Which Is More Hierarchical: The Reformed or the Presbyterian Form of Church Government?

G. I. Williamson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 8, no. 2

It has been alleged that the Presbyterian form of government is inherently hierarchical, whereas the Reformed is not. For example Rev. Bruce Hoyt (a minister of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand [RCNZ]) in a paper presented at a ministers’ conference in N.Z.—and later published in Lux Mundi—says: “Presbyterian polity is inherently hierarchical in its gradation of courts” (our underlining). And in proof of this statement he offers the following from two Australasian denominations:

The government of the church is vested in courts designated respectively Sessions or Parish Councils, Presbyteries, Synods and General Assembly, in regular gradation of authority and in the order named (Pres. Ch. of NZ-BO, Chap. 1, Sect. C.3).

It is lawful, and agreeable to the Word of God, that there be subordination of congregational, classical, provincial, and national assemblies, for the government of the church (WA-FPCG, p. 405).

It is my contention, however, that while acknowledging that there is always the danger of hierarchical development in every church, this is an incorrect assessment. If anything it is the continental form of church government that has at least one inherently hierarchical principle embedded in it which has caused serious harm in the history of these churches.

I speak of article 31 of the Dordt Church Order which reads as follows (in the NRC Psalter):

If anyone complain that he has been wronged by the decision of a minor assembly, he shall have the right of appeal to a major ecclesiastical assembly, and whatever may be agreed upon by a majority vote shall be considered settled and binding, unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the Articles formulated in this General Synod, as long as they are not changed by another General Synod.

To a Presbyterian this certainly sounds hierarchical, even though we recognize without question that the Synod of Dordt did not intend it to be. Even so, it is my contention that this formulation has not worked against—but instead has worked for—the development of hierarchy.

Take the 1924 CRC decision on Common Grace as a noted example. In discussing this recently with a retired minister it was pointed out that the intention of this decision was to quiet unrest and tension in the CRC over this issue. I was told that leaders of the Church appealed to Herman Hoeksema personally to simply let the matter rest—for the time being at least—with the assurance that if he did so there would be peace, and no one would bother him. Yet, with all due respect, this well-meant advice does not seem to me to comport with this article. This was a decision made by a General Synod. It was “agreed upon by a majority vote.” I would therefore maintain that Rev. Hoeksema was, at this point, acting correctly when he was immediately stirred into action against this 1924 decision. I say this because this article only provides two options: either (1) accept as “settled and binding” the decision of the majority, or (2) start proving the decision to be in conflict with the Word of God. Since Rev. Hoeksema could not do the former in good conscience he—rightly in my view—had no other option but to set out to prove this decision to be wrong. What he has been faulted for, in my opinion, is precisely that for which he deserves praise! He took seriously what it said in article 31 of the church order.

Now the point I wish to make is that in authentic Presbyterian church government the shoe is, so to speak, on the other foot. What I mean is that the burden of proof for anything and everything that is “settled and binding” rests upon the majority, not the minority.

And here, again, I give an example. In the early history of the OPC it was recognized that the hymnbook of the old Presbyterian Church USA was seriously deficient. So a committee was appointed to work on a new book for the Church. As the work progressed it was clear that a relatively small minority held that only the inspired Psalms should be sung in the worship of God. The majority, however—though recognizing that the minority view was the consensus view of the Westminster Assembly, and the view expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith—opted for the continued use of uninspired hymns. The result was the now well-known Trinity Hymnal. It is certainly the song book of a large majority of OPC congregations. And the content and production of this book was decided upon by a large majority vote at the Denver Assembly in 1960, which I myself attended. Yet it has never been required that any OP congregation use this book—or this book only. There are some congregations that do not use it at all, but use only the Psalter (usually in the RPCNA version). And there are other congregations that supplement Trinity Hymnal with a complete Psalter.

What a contrast between this and, for example, the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). One of our former congregations—the Blue Bell congregation in Pennsylvania—left the OPC to join the CanRC. They were using, at that time, the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing (which I regard as the most accurate in the English language). Yet they were required to abandon that Psalter and to conform to the majority by using the much looser Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

Another example comes from my former congregation in New Zealand. It decided, at one time, to call itself the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Silverstream. But the General Synod decided that only the word Reformed could be used, and the local church “had to get in line.”

In the OPC only three things are regarded as “settled and binding” in various degrees: (1) the first—and highest—authority is the Bible.[1] (2) The second is what we call the Westminster Standards[2]—the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. (3) The third is the Form of Government, Book of Worship and Book of Discipline.[3] (4) Decisions of the General Assembly, however, are not “settled and binding” unless they are [a] judicial in nature, or [b] involve modification of the secondary standards by due process.

As a case in point, the recent G.A. decision to uphold the deposition of Dr. Terry Gray, the Calvin College professor who wanted to be allowed, as a ruling elder, to hold that Adam may have had pre-human ancestors—is settled and binding. It is settled and binding because the General Assembly determined, by due process, that Dr. Gray’s view is contrary to the Standards of the Church (both supreme and secondary) and because there is no broader assembly to which Dr. Gray can appeal here on earth.

There was a time when it was incumbent upon Presbyterian office-bearers in American Presbyterian bodies to hold that the Pope is THE ANTICHRIST. But this was challenged, successfully, and the Westminster Confession was changed so as to eliminate this is a view that is settled and binding.

The OPC has been extremely careful, during the more than forty years that I have known the church and served in it, to avoid imposing anything as settled and binding without a rather lengthy and involved process involving three important steps. (1) A G.A. has to determine that something ought to be binding by a two-thirds majority vote. (2) Then it has to send the matter to the Presbyteries for consideration, debate and approval. (3) Then, if two-thirds of the Presbyteries of the Church support what is proposed, it goes back to the next G.A. for final approval. If, at this point, there is again a two-thirds or greater majority vote for the proposed change it becomes a part of the (thus amended) official secondary standards of the Church and therefore “settled and binding.”

Back in the 1960s efforts were underway to seek organic union between the OPC and the CRC. At that time the CRC appointed a Committee to meet with our Committee to seek to pinpoint the more important differences in matters of Church Government and to resolve them. The Committee report to the 1963 Synod had the following to say:

“...we conclude that there is a clear clash between the OPC and the CRC with reference to the relationship that is thought to exist between the authority of major assemblies and the sufficient, and unique authority of the Word of God. For the reasons given above the OPC is most unwilling to bind its membership, especially in the areas of faith and worship, with anything that is not directly prescribed by Scripture. And, on the other hand, the OPC cannot accept the willingness of the CRC to bind its membership with precepts that, though they may not contradict Scripture, do go beyond Scripture, and this in the areas of faith and worship. References to a few of the items in the proposed revision of the Church Order may serve to illustrate the sort of thing to which the OPC would be expected to take exception.

  1. Art. 50—Synod is to designate the Bible versions to be used in the worship services.
  2. Art. 51—The congregation shall assemble for worship at least twice on the Lord’s Day to hear God’s Word.
  3. Art. 54—Worship services shall be held in commemoration of the specified days.
  4. Art. 55—Synod stipulates the versions, liturgical forms, and songs that are to be used in worship services.
  5. Art. 56—At one of the services each Lord’s Day, the Word shall be preached as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism.
  6. Art. 58—Sacraments shall be administered with the use of the ecclesiastical forms.
  7. Art. 63—Specifies frequency with which the Lord’s Supper shall be administered.
  8. Art. 63—Specifies that Lord’s Supper be preceded by a preparatory sermon, and be followed by an applicatory sermon.
  9. Art. 64—Specifies the contents of public prayers.
  10. Art. 68—Specifies annual home visitation.
  11. Art. 72—Marriage shall be solemnized with the use of the ecclesiastical form.

The above listing is not exhaustive. More illustrations could be cited. Many synodically binding decisions would fall under the same objections of the OPC. The question for the OPC is not whether such practices, as are referred to above, are good or not but whether such practices may be made binding upon the local congregations. The OPC judges that such practices may not be made binding upon the churches since such practices are not prescribed by the Word of God, the sole source of authority in the church. The OPC concludes that those matters about which the Word of God is silent should be assigned to the realm of ecclesiastical adiaphora (i.e., things neither required nor forbidden by God), and as such cannot be made binding upon the churches.

Now it might be argued that the church may exercise authority in the realm of the adiaphora in order that “all things be done decently and in order” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40). Article 1 of the present Church Order apparently has this in mind when it states “For the maintenance of good order in the Church of Christ it is necessary that there should be....” The OPC, as well as the CRC, is committed to this principle for it is clearly stated in the Word of God with reference, as the context indicates, to the worship of the church. The point to consider however is whether the application of this principle may be allowed to eclipse more fundamental Scriptural principles, viz., those having to do with the unique and sufficient authority of Scripture, the liberty of the individual conscience, and the nature of the church and its authority. Such weighty matters cannot be set aside by a simple appeal to 1 Cor. 14:40. Reference at this point may be made to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, Sec.6:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the Worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

This section of the Confession points us in the direction in which the OPC understands that harmony is to be achieved between (1) the principle that the Word of God is the unique and sufficient authority in the church, and (2) the principle that all things are to be done decently and in order. To the faith and life of the individual nothing is to be added as binding beyond the Word of God. In the affairs of the instituted church “the light of nature, and Christian prudence.” may, however, suggest that certain things should be made common to the churches. At this point, it is noticed, the Confession places a limitation upon such decisions in that the circumstances involved must be “common to human actions and societies.” That is to say such decisions must submit to and make allowance for the catholic (universal) nature of the church. The church, in such decisions, must give due consideration to the varying needs and circumstances in which the local congregations find themselves. So, for instance, the local consistory may specify that two worship services are to be held each Lord’s Day because it can make such a decision giving due allowance to that which is “common to human actions and societies,” while it is more questionable whether Synod, which represents a wider range of needs and circumstances, is in as good a position to make a like judgment. Or, for instance, the local church may determine for itself how many members there ought to be in the consistory, what time of day the worship services are to be held, etc., because it is in the best position to make such decisions since it alone is cognizant of the “human actions and society” that is involved.

In Part III of this 1963 report to the CRC Synod entitled “Resolution of the Differences,” it goes on to say this:

If we have correctly analyzed the nature of the differences between the polity of the CRC and the OPC with respect to the authority given to major assemblies, we must conclude that the position of the OPC is more nearly correct than our own. This becomes evident when we consider the matters that have been mentioned above, viz., 1) the sufficient, and unique authority of Scripture, 2) the liberty of the individual conscience, and 3) the nature of the church.

This committee therefore concludes that our ecumenical discussions with the OPC have brought into clear focus the fact that a resolution of that which is perhaps most basic of all to the differences in polity (the authority given to major assemblies) rests upon the willingness of the CRC to reconsider its position. It is difficult to conceive how we may in good conscience ask the OPC to accept our customs and habits as binding upon their membership. By what authority may we ask them to accept as binding precepts and practices about which the Scriptures are silent?

...If the CRC can make adjustments in this matter, then this committee can hope for definite progress in the future of our ecumenical relationships with the OPC. Without this sort of adjustment, the prospects of uniting the two denominations, which we have held before ourselves as an ideal for many years, are not promising.“

This 1963 Committee report was, in many ways, remarkable. It stands out as unique in that it had the courage to challenge the growing trend toward hierarchy in the CRC. That it was ignored—that the Committee to meet with the OPC was forthwith eliminated—is just another evidence of the fact that this report was right on the mark.


It is certainly true that both Presbyterian and Reformed bodies have succumbed to the ever-present danger of hierarchical tyranny. But I regard this 1963 report as a powerful witness against the commonly repeated allegation that Presbyterian church polity is inherently more hierarchical than Reformed church polity. The truth, in my opinion, is the exact opposite. What I mean is that by making mere majority decisions of major assemblies “settled and binding” (unless and until they are proved to be in error) the seeds of hierarchy were already present in Article 31 of the Dordt Church Order. The three-phase process required by authentic Presbyterian church polity, on the other hand, was wisely designed to be inherently anti-hierarchical.


[1] Scripture alone has final, or supreme, authority.

[2] These can be amended, but they are authoritative unless and until they are amended.

[3] No one is required to subscribe to these documents the FoG, the BoW and the BoD in detail, but to approve them and operate by them in the Government of the Church.