It 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 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.
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.”
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.<…