Part of our Reformed heritage is a conviction that the Bible gives us the principles we need for governing the church. “We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word…” (Belgic Confession. Art. 30). The Belgic Confession explicitly describes only the government of the local congregation. But most of us as Reformed people have believed that the Bible teaches the form of church government known as Presbyterianism.

The word Presbyterianism comes from the Greek word presbuteros, meaning elder. Presbyterianism teaches that the church is governed by elders and ministers. It believes that Christ has given authority to the elders and ministers to govern the local congregation (Acts 14:23. Titus 1:5) and calls them together into assemblies that also have authority over local congregations (see the example. Acts 15). The elders have authority only under the Word of God and only to minister the Word of God. Presbyterianism is a form of church government that ex~ presses the connections between Christians and the responsibility that we have for one another.

Presbyterianism has always been a rather small minority voice among the forms of government practiced in churches. The largest form of church government has been episcopacy, the rule of the church by bishops. Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, some Lutherans and others follow this form of government. This form became dominant in the church as early as the middle of the second century and continued largely unchallenged until the Reformation took a fresh look into the Bible

Episcopacy has no clear foundation in the Bible.  The Greek word episcopos means overseer or supervisor and is clearly used in the Bible as another name for the office of elder (see Titus 1:5-8). Yet early in the life of the church the office of elder and bishop separated into two. The idea of one leader in the local church appealed to the hierarchical society of the ancient world that was accustomed to one leader in every institution of society. Even among some Protestants the hierarchical appeal of bishops remained strong. King James I of England (who had been raised by Presbyterians in Scotland) stated. “No
Bishop, no King.”

At the time of the Reformation many Protestants moved away from episcopacy and its associations with tyranny and corruption in the medieval church. Some embraced presbyterianism while others developed another form of church government known as congregationalism. Congregationalism teaches that Christ has given to each local congregation all of the gifts necessary to govern itself. The congregation may enter into associations with other congregations, but the association has no disciplinary power over the internal affairs of the congregation.

Congregationalism is now the dominant form of church government among American evangelicals. The Southern Baptist Convention would be a prime example. Congregationalism fits in well with American democratic society. Crucial decisions in the congregation are decided by the vote of the majority.

Historically each of the three forms of government we have discussed has been used in various Reformed churches. The Hungarian Reformed Church is episcopal and New England Puritans were congregational. But the majority of Reformed people in Scotland, the Netherlands, France and in North America today are presbyterian including the Christian Reformed Church.

In the Christian Reformed Church today our heritage of presbyterianism seems to be in retreat. Theological differences in the church seem to be driving both sides away from presbyterianism. The more liberal or progressive side of the CRC is moving toward the synodical tyranny that is not bound by the Word of God and argues that synodical decisions have an unquestioned authority in their own right. This type of thinking is closer to a radical episcopacy which believes that the decisions of church leaders are infallible.

The conservative side of the CRC, however, is also tempted to non-presbyterian actions. Some are leaving the CRC for a congregationalist separatism. Others are planning to stay in the CRC, but withdraw from denominational life, acting like independent congregations.

The Scriptures still call us, I believe, to be presbyterians. To abandon this part of our heritage endangers the whole. We need to recommit ourselves to the often painful and frustrating task of exercising our mutual responsibility. We are our brothers' keepers. We need to give visible expression to our belief in disciplinary connections with other Christians. We need to show at least a measure of visible unity through presbyterial relationships. We need to be careful not to abandon Reformed principles in one part of our lives in the name of Reformed principles in other parts. We need to remain presbyterian.