The Biblical Origins of the Presbytery

Ross Graham

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 5, no. 2 (April 1996).


God is continuing to expand the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and those of us who work in church planting must be aware that the cumulative results of our efforts and successes will force some unpleasant changes on our presbyteries. It is inevitable that new regional churches and their overseeing presbyteries will need to be established. The subject we want to explore in depth in these lectures is that of the regional church and its presbytery. One of my goals for this gathering is that you will be able to leave these meetings knowing where we have come from biblically and historically as Orthodox Presbyterians and that we will be able to tell it to others. These are days in which God is forcing us to be larger than we have been in the past. In order to figure out where we are going, it is important to know where we have been. It is altogether appropriate to begin these studies by seizing the high ground with a study of the biblical foundation of Presbyterian government and polity as it touches the work of the presbytery.

1. Principles of Biblical Church Government

The nineteenth century produced a number of fine Presbyterian politists, among them Charles Hodge, Samuel Miller and James Thornwell. But it was Thomas Witherow (1824- 1890) of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland who mastered the art of simplifying Presbyterian polity into its basic parts. From his biblical study of the apostolic church he derived six basic principles of biblical church government. These six also describe many of the most salient elements of our Presbyterian form of government. They may be summarized briefly as follows:

A. The office bearers were chosen by the people. (Acts 1:21-26; Acts 6:1-6) Acts 1:21-26 is the study of the choosing of Matthias. Someone was to replace the traitor Judas who had gone in and out with Jesus the whole time; and the larger group of one hundred and twenty did the choosing. Acts 6:1-6 records the story of the choosing of the first deacons. In each case, standards of experience and character were listed for who the candidates should be, then men were put forward and the choice was made, not by the leaders but by the people themselves. By deduction, the conclusion may also be drawn that the qualifications listed in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 were given near the completion of the canon with the intention that the people would continue to choose their officers in perpetuity.

B. The office of bishop and the office of elder were identical. (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-7) In Acts 20:17 Paul calls the elders of the church in Ephesus to the seacoast at Miletus, and then in the same context and to those same men he says in verse 28, “Be shepherds...serving as overseers.” The term elder, presbuterouV, refers to the Jewish “grayhead,” probably a euphemism for “older man.” It was this system of elders which Moses had set in place in consultation with Jethro in Exodus 18. The term bishop or overseer, episkopouV, was the word used to describe the man in charge of the servants. He was the overseer of the slaves. Parallel to this but much later in the first century in Titus 1:5 Paul instructs Titus to set in order the things lacking and appoint elders. But in verse 7 Paul describes those same men as bishops or overseers. It appears that with the Gentilization of the church a new terminology was appropriated to describe men of a younger age than grayheads but who assured a corresponding responsibility as overseers of God’s servants. Thus the two words are used interchangeably in the Scriptures.

C. There was a plurality of elders in each church (Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). In Acts 14:23 Paul had gone back through the churches which he and Barnabas had helped to establish in the Galatian region and it is recorded that they appointed elders in every church. Note the plural, implying more than one. In Titus, Paul speaks of appointing elders in every city. It could be argued that these were house churches and that the elders were actually pastors. But Philippians 1:1 is addressed to the episkopoiV kaiV diakonoiV, the elders and the deacons of that church. So comparing Scripture with Scripture, the evidence seems to indicate that a plurality existed in each ecclesiastical unit. While some argue that the plurality implied here is that of an elder or pastor in every house church of a city, it is difficult to see how the infant works of a church planter like Titus could be large enough to have “pastors” in local congregations scattered throughout a single city. The evidence seems rather to indicate that the plurality existed within the same local church.

D. Ordination was the act of the presbytery—of the plurality of elders (Acts 6:6; I Timothy 4:14). In the narrative concerning the ordination of the first deacons in Acts 6:6, the apostles laid their hands on them. The I Timothy 4:14 ordination of Timothy was by the laying on of hands of the group of men comprising the presbytery. In 2 Timothy 1, Paul speaks to Timothy about “the laying on of my hands.” It is appropriate to understand that he was saying that he participated with the other elders in the laying on of hands. I have personally used such language when speaking hard words to men who were close to me. “I was one of those who laid hands on you now shape up.” Witherow’s point here was not necessarily to demonstrate the existence of a presbytery as we know of it with a moderator and a clerk. It was rather to dispel any notion of apostolic succession, or of a developing ecclesiastical hierarchy. What is here demonstrated is that ordination is an act of a group of elders, and that a fraternity or a college of elders was being created which collectively had and conferred that authority, as contrasted with any notion of an apostolic conference of authority.

E. There was the privilege of appeal to the assembly of elders and the right of the church to speak (Acts 15:1-29). Acts 15 is a benchmark in the development of ecclesiastical polity and provides an enormous amount of principle information. What is being taught here may be summarized in two words—appeal and connection. As the problem with the Judaizers unfolded, these two concepts ran as themes throughout. The church in Antioch knew instinctively that it had recourse to other elders and that disputes could be resolved. They knew also that they were not alone. They shared intimate connection with people of widely differing cultural background but like precious faith. What follows below will be a further development of this concept.

F. The only head of the Church was the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18). It’s never unwise to state the obvious. The Church is a mystical body which only manifests part of its true nature here on earth. The Church is ruled by Christ himself, and those who have positions of authority always take second place to him. It may be important to note that Calvin and the original form of our standards express unnecessary harshness concerning the church at Rome, calling the Pope the Antichrist. Two centuries later Witherow restated this principle by removing the caustic rhetoric but reaffirming that the Church cannot have another head but the Lord Jesus Christ. But it must also be acknowledged that if this concept was distorted and abused once in the history of the church, it could be so again. The Lord Jesus Christ and he alone rules his Church for his own glory.

2. Axioms Derived from the Presbyterian Principle of Connectionalism

Presbyterian polity is not a subject widely discussed by the ancient church. It took the Protestant Reformers to look afresh at the issues of government and structure. But the Presbyterian form of government has developed, like the rest of Reformed theology, by applying logical reasoning to compared and contrasted biblical information (e.g. the doctrines of the trinity, the person of Christ, the covenant, etc.) It would be naive for us to believe that our present form of Presbyterian polity flows directly from the pages of the Bible. It does, however, flow from the above stated biblical principles. Having reviewed those principles, two axioms may now be derived from Witherow’s fifth principle which are applicable to the biblical study of the development of the presbytery.

A. The decisions of some bodies of elders extended beyond the local flock to the surrounding region (Acts 11:19-26, Acts 15:1- 29, 16:1-5). Within the story of the founding of the church at Antioch in Acts 11 it is important to observe the reaction of the church in Jerusalem in verse 22. The news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. Here the elders in Jerusalem may be observed exercising good oversight in response to what was happening in their newly enlarged district as a result of the diaspora. They sent their man to investigate, and he indicated his approval. In Acts 15, in addressing the problem with the Judaizers, the regional church made decisions that applied beyond Jerusalem, all the way to Antioch. But in Acts 16:4 it is recorded that Paul and Silas went through the cities of the Galatian region and delivered to them the decrees to keep which were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem. How did they have the right to do that? They knew instinctively that the decisions of some bodies of elders extended beyond the local flock to the surrounding region.

B. Office bearers were subject to the body of elders of the region in which bounds they ministered (Acts 21:17-27; Galatians 1:18-2:14). If it is postulated that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written before the Jerusalem council occurred and that the letter served as Paul’s brief to the council itself, then the story of Peter’s visit to Antioch takes on an interesting significance. Chronologically, Acts 11 and 13 provide the information that there is a fully functioning session in Antioch. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul is therefore speaking with the authority of the teachers when he rebukes Peter. “I withstood him to his face” he says, “because he was to be blamed.” Peter was under the authority of another jurisdiction when he visited Antioch. Acts 21 is a passage which needs to be studied more carefully for its insights into church polity. Here Paul finally arrived back to Jerusalem despite repeated warnings that he would be arrested. In verse 18, he met with the elders of the regional church there and gave them details of all that God was doing among the Gentiles. But since they had been informed that Paul was teaching concepts which were contrary to Judaism, they gave him instructions in verse 23 concerning how he should conduct himself in their region. Paul had come into their district, was subject to their authority and he did what they told him. Though Paul could say in Colossians 2:16, “Let no one be your judge in food or drink or in regard to festival or new moon or Sabbath,” and in Galatians 2:3, that “not even Titus, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised,” Paul took a vow, because he was subject to the elders of the region in which bounds he was ministering.

3. Implications Which Flow from the Biblical Origin of the Presbytery

A. There is a body understood as a regional church. The book of Galatians was written to a regional church. There is no town of Galatia. The book was addressed to a group of churches which shared in common a single geographic region. Colossians 4:16 may indicate the development of yet another regional church. When Paul said, “You likewise read the epistle of the Laodicians,” we are given the impression that they were passing this vital information around among the local congregations of a distinct regional body. Peter may be providing still further information in I Peter 1:1. Could he be addressing the regional churches of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia? A map of the geography listed would seem to indicate that something of this nature was being communicated. In Galatians 1:22 Paul spoke of “the churches of Judea which are in Christ” as a distinct grouping.

There is enough biblical evidence to indicate the existence of distinct regional churches in the New Testament, each with its separate geography, a set of local issues and a group of elders to serve as the nurturing agent for a whole collection of local churches.

B. The presbytery is the overseeing body of the regional church. If there was such a regional church of Judea, then the body of elders gathered in Jerusalem was charged with overseeing that region. But when something unique happened in Antioch, two concerns arose. First, is it biblical? Second, is this in our district? According to Luke’s outline for the Book of Acts, which follows Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8—Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, end of the earth—they were now in end-of-the-earth region. They understood that the gospel had now moved into the furthest region and they assumed responsibility for the new converts in Antioch. But the presbytery’s representative, Barnabas, immediately set about the task of building a new plurality of elders.

An appropriate Presbyterian principle which may be developed here takes the form of a logical syllogism as follows:

By analogy, therefore, we can understand that the presbytery is the session of the church regional and must perform all the functions on a regional level that the local session performs on the local level. Perhaps consideration should even be given for the possible conduct of worship on a regional level from time to time.

C. The presbytery is responsible to care for the spiritual health and protection of its local congregations. Having discussed the care of the church in Antioch by the presbytery of the regional church of Judea in Acts 11, attention may be directed to the other passages which provide similar evidence for a regional care for spiritual oversight. Both Acts 15 and Acts 21 provide instances in which the regional church functioned to care for the health and protection of local congregations. The presbytery was reactive, responsive, and trusted its representatives. This guarding aspect with respect to the health and care of local congregations is probably the most important lesson learned from these passages.

D. The presbytery provides a place of appeal for the resolution of grievances and theological disputes. Acts 15:1-29; 21:17-27 and Galatians 1:18-2:14 substantiate the responsibility of the handling of grievances by a regional body. A companion issue in each of these cases is the principle of connectionalism. If there is no connection, there is no ability to appeal, and there is no right to speak. The principle of connectionalism must be understood to undergird the whole character of Presbyterianism. The churches in the New Testament were clearly connected together. A biblical presbytery must therefore be prepared to act responsively and effectively in matters of church discipline or it is not discharging its responsibilities according to the Scriptures. As goes the health of the presbytery, so go the health and the strength of each of its local congregations.

E. The presbytery is responsible for the care and training of those called to preach the gospel. In Acts 11:1-18, when Peter himself was called to give account to the presbytery in Jerusalem for his controversial ministry and preaching among the Gentiles, he was examined skeptically, with expressions of concern about the report that he had eaten with uncircumcised men. But after his full and complete explanation, the presbytery concluded, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life” (v.18). This was credentialing work.

Again in Acts 21:17-27, Paul and the church in Jerusalem demonstrated their mutual responsibility to each other. Paul gave a clear indication of his subjection to his brothers in the matter of preaching in their district. They say in effect, “If you minister in our district, we must know what you are teaching and you must submit to what we believe is best for the shepherding of God’s flock in this region with its unique circumstances and problems.”

The ordination of Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6) is another possible indication of the regional responsibility of elders in the training and preparation of ministers for the gospel. Could Paul’s appeal to “faithful men” in II Timothy 2:2 be of a regional nature? The seminary structure which is now ingrained into Presbyterian polity must never be allowed to replace the responsibility of the presbytery of the regional church as having the prime obligation for the training of ministers of the gospel.

F. The presbytery is responsible to establish new local congregations and to spread and defend the gospel in its region. The elders of the regional body in Judea demonstrated concern for and approval of the spread of the gospel to Antioch in Acts 11:19-26. Similarly the elders of the new regional body in Antioch appear to have been chosen to be responsible for the spread of the gospel in the Galatian region in Acts 13:1-3. The history of missions in the ancient church could appropriately be described as one generation’s foreign missions becoming the next generation’s home missions. The gospel was spread extensively by the regional church and intensively by the local church.


Research for this study on the biblical origin of the regional church and the modern-day Presbyterian presbytery was made more difficult because not much has been written on the subject. In fact, much of what has been presented here was adapted or developed directly from the Scriptures for this occasion. It is offered for study and further reflective research. It is disheartening to observe that these principles appear not to have been followed by the ancient and medieval church. But the Protestant Reformation infused new life into them and gave rise to a host of systems of polity based on this most biblical of ecclesiastical structures. November 1995

Ross Graham is general secretary of the Committee of Home Missions and Church Extension of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The above material was prepared by him for a recent conference of Home Missionaries and was the first in this series. We plan to print other segments from this series in future issues of Ordained Servant.