Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationIt wasn’t until very recently that some Presbyterians in the US started re-discovering their rich history of involvement in the formation and the founding of America, as we know her today—or as is the common perception of what she was supposed to be, originally. That rich history of Presbyterian initiative, involvement, and leadership in the political and judicial battles for liberty and justice in America has been hidden beneath several generations of government education of millions of American schoolchildren, and those Presbyterians who have cut their addiction to government schools have begun to actually study history and discover the historical truth about Presbyterianism.

The process of discovery of that truth has been both glorious and painful. Glorious, because we have been learning that Presbyterianism has been a much weightier factor in the formation and the founding of the United States as a nation, polity, economic and intellectual community, etc. than we ever thought. We have been discovering things like the real reasons for the Revolution: the sermons of Presbyterian pastors in the three decades before 1775. We have learned the unofficial name given the American Revolution by King George—the Presbyterian Rebellion; or the words of Horace Walpole’s announcement of the beginning of the hostilities, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.” In the first one hundred years of the existence of the United States, Presbyterianism—both as a church culture and as a theological system—was the major factor of forming the business and intellectual world of the young Republic. For better or for worse, Presbyterians were disproportionally over-represented on both sides of the War Between the States, and their theological systems were used on both sides for justification of political causes. Presbyterian ministers were among the leading voices against corruption and police brutality into the early decades of the 20th century. In the international arena, American Presbyterian missions—together with their British brethren—were shaping America’s foreign policy much more ably and successfully than her State Department: whether in China, or in India, or in the Ottoman Empire, or in Africa, Presbyterian missionaries exercised cultural influence far above their small numbers on the field, and by this, they were the true representatives of Christian America and therefore America in general. Presbyterian churches gave America many business and political leaders, and for a while the cultural war between conservatism and liberalism was only a broader reflection of theological conflicts within Presbyterian circles. It won’t be too much of an overstatement if one said that America was founded as a Presbyterian culture, and that influence was felt for several generations after the Revolution.

Discovering these historical facts and truths, however, has been as painful as it has been glorious. For in learning about the state and the cultural dominance of Presbyterianism in the founding of the United States, we can’t help but compare it to the present state and cultural presence of Presbyterianism. No need to even elaborate on it, the facts are clear before our eyes, and they are not in favor of modern Presbyterianism. 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.

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.

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).

A more detailed study into the Biblical foundation for the principle of plurality of elders is beyond the scope of this article, and is not necessary. The principle is not something new to be defended, it has been the very foundation of Presbyterian church polity for 400 years. It has been acknowledged as a valid Biblical principle even among those churches in the Reformed family who are formally Episcopalian or Congregational in their organization, as well as by most Reformed Baptist churches. It’s commonly acknowledged among Reformed Christians that concentrating power in the hands of one individual or institution is ultimately a claim to divinity, as the history of the Church of Rome clearly demonstrates. Thus, a local church body must be governed by a plurality of elders, so that no single person has such control over that body that to be above any personal or institutional accountability for his actions and decisions.

It is this Presbyterian polity, as was developed in the 18th century, that became the practical example for several generation of Americans in the realm of politics and civil government. While in theory many of the Founding Fathers looked to Greece and Rome for inspiration for their republican principles, in practice the majority of the population in the colonies learned republican principles in their churches, from their church ministers, and practiced them in their local congregations. Thus, even though the vast majority of modern Presbyterians are either ignorant of their own history or are antinomian, flatly rejecting the relation between the beliefs and practices in the church and the political and social structure of the nation, the Presbyterian principle of plurality of elders played an important role in the formation of the American political system, and will play a major role in the modern resistance to political tyranny and socialism in the future.

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:

First, it requires that the session is not equated to nor confused with the local church. When theoretically, legally, and practically, the session of a church is considered as the church itself, the congregation becomes no more than simply customers of the session who have no say in the government of the church. In that case, the very concept of abuse of power is ruled out: for abuse of power presupposes certain rights for the abused person, and those who are simply customers of an organization have no rights in it except for the choice between staying and taking their “business” elsewhere. Mutual checks and balances between the elders, then, become superfluous when it comes to abuse of power: for the only legitimately defined conflict is not between those who rule and those who are ruled, but only in between the rulers themselves.

If the church as a body is legally differentiated from the session as a body, and if the church is the primary and foundational institution of the Christian faith, this will mean that the session as a body will have to be under certain rules of accountability in respect to the local church itself. Otherwise, if the session is not accountable to the church, then the session is the real fundamental institution, and the church is only an auxiliary, providing human material for the session to govern. After all, the pretended function of a session is to “minister” or to “serve,” and a servant must always be accountable to the one whom he serves. A session can’t be free from accountability to the church to which it ministers, and its accountability must include the whole array of sanctions a church body may legitimately administer, including excommunication—in this case, excommunication of the session itself. Without such accountability, no internal checks and balances within the session can have any meaning, for an elder who decides to exercise his right to checks and balances will have no institutional grounds to make his opposition effective.

To make it simple: the accountability and liability of a session must match the privilege and power of a session. If a session has executive privilege over the church as a collective, it must also be under executive accountability as a collective. There must be legal rules for starting a lawsuit against a session, and there must be legal rules for excommunicating a session for its decisions, if they are found to be detrimental to the church. Without such balance between privilege and liability, there are no real checks and balances, and there is no protection against abuse.

Second, the elders must be all independent individuals of individual gifting and calling, heavily invested in their own individual callings under God, and less invested in the session itself as a collective. An elder whose authority rests entirely on his official position as an elder and not on any gifts or ministry he has to the church independent of his church office, will be too weak to oppose the session in its majority. Paul opposed no less influential apostle than Peter plus “the rest of the Jews” (Gal. 2:11-21), in their mistreatment of the Gentile believers; one individual stood in opposition to the whole congregation, including to his own co-worker Barnabas (v. 13), sharply rebuking Peter “in the presence of all.” (Obviously, rebuking men of authority is not subject to the order in Matt. 18:15-18.) Paul’s courage to stand alone against the majority of the elders in the church obviously came from the authority of his special ministry in the church, as related in the first half of the same chapter in Galatians. A man of a lesser ministry or of an average position in the church would lack the weight to stand before Peter himself and rebuke him in the presence of all. For the principle of checks and balances to work, the elders must all be independent of the session as far as their authority is concerned. This, of course, is not to mean that a man without a recognizable church ministry should be considered less than a man with one; the issue here is in the wisdom of placing such men in a position of legal power when they lack real authority.

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. 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.

It is for this reason that Paul legitimized his ministry not by the initial ordination he received in Antioch but by the obvious gift he had as an apostle of Christ, and the powerful works he did through the Holy Spirit. And when he advised Timothy, he admonished him to use and rekindle the gift given to him by prophecy (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6): obviously, Timothy’s real authority was based not on the mere ritual of being laid hands on but on the gift and on the prophecy. Without such real authority, no man can stand his ground alone against the majority, as Paul stood up to Peter and to the Council at Jerusalem.

Third, the session must be banned from making decisions by simple majority in all cases. Or, more precisely, individual veto must be incorporated in its rules, as well as legal immunity as protection for a dissenting elder against revenge by the majority. In other words, a dissenting elder must have the legal power to block a session’s decision in cases where it is needed for the protection of Christian liberty and for blocking tyranny in the church. Just as in St. Augustine’s description of the Trinity, no Person is greater than another, and no two Persons are together greater than the third,1 a session must not be allowed to make a combination of elders greater than a single elder in the decisions of the session.

It is a modern misconception in the Presbyterian churches that plurality of elders means decisions by majority. This is the heresy of democracy, it is not plurality of elders. In the Bible, in almost all cases, decisions by majority were the wrong decisions, and God has always worked through minorities, or most often through individual dissenters against the crowd. Based on Biblical example, odds are that even among the covenant people, the majority decision is wrong. And it is only to be expected given the fact that especially in the modern churches, where most of the elders are average men of no real authority and leadership and only legal power, such elders will tend to want to be associated with the more powerful group, the majority. While this may sound a bit too judgmental on men whom everyone around them perceives to be “just fine” and not in any way deliberately evil, let’s not forget Peter’s example where he just went with the crowd instead of with the Lord (Gal. 2). Men of lesser stature and inspiration than Peter can be easily expected to commit the same sin, and in the absence of an inspired Paul to rebuke them publicly—or in the case where such Paul is banned or blocked from rebuking them by a majority decision—continue to fall deeper and deeper into it. A gang mentality is then developed and even nurtured in the sessions of the Presbyterian churches; a mentality which tends to reward conformity and acquiescence with sin and abuse, and which punishes principled dissent and individual opposition.

Plurality of elders, thus, consists not in the majority decision but in the individual veto. Only when a dissenting elder is legally empowered to block harmful decisions no matter how numerous a majority stands against him, and only when that elder is legally protected against revenge by the rest of the session, there is true plurality of elders.

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. First, there are no rules for accountability of a session in any of the major Presbyterian denominations in the US. In fact, as we will see later, some of them identify a church with its session to the point that when a session is dissolved or excluded from the denomination, the church gets dissolved and excluded as well. There are no rules for accountability of a session in respect to its church. There is no liability of a session as a collective to balance the executive power of the session as a collective. Second, there is neither a theology nor a practical ideology of ordaining the right people to eldership. Church sessions often resemble government offices: faceless bureaucrats whose only “authority” is their official position of institutional power. Most of those elders have no identifiable service to the church outside the session, no identifiable special gifting, nothing that would leave an individual’s imprint separately from their bureaucratic power. In fact, if anything, modern Presbyterianism seems to be eager to exclude “troublemakers” from its system of government, forgetting that it is those who are branded as “troublemakers” who move the church forward. Third, there is no legal protection for those “troublemakers” who happen to be ordained to office. To the contrary, an individual elder who takes the risk to stand against the majority and work to block their harmful decisions is legally open to all kinds of revenge. In an inverse manner to the session, such an elder has no legal power to affect the decisions of a session in any possible way—because majority rules, you know—but he is vulnerable to lawsuits and legal revenge from the rest of the session. And he is not entitled to any support by the same congregation whose liberty and rights he is trying to preserve—because in modern Presbyterianism, church courts are entirely controlled by ordained elders, with absolutely no power granted to non-elders.

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. Dissenting elders are not safe either; I have personally been a witness to at least two cases where an elder who dared stand up to the session was later framed for some trivial or imaginary infractions and forced to step down from his position of eldership. A similar case in the OPC just recently saw an elder known for his stand against the majority in the session taken to church court for something his wife had not done because of her chronic illness. (No, I am not making this up; it’s a real case.) As I am writing this article, a scandal is developing in another denomination around a Reformed celebrity, where in a case of abuse of an underage girl by a man in the church, the father of the girl was threatened with excommunication for daring criticize the elders for their failure to act on the side of justice. In another case, a member of the missionary committee of a local Presbyterian church was forced to resign after objecting to the church participating in a charity ministry in which openly occult organizations have ruling power. In another recent case, a long-time pastor, preacher, theologian, and political activist of unquestionable prophetic gift to the church was forced out of his church by the majority in the session, all of them mediocre men of no standing and no recognizable ministry in the church. His “sin” was his defense of the Christian liberty of a family in his church against a tyrannical decision by the session. And the examples can be multiplied. If all these scandals were made public, the Obama administration would look like pale amateurs compared to the corruption, tyranny, and lack of accountability in the Presbyterian churches.

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 claim of some modern Presbyterian elders is that membership in a local church is a vow of loyalty to the local church—not to the universal body of Christ—and therefore leaving a local church must be done only by permission of the elders upon absolution from the vow. As staggering as it is that such practice can even be allowed in Reformed churches, I have seen it openly enforced in dozens of cases where members of good standing were excommunicated for no other reason but their desire to switch membership to another Reformed church, even in the same denomination! The Mafia principle has been adopted by modern Presbyterianism and reworked to fit its needs: from “No one gets out of here alive” to “No one gets out of here in good standing. You either stay and submit or we will destroy your reputation.”

Collectivism Encoded in the Lawbooks

Throughout the years, I have raised this issue with a number of friends who are members or even elders in one or another Presbyterian denomination: PCA, OPC, CREC, and some smaller denominations. In some cases they see the problem and have no solution for it. Most of the time, my correspondents attempt to justify the system by declaring that what I see are “a few bad apples,” but legally, their denomination has its rules and by-laws which deal with the issue. Then they direct me to the Book of Church Order of their denomination to find the legal solution to the problem.

But a close examination of the Books of Church Order of any Presbyterian denomination in the US shows that not only there is no legal solution, but the legal rules in fact encode oligarchic government and legal collectivism, and make it very difficult for individual dissenters from within a denomination or a specific church in it to block tyranny or to protect Christian liberty.

Take, for example, the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

The first obvious thing in it about ecclesiastical power is that the individual elder is stripped of the power to rule, and this power is given to a collective. This much is specifically said in the very first chapter of the BCO:

1-5. Ecclesiastical jurisdiction is not a several but a joint power, to be exercised by presbyters in courts.

The same principle is repeated in chapter 4:

4-3. Its jurisdiction, being a joint power, is lodged in the church Session, which consists of its pastor, pastors, its associate pastor(s) and its ruling elders.

The chapters on church government don’t give any information on what that “joint power” may mean: whether it means decisions by unanimous consent, or decisions by a majority vote. The clue about what this means comes from Chapter 45, “Dissents, Protests and Objections,” where points 45-2 and 45-3 describe dissents and protests as actions available to the minority in the session (or any other court) when it is dissatisfied with a particular decision of the majority. Therefore, apparently, the PCA expects that its church session will make their decisions by a majority vote.

It’s not clear what Biblical justification there is for such a practice. For our “democratic” age, it seems self-evident; but it certainly is not proven from the Bible. While the Bible does describe decisions by majority vote, in not a single one of these cases is the decision in agreement with God’s will. (See, for example, the people vs. Samuel in 1 Sam. 8; the 10 spies vs. Joshua and Caleb in Num. 14; court prophets vs. Micaiah in 1 Kings 22; Paul against Peter and the whole church in Antioch in Gal. 2.) On the other hand, there are examples of the Holy Spirit siding with a ruling body when everyone on that body is of the same mind. (See, for example, Acts 15; or the requirement for public executions in the Law for the whole community to participate, e.g. Num. 15:35.) If the Biblical evidence on the issue of collective action has any meaning, it is that God supports it when it’s an unanimous decision, but sides with the minority when there is dissent. Why the PCA has decided that imposing the will of the majority over the minority is a Biblical principle is a mystery to me. And the BCO provides no Biblical reference for such a practice.

What’s even worse, the practice effectively bans any dissenting elder from exercising his authority. It is, for all practical purposes, a surrender of the authority of the individual elders to the collective will of the majority. It is not rule by plurality of elders, but by singularity of the session. While in theory, the government of the church should be in the hands of the elders as individuals, in practice it is taken away from them and given to a collective. An elder only gets to rule effectively if he agrees with the majority. In the minority, he is legally banned from exercising his prerogative. It’s the collective of the session who rules.

And yet, with so much power vested in the collective of the session, the BCO doesn’t provide a single paragraph where the power of the session as a body is matched by any accountability or liability of the session as a body. The maximum “penalty” on a session is to have its decisions reversed by an appeal to a higher court (BCO 42-9). The BCO doesn’t allow for the possibility that a collective decision by the majority of a session may be as egregious a crime itself to deserve more than just a reversal but actual censure, or even court action against the session itself. And that even though the very BCO lists the cases in which an appeal may be filed, some of which may clearly indicate malice or outright wickedness on the part of the session:

42-3. The grounds of appeal are such as the following: any irregularity in the proceedings of the lower court; refusal of reasonable indulgence to a party on trial; receiving improper or declining to receive proper evidence; hurrying to a decision before all the testimony is taken; manifestation of prejudice in the case; and mistake or injustice in the judgment and censure.

In short, if the majority of the elders in a session conspire to do injustice, the worst liability they will experience is to see their decisions reversed by a higher court. No repercussions against them as a session.

And while the individual elder is stripped of his power to govern, and this power given to the session, he faces responsibility and accountability much greater than that of the session. He is liable to all the censures as any other individual in the church, plus removal from office (Chapter 30). There is a special chapter on rules for court cases against an individual elder. Interestingly enough, while the election of elders is a prerogative of the congregation (chapter 24), if an elder is removed from office by a decision of the session, the congregation has no power to demand his re-installment. It can only re-elect him after the session has removed the censure from him. Thus, in cases where the majority in the session acts self-consciously against the congregation in removing elders who stand against tyranny, the congregation has very little power to protect itself against a session that has gotten out of control.

This means that if a dissenting elder who interposes to protect the congregation from injustice is falsely accused, the most he can hope for is a reversal of the decision of his session by a higher court, and that only after a long and laborious process. His false accusers won’t face liability challenges for their false charges. The unjust judges in the session won’t face liability challenges for their injustice. They will be free to try again, with another false accusation and another unjust process, until they happen to have a favorable majority in a higher court which will uphold their decision.

Thus, the PCA’s legal rules are not exactly the environment where plurality of elders is practiced, nor where Christian liberty is protected.

What about the Community of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC)?

Theoretically, the CREC’s Constitution acknowledges the possibility of a church session committing sin as a body. The Constitution and By-Laws of the CREC, Article IV.D.4.d, gives the following legal reasons for a complaint against a local church session:

d) A complaint against the Session of a local church may be brought to a court above the local level only under the following circumstances:

i. when the Session of elders is accused of participating in or tolerating grievous dishonesty in subscription to the doctrinal or constitutional standards of the local church; or

ii. when the Session of elders is accused of gross misbehavior.

This looks like a good start to force some accountability on church sessions . . . but only until one realizes that the CREC’s Constitution doesn’t acknowledge a legal standing of a congregation separate from its session. Which means, any sanction against a local church session is by default a sanction against the local church as a whole, even when the session’s sin, injustice, or misbehavior were committed against their own congregation. The Constitution and the By-Laws don’t mention any specific sanctions against a session of elders; even though the listed reasons for complaint would warrant excommunication of the session as a whole in the most egregious cases, where the session is unrepentant, a session as a body is safe from repercussions, as long as they act collectively, as a body.

In the worst case scenario, a session may be sanctioned by the removal of the whole congregation from the denomination. As ludicrous as this may sound, it is actually directly suggested as a possibility in the Constitution. For example, in Article II.F., speaking of examination of elders, the constitution allows for the possibility that the session acts unwisely contrary to council from the Presbytery, and that the Presbytery may need to move against the session:

. . . The presbytery may or may not recommend his ordination to the session of the local congregation. The local session is not judicially bound by the recommendation of presbytery. If a local session does not abide by the presbytery recommendation, then the presbytery may or may not initiate proceedings according to Article IV.D.5.

But Article IV.D.5. specifically punishes the congregation for the actions of the elders:

The decisions of the assemblies with regard to the local congregation are spiritually authoritative. If the elders of a particular congregation choose to refuse the instruction of the broader church, the congregation may do so without deprivation of property. However, if their disregard of godly counsel is particularly egregious, the congregation may be removed from membership in the CREC, in accordance with constitutional procedure.

In short, if a member of the congregation, or the whole congregation, makes a complaint against their own session—as a body—for excommunicable offenses, the Presbytery has no legal mandate, nor any legal grounds, to demand accountability of the session, or to excommunicate the session as a body. In the heaviest sanction available, the victims suffer with the perpetrators in being removed from fellowship.

Thus, as long as a local session which has gone rogue against its own congregation closes its ranks and acts jointly so that no single elder can be taken to court for his individual actions and decisions, the session is safe. A complaint by a member of the congregation is highly unlikely, because in the worst-case scenario, the whole congregation gets punished for the actions of the session. At the same time any individual dissenting elder or member of the congregation who dares stand against the session is still liable at the local level, and can reverse a decision of the session only after an appeal; and even there, the Constitution sets certain limits on appeals (IV.D.3.c). To compare, there are no set limits on the jurisdiction and power of the local session.

Thus, the CREC’s Constitution is another example of judicial collectivism. Individual elders have no real power in the church, but are liable as anyone else; sessions, on the other hand, have all the power in the local church, but face no accountability nor liability. While the Constitution pays lip service to the principle of plurality of elders (Article II.C.), in reality, it rejects the principle and encourages singularity of the session, instead.

Let’s look at the Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

Much to my surprise and contrary to my initial expectations when I started this study, the OPC is much closer to the ideal of plurality of elders than the other Presbyterian denominations. While in terms of the main issue—individual veto vs. majority’s diktat—the OPC doesn’t differ much, it has a much greater focus on two other points that are crucial for the practical working of the principle.

First, the OPC has a very clear focus on the individual gifting and the exercise of it by the elders. Chapter XXVI of the BCO, “Divesting from Office,” acknowledging briefly that an elder can be divested from office for “an offense in doctrine or life,” continues with mentioning the lack of gifting and the failure to exercise the gifts as a reason for divesting:

3. a. A presbytery shall consider divesting a minister of his office without censure if:

(1) he fails to seek a ministerial charge actively unless temporarily for reasons of health; or

(2) it appears to the presbytery, over a period of time normally not to exceed two years, that he is not called to ministerial service because he does not possess the gifts requisite for the gospel ministry; or

(3) he fails to perform adequately the work of the ministry through lack of the requisite gifts;

In addition, the next point puts additional pressure on ministers by requiring that they earn their authority by being helpful to the congregation:

4. a. A ruling elder or deacon may be divested of his office if his services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation. . . .

Both of these points, if followed faithfully in the legal and spiritual practice of the church, will tend to weed out the “bureaucrats” among the elders. The pressure is on the elders to be gifted and to actively exercise their gifts in order to retain their position of power. On the positive end of that pressure, elders will tend to be all individuals with strong callings and strong individualities, which, as pointed above, is a fundamental prerequisite to the successful operation of the principle of plurality of elders.

Of course, how much these clauses are paid attention to in practice is a different matter.

Second, the BCO of the OPC clearly distinguishes between a session and its congregation. This legal distinction starts with a declaration in the very first chapter of the BCO that I found stunning, given the modern views of church government in Presbyterianism:

The presbyterian form of government seeks to fulfill these scriptural requirements for the glory of Christ, the edification of the church, and the enlargement of that spiritual liberty in which Christ has set us free. Nevertheless, while such scriptural government is necessary for the perfection of church order, it is not essential to the existence of the church visible. (I.3.)

This means, translated into practical action, that the OPC would acknowledge a congregation as being part of the visible church even if that congregation doesn’t have a session, or doesn’t have any formal government whatsoever, as long as the following condition earlier in the clause is obeyed:

Among the biblical admonitions applicable to all circumstances are those requiring that all things must be done decently, in order, and for edification.

It sounds like, according to the BCO, the view of the OPC concerning church sessions is that the existence of a particular church government is predicated on that church government being only a means to a higher goal; the existence of a session is not a goal per se. This would tend to—theoretically, at least—weaken the power of a session, and thus force the session to work to strengthen its spiritual authority instead. It will also mean that a congregation has a separate standing from its session. And indeed, according to Article XIII.10 (and also II.D.1. of the Book of Discipline), when a session ceases to exist, the congregation is still a full-fledged member of the denomination:

If a session shall cease to exist or become so small as to prevent it from working effectively, the presbytery shall provide for an election and ordination of elders from within the congregation; or the presbytery, with the consent of the congregation, may appoint ruling elders or ministers, or both, normally from within the same presbytery, to be an acting session or to augment the existing session temporarily.

In case the rules of the OPC allowed for an excommunication of a session, this rule would prevent a congregation from being punished for the sins of its session.

The OPC’s official pressure on the church sessions to show themselves worthy of their calling and power is additionally reinforced by a special chapter in the BCO which recognizes the need for and the importance of what could be called “para-church ministries.” The first two points of that Chapter XXX, “Organizations of Members of the Church,” are worth quoting here in full:

1. Every Christian has the freedom and obligation to exercise the general office of the believer not only individually but also in fellowship with other members of the body of Christ. Members of the church may therefore associate together for specific purposes in the exercise of their common calling. Such organizations, however, under ordinary circumstances, shall not assume the prerogatives or exercise the functions of the special officers of the church.

2. When a church fails to perform its divinely given task, church members should seek remedies through biblical procedures of government and discipline. In the event that remedy cannot be obtained, or if the church is unable to work in a particular situation, Christians may organize to carry on activities that would more normally be conducted under the appropriate judicatory of the church, until these unusual circumstances are overcome.

This clause sets the OPC apart as the denomination that is the closest possible to the plurality of elders principle in the fact that it allows officially for creating alternative courts parallel to the official government of the church—and the opportunity is open not only to dissenting elders, but to all the members of any congregation in the OPC. Provided that church members are really educated about this option, this would at least create the basis for real accountability on a church session, to match its power.

Unfortunately, along with such good points in the BCO, the specific definitions of the power of the session over the local body are similar to those of the other denominations; and the lack of judicial accountability for the session as a body is the same. And again, while Biblical support is claimed for government by a collective, such Biblical support is not provided:

Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament. . . . (III.2.)

It’s difficult to see where exactly this “joint exercise” as a dominant principle is set forth in the New Testament, and the BCO doesn’t provide any evidence for it. The New Testament gives examples of both joint exercise and individual veto, and it doesn’t declare one as dominant over the other. The Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15 shows both individual decision and joint action by unanimous consent as being legitimate method of government: In v. 19 James declares “it is my judgment” on an issue that is the fundamental issue of controversy in the whole church; and in v. 22 another decision is made based on “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.” As I already mentioned above, in Gal. 2 Paul’s individual veto overruled the almost unanimous consent of the whole church in Antioch concerning interaction with Gentile believers.

All in all, such language in the BCO—without any specific mention of individual veto—doesn’t contribute to the principle of plurality of elders. To the contrary, it establishes the rival principle of the singularity of the session, effectively banning individual dissenters from being part of church government. Only those elders exercise jurisdiction who happen to side with the majority; the others have no say in it, and their “jurisdiction” is as good as no jurisdiction at all. If a dissenting elder is not legally capable of blocking a decision that he sees as sinful or unjust, then there is no plurality in any sense of the word.

In addition to this, of course, as in the previous two cases, the session as a body is safe from repercussions. While given jurisdiction over the local church as a body, the session faces no accountability as a body. The last chapter of the Book of Discipline of the OPC deals with the cases where there is a complaint against a session. The bulk of the chapter is concerned with legal procedures, and only the last point is judicial, covering the issue of what happens when the session is really guilty. The solution is such as to protect a session, no matter how evil its actions may have been:

If a judicatory is adjudged delinquent or in error by a higher judicatory, the higher judicatory shall determine what amends are to be made. (Book of Discipline IX.7.)

And this is the last point in the Book of Discipline. So it’s just amends. Which means, sanctions or censures are out of question. A session which makes an evil decision, even if found guilty by a higher court, is protected from real accountability or responsibility. The worst they can experience is being asked to make amends. For example, reverse the evil decision they have made. No punishment, no restitution, no threat of excommunication as a body for their evil decisions as a body . . . just amends.

Which means, immoral acts of individual elders—who by the BCO have no real authority individually—can bring liability on them individually; immoral acts by a session as a body—which has the real authority—are free of liability and accountability. For all the good things in the BCO of the OPC, gang mentality is still strongly encouraged by the very documents of the denomination.

The list can continue with the smaller Presbyterian denominations where the same principles of government are encoded. In all of them, one thing is obvious: While lip service is paid to the principle of plurality of elders, in reality, the principle is rejected and replaced with the singularity of the collective. And while the session is given collectively—or, “jointly”—all the jurisdiction over the local church, there is no corresponding level of accountability or liability for a session. Legally, the individual elder has no power, but is open to prosecution and censure; the session as a body has all the power, but is protected from prosecution and censure. Contrary to the claims of many Presbyterians today that even if the principle is not obeyed, it is encoded in the books, the reality, it isn’t, and the completely opposite principle is in those books.

The Historical Roots of the Problem

The problem is not new nor recent, of course, and as far as the legal aspect of it is concerned, it is rooted in the theory of church government of 17th-century Scottish Presbyterianism.

It is seldom acknowledged—or even understood—that between mid-16th century and mid-17th century, the view of church government of Scottish Presbyterians underwent a radical change. So radical that had earlier Reformers like John Knox or George Wishart appeared in Scotland a century after their deaths, they would hardly be able to recognize their own doctrine of the church in the covenant documents of the 17th-century Scottish Kirk.

In the earlier phase, when Roman Catholicism was still politically dominant in Scotland, the early Scottish divines had a rather Congregational view of the government of the church. In the struggle with the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy over the pulpits, the early Scottish Reformers relied heavily on the support of the laity. Almost every one of these early preachers was either unordained or stripped of his ordination by the church authorities. Their appeal was to the people and to the secular rulers, to take charge of the pulpits and hand them over to faithful preachers, over against the corrupt and heretical Roman priests. Knox, Wishart, Buchanan, and many other early Reformers could have access to the pulpits only through non-ecclesiastical means, and they readily took advantage of those means to oppose the ruling church hierarchy of their day. The first half of John Howie’s book, Scots Worthies, has multiple examples of such unordained preaching and teaching and government in the churches in Scotland. No matter what is claimed today by Presbyterian historians, the roots of Presbyterianism in Scotland were congregational, not Presbyterian. Without this congregational rebellion of the Scottish people and rulers in taking over the pulpits and giving them to the Reformers, Presbyterianism might have never taken ground there. Their view of church government followed suit: The oversight and accountability of church government was to be entrusted to the people and their rulers. The early forms of the Scottish “National Covenant” were a mixture of congregational and civil control over the church and the pulpits; see, for example, the “Lords of the Congregation” and their struggles in the mid-16th century.

Within a century, the political situation in Scotland changed, and the views of church government of the Covenanters also changed, dramatically, in favor of a narrow denominational establishmentarianism which would secure for the Presbyteries the same power over the society as was previously enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church. The locus of power, of course, would be now in the hands of collectives of church ministers—sessions and presbyteries—rather than bishops of monarchical power. The central ideologue of this Presbyterian high-churchism was Samuel Rutherford, in his two books, Due Rights of Presbyteries (1644) and The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication (1648). Both books were 800-pages long each, and they covered a number of individual issues in the controversies over the nature and structure of church government, but in terms of the principles of their approach to church government, they were a radical departure from the practice and the views of the earlier Scottish Reformers, and, for that matter, from the practice and the views of all the other churches and the denominations in the Reformed family. The very use of the term “divine right” already spoke against the hitherto established views that no matter what form the government of the church took, it had to be accountable to the congregation.

In his ideas, Rutherford went as far as to free the church leadership of almost all formal institutional obligations, including the obligation to church discipline; he argued against the notion that a true church is characterized by church discipline. On the other hand, while many obligations were canceled, the power of the “magisterial” ministers was expanded to where they could demand from the civil ruler to use his power to impose creedal unity on the population to the minutest details of doctrine. This violation of the practical Protestant rule, “in non-essentials, liberty,” which was the basis for common action and support between the different branches of the Reformed and Protestant world, shoved Scottish Presbyterianism in a radical sectarian corner in relation to the rest of the Reformed churches in Europe. It justly provoked severe criticism from other Reformed groups, and especially from many Puritans. John Milton specifically mentioned Samuel Rutherford as one of the “forcers of conscience” in a poem which ended with “new presbyter is old priest writ large.” To their contemporaries, the Scottish presbyters of the mid-17th century seemed a bit too eager to appropriate for themselves the same unlimited power the Romanist bishops had enjoyed a century earlier. A Christian establishment of division of powers and checks and balances was the accepted Reformed vision for the society; the Scots wanted a denominational establishment of “divine right” for the leaders of a narrow sect, free of any accountability to anyone outside their presbyteries and sessions.

Thus was the foundation for the problems in modern Presbyterianism laid.

Despite this foundation, though, Presbyterianism didn’t immediately degenerate into ecclesiastical tyranny and abuse. In fact, for the next 250 years after the publication of Rutherford’s two books, it seemed that most of the Presbyterian divines ignored Rutherford’s radical positions. Presbyterianism remained partially congregational, especially in America, where the pulpits were more often controlled by the laity than by presbyteries or sessions. In America, the Presbyterian churches adopted a much milder and more inclusive form of establishmentarianism than Rutherford’s rigid denominational version of it. One reason for it, of course, could be his love for scholastic argumentation and natural law. His long-winded arguments were hard to keep up with even for divinity students of his own time. Added the much more socially powerful practice of the Puritans and the other Reformed groups, and Rutherford’s high-churchism proved to be still-born from the very beginning, and quickly died out even in Scotland.

Another, more powerful factor for the cultural ascendance of early Presbyterianism despite it’s flawed view of church government were the charismatic views of its founders and early leaders. In the early struggles of the Reformation in Scotland, prophetic gifts and utterances, and miraculous experiences were commonplace among the Reformers, as John Howie’s Scots Worthies reveals. The second phase of the Reformation in Scotland didn’t diminish the high view of the operation of the Holy Spirit; the idea that prophecy had ceased after the apostolic age was not accepted as valid, and during the Civil Wars both Scotland and England, Presbyterians and Puritans, witnessed a revival of prophetic gifts and experiences. Both church and government authorities took these prophecies seriously and spent considerable time and energy verifying their truthfulness and validity; some of them were even incorporated into official government and church announcements at the time. Based on historical testimonies, there is hardly another period in the history of the church when so much of church and public life was guided by prophetic revelation.

Rutherford himself specifically acknowledged the existence and the validity of prophetic revelation in the present, post-apostolic era, and he mentioned Luther and John Knox among those who had prophetic revelation. His book on The Divine Right of Church Government required that prophets only prophesy under the auspices of the church; his claim was that a spiritual gift can only be exercised as a church office, and therefore there could be no “unordained prophets.” This specific argument, of course, was fallacious; for, if carried to its logical conclusion, it would presuppose ordination of women-prophetesses to teaching and ruling positions in the church (see Acts 21:9). Nevertheless, in combination with the high doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the charismatic practices prevalent at the time, it put pressure on the Presbyterian churches to seek out gifted men for the ministry instead of sitting bureaucrats. Church ordination in that period of Presbyterianism before the 1850s was more motivated by a recognition of already operational gifts and ministries than by any institutional needs of a church or organization. It is that period that gave us the greatest Presbyterian names who changed the history of the West—and the history of missions as well. It is in that period that Presbyterianism reached the pinnacle of its cultural influence, inspiring the American Revolution and a broader political quest for political and economic liberty, launching a global mission movement whose momentum continues even today. An astonishing number of business practices and enterprises, and charity organizations today have their roots in Presbyterianism of the 18th and the 19th centuries; and much of what is good in the modern political discourse has its ideological roots in Presbyterian theological writings of that period. Gifted and active men, considered rather “troublemakers” by the modern ecclessiocracy, were at the time actively encouraged to seek ordination and take up leadership roles in the church. The fallacious doctrine of church government was offset by the Biblical doctrine of the operation of the Holy Spirit, and the results were outstanding.

Predictably, the decline started when the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was replaced by the new rationalist doctrine of cessationism, in the mid-19th century. Even as Howie was writing his Scots Worthies in the second half of the 18th century, the rationalism of the Enlightenment was already dominant in the intellectual circles in Scotland. By the 1840s, it had taken over the church as well, so much that the 1846 edition of Howie’s book was purged of all mentions of supernatural gifts and miracles among the early Scottish Reformers. Within a generation, by the end of the 19th century, the Presbyterian churches in both America and Scotland transferred their leadership from men of spiritual gifts to men of bureaucratic acumen. Accordingly, the cultural influence of Presbyterianism declined. The 1930s were the last decade when developments within American Presbyterianism made national news: Machen’s losing fight against the entrenched liberal rationalist bureaucracy in the Northern Presbyterian Church and his organizing the new denomination of the OPC and the Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Within a decade, American Presbyterianism was relegated to the periphery of American culture, where it remains to this day. Rushdoony’s words applied in full force:

In any case, where a strong doctrine of the Spirit is not operative and governing, a strong doctrine of the church replaces it, so that institutional controls and government replace the Spirit.2

And since those institutional controls and government were based on a false ideology about government—Rutherford’s “divine right”—they eventually led to decline.

Reconstructing the Plurality of Elders Principle

Based on the historical trends of the last 100 years, it should be obvious that modern Presbyterianism is, for all practical purposes, dead. In some denominations, like the PCUSA, the name may remain but the essence is lost. In a number of smaller denominations an allegedly more “conservative” form may continue to linger for some time without any hope of restoring the power and cultural impact of the old Presbyterianism. (And in some of them—the PCA, for example—theological liberalism and its practices have been growing for the last several decades.) The Calvinist “revival” of the last couple decades seems to have lost steam; which was to be expected, given that it was strongly pietistic and essentially Arminian, focused entirely on personal salvation, not on the Kingdom of God.3 The seminaries that pass for “Calvinist” and “Reformed,” training men for the Presbyterian pulpits, are just as pietistic and essentially Arminian (even if Calvinist in name), limiting their courses to obscure theoretical subjects rather than building a comprehensive worldview in their students. A seminary graduate who can make a covenantal analysis of the modern society’s idols and pagan practices, and issue a practical call to his listeners for reforming the society, is almost impossible to find; seminary graduates are specialized in keeping themselves in the periphery by toothless pontifications on irrelevant issues.

In short, to borrow an idea from the Left Behind movie, if modern Presbyterianism is “raptured” out of the American society, hardly anyone would notice. 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. Thus, there can be no divine right for church government, just as there is no divine right for civil government, which is supposed to be just as ministerial (Rom. 13:4, 6). This means that sessions must be under oversight and made accountable for their decisions as sessions. A legal provision must be included in the Books of Church order of any future Presbyterian denomination that if a session is found to have committed injustice in its official judgments, the session as a body—or at least those who have voted for injustice—must be subject to discipline, including excommunication. (With the option for individual repentant former elders of being received back in the church upon genuine repentance.) Not simply amends to the decision, not simply a repeal of the decision, but a full-force application of the principle in Deut. 19:18-19 to all ecclesiastical judicatories: the elders who have voted for injustice must be made to pay for it, in one way or another. No more anonymity, and no more freedom from accountability for elders who hide behind the majority vote.

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. And when an individual elder overturns such a decision, he must be protected against revenge by the other elders; which can happen by giving the congregation the right to block legal action against individual elders who have acted in its defense. At every level, power must be matched by responsibility and accountability; the principle of Luke 12:48 must be established as the mainstay principle for church government: “To whom much is given, much shall be required of him.”

Third, the very philosophy of ordination must be overturned. 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.4 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.

Conclusion

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.

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  1. Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, Book VIII. []
  2. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 296. []
  3. See my article, “‘TULIP’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Reformed’ — ‘City on a Hill’ Does.” []
  4. See R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I, ch. 14, “The Church.” []

About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/

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9 Responses to Modern Presbyterianism and the Destruction of the Principle of Plurality of Elders

  1. John Cummins February 21, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    Sweet, very sweet!

  2. Dark Puritan February 24, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    You finally got me Boji, for so long I had known something was wrong with the system now I know the answer, I was afraid of sinning against the church and my fellow believes by questioning how eldership was being don in the reformed community. I know of an elder the only elder shepherding the flock who left after he tried to hold the other three elders accountable for there lack of diligence with the sheep of God he was out voted when he left his reason was his commitment to his pledge to submit to the majority rule and he didn’t want to cause a ruckus and cause division but he was burning out sholdering the load alone. At the time being indoctrinated to elder ruled I agreed, my wife being more decerning asked “so where does that leave the sheep? Now they have no shepherd how can that be right?” She, in what I in my mind at the time was a little to rebellious when she suggested that elder should bring the issue before the congregation.

    • Bojidar Marinov February 24, 2016 at 10:05 am #

      You wouldn’t believe how many people have been through the same experiences, and have felt the same way, and have not known what to do, simply because they have been duped to believe that what is in the churches today is “real” church government.

      The truth is, there’s hardly a church today that has real church government based on Biblical standards. The vast majority of churches are governed on pagan “natural-law” principles, not on Biblical principles.

  3. Don Schanzenbach February 27, 2016 at 10:06 am #

    This article is excellent and informative. I have seen the exercise of church powers just as you describe.

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