/ presbyterianism / Kyle Borg

Ministering in Jesus' Name

For some, high school civics class may not rank very high on the list of exciting subjects. Nevertheless, many understand that learning about the structures and procedures of our government, together with the rights and privileges of citizenship is of basic importance to every member of society. If that’s true of the civil sphere it’s even more so in the church. Like a well-ordered society, the church also has a government put into place by King Jesus through Apostolic testimony for the good ordering of the household of faith.

What kind of government has Jesus appointed in his church? It’s a government where the authority Jesus has clothed the church with is exercised by a plurality of elders. These elders are elected by the congregation, must meet the biblical qualifications for office, are ordained, and work in parity to determine matters that fall within the jurisdiction of the church.

Another significant data point from the Bible is that this government is exercised over more than a single congregation — that is to say, Jesus has purposed a degree of unity in his church where two or more congregations fall under the same authority. This is a pillar of Presbyterianism which rejects as unbiblical the idea that congregations are independently governed.

The most obvious example of this is found in the Jerusalem Council. In Acts 15 a question arose in Antioch concerning circumcision, and unequipped to determine the matter locally, Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem. There the apostles and elders met to decide the matter, after which a letter was written. As Paul continued his circuitous ministry “they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:4-5). Having this kind of exercise of government approved by the Apostolic practice and so honored by the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to think independent church government could be an improvement.

What was demonstrated at the Jerusalem Council is still practiced today. In coming weeks many confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian denominations will be meeting together in their national bodies — commonly called Synod or General Assembly. To a watching world — and maybe even to many members in the church — these meetings may verge on irrelevance and insignificance. Granted, given what sometimes appears on the docket that may not be surprising. Nevertheless, it’s the work of the church and is one of the very means Jesus has appointed to ensure that the gates of hell will never prevail.

These meetings — General Assembly and Synod — are often referred to as judicatories or courts. They are referred to in this way because of the nature of their work. In the federal government of the United States there’s three branches of government and each has their own responsibility. For example, the legislative branch makes law while the judicial branch determines matters within the parameters of the law made — they don’t “legislate from the bench.” As judicatories or courts, these bodies don’t have legislative power because the law of the church is already set forth in the Scriptures by the one Lawgiver. At the Jerusalem Council the apostles and elders searched the Scriptures in order to be able to say: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). These courts exist to render judgment within the parameters set by Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to emphasize the importance of this. The authority given to the church is a ministerial authority. Ministerial authority, as Thomas Peck explained “[Is the] power of a minister or servant to declare and execute the law of the Master, Christ, as revealed in his word, the statute-book of his kingdom, the Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testaments.” When the elders gather for the courts of the church they shouldn’t go to represent the will of the people, or to decide matters according to personal opinion, preferences, or agendas. Their aim isn’t to scrape up enough votes for a majority decision. Rather, the courts gather to discern the mind of Christ as it’s revealed by the Holy Spirit in the Word of God — they gather to minister in Jesus’ name. This is why, for example, in the RPCNA every meeting of a church court is opened “In the name and by the authority of Jesus Christ, Zion’s only King and Head.”

When authority is exercised by elders in this way, then the determinations made “if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word” (Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3).