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New Horizons

Our Struggle to Establish Presbyterianism

Philip T. Proctor

The most recent presbytery meeting of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Uganda was the most encouraging one that I have attended. The brothers debated, making a real effort to focus on issues and not personalities. And they regularly asked what their governing documents said concerning the issues they were wrestling through.

At other times, I have witnessed these brothers screaming at each other and nearly coming to blows. I have witnessed power struggles for leadership in the church and have despaired. But in this most recent meeting, all the men were treating one another as equals. They were united in their commitment to be governed by the Word of God, the standards of doctrine, and the book of church order that they had sworn to uphold. In short, they were being Presbyterian.

Does it really matter whether the churches that we plant are Congregationalist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian? After all, the main thing is to preach the gospel, and if the locals are more comfortable with a different form of government than the one we're used to, so what? Is it really necessary to establish Presbyterian churches in foreign contexts?

When examining candidates for the gospel ministry, I ask, "Is Presbyterianism the biblical form of church government or a biblical form of government?" The answer tells me a lot about the candidate's worldview. Presbyterianism is, I believe, the form of government that runs most contrary to our own natural impulses. The candidate's answer tells me whether he is committed to Presbyterianism or will abandon it when it becomes tough to live out.

For the Congregationalist, each congregation is its own highest authority. The pastor and members of a congregation are not formally accountable to anyone outside the congregation. In such a situation, the pastor can say and do whatever he wants, so long as the members of the congregation love him.

For the Episcopalian (including Anglicans and Roman Catholics), each congregation and pastor is under the authority of a clearly defined hierarchy. The local pastors are under the authority of a bishop, the bishops answer to an archbishop, and the archbishops are grouped together under a leader at the very top of the church. While this may protect the church from aberrant pastors who "go off and do their own thing," the local pastor is viewed as an inferior to those who are above him. There is no equality among the ordained teaching and ruling elders outside of those of their own rank.

The Presbyterian form of government both respects the responsibilities of the congregation and maintains the equality of the teaching and ruling elders. One of the classic biblical passages for Presbyterian government in action is the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Paul, Peter, and James were present at the assembly and could have, under an Episcopalian form of government, simply laid down the law. Of course, under a Congregationalist form of government, the assembly might never have taken place to begin with—and, if it did, each congregation would have been free to accept or reject its conclusions!

Instead, "the apostles and elders [presbyters] came together to consider this matter" (vs. 6 NKJV). The issue of church government was so important to the apostles that they allowed "much dispute" (vs. 7). The matter was finally resolved, not by the apostles, but by an agreement of "the apostles and elders [again, presbyters], with the whole church" (vs. 22). The decision that was published to the entire Christian church went out, not in the name of the apostles, but in the name of "the apostles, the elders, and the brethren" (vs. 23). Surely if Peter, Paul, and James saw the parity of the elders as an important principle to uphold at this early moment of the New Testament Church's history, we can do no less in our own day.

African society is very hierarchical. The tribal chief is the individual who is responsible for making sure that everyone within the tribe is cared for. In return, each member of the tribe is responsible to protect and support the tribal chief. African churches naturally tend to adopt this model in their organizational structure, and the Episcopalian form of government is the one which most naturally arises in such a context. The largest church in Uganda (the Church of Uganda) is a branch of the worldwide Anglican communion, which of course has an Episcopalian form of government.

At the local level, where we live and work, this means that one Church of Uganda minister may well be an evangelical brother, while his fellow minister in the next congregation down the road has a witchcraft shrine in his backyard. As long as both individuals are approved by the local bishop, there is nothing that can be done.

This hierarchical style of government is also common among the bulokole—the evangelical churches that are separated from the Church of Uganda. Although these churches (such as the Baptists) are Congregationalist in theory, they will be grouped together under a single leader. He will be the one responsible for collecting money from international donors and then parceling it out among the pastors under his care. Congregations will pool their resources to enable one individual to contact a foreign donor. That may mean establishing a post office box and an e-mail account or, if funds allow, purchasing an international plane ticket. He is then responsible to bring back enough money to meet the needs of the people under him. The people are expected to offer their complete support and obedience to him, and, as long as the cash is flowing, he is accountable to no one.

The parity of elders is a difficult concept to carry out in any culture, but especially in Africa, since it runs so counter to the tribal system. The biblical principle of accountability, whether to the session, the presbytery, or the general assembly, means that the system is designed not to produce a "big man."

Of course, the challenge is in the practice of parity, rather than the simple declaration of it! For men with an education from a theological college to view peasant farmers who are ordained ruling elders as their equals can be a difficult thing. The natural tendency will be for both individuals, educated and uneducated, to gravitate toward a hierarchical structure. For this reason, one of the most important aspects of our task here in Uganda is to press the principle of Presbyterianism forward, so that practice is guided by principle, rather than by natural tendencies.

The key principle of Presbyterianism that we stress is the headship of Jesus Christ. We emphasize that he orders his church through his Word. The authority of the officers is strictly ministerial and declarative—that is, they have the power only to minister to the saints and to declare what the Word of God says to them.

In the African context, where the vast majority of a congregation's members are unable to read the Bible in their own language, the opportunity for abuse is enormous. I have heard evangelical preachers declare from the pulpit that it is sinful for a woman to wear pants or have braided hair extensions.

On the other hand, in the same tribal context, the majority of the tribe defines right and wrong, since the maintenance of tribal unity is literally a matter of life and death. If an action offends the tribe, it is wrong, and if the tribe allows it, then it is right. Accordingly, if a majority of pastors believe that a particular action is sinful, then it is sinful.

Presbytery meetings can become opportunities to drum up support for one's own position, rather than carefully examining the Word of God and holding oneself accountable to it. The very principle of governing standards, starting with God's Word, is foreign to the natural method of governing the church here. Because of this cultural reluctance on the part of the local African church, many Western churches have not stressed the importance of governing standards. As a result, women with hair extensions are drummed out of the church, while leaders who steal funds remain in office and enjoy prestige.

Presbyterianism makes a difference in the very life of the churches that we plant. We, as the "mother" church, have a responsibility to our daughters to make sure that they are well equipped for the battle that lies ahead of them. We do not serve their needs if we soften our commitment to Presbyterian government. That would only satisfy their immediate cravings and weaken them for the journey that lies ahead. Our African brothers and sisters deserve better. They deserve the government that is set forth in the Word of God.

The author is an OP foreign missionary. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.

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