Presbyterian Church Government
What is an Elder and why do we have them?
The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “Presbuteros,” which means “elder.” Thus a Presbyterian church is one led by elders.
Southwood recently nominated, elected, ordained, and installed new Ruling Elders to be the Session of Southwood, to lead, nurture, and govern this particular congregation. Why do we bother to have elders anyway? Where does an elder’s authority actually come from? Where does a Session fit in our denomination as a whole? Keep reading!
One of the theological emphases of Presbyterians is the sovereignty of God—that Jesus is the Ruler of all the world and particularly the
King and Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22-23). Thus, Jesus is the source of all true authority, and He is the one who has commissioned his church to exercise spiritual authority through his Word and sacraments (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus gives this authority to the entire church (all his followers) and in particular to those whom God calls and the church selects to be officers in the church.
Elders ordained in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), are a part of three groups (“church courts”) to help govern the church: Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly. The PCA teaches the plurality and parity of elders. Plurality means that there should never be an elder ruling by himself; more than one is necessary for the establishment of a church. Parity means that all elders, whether teaching or ruling, are equal in authority and vote.
Who? All denomination’s Teaching Elders (pastors) and representing particular churches’ Ruling Elders
What? Speaks for and directs denomination as a whole, approves changes in constitution (approved by lower courts)
When? Meets Annually
In recent years there have been around 1,000 voting delegates (teaching elders and ruling elders) participating in a given General Assembly. Many other guests attend these open meetings.
The first General Assembly is recounted in Acts 15 and is often called the Jerusalem Council. Attendees included Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and James. This first gathering of church leaders focused on issues between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.
Who? A geographical region’s Teaching Elders (pastors) and representative Ruling Elders sent by each local church
What? Organizes new churches in area, Ordains Teaching Elders, Reviews records of each Session
When? Meets quarterly
Southwood is a member of Providence Presbytery, which consists of 17 PCA churches in North Alabama, from Cullman up to the Tennessee state line.
Providence Presbytery was formed in 2009 out of Evangel Presbytery. Evangel had grown very large and still includes PCA churches in the Birmingham area and beyond, but Providence is now able to focus its efforts more particularly to North Alabama.
Who? A local church’s Ruling Elders, Senior Pastor, Associate Pastors elected by the congregation
What? Oversees and cares for local church and its members
When? Meets at least quarterly
The biblical basis for organizing a church with elders (and deacons) comes primarily from the New Testament epistles, where Paul addresses the elders and deacons of particular churches (e.g. Philippians 1:1) and also commands Timothy, Titus, and others to appoint elders in various churches (I Timothy 3, Titus 1).
In the PCA there are two classes of elders: ruling and teaching. Ruling elders are members of local churches and elected by their congregation. Teaching elders (pastors) are members of the regional presbytery and are called to serve by a local church. I Timothy 5:17 implies some distinction among elders.