‘Presbyterian’ is a strange word (and hard to spell!) But it says a lot about our church, what we believe, and how we function.
It comes from the Greek word ‘presbuteros’ (πρεσβύτερος) and means ‘elder.’ From the beginning of the denomination in Scotland, this word has proclaimed a great deal.
First, it says that rather than being led by priests, we are led by the Great High Priest who provided the last sacrifice for sins – himself. We don’t have priests who provide sacrifices on altars. Instead, we are led by a group of men called ‘elders.’ So, ‘Presbyterian’ says we believe Jesus is our priest who provided the once for all sacrifice for sins (1 Pet 3:18).
Second, (as already stated), it reflects the biblical pattern and command that the church be led by a group of men called ‘elders.’ This is the pattern established in Acts (e.g. 14:23; 20:17) and commanded in the epistles (e.g. 1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9, 1 Pet 5:1-4). These men are to be godly, able to teach, and caring for the church. The Presbyterian church is not a one-man show – we are a team, being equipped by a leadership team.
(It should be noted, the Bible uses the terms ‘elder,’ ‘overseer/bishop’ and ‘shepherd/pastor’ interchangeably – see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet 5:1-2.)
Third, we are an interconnected church. Some denominations are ruled by a hierarchy of bishops/priests, with many churches ultimately being ruled by one person. Other denominations have their churches be completely independent from one another (though they might be friendly towards one another, they have no impact on the others’ church leadership).
The Presbyterian system, on the other hand, says that all churches are interconnected, reflecting the reality of the council in Acts 15 where the apostles and elders gathered to make a decision for all the churches (see below for the explanation of how that works). Each church governs itself through its elders, but receives oversight from the other churches in the region, then State, then nation.
So, what does ‘Presbyterian’ mean? It means we are a church which believes Jesus is our priest and once-for-all sacrifice, led by a group of qualified men called ‘elders,’ who are connected to other Presbyterian churches.
Not only are the leaders of each individual church a team leading their local church to be a team for Christ’s glory, but all Presbyterian churches form a larger team, with the goal to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ – his death and resurrection, and the call to repent and believe. Will you join us?
Some odd words
Coming into any unfamiliar system will mean learning some new words (or even adjusting familiar words to mean different things). Here are some words you might like to know:
Elder: a man elected by the congregation to be one of the leaders of the church. This is a lifelong position (unless they resign, move away, or are removed from the position because of heresy or gross ungodliness).
Session: the Session is the official meeting of the elders. It is here decisions are made concerning the spiritual direction of the church. (Think “The court is now in session” in any courtroom scene you’ve seen on TV.)
Board of Management: The BoM is the body that cares for the finances and property of the church. Those elected to the Board (a two-year position) are called Managers. (Elders are automatically on the Board.)
Deacon: someone elected by the congregation to care for the material well-being of the poor and needy. This is a three-year position.
Presbytery: The State is divided into regions called ‘presbyteries.’ From each church in that region, their pastor and one other elder gathers with the other pastors and designated elders. They meet as a presbytery to have oversight over each church and to plan for future gospel ministry within that presbytery. They may also hear appeals from decisions made in a Session.
Assembly: This is the week-long meeting of every pastor and a representative elder from each church in the denomination, exercising further oversight, hearing appeals from decisions made in Presbyteries, and determining the rules by which the denomination will function. (There is a State Assembly every year, and a national Assembly every three years. The national Assembly does not include every single pastor and representative elder, but a proportion.)
Courts: When elders meet formally, they meet in a court. It is these courts which have decision-making authority – no individual can make unilateral decisions. The courts of the church are: Session, Presbytery and Assembly. Think of them as a mix of a parliament (making rules for how the church will run) and a law court (hearing appeals about a lower court’s decision).
Confused? That’s OK! Come and chat to Jesse about it. He’d love to clear it up for you.