Lately, I’ve been lending a helping hand to a congregation who are looking for a new pastor. This can be exciting, but it can also be difficult. It’s a process that requires self-evaluation and honesty about strengths and weaknesses. It takes patience as the wheel often turns slowly, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to find the right man for the ministry. As I have gone through and continue to go through this with them, I’m reminded of how thankful I am for Presbyterianism. That's because Presbyterianism values as equal the voice of every member in the selection of a pastor.
“Presbyterianism” is a big word. Simply defined, it comes from the word “presbyter” which is the biblical word for “elder.” It’s the design of Jesus and the pattern of the Apostles that the church’s life and ministry be overseen by a plurality of elders. This is one important aspect of Presbyterianism. The elders are the leadership who shepherd the congregation according to the Bible, and are the spiritual leaders the congregation is called to respect and submit to in the Lord (see 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:17).
Practically, that means that the elders make almost every decision. From day-to-day things like setting the worship schedule to deciding who can and cannot preach and teach in the congregation. It also includes other important decisions like accepting people into membership, disciplining those who need correction in life or doctrine, and examining and ordaining elders and deacons in the congregation. Presbyterianism isn’t a democracy where things are decided by popular vote, but is very much elder-led. But there’s an extremely important part of the church’s life and ministry that elders don’t decide. Presbyterianism believes in the right of the congregation to choose their ordained officers — elders and deacons.
This right is based on our understanding of the church. Presbyterians believe that Jesus — the only Head of the church — is the source of all power. After all, upon his resurrection Jesus declared: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). But Christ delegates that authority. For instance, just because Jesus has been given all authority doesn’t deny the authority of civil governments. Rather, God calls them an authority “from God” and “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Likewise, Christ has delegated power and authority to his church.
Of course, we must ask the question: where is that power and authority located? Or, to ask it this way: who has been given that power and authority? Given what has been said above about elder-led churches, some might infer that Presbyterianism believes power and authority has been given only to the elders. In fact, there are some who have argued this. For example, in Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici (and important and significant work on Presbyterianism), it's written: "Jesus Christ our Mediator hath not made the community of the faithful, or body of the people, the immediate receptacle, or first subject of proper formal power for governing his church" (105). But I'm not persuaded this is exactly true. Rather, this power and authority has been given to the whole church.
It’s helpful here to think about a common metaphor in the Bible for the church: the body. Paul wrote: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). The power that is found in the human body isn’t limited to a finger or toe, but is distributed through the whole. Thus, the power that Jesus delegates to the church is distributed through the whole body. Stuart Robinson wrote: “The power is vested in the Church as an organic body” (Church of God, 62). It’s for this reason that my own denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, rightly believes: “The Lord Jesus Christ has clothed His Church with power and authority. This authority is vested in the whole membership of the Church” (RP Testimony 25.6).
So, why is it that in a Presbyterian church not every member leads? For this reason, elders are chosen from among the people to be the ones who exercise that power and authority. In a sense, they are chosen as representatives of the whole. No, not representatives like we have in American politics who cater to the whims and opinions of constituents, but representatives in that they are chosen to exercise the power and authority Christ delegates — in things moral and spiritual — according to the Word of God. James Bannerman summarized it this way: "Church power belongs essentially to the Church at large, and more particularly to the believers within it who are office-bearers [...] It belongs equally and by Divine warrant to both" (Church of Christ, 1:270-271).
But, and this is an important point, these elders who alone exercise the power and authority given by Jesus, are chosen by the people. Presbyterianism has long rejected the idea that the leadership of a church can be thrust upon the membership of a church against their wills. Drawing from passages like Acts 1:21-26; 6:3; and 14:23, Presbyterians believe it’s the right of the membership to select their leadership. For instance, Samuel Rutherford wrote that the Apostles “ordained that the choosing of the man should be with the consent of the people” (The Due Right of Presbyteries, 188). Additionally, James Bannerman cautioned: “The call of the members of the congregation, is necessary as a safeguard against the encroachment by the officer-bearers of the Church on the spiritual rights and liberties of the people” (Church of Christ, 1:437). William Cunningham asserted: "[We] must of necessity regard it as a monstrous violation of justice, and a heinous exercise of tyranny, to thrust a minister" on a congregation (Discussions on Church Principles, 300). Thomas Witherow said “It is a scriptural privilege that the apostolic Church bequeaths us, and Presbyterians have often shown that they count it more precious than gold” (Which is the Apostolic Church? 110). And, for good measure, J. Aspinwall Hodge says “It is their precious and inalienable privilege to elect their own pastors” (What is Presbyterian Law? 364).
This is one of the reasons why I love Presbyterianism. It’s not that the selection of leadership by the congregation is particular to Presbyterianism. It isn’t. But it has long been a cornerstone of our understanding of the church. Jesus himself has given it as a right and privilege, more precious than gold, that the membership select for themselves those for leadership who meet the biblical qualifications. And no person or persons has a right to violate this high privilege given by the only King and Head of the church, Jesus Christ. What an important and significant thing when a congregation chooses a pastor!
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