P&R Polity Is Not Perfect But It Is Preferable To The Others

In the last few weeks there has been published, on social media, some fairly stinging comments about the problems inherent with way confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter P&R) churches govern themselves. These comments seem mainly to born of frustration with the way the couple of presbyteries are addressing issues arising from the notorious Genevan Commons Facebook group. In the first case, one of the administrators of this group, Presbyterian minister, was suspended from office for two years. A second administrator of the group, who continues to function in that capacity, is no longer listed as an officer on his former church’s website. A second case, related to the first, is in process. In response to informal reports made on social media, people began to malign P&R polity as inherently flawed and prone to abuse of the flock. Because people seem to believe whatever they read on social media these days—just this morning I received an email from an educated fellow, the basis of which email was that he had read and believed something he saw on Facebook—the insinuation that P&R church government is fatally flawed requires a response.

What Is Polity?

Our English word polity is derived from a Greek noun politeia (πολιτεια), which simply means a form or process of government. There are civil governments and church governments. Everyone has one. They are unavoidable. In civil government there are several: monarchy (rule by one), oligarchy (rule by a few elites), democratic (direct rule by the people), and republican (rule by elected representatives). The United States is a democratic republic. There are three church polities: episcopacy (rule by a single bishop), congregationalism (rule by the congregation), presbyterial (rule by elected elders).


Even before the fall, God the Son installed the federal head of all humanity and his wife, Adam and Eve, to be king and queen, over creation: “…Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen 1:26; ESV). Adam was, as Mr Murray reminded us, God’s vice gerent (not vice-regent). A vice gerent is one who exercises “delegated power on behalf of a sovereign ruler” (Oxford American Dictionary). Adam was to speak God’s Word, especially in the coming conflict with the Evil One. God established Eden as a kind of holy temple, to be kept pure in the worship-service of God. When the Evil One encroached, he was to defend the temple against Satan. As king, beyond the creational dominion (given to both of them), he was especially to exercise his royal office in defeating the great Enemy of our souls. He was meant to take a sword and lop off the serpent’s head. We know how he failed. That Eve was a queen is an inference. Kings have queens. The command to exercise dominion, in creation, as a matter of nature, was given to “them.” That is not to say that there was not a creational order, as a matter of administration (not ontology), there was.

In the period of types and shadows, our Lord instituted three special offices in his theocratic state: prophet (Deut 18:15–22), priest (Lev 8), and king (1 Sam 8:10–22). These offices, of course, were types and shadows of the coming Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who come with a “threefold office:” prophet (Mark 6:4), priest (Heb 4:14), and king (John 18:37). It is he who has revealed free salvation for sinners by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. It is he who revealed the terms of the covenant of works to Adam (Gen 2:17; 3:8–19), who, from Sinai, republished God’s  moral will (Ex 20), and who paraphrased that law after he was incarnate (Matt 22:37–40). He not only announced the Word but he is the Word incarnate (John 1:1–3, 14). He revealed the Father (John 14:9). There is no other way to the Father except through Christ, the Word (John 14:6). As the ascended King Jesus, the greater-than-David (Acts 2), the greater-than-Solomon (Matt 12:42), rules the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2; Acts 4:25, 26). Establishing these truths, especially Jesus’ priesthood, is a major burden of the book of Hebrews as the pastor sought to persuade his Jewish-Christian congregation from going back to the types and shadows. We Christians need no Levitical priest any longer (not even during some imagined future earthly millennial period). Jesus is our High Priest. His Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to that of the Levites (Heb 5:5–10; 6:20). All those blood-shedding Levites needed atonement for their own sins and they all died but Jesus, our High Melchizedekian priest, has the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:16).1

The Apostles, as the authorized representatives of the ascended Lord Jesus, distributed these three offices to the New Testament church. They gradually  divested divested themselves of these three offices: the prophetic, the priestly, and the ruling office first by establishing the office of deacon (Acts 6:1–7). Early on the office of deacon had has a twofold function, ministry of mercy and ministry of the Word. In Acts 6 we see arguably (this is disputed) the establishment of the ministry of mercy but in Acts 7 we see Stephen, one of the seven, principally as a preacher and martyr. In Acts 8:26–40 we see Philip (assuming that it is the Philip of Acts 6) functioning as an evangelist. In the New Testament, however, we see that the office of deacon (διακόνος) is a distinct office and seems to focus on the ministry of mercy (1 Timothy 3:8–13). This is because there are two other offices established: pastor and ruling elder. In Acts 20:17–38 Paul addresses the Ephesian elders (πρεσβυτέρους). We see Paul teaching pastor Timothy the qualifications for elders in Titus 5:1–9. Their function seems to be ruling in character. The elders were chosen from older men in the congregation. Those elders who also hold office, who also teach, are worthy of “double honor” (1 Tim 5:17). By contrast, the teaching office seems to be mainly located in the pastoral office. Paul signals the existence of this office in Ephesians 4:11 where he speaks of “shepherds and teachers” (ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους). Jesus is himself described as the “Great Shepherd of the sheep” (ποιμένα τῶν προβάτων τὸν μέγαν; Heb 13:20), the “Shepherd and overseer of your souls” (τὸν ποιμένα καὶ ἐπίσκοπον τῶν ψυχῶν ⸁ὑμῶν; 1 Pet 2:25), and  “Chief Shepherd” (ἀρχιποίμενος; 1 Pet 5:4). The association of the office of shepherd (pastor) and overseer is important and I will return to it. We may fairly infer that even in the NT church there were false shepherds about whom Jude complains that they “shepherd” (ποιμαίνοντες i.e., care) only for themselves (Jude 12). If the association between “overseer” and “shepherd” (pastor is Latin for shepherd) stands, then we may take Paul to be writing to Timothy of the office of pastor in 1 Peter 3:1–7. The way Paul speaks of Timothy’s office is different than the way he speaks of the office of elder. Timothy is principally responsible for the ministry of the Word. In a sense, Timothy’s office is correlate to that the ministers of mercy. He is a minister (διάκονος) of the Word (1 Tim 4:6). This understanding explains why Paul distinguishes Timothy’s office from that of the elders in Titus 1:7–9; 2:1, 15; 3:1. Titus as overseer-pastor, in contrast, to the presbyters, is to teach sound doctrine. This seems to be the way some in the early post-Apostolic church understood the relationship. Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 115) wrote at some length in his epistles about three offices: overseer (επισκοπος), elder (πρεβυτερος), and deacon (διακόνος). He typically treats them as correlates and not as a hierarchy. Certainly, the overseer is not a regional manager to whom everyone must report and from or through whom their authority derives.


The early church seems to have seen more than one polity although the details are murky. Gradually, however, the pastoral-overseeing elder came to dominate the others. This is why we think of the late Patristic and the entire medieval church as dominated by the “Bishop,” an old English word derived from the Greek word Episkopos, which I have been translating as overseer. The various regional bishops, as that office came to the fore in the mid-third century, were equals. Through the fourth and fifth centuries, bishops and regional synods routinely told the Roman bishop to pound sound when he attempted to assert his superiority. Even Gregory I, who died in the early seventh century, described as “antichrist” any bishop who asserted himself to be the universal vicar of Christ on the earth. By the 9th century, however, the Roman bishop had accumulated enough authority that the trajectory was set. The papacy continued to accumulate both ecclesiastical and civil authority until the papacy rivaled the Holy Roman emperor. In the high and late-medieval periods it could be difficult to tell the Roman bishop from the other rulers in Europe and Britain. In the early 16th century, Julius II was so busy fighting military battles that he conducted mass in his battle armor.

In the Reformation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that Christ had established three offices: pastors, elders, and deacons and that no mere mortal, certainly bishop of Rome, is our “high priest” (pontifex maximus). Christ is our high priest. He is, as Scripture says, the chief pastor. All authority in heaven and on earth is Christ’s (Matt 28:18), not the Roman bishop’s nor any bishop’s. The organization of the church is not hierarchical but collegial, i.e., the authority of the church is ministerial (serving) not magisterial (ruling) and distributed across multiple offices and assemblies. The Lutheran and Anglican churches also rejected the Roman bishop as the universal head of the church kept an episcopal (bishop-oriented) polity. The congregationalists reacted to episcopacy by locating authority in the congregation.


Church government is like a belly-button: everyone has one. If you are in a Christian congregation (and you should be), someone is making decisions. In Episcopal there are regional bishops who rule churches and local pastors. Sometimes they meet in synods. Sometimes they have archbishops, as in the Anglican communion (which has archbishops in Canterbury and York). Ironically, the typical independent Bible church is functionally episcopal, inasmuch as the pastor is often a de facto bishop. He rules the congregation. There may be a deacon or elder board but accountability for the pastor can be hard to find especially since independent churches are beholden to no other assemblies. Congregational churches are governed by votes of the entire body.

Discussions about polity can be confusing because, e.g., Baptists frequently speak of deacons the way the Reformed speak of elders. Baptists often speak of pastors as elders. Further, some Presbyterians hold to something like the three-office scheme that I have sketched here but other Presbyterians, mainly from the American South, tend to identify speak of two offices: elders and deacon but then they distinguish between two kinds of elders, ruling and teaching. Pastors are “teaching elders.” Practically most P&R churches are functionally three-office churches.

P&R churches are collegial in organization. They make decisions in assemblies. The Dutch Reformed churches tend to speak of broader and narrower assemblies. The local elders and ministers are called a consistory, this is a Latin word used to describe a court. The regional assembly of ministers and elders, delegated to make decisions on behalf of churches in a given region is called a classis, which Latin for a fleet of churches. The broadest assembly (e.g., national or international) is a synod, where pastors and elders are delegated by the congregations to make decisions on behalf of all the churches. The Synod of Dort (1618–19) is the most famous synod in the history of the Reformed Churches.  Presbyterian churches tend to speak of “higher” and “lower” assemblies. Their local decision-making body is called the session, which is Latin for a seated body. Their regional body is called presbytery, and their national and international assemblies are called synods or General Assemblies. There are some differences between the Reformed and Presbyterians. Presbyterian ministers (teaching elders) are members of presbytery, which is said to exist even in between meetings. In Reformed churches, classis and synod only exist while they meet. in Presbyterian churches, ruling elders and deacons are typically members of the local church.  In Reformed churches, the ministers, elders, and deacons are members of their local churches.

The allegation is that P&R churches prone to abuse the flock. Is that true? Were it true it would be a betrayal of the sacred trust given to the church by the Chief Shepherd. The Lord of the Church issued this solemn warning:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt 18:1–6; ESV).

Any pastor or elder who causes on of Christ’s little one’s to stumble should tremble in fear, repent, and throw himself on the mercy of Christ. “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Certainly there are cases where P&R pastors, elders, and assemblies have neglected their duty or even abused the sheep. I know of such cases. Typically, however, when this occurs, there is at least opportunity for correction and redress. In this regard the collegial nature of P&R churches is essential to their well being. Sessions/consistories are accountable to the regional assemblies, and the regional assemblies are accountable to the national assemblies. There are no popes in P&R churches. There might be ministers who accumulate personal and practical authority so that other ministers and elders defer to him but this is not inherent to P&R polity and should be resisted.

Romanism is the archetypical example of episcopacy. Who can correct the Bishop of Rome, for whom Rome claims the authority to speak infallibly ex cathedra? It would seem to be rather difficult for the people to correct the archbishop of Canterbury. We have seen kings and queens bring him to heel but God has not entrusted the government of Christ’s church to kings and queens.

Who, in congregational polity, can correct an entire congregation should it think or act badly? Who can correct the local independent pastor who is abusing the flock?

In P&R polity there are avenues of complaint and appeal available to every member in good standing. If a pastor, elder, or deacon is being abusive, a member has a right to complain to his session/consistory about such behavior. See the resources below where I sketch this process. Should the local assembly fail to address the problem, the member has a right to appeal to the regional assembly. Should the regional assembly fail, the member has a right to appeal to the broader/higher assembly (synod/GA). Like any court process these things take time. In secular civil and criminal courts, cases can take years. I know of two criminal cases that are years old and trial does not seem to be in sight. In ecclesiastical cases, the local assembly meets monthly. The regional assembly meets probably twice a year. The national assembly normally meets annually (OPC/PCA) or at least every three years (URCNA).

Usually, somewhere in the process the assemblies do the right thing. I understand that the process is slow and can be frustrating. Everyone who participates in the process is a sinner but we are talking about Christ’s church. It is the only institution to which Christ has entrusted the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16). To the visible church Christ entrusted the process of discipline (Matt 18). Christ said, “Lo, I will be with you always.” He did not say, “Lo, the process will go smoothly and be easily.”

To the frustrated I am asking patience and prayer. For forty years I have seen the Lord do surprising thing through the assemblies of his church. Pray for your pastors, elders, and deacons. Pray that the Lord would give them courage to do the difficult things. Pray for repentance where it is wanting. Pray for fidelity and graciousness.

Episcopacy, whether formal or informal, is not the answer. Congregationalism, at its worst, is mob rule. Collegial church government is what Christ instituted. We see it in Acts 15. We see the fruit of fraternal correction. The same Peter whom Paul confronted (Gal 2) stood up and spoke the gospel truth at the Jerusalem Synod and the churches received the decisions of synod gladly. Let us pray and work for similar outcomes in our day. The same Christ is ruling his church by the same Spirit who changed Peter’s heart.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.



1.These two paragraphs are taken from this essay.

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  1. I have no problem with using the term ontology with male and female distinctions, as one always is careful enough to make proper guards about how one is utilizing the term. It also seems like an unnecessary divorce between administration and being/nature is being argued. This reminds me of the problem of the one and many, or unity and diversity. You can argue in one sense for a unity in ontology (Mankind/ Man) , and ontological diversity (Male & Female, Man and Woman, Husband and Wife, Parent and Child). So we can mean ontology in more than one sense, we just need to clarify. Like the being of male lion is different than that of a female, and yet both are lions. Man’s being is strikingly different than female and is suited for such Administration, via nature; which is the way the Scripture speaks. This is not innovative but is precisely the way many of our Puritan, Reformed, and Presbyterian forefathers have spoken, recent failed historical revisionists in the OPC aside.

    “Woman is led to this submission by the instinct of her nature… It would be strangest of all omissions, if we should overlook, in this connexion, the different mental and moral organization of the sexes. Man is endowed with attributed which qualify him for his more obtrusive position. He is strong, forceful, massive, fond of adventure, full of dash and courage. The woman is not less equipped for her station by the qualities which distinguish her. She is endued with grace and beauty, to win rather than subdue; exercising the passive virtues of patience and fortitude, of gentleness and humility; and, above all, crowned with that sense of dependence out of which submission springs as an instinct.”
    “Just as the law of labour imposes upon fallen man only the industry which was a duty from the beginning, so the law of obedience imposes upon the woman only the subordination which existed from the moment she was created.”
    “Her submission is , therefore, a source of honour. She is not humiliated by it, but exalted…”
    “That subordination of office may co-exist with equality of nature, and that submission of will is not equivalent to the renunciation of character.”
    “And as the apostle charges wives to submit and obey their husband, not just because of creational fact, but by positive command in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3; so Palmer Robertson writes: “It is fit, therefore that the woman recognize her subordination, as taught in the history of her own creation; for anything else would be unnatural, monstrous, and grotesque… God has made the subordination of the wife, and the supremacy of the husband, a part of the constitution of marriage, and has established both by positive statute.” – Benjamin Morgan Palmer

    If polity were to prevail, they must put under discipline that error which disturbs right order so that the word of God might not be blasphemed.

    • I must note I falsely attributed Palmer Robertson with a quote, it was meant to be Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Mea Culpa.

    • Nick,

      You’re assuming that “nature” = ontology. That’s a false equivalence.

      No, we may not re-define ontology willy nilly. It means what it means. By definition it has to do with being. Yes, I understand that it was common in the 19th century to talk about females as Palmer did but that doesn’t make it true.

      Must I remind you that in the 19th century people also spoke of Africans as being inferior etc?

      I know forceful females. I know meek men. Those characterizations might have passed muster in the Victorian period (as Rachel Green has noted) but surely not now.

  2. When the OPC and URCNA held a joint conference in a Chicago suburb a few years ago to discuss the new Trinity Hymnal among other things. I recall someone in attendance (I think it was Kim Riddlebarger) mentioning that he hoped this might be a first step in a possible merging of those two communions. It certainly would help bolster the number of congregations belonging to a collective group of protestants. To the best of your knowledge, has there been any overt movement in that direction? And, by the way, thanks very much for detailing the way the various P&R communions are structured locally, regionally, and nationally. It is very helpful.

  3. I am a Southern Baptist, and I have seen several church government “structures” in place. In the church of my childhood, we had several deacons and our pastor who comprised the leadership of our church. During my early married years, our church had both elders and deacons, with the elders exercising authority with the deacons serving in the “helping” role prescribed by the apostles. In my church that I have been a member of for the past decade, roughly, we have a fairly dictatorial organization–the pastor alone seems to exercise control over all decisions. We do have deacons, but I never hear of them meeting, and we also have a “church council” which consists of both men and women. It’s an odd arrangement.

    Regardless, I am coming to understand and appreciate how Reformed confessional churches exercise governance and do believe there is a biblical standard in place that Southern Baptists simply ignore.

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