Being almost 7 foot tall and 350 pounds, I live as part of the 1%. I walk the earth as a giant. This gives me a unique perspective on how life is to be lived. As someone who could use his significant physical size to exert his will, I am sensitive to the potential abuse of strength against the weak. Not only do I understand this in the physical sense, I see it in the political sense as well. Having been trained in the science and art of public policy, it is easy to take shortcuts to accomplish your goals. The idea that ‘might makes right’ can be dangerous in the church. In Congregationalism, the danger is by the might of numbers. In Episcopacy, the danger is by the might of office. Presbyterianism is not immune to this issue, but we address it in several ways.
First, Presbyterianism has the rule of elders within the local church. The church, by electing qualified men to lead a congregation, can give itself some protection from a majority rule devolving into a mob mentality. Many congregational churches take this step as well. Putting the rule of the church into a smaller group of qualified leaders gives insulation to the whims or misunderstandings within a congregation.
Second, Presbyterianism is based on constitutional standards. These are rules that we have to follow. There are some rules that can be suspended, but not the Standards of the church. These standards are amendable by a precise process but are not suspendable. This means that you are not held in tyranny by unchangeable rules, but also that the rules can’t be changed in the moment. If you have ever played a board game and someone keeps changing or updating the rules, which always works in their favor, it can be frustrating. Everyone needs to know and follow the rules. This is especially true for ruling elders and ministers who have vowed to uphold them. These standards give clear ground rules that everyone must follow in the work and life of the church.
Third, Presbyterianism is based on a connectionalism that provides checks and balances. The Local Session is under the authority of the Presbytery, and the Presbytery is under the Synod or General Assembly. This is not a perfect system, but it gives some recourse when things are done irregularly or improperly.
These checks and balances can be frustrating to many people. However, what is often apparent to a particular side of an issue due to their perspective is often not as straightforward to those looking in from the outside.The rules make sure that we follow the command of 1 Corinthinas 14:40 and that the work of the church is done ‘decently, and in order.’ The rules protect the interest of all in the church, especially the interest and rights of the minority opinion, and at times these rules need to be applied by those outside the local body. The Presbytery or Synod can see more clearly from a distance an issue filled with emotion in the local congregation or presbytery. These controls can frustrate those who lack an understanding of the process. Every leader in the church needs to seek to understand why and how our processes work, especially the role of checks and balances.
The offices, standards, checks, and balances are based on our understanding of scripture. Church government and process are not arbitrary but flow from the scriptures directly or by reasonable and necessary deduction. These help us guard against decisions based solely on strength rather than principle. Raw might must never make right in the work of the church. We as presbyters must do our best to uphold the truth, the process, and protect rights even when we have the votes to do what we want.