Presbyterian Church Government

When denominations were forming in the 16th century, denominations often took their names from the type of church government they adopted. The names Presbyterian, Episcopal and Congregational reflect this. The reason this was done was simply because in general all denominations subscribed to the same theology, Reformed, their differences were found only in their church government. Today if these denominations were to again name themselves it is questionable whether they would all choose these same names. The reason is that now they do not all subscribe to Reformed theology and therefore the great distinctions between them do not rest in their church government but more fundamentally in what they actually believe.

The New Testament provides some details about church government and the qualifications and work of “elders” (presbyters) in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20, and 1 Peter 5. The English words “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” reflect three distinct Greek words that describe different facets of the same office. Acts 20:17 and 28 definitively demonstrate that all three titles are wrapped up in the one office.

The New Testament prescribes elders as overseers (bishops) and shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock. In order to focus on prayer, the study of the Word, and leadership, the Apostles and elders delegated certain responsibilities to spiritually mature men known as “deacons” (Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3).

Additionally, we read, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). In this passage we see the distinction between elders who rule (administer), and those who have the additional responsibility of “preaching and teaching.”

Thus Presbyterian churches have both “ruling,” or administrative elders, and “teaching” elders.

Acts 15 describes the first Council of the church, comprised of apostles and elders. It is difficult to miss the obvious “connectionalism” of the early church. Although both Peter and Paul were highly esteemed by the church, and outstanding among the apostles, yet neither were “independent” operators. They had to answer to the general assembly in Jerusalem. The important principle here, that should not be missed, is that the individual minister and the individual church are accountable to the greater church of Jesus Christ. That is exactly what we find in Acts 15.

So, from our brief study so far, we have learned two points of importance that are Presbyterian distinctives:

First, churches are administered by, and ministered to, by both ruling and teaching elders.

Second, the local church is subject to the authority of the greater Church through church councils.

To evaluate the quality of a church’s government, we must determine specifically what church polity is responsible for. In considering the function of church government, we can see that there are seven significant elements in the administration of a church. They are:

1. The source of authority
2. The ordination of ministers
3. The call of the pastor
4. The finances of the church
5. The admission and discipline of members
6. The doctrines of the church
7. Actions by the congregation

In the application of these seven issues, there are three types of church government possible. These are Episcopalian (Anglican), Congregational and Presbyterian.


Although the following distinctives are not embraced in an ironclad fashion by every Episcopal (Anglican) type church-especially in our era, yet, in general, these points are substantially correct.

1. Source of authority. The source of authority in the Episcopal (Anglican) system is the residing hierarchy, generally a pope (in the Roman tradition), or a bishop. It is a top down administration of the church.

2. Ordination of ministers. The hierarchy of cardinals and bishops ordain the clergy, appoints the local pastor with the consent of the vestry (lay council elected by the congregation).

3. The call of the pastor. The local congregation receives a new pastor by appointment from the higher powers. The bishops appoint local pastors with the consent of the vestry (lay council elected by the congregation). The pastors serve where they are assigned. Generally, a local church is not given authority to “call” a pastor, nor is a pastor often given the privilege of deciding where he wants to serve.

4. The finances of the church. The higher authorities supervise the allocation of the church’s financial resources.

5. The admission and discipline of members. Those added or removed by discipline from the church, do so through the administration of the higher authorities.

6. The doctrines of the church. The ruling councils or officers of the church decide doctrinal matters. The laity of the church has no say-so in these matters.

7. Actions by the congregation. There is generally few if any congregational meeting held to obtain approval by the members on any substantive issues.

Examples of this type of church government are the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, and the Methodist church.


Congregational churches differ greatly among themselves, yet these distinctives substantively characterize this type of church.

The congregational form of church government had roots in Reformation-era England, but found fertile soil in New England, where it became the ecclesiastical counterpart of “town meetings.” It has obvious appeal to the democratic mindset.

1. Source of authority. Congregationalism represents the opposite end of the spectrum in relationship to the Episcopal (Anglican) system. The congregation in popular vote decides most significant matters, delegating points of detail to committees. As the name suggests, the source of authority is the congregation as a whole.

2. Ordination of ministers. Ministers are ordained on the opinion and by the authority of one local church. The counsel of the greater church is often not sought, and if sought it certainly has no actual authority in the matter.

3. The call of the pastor. The pastor is called by a popular vote of the autonomous local congregation.

4. The finances of the church. The finances are approved by a popular vote of the congregation.

5. The admission and discipline of members. New members are added, or others disciplined, by popular vote of the congregation as a whole.

6. The doctrines of the church. All doctrinal matters are considered by the whole congregation and any statement of doctrine, or changes in doctrine, are approved by the congregation.

7. Actions by the congregation. Congregational meetings are held periodically for the members to administer the operation of the church through popular vote. Committees are chosen from among the ranks to administer the day-to-day supervision of the church.

Examples of this type of church government are Congregationalists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Brethren, most Community churches, Bible churches and non-denominational churches.


Although Presbyterian churches across the globe differ at points, yet these distinctives substantially define a true Presbyterian church.

1. Source of authority. Presbyterianism takes a middle ground between the two extremes of Episcopal (Anglican) and Congregational church government. Some power comes from a Presbytery that resides above the local church and some power comes from the congregation, which elects its pastors and ruling elders. Ruling elders are laymen who have been called and are ordained to the administration of the church. The Presbytery is made up of men called by the local congregations as pastors and one or more ruling elders from each church. It is the task of each congregation to elect its own elders.

2. Ordination of ministers. In order to be ordained to the ministry, a man must be approved by the Presbytery and receive a call from a local congregation or Session. Both the Presbytery and congregation must work in tandem and harmony in this effort.

3. The call of the pastor. The congregation can call anyone it pleases that has received the approval of Presbytery. That approval is not arbitrarily withheld but the Presbytery does look carefully at the qualifications and faith of the pastor.

4. The finances of the church. The elders of that church administer the finances of the local church. Deacons are accountable to the Elders for working out the details. Many Presbyterian churches request that the elders obtain budgetary approval from the congregation.

5. The admission and discipline of members. If new members are added, the elders of the local church in session (sitting in a meeting) together do it. If members must be disciplined, the session (the elders in a meeting) privately gives its attention to resolving the problem. The decisions of a session in disciplining a member may be appealed to the Presbytery. Checks and balances are important in Presbyterianism.

6. The doctrines of the church. Doctrinal matters are determined by the Synod or General Assembly of the church, which is made up of all the pastors of the churches with ruling elders from every church as well. Presbyterian churches are “creedal” churches, embracing precise creedal statements that define the theology of Scripture and its practice in the local church. Changes can be made only at the level of the Synod or General Assembly. The creed followed by most orthodox Presbyterians is called the Westminster Confession of Faith. Written in 1648, it remains very popular with Bible believing Presbyterians.

7. Actions by the congregation. There are few congregational meetings, usually only for the election of officers and dissemination of budget information. All other administrative or spiritual matters are left in the hands of the elders.

An example of this type of Church government is the Presbyterian Church.

Although Presbyterians see their form of church government to be the most balanced and reasonable of the options, that is not the primary reason for its adoption. More importantly, Presbyterians see the Scriptures as defining the office of elder, giving it great honor and authority, and see its operation at the counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15. These scriptural elements demand the adoption of Presbyterian Church government.

The American republic was modeled after the Presbyterian form of government, with limitations on authority and separation of powers. The primary author of the US Constitution was James Madison. He had studied under John Witherspoon at Princeton University. Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman and university president, was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. At least fourteen signers were Presbyterians.