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October 29, 2019, 12:00 PM

One thing that Presbyterians tend to really concern themselves with is how the church is organized and does business. In fact, we have a whole book about it. Part two of our Constitution is our Book of Order. In our Book of Order we set down specifically how our church is organized, the purpose of that organization, and how decisions are made within that organization.

To some this might seem like a silly thing to waste time on. However Presbyterians have always held to the idea that the church is a God instituted organization and as such, that institution has a certain amount of God given authority. If we start from this point then how the church organizes and how the church makes decisions is extremely important.

I want to start off by saying that I recognize that throughout its history that Church authority has been abused, and that Presbyterians are not immune to this abuse. For those abuses I am sorry and this particular blog is one small attempt to rectify it by placing church authority within its proper context.

The first part of this reflection will revolve around how Presbyterians have chosen to organize themselves. We believe that within the church God has chosen individuals and called them to be officers within the church. These individuals are no different than any other Christian except in function. Their call is to participate in the order of the church. These individuals are ordained to the office of elder (Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders) by the approval of the councils to which they will belong.

These elders are elected by the people and not chosen by other elders. This keeps the congregations and all members of the church involved in the process of selecting and affirming those that God has called. This is an important part of the process that we cannot forget. It is an essential aspect of keeping a check on the abuse of church power.

These elders are gathered into councils and it is through these councils that the authority of the church is exercise. In these councils the Book of Order is very specific. Those called to councils are commissioners and not representatives. They are charged to seek and find the will of Christ not just give voice to the will of the people. This is an important part of understanding the conciliar nature of the church. Presbyterians do not just believe that councils are how we make decisions. We believe that councils are how God’s will for the church is heard and discerned. This does not mean that councils are infallible (we explicitly state that they are not). It does, however, mean that we believe that God is still active and speaking to God’s church and that God’s voice is discerned by elders chosen by the people convene together in council and seek that voice.

To make the claim that God can speak to the church through the voice of councils is a heavy claim. This kind of authority implies a certain amount of trust and humility that plays itself out in the relationship between church and council. Therefore it is important to examine the authority that comes along with this claim. In order to keep this authority from being abused, Presbyterians have adopted a set of historic principles which guide councils in the authority that they have.

The second part of this reflection will revolve around the nature of church authority as it is expressed in these historic principles. These are found and explained in chapter 3 of the Book of Order. They include the principles of God alone is Lord of the conscience, Corporate Judgement, and Mutual Forbearance. These principles along with the others promote the idea that no council has the right to bind the conscience of others in regards to faith in God and that councils agree to bear with one another and seek to maintain unity within diversity.

These principles are important because they outline the values of the church at large and contain what is seen as inherent rights in all people. These inherent rights were given by God and are not subject to control by a council. Presbyterians uphold the individuality of people and recognize that God works in and through individuals. Therefore a person’s conscience is first and foremost their authority when it comes to matters of faith and religion. This is held in tension with the idea that groups of Christians (denomination) have the right to set certain corporate ideals forward. We seek to hold in balance the importance of the individual and the community. At the end of the day this is displayed in our commitment to mutual forbearance. We have covenanted with each other to seek understanding and unity in all that we do. Therefore we believe that unity is more important than being right. So when we disagree, and Presbyterians definitely do that, we disagree in love and agree to be patient with each other even when we have differing opinions.

The Book of Order places restriction on what kind of power and authority the church, through its councils, can be exercised. All church authority is limited to what is “ministerial and declarative.” This means that decisions of councils should be limited to what serves the church at large and works at declaring the good news in Jesus Christ. Anything beyond this is often an abuse of the authority that God has granted the church. If we can focus on the tasks given to us we will be more effective and we will reduce the abuse which so often occurs when churches attempt to exercise authority not granted to them.

As Presbyterians we are a conciliar people. When practiced correctly it is a beautiful thing. Watching God work through commissioners to councils and hearing God’s Word through the witness of these councils is an amazing and awe-inspiring moment. Being Presbyterian means that we trust this process.

Next post we will discuss another aspect of our organization and one that Councils represent…Connectionalism.

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