Editorial: The One and the Many—A Case for Presbyterian Government

G. I. Williamson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 2 (April 1995)

My purpose in this editorial is to argue for the one and the many. I refer to our view of the church and the churches. I do this because I have heard some argue that one or the other of these—either the one or the many—is more fundamental and basic than the other. It is my contention, in contrast to such arguments, that neither is more basic but that both are equally important and essential to a proper and balanced view.

It is certainly true that we read of the churches (plural) many times in the New Testament. But I maintain that it is also true that we constantly read of the church (singular), and this is not only in the sense of the whole body of those who are redeemed in Christ (although this sense is certainly prominent). In the book of Acts, for instance, we are informed that ”a great persecution arose against the church” with the result that “they”—that is, the members of the church—“were all scattered....” Because of this scattering “Saul...made havoc of the church” by “entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:1, 3). And he did this not only in Jerusalem, but in places as far from Jerusalem as Damascus. So, over an extended geographical area there was one church, and it was that one church that was forced to scatter as a result of persecution. And then, when the persecution ended, “the church[1] had rest throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria.”

There is nothing strange, then, in the fact that the apostles speak of “the church” in its unity, just as they do of its multiplicity. They are careful to ordain elders in every church (Acts 14:23). But they also speak of office-bearers as given “to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). It is true, of course, that these office-bearers are given to particular churches. But it is just as true that they are given “for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). It is in the interests of “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies” that these gifts are given, and it is by means of “every part” doing its share that there is “growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16). What is this but to say that the two are interdependent—the one and the many.

Is this not exactly what we see in Acts 15? There was trouble in Antioch. Efforts to settle it were to no avail. What then? The particular church of Antioch “determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem—to the apostles and elders—about this question” (Acts 15:2). Immediately after this we read that they were “sent on their way by the church” (in Antioch) and “received by the church” (in Jerusalem). In other words, both churches could be called “the church!” And the reason is plain: there are many churches and yet—at the same time—one church. Therefore both of these churches can be properly called the church, because neither exists without the other—the one and the many, and the one in the many. And it is our conviction that we must always resist any attempt to make either one of these two dominant at the expense of the other.

This, in our humble opinion, is what congregationalism does. It places such undo emphasis upon the many—the particular congregations—that it loses the biblical balance between the one and the many. This is seen in the attempt to make the aspect of church government revealed in Acts 15 an elective—something we can have if we want to, but something that is not essential to the well-being of the churches. We are fully persuaded, however, that this event (recorded in Acts 15) was no mere accident or historical curiosity. It took place under the sovereign direction of Christ, the risen head of the church, and it is written for our admonition. It is there to show us what we ought to do in similar circumstances. True, there is no mandate in Acts 15 for yearly synods or assemblies. We know of sound churches that only convene their synods every third year, instead of annually. Frequency is not the issue. The issue is whether there ought to be such assemblies (as our Westminster Confession affirms), not how often they should meet.

It is certainly true, however, that there is also something to be learned from the fact that such assemblies were not frequent in the apostolic period. It is our opinion that it might be a good thing for the modern church to reconsider this matter. It would seem to us that there might have been more reason for frequent assemblies in ancient times than there is today because of the difficulty they had in communicating with each other—a difficulty largely overcome today. On the other side, of course, it could be argued that with the increasing tempo and complexity of modern life we face such an array of problems that we can hardly escape the need for frequent assemblies. Be this as it may, one thing is certain: we need to be on our guard against the other danger—the danger of an over-emphasis upon the one at the expense of the many.

Our Confession says, “...it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church” (XXXI.1, my emphasis). What is this but to say that General Assemblies should never be looked upon as inevitable annual events? Who is to say that we Orthodox Presbyterians must meet every year, as we have done in the past? The officers of the previous Assembly? The members of standing committees? The general secretaries or the stated clerk? No, not according to our Confession. There should be a General Assembly only when and if it is honestly the conviction of the teaching and ruling elders of the “particular churches” that such an assembly is needed, and that they believe it will serve to promote the upbuilding of the church to convene it.

There are some today who keep saying Presbyterian church polity is inherently hierarchical—and that Reformed church polity is inherently anti-hierarchical. We think the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church over the past six decades—as contrasted with that of such churches as the Gereformeerde Kerken in Holland, and the Christian Reformed Church in America—is a sufficient refutation of this erroneous allegation. But that does not at all deny that the danger of hierarchy is real. There is no automatic guarantee that such a calamity will not overtake us merely because we have “committees” instead of “boards.”

It is my hope that the concern expressed here will spark your interest, and perhaps your contribution to Ordained Servant.


[1] “The range and age of the witnesses which read the singular number are superior to those that read the plural. The singular can hardly be a scribal modification in the interest of expressing the idea of the unity of the church, for in that case we should have expected similar modifications in 15:41 and 16:5, where there is no doubt that the plural number (ekklesiai) is the original text. More probably the singular number here has been altered to the plural in order to conform to the two later passages” (Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 367).

“The local congregation is indeed the church of Christ, but so are all the assemblies of God’s people.... That each congregation should be entirely independent in its government is incompatible with the oneness of the body of Christ. ‘There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye were called in one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism: one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all’ (Eph. 4:4-6). The coordination and subordination exemplified in Presbyterian churches are the expression in the sphere of government of this unity. In any case, there must be some way of bringing this unity to expression. And the only feasible way is that the whole church should be governed by a presbuteron that will be as widely representative as the church itself. All that is absolutely essential in terms of the New Testament is that government be as inclusive as the whole body. The particular ways of applying this ecumenicity of government are but the expedients of Christian prudence in accord with the general principles of the word” (John Murray).