What Has Been Lost: Godly Church Government
If you have been visiting this blog long, you already know how deeply I loathe the seminaries, as their work in undermining the Holy Spirit from the church leadership and pulpit preaching (and replacing it with a combination of Enlightenment-style academic intellectualism and guild-style consensus politics) is profound.
And of course, the very existence of seminaries are not even hinted at in the scriptures. But then again, they were always a power’n’control tool by the Right Sort…
But Bojidar Marinov, as usual, has gone much farther than I have, closely examining the profound failure of Presbyterian government in the 19th and 20th centuries. If you believe that the model, government, and nature of the Church (and not our official Lord and Master, the State) is what shapes the world, then addressing the failure of church governance is absolutely critical to retaking the world for Christ.
After listing the old glories and recent rot of American Presbyterianism, Marinov writes:
If there has ever been an example of salt thrown out and trampled by men, it is Presbyterianism in the US. Clearly, at some point, it lost its savor, and the realization of this is painful to those of us who know what its savor was before. But on the bright side, it forces us to think about an answer to the question: “What happened to make American Presbyterianism lose its savor?”
The answer given by many conservative Presbyterian ministers today always throws the blame on something else but these same ministers. It’s the world that is a “fallen world”; or it is that history is never predictable by man, and therefore whatever has happened or is happening is part of God’s inscrutable will, there’s nothing we can do about it; or it’s entertainment that makes people unwilling to listen to long boring sermons on irrelevant topics; etc., etc. The answer that the Bible gives, though, is that it’s the church leadership that bears the primary responsibility, and therefore we should be looking for the reasons for the decline in the very leadership, and in their teaching and practices.
One thing that I really like about God is that He is a Person, and therefore, demands personal responsibility (as Cosmic Personalism is built right into the Christian faith – the universe is held together by Jesus Christ, after all).
Let Our Compassionate Friends talk about ‘impersonal forces’ that shape society… and therefore permit the Right Sort to evade personal responsibility for their actions. Christians know better.
I am far from the idea that there is only one main factor. There are many factors that led to that loss of savor, which relegated modern Presbyterianism to the periphery of the American society. The abandonment of theonomy left Presbyterianism unable to speak on issues of justice and righteousness in the society. The abandonment of covenant theology left it unable to build a consistent view of history that would give its adherents the ability to discern the times. The abandonment of postmillennialism deprived it of hope for the future in history, thus rendering any cultural endeavors hopeless, or superfluous, at best. Cessationism, and the abandonment of the Charismatic views—as well as the condemnation of the Charismatic practices—of the Presbyterians before the 1850s (when the rationalism of the Enlightenment became the ruling intellectual paradigm in Presbyterianism) destroyed the concept of spiritual leadership, leaving the movement entirely dependent on bureaucratic management; thus giving us one of the clearest practical examples of Max Weber’s “routinization of charisma.” All these together contributed to the decline of Presbyterianism from its pinnacle of cultural dominance and influence to the periphery of the American culture, and that in the course of a little over a generation.
Before Satan conquers a culture, he makes sure to conquer the Church first.
Plus one more factor. A factor that no one talks about, perhaps because most ministers and ordinary believers are not aware of it. In fact, almost any Presbyterian elder in the US you ask about it, will reply that of all characteristics of original Presbyterianism, this one has never been abandoned and is still at work in the Presbyterian churches today: The Plurality of Elders. But the reality is different. And my thesis in this article is that, contrary to the common perception, the principle of plurality of elders has not only been abandoned in modern Presbyterianism, it has been actively destroyed theologically, legislatively, and in practice. Only an empty shell of it has remained. This destruction of this principle has contributed to the demise of Presbyterianism as much as any of the other factors mentioned above.
The Nature and Importance of the Plurality of Elders
The principle of plurality of elders is simple: No local church is to be governed by one person only, and no local church is to be without government, or have its government so identical with the congregation itself as to be practically without a government. The tyranny of the democratic mob is rejected: A church has to have a government of elders that is a distinct body, capable of making authoritative decisions about the affairs of the church, and capable of blocking initiatives of the congregation which are found to be harmful to the church or to individual church members. The tyranny of authoritarian rule is also rejected: no man should be allowed to have so much authority as to never be accountable to any other man in the congregation. There is no “divine right” in the government of the church, and therefore any measure of authority over men must be balanced with an equal measure of accountability and responsibility before men. So the church must be ruled by a body of elders, traditionally called a session. In the session, every elder has—or is supposed to have—equal authority to every other elder, and also equal authority to any combination of other elders. But the principle doesn’t stop there. The session itself must be accountable as a body: either to a greater body of the sessions of several churches, called a “presbytery” (in Presbyterianism) or to the congregation as a body distinct from the session (Congregationalism).
This actually interests me, because Christians must be self-governing, instead of running around licking the boots & aping the bureaucratic style of our enemies – which is common practice today. To govern ourselves in a way that pleases God, we need to understand what the Biblical mode of church government is.
The Oligarchic Coup-d’Église of Modern Presbyterianism
As good and beneficial the principle of Plurality of Elders is, it can be abused—as can any other good and beneficial principle of government. Some principles of government, admitted, are deficient by their very nature; but more often, a principle of government gets abused because the majority of those who claim to abide by it have lost their knowledge and understanding of the real meaning and purpose of the principle. This ignorance and lack of understanding are then used by crafty politicians—in this case, church politicians—who find ways to institute an external legal form of the principle while at the same time destroying its internal ethical meaning and purpose.
What should be obvious about the principle of Plurality of Elders is that in order for the principle to be operational, it requires several conditions to be present:
[Marinov goes over the conditions in detail, which I skip in this post. His summary follows…]
These three, (1) accountability and liability for a session matching the session’s executive privilege in the church, (2) individual ministry and independence for each elder backing his personal authority to stand alone against opposition, and (3) the legal principle of individual veto and legal protection for dissenting elders (and for dissenting non-elders of good moral standing) must be incorporated into the legal rules and the actual practice of any Presbyterian session which claims to obey the principle of plurality of elders. Without any one of these three, the principle is compromised, and the final result is tyranny and abuse, even if on the surface a superficial resemblance of “plurality” is preserved.
Unfortunately, modern Presbyterianism lacks all three of these. […]
Actual, God-pleasing church governance permits the righteous few to defy the unrighteous many, regardless of their church raiment, tradition, the consensus, majority rule, etc.
“But why should be allow such dissent, when we can ape the secularists (and their bone-deep hatred of God and His Law-Word) and build some Pharaonic top-down bureaucratic, consensus-driven command’n’control structure instead?”
It is, indeed, a modern belief that ordination confers authority. The truth is, it doesn’t. It only grants legal power to the ordained person; or, if we want to call it “authority,” it would be in a very restricted sense of the word. Real authority—the ability to lead, to influence men and their decisions, to give a vision and a purpose to people and organizations—doesn’t come from a ceremony but from the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit, as is obvious from multiple examples in Scripture, seldom honors human ceremonies and bestows authority very often in opposition to them.
What God wants, and what wealthy and powerful men want (or in this case, what clique-oriented petty religious bureaucrats want), are usually very different things.
We have all seen the type of “elders” in Presbyterian churches (and not only Presbyterian) who technically meet the minimum requirements of 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, but are mediocre in respect to their place and ministry in the church. We have also seen men of real authority who are a source of leadership and inspiration for many in the churches, who have no formal legal power in the church. Between the two groups, it is those with real authority who move the church—and defend it against tyrannical elders—not those with purely legal power without authority. Those whose position rests only on legal power become the perfect bureaucrats: stagnant and compliant with the majority, but never active and leading others to expand the Kingdom of God.
Time to dump the deadwood.
Or – as I have no interest in wasting time & effort, fighting to gain control of some rotting dead bureaucracy – for Godly men to simply abandon institutional corpses, just as the Holy Spirit left the Temple at Jerusalem.
In short, from being a model for republicanism, modern Presbyterianism has degenerated into a priestocratic oligarchy where the principle of plurality of elders is replaced with the principle of singularity of the session, and any individuals—elders and non-elders alike—are under the danger of facing legal action from the session if they dare stand in its way.
It is no surprise, then, that Presbyterianism in the US has lost so much of its cultural influence: within a century, it went from being the dominant framing worldview in the nation to a stagnant peripheral religious group who doesn’t even appear in the news. So stagnant, that abuse of power and corruption within it are taken for granted and unopposed by the very flocks of the Presbyterian churches. And so peripheral that the liberal media, naturally eager to spot and publicize scandals in the churches, don’t even bother to scrutinize the Presbyterian churches anymore.
Church discipline is seldom about real sins anymore; most of it consists of reactionary punitive actions against elders and church members who dare challenge the sessions about teachings or decisions. A former PCA elder confided to me several years ago that a significant part of the discipline cases in his denomination have to do with “disrespect to authority,” which is simply a way of describing any kind of dissent, legitimate and illegitimate. Cases of fornication, he said, are almost always left alone—especially when relatives of the elders are involved.
In all this, the dissenters have absolutely no recourse against the sessions. The sessions always close their ranks and declare the dissenter an enemy; gang mentality is especially strong in Presbyterian circles. Without the legal possibility to defend themselves against a session, the dissenters have only one option: leaving the church. But even there, they are still targeted by the session’s revenge.
The Church has become Yet Another Tyranny, plastered with pretty words.
And then, we are surprised to be living in Yet Another Tyranny, plastered with pretty words.
And if I – who is just another sinning layman commoner – think that this is a disgraceful & pathetic circus, you can guess what God thinks about it!
(And tremble. There’s more than one reason to forget about the seminaries, forget about the denominations, and work on building a God-fearing network of house churches!)
[A detailed survey of the corrupted rules and procedures of the conservative Presbyterian denominations is skipped in my post]
How to Regain What Has Been Lost
Marinov directs us on the route to regain God-fearing Church Government (as the absolutely indispensable prelude to God-fearing local and national government):
Obviously, if there is to be any reconstruction or revival of Presbyterianism, it will have to start with a radical and comprehensive U-turn in the theology and practice of the existing institutional structures; or, in a completely new institutional setting which is a radical departure from the old one.
It will have to include change and restoration of doctrine in all areas where the original Reformed doctrines were lost: covenant theology, postmillennial optimism, theonomic ethics, the continuing validity of the gifts of the Spirit and non-canonical revelation. And it will have to include a restoration of the principle of plurality of elders and true authority in the government of the church: real plurality of elders and real spiritual authority, unlike the current practices of singularity of the majority and bureaucratic power.
First, of course, Rutherford’s magisterial view of church government must be discarded in favor of a restored ministerial view of church government. The magisterial view came down from Romanism and its Aristotelian paradigm of “natural law.” And Romanism picked it up from paganism, so it is essentially pagan, not Biblical. This difference between the pagan and the Christian views of government is clearly explained by Christ in Luke 22:25-27: among the pagans, the rulers “lord it over” and are called “Benefactors.” But it is not the same way among Christians where the great ones are those who serve. And those who serve must be subject to greater scrutiny and accountability than those who are served by them.
Second, individual elders must be given a real opportunity to rule. Church government in the Bible is by elders, not by collectives of elders. This means that no group of elders can have more legal power in the church than an individual elder, and an individual elder must have the power to overturn or veto a decision by the majority which he considers harmful to the health of the church and the Christian liberty of its members.
Third, the very philosophy of ordination must be overturned.
THIS is where I have banged my drum about, for quite a while now. It’s good to be backed up by a better mind than my own!
Bureaucratic rationales for ordination like the perceived “needs” of the local church or denomination, or a seminary diploma, must be discarded. Ordination must be God-centered, not man-centered; and it must be an acknowledgment of God’s authority and spiritual gifts in individuals, not an occult ceremony of humanistic bestowing institutional power on men on whom God didn’t bestow spiritual authority. If Presbyterianism is to not only survive but also restore the dominance of the Reformed worldview in the culture, future Presbyterian elders must be completely independent in their individual ministries from their institutional power in the church; they should be granted that power only after they have proven to have true spiritual authority and ministry in the church, recognized by many people who have been ministered to by them. Only such independent men of spiritual authority can be the Pauls who would challenge the modern alliance of untouchable celebrities and faceless bureaucrats that currently keeps the church in the US in a cultural deadlock.
And fourth, the power of the sessions must be decreased, not increased. The churches need to stop being a baptized equivalent to pagan temples, administering ceremonial exercises and dispensing religious experiences on Sunday morning. Only a very small portion of the New Testament is devoted to detailed descriptions of what is to be done during church service. (And that very small portion—1 Cor. 14—is largely ignored even by those who beat themselves in the chest of being faithful to the Regulatory Principle of Worship.) The church needs to be a covenant community of whose real life Sunday morning is the smallest portion and focus. Applying the Gospel to every area of life by individual members of the church and their families must be the real focus; and church elders must be re-trained to become judges in the gates for the covenant community, and counselors for practical application.. [Footnote deleted – AP] This also means that para-church ministries must be encouraged: both to allow men of superior gifting (and therefore possibly future elders) apply their gifts in the name of Christ to the different areas of life, thought, and action, and—just as important—to provide a legitimate alternative and even competition to church governments who have grown lazy, inactive, or outright unjust and tyrannical.
This is the road. Let’s get on it, and start going forward!
From the dominant cultural factor and source of moral and institutional standards and inspiration for economics and politics to an inconspicuous sect at the margins of the modern society, Presbyterianism in America has been the ultimate modern example of Jesus’ parable of salt that has lost its flavor. Any Presbyterian preacher or teacher today who ignores this decline or thinks that it has no covenantal significance in showing the need for correction and reconstruction, is guilty of deliberate deception. Any Presbyterian elder who throws the blame on the society, secularism, the unbelievers, etc., and not on the elders, sessions, and presbyteries of the Presbyterian denominations in the US is just as guilty. The rottenness of modern Presbyterianism is first and foremost in the seminaries, the pulpits, and the session meetings. That’s where the first changes must be made, and the old doctrinal and practical principles restored.
Many factors have led to this decline: covenant theology was lost, postmillennialism was lost, theonomy was lost, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was lost.
And the principle of plurality of elders, once the inspiration for the political structure of our Republic, was lost in the very Presbyterianism where it first originated.
It is there where it must be first restored before we restore it in the society. Whether this will happen by reforming the existing churches and denominations or by demolishing the old structures and building new ones, will be seen in the coming generations.
It’s going to be a long walk along the path Jesus has laid out, back up to the commanding heights of the culture and the world.
But that walk begins on our knees before God, in genuine repentance for our corruption.
And – after God’s men are once again in command of their own houses and their own nations – it will end on our knees before God, in thanksgiving and prayer.