Putting In a Good Word for Presbyterianism
Last week I was at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. for some meetings. I always love visiting CHBC, not only because I have many friends there, but because it’s one of the best models of faithful church ministry I’ve seen anywhere.
Soon after I arrived last week—and before my meetings began—I was led up to Mark Dever’s study where he was meeting with several interns and staff members. Mark asked the interns if they had any questions for me before I had to leave. One thoughtful, and somewhat incredulous, student asked if I really thought the keys of the kingdom were given to the officers of the church and not to the church as a whole. I admit I was caught off guard to be suddenly thrown into a deep discussion of polity (though being with Mark I shouldn’t have been surprised). I had just gotten off a plane; I wasn’t feeling well; and I’ve not often been pressed to defend my views on the keys of the kingdom. So I didn’t do much to help the student, except probably to confirm in his mind that Presbyterians don’t know what they’re talking about.
But here’s what I wish I would have said, not as a full blown defense of Presbyterian polity but as a few talking points among brothers and friends.
1. Congregationalists and Presbyterians can both agree that the authority inherent in the keys of the kingdom is the authority over the doctrine and discipline of the church (Matt. 16:19; 18:18-19). It is the power to affirm or deny that someone is a true Christian. It is the power to affirm or deny that a given statement is consistent with the Christian faith. Congregationalists believe this authority resides with the members of the church. Presbyterians believe this authority belongs to the officers of the church.
2. I hold to the Presbyterian position because of the overall New Testament teaching about eldership. The office of eldership is one of teaching and authority (1 Tim. 5:17), which is why the position is reserved for qualified men (1 Tim. 2:11-12; 3:1-7). Elder-pastors are given by Christ to be overseers and shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Eph. 4:11). The leaders in Hebrews 13:17 who must watch over the souls of God’s people are almost certainly elders. We know from 1 Peter 5:2-3 that elders must exercise gracious oversight in the church. They are the under-shepherds serving and representing Christ, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (1 Peter 1:25; 5:4). It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.
3. While it’s true that the final step in the discipline process in Matthew 18 is “tell it to the church,” there’s no reason to think that “church” cannot refer to the church as she is represented by her officers. This has been the understanding of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Standards and virtually every Presbyterian-Reformed theologian since the Reformation. Granted, the word ekklesia means gathering or assembly and most often refers in the New Testament to worldwide universal church or a local congregation. But the term is also used for more than one congregation, as in the church of Jerusalem, the church of Antioch, or the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. No doubt, there were many churches in these cities or regions (witness, for example, the thousands of converts being added in Jerusalem), and yet they can be described as ekklesia. This doesn’t prove Presbyterianism, but it does mean we should not equate ekklesia with nothing other than a local congregation. Indeed, the reference in Acts 15:22 to “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” suggests that leaders from various congregations came together in the Jerusalem Council to make decisions for the wider body. This is the heartbeat of Presbyterian polity and reason to think “church” can mean in effect, “a subset of leaders who represent the whole.”
4. It’s also worth remembering that when Jesus spoke of discipline in Matthew 18 the reference point for the disciples would have been the Jewish synagogue. There were no churches as such. The only instances they understood of “telling it to the ekklesia” were the disciplinary procedures in Judaism which were carried out by the Sanhedrin and not by a vote of the worshipers gathered at the synagogue. It’s more plausible to think the apostles inherited the system of discipline-through-office-bearers they were familiar with than that they heard Jesus telling them to practice a form of Congregationalism that hadn’t existed, in congregations that didn’t exist yet.
5. I wonder if a latent Presbyterianism is already present, in practice, in many Congregational churches. Is there not an assumed intermediary step whereby the disciplinary matter is brought to the elders before it is told to the whole church? Few churches, I imagine, ask for conflicts and sins to be aired ex nihilo before the whole congregation without first having been handled by the elders. And yet that’s what Matthew sounds like if ekklesia means the whole gathered assembly. Even in Congregational churches the “tell it to the church” step usually means “tell it to the elders, who deal with the case for several months or years and then at a later juncture will bring their recommendation to the congregation to ratify their decision.” The Congregational process is similar to the Presbyterian process except the former ends with a congregational vote and includes an extra step in the discipline that, on their understanding, Jesus makes no mention of in the text.
6. One final word of clarification: the elders in a Presbyterianism system serve as Christ’s representatives and with Christ’s authority, but they are not mini-Christs. The presbyters do not have a blank check to decide whatever they want. The keys of the kingdom must always be tied to the King’s words. We should not make pronouncements or bind men’s consciences or exercise authority except in the matters clearly delineated in Scripture. And even where this authority ought to be exercised, the wise elder board will always try to inform the congregation and respond to their concerns.
This may not convince any of my wonderful congregational friends (and certainly won’t convince my non-wonderful ones!), but I sure do appreciate them asking the question. No one does better at taking ecclesiology seriously than 9Marks, Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman, and all my good friends at CHBC.