scottish presbyterian, minister at Alyth. His work was recommended by Samuel Miller and Thomas Smyth. Thomas F. Torrance has an essay about this book in Duncan Shaw’s “Reformation and Revolution” (1967).
Brown, John, of Hadddington – Letters on the Constitution, Government, and Discipline, of the Christian Church d. 1787
Abbott, James – A History of the Roman and English Hierarchies, with an Examination of the Assumptions, Abuses and Intolerance of Episcopacy, Proving the Necessity of a Reformed English Church 1831 385 pp.
That Church Planting is to Occur Under Presbyteries
Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1846), Part 2, Concerning the Assemblies of the Church of Scotland, and the Authority Thereof
Ch. 2, ‘Of the Independency of the Elderships of Particular Congregations’, last section, p. 44
Ch. 3, ‘Of Greater Presbyteries, which some call Classes’, ‘The last proposition’, pp. 48-49
These sections further show that the root of Church authority is the presbytery, not local sessions.
Jonathan Edwards, who was an early-1700’s, New England congregationalist
From a letter from Edwards to John Erskine in Scotland. Memoir of Edwards, prefixed to the London edition of his Works, p. 163
“You are pleased, dear sir, very kindly to ask me, whether I could sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, and submit to the presbyterian form of government; and to offer to use your influence to procure a call for me to some congregation in Scotland. I should be very ungrateful if I were not thankful for such kindness and friendship.
As to my subscribing to the substance of the Westminster Confession, there would be no difficulty; and 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; though I cannot say that I think that the presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland is so perfect, that it cannot, in some respects, be mended.”