October 21, 2007 Q & A

OPC Church Government


What is your denominational structure and where do you get the basis for it?


Our denominational structure is Presbyterian. There are three basic types of church government (with some more that might be called hybrid). They all agree that Jesus Christ is the King and Head of the Church, but they disagree on how Christ, who is now in heaven, administers His headship.

Episcopalians hold that authority comes from Christ, through the Bible, and is administered by a hierarchy of Archbishops, Bishops, and lesser subordinate officers, and finally governs the laity (members of the churches). Roman Catholicism is hierarchical (or Episcopal) with this addition: The Pope (Bishop of Rome) is in Christ's place in the church, and therefore infallible in all his decrees ex cathedra ("from the chair" of Peter, who is regarded by Roman Catholicism as the first Pope). In fact, Roman Catholicism claims to hold an authority that is above the Bible, whereas historic Protestantism believes that the Bible is over the church and that therefore the Church must be subservient to the Bible.

Presbyterians historically have held that, under Christ the Head and King of the Church, there is but one class of rulers—Elders and Ministers (who are also the ordained teachers of the church). That's where "Presbyterian" comes in. The Greek word for elder is presbuteros, which translates into English as "elder."

I should add that the word episcopos in Greek translates into English as "bishop" or "overseer," depending on whether it refers to an office or a mere function in any organized body. Presbyterians don't call their rulers bishops, not because it is unbiblical to do so, but because it is confusing in the religious world where many or most churches who use "bishop" use it to refer to someone over elders and ministers (as in the Methodist churches).

Baptists and most independent churches have still a third understanding of church rule under Christ. It is called "Independentism." Baptist and Independent churches (often called "Bible Churches") hold that each separate congregation is a sovereign entity in itself (that is, under the rule of Christ through His Word, the Bible).

There are many Baptist organizations or denominations, but their denominational unity is only for fellowship and joining together in missionary activity and theological education in Baptist Seminaries. For instance, no matter of biblical discipline can be carried beyond the local church. But that's only half of the difference.

The other half is that all decisions are made by the members of the church. In that sense, Baptist and Independent churches are strictly democratic—rule by the people (the members). (Perhaps I should mention here that there are some Baptist churches who are Presbyterian as to local rule within particular churches, and have elders to exercise spiritual rule, but they are the exception.)

That's the big picture. There are numerous differences in how various denominations "flesh out" these principles in actual practice. That would go beyond your question. But let us now consider the reasons for holding Presbyterian church government to be closer than the others to the biblical model.

First, rule by elders alone is found in the Bible. Of course, after Christ's resurrection and His ascension shortly after Pentecost (Acts chapters 1 & 2), the Apostles ruled. The Apostle Paul took it upon himself to declare what the will of Christ was for the church. In Ephesians 4:11& 12 he says, "He (Christ) gave (to the church) some as apostles, some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ." These were the gifted men that Jesus raised up to build the New Testament Church (which was the continuing of Israel which was the Old Testament "Church").

Now we know that somewhere near the end of the first century all of the apostles were dead. During the early years of the Church, however, while the New Testament was in the process of formation, prophets existed, through whom Jesus sent specific messages to His Church. All of the apostles had the prophetic gift, but some who were not apostles also wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such men included Mark, Luke, James and Jude the brothers of our Lord, and the writer of Hebrews. (Incidentally, the last—contrary to the claim of the King James Version—probably was not Paul. Earlier New Testament manuscripts discovered since the Reformation do not ascribe authorship to Paul.) The important point is that whoever may have been the Holy Spirit's instrument in writing the New Testament was either an apostle or wrote under apostolic oversight and approval.

Now Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles which were late in his life. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 he set forth the qualifications and functions of the office of "bishop." He does the same in Titus 1:5-9, where he gives rules for Titus to use in choosing "elders" in Crete.

It's interesting that Paul doesn't use "elders" but "bishops" in 1 Timothy, but in Titus, he begins with "elders" in verse 5 and in verse 7 switches to "bishop" or "overseer" (depending on how the Greek word "episcopos" is translated in varying English versions).

It is clear that the same office is in view in both chapters, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. "Elder" speaks of the maturity of the man gifted to rule. "Bishop" (or "Overseer") speaks of his function. There is no contradiction here. In American parlance, we sometimes refer to our president as that, again as "chief executive", yet again as "commander-in-chief," But it's one man and one office that he holds.

Another matter needs to be considered concerning office in the early church, "pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). It's one office. A pastor is a "shepherd of the flock of God" (cf. John 10:11-15).

All elders need to be highly qualified and to know the Bible in order to honor Christ in their office. They must know the Scriptures so as to rule righteously. Some elders, however, are called to teach or preach the Word. In the OPC we call them "ministers" or "teaching elders." The distinction is clearly set forth in 1 Timothy 5:17. (Incidentally, the "double honor" in that verse undoubtedly means honor in the general sense—as in "honorable in all things"—but also has to do with "honorarium"—meaning pay for their labors.)

That's why ministers are required to meet the highest standard of biblical education. One of my seminary professors said to us: "Ministers need to know everything about the theology and something about everything else." I've been ordained for 64 years. I think I qualify for general knowledge, but I'm still striving for total biblical knowledge. I'm sure I fall short here and there, but I want to be a learner to my dying day! And, in my understanding of the Bible, ministers and elders are "pastors" or "shepherds," using the biblical model (see Acts 20:17 and 28 and 1 Pet. 5:1 & 2).

Now, in true Presbyterian churches, all rule is by elders (including ministers or "teaching elders" and non-teaching elders). The only higher office in the church today is that of Head of the Church, held by Jesus Christ. And under the teachers and elders (the "Sessions" of the churches) are the members, including teachers and elders. A ruling elder is a member of the local church; a minister is a member of a Presbytery (which oversee the lives of churches in a given geographical area) and sometimes also a member of a local church.

As a minister I have been a member of many "Sessions," that is, ruling over the life of the local church, administering according to the Bible, which is the Word of God. I've also sat as a member of many Presbyteries. In addition, I have been a member of many annual General Assemblies.

Each of these—Session, Presbytery, and General Assembly—is a "court" of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Matters that cannot be dealt with and resolved by a Session can go for advice or appeal to the Presbytery to which the particular church belongs. Similarly, matters not resolved, or situations where advice may have been improperly given, come to the General Assembly. It's something like our USA system of courts, though less complicated and (I hope) more just and righteous.

Finally, we have seen that Presbyterians do not adopt the Episcopal model of government, because in the New Testament "bishop" and "elder" refer to the same office rather than one being over the other. In addition, Presbyterians do not adopt the "Independent" model of government, because we believe the Bible teaches that Israel, the "Church" of the Old Testament, was a unity, ruled by one set of laws, and that the same is God's desire for the New Testament church.

When the church was born in its New Testament form, it was held together by the Apostles, but they died and Christ never provided for apostolic successors. The church, however, joined together to make important decisions rather than just having such matters decided independently by separate congregations.

Here's an important example. Gentiles were coming into the New Testament church, which was becoming scattered over the whole Roman empire, but in Acts 15 we see that the Gentile church in Antioch (Syria) had people come to them from Jerusalem (where the church was almost totally Jewish) saying to the Gentile believers, "You can't be saved unless you adopt circumcision and keep the Mosaic Law."

The leaders of the Antioch church carried the matter to Jerusalem where were gathered not only such apostles as were still alive, but also non-apostolic church leaders and church elders from all around. They gathered together and debated the matter using the testimony of both Peter and Paul as to how the Holy Spirit had actively done a great work among them without requiring Gentiles to (in effect) to become Jews.

In the end, quoting from the Old Testament and listening to the testimony of Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, the gathering unanimously decided against the need for circumcision as a means of membership in the church.

The unity of the Old Testament church (which was not perfect, but was commanded in the Law of Moses) and the unity among the Apostles and Apostolic Counsel in Acts 15 seem to indicate that churches ought to be organizationally one.

Now, in this confusing 21st Century world, total unity is impossible due to the diversity among churches all of which claim one Christ, one Bible! What ought we to do? There are many possibilities of churches from which to choose. On what basis should we choose? On Biblical teaching (and in keeping with Christian love among the brothers and sisters), we ought to choose the church or denomination which attempts to follow the biblical model. The OPC makes no claim to perfection, but we do always keep that model in view and seek to follow it as God gives us knowledge and strength in accordance with His grace.

Of course, I've given you more than you asked. And I refuse to brag that we are the best. We are all sinners, and pride made the world the mess that it is today (see Gen. 3:7). But all my life as a minister has been in the OPC, and I've seen how, again and again, we struggled with big problems, but went always to the Bible to get our answers. We were not always right, but we did always strive to follow the Word of God as He has given us grace to understand it.

There are, no doubt, other churches who have tried as hard. In the end, those on the outside looking in will decide. But we believe that, at the end of history as we know it, the Church of Christ will be one in the glorious unity in the glory of our Lord.



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