What We Believe
i

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 14

Alan D. Strange

Chapter XIV The Regional Church and Its Presbytery

1. A regional church consists of all the members of the local congregations and the ministers within a certain district. The general assembly may organize a regional church when there are at least four congregations, two ministers, and two ruling elders, within a region.

Comment: The church does not exist only locally. Particularly, congregations of the same denomination enjoying some degree of proximity form a regional church. Ideally, a regional church should consist of local congregations that are reasonably contiguous; however, necessity often demands that a regional church be more spread out, due to number restrictions. In the OPC, for example, in some areas of the country, our churches are too few and too distant from other congregations to be able to realize the regional church in its more desirable form, which is congregations having sufficient propinquity for meaningful interaction and cooperation. Such a regional church consists of all the members of the local congregations within the relevant district together with all the ministers, both the pastors and the other ministers in that area. The general assembly may organize within a particular district a new regional church with as few as four congregations (also consisting of at least two ministers and two ruling elders).

2. The presbytery is the governing body of a regional church. It consists of all the ministers and all the ruling elders of the congregations of the regional church.

Comment: The presbytery is the governing body of the regional church, even as the session is the governing body of a local church and the general assembly the governing body of the whole church. The presbytery, in one sense, consists of all the ministers and all the ruling elders of the congregations within a particular regional church. I say “in one sense” because only the ministers are permanent members of the presbyteries, ruling elders having their memberships in the local churches. The sense in which the presbytery can be said to consist also of ruling elders (in addition to the ministers whose membership is in the presbyteries) is when certain ruling elders are commissioned to serve in presbytery by their local sessions. Before every meeting of presbytery, for instance, each congregation, by action of its session, gets to commission one ruling elder (and an alternate) to serve together with all the ministers of that presbytery. It is in this sense, then, that ruling elders can be said to be members of the presbytery along with all the ministers of that presbytery.

3. Meetings of the presbytery shall be composed, insofar as possible, of all the ministers on the roll and one ruling elder from each congregation commissioned by the respective sessions. Any four presbyters, among whom shall be at least two ministers and one commissioned ruling elder, being met at the time and place appointed, shall be a quorum.

Comment: As noted immediately above, the presbytery consists in an ongoing way of all the ministers who have membership in it, together with the ruling elders who are elected by their respective sessions to serve as commissioners in any given meeting of said presbytery. This section further clarifies the meaning of presbytery, defining the presbytery as consisting of all its ministers and one ruling elder from each of its local congregations (if possible—some churches may not have ruling elders available to serve in any given meeting of presbytery). A quorum is defined as any four members of presbytery, which must include at least two ministers and one commissioned ruling elder, met together at the appointed place.

Perhaps a note about the nomenclature “commissioned” and the use of the term “commissioners” is in order. Some other Reformed churches do not designate those who serve at higher or broader levels of the church as “commissioners.” Rather they are called “delegates.” The terms imply differing conceptions: “commissioners” are those selected to go to higher/broader judicatories and to deliberate and vote in accordance with their best understanding of the issues under consideration, especially as debate serves to clarify the issues. “Delegates” are assumed to be representatives of the bodies that sent them (commissioners are this as well, but in a different sense) and may be instructed to vote as their sending bodies require.[1]

To be concrete, a delegate from a consistory (the Reformed equivalent of a session) may be instructed by his sending body to vote in a particular way on an overture that might be before the classis (the Reformed equivalent of presbytery) or synod (the Reformed equivalent of general assembly). While a ruling elder commissioner to presbytery or general assembly may know the mind of his sending body, he is responsible to listen to and engage in debate about the issues as such debate takes place in the assembly in which he is commissioned to vote, voting his conscience as informed by the Word and as he stands coram Deo. A commissioner, while indeed a representative of his sending body, remains free to vote and act as he sees fit, in accordance with the Word of God, the constitution of the church, and what he believes to be wisdom with regards to the matter(s) under consideration.

4. The moderator shall be chosen from among its members from year to year, or for some shorter term if the presbytery so determines, and shall serve until his successor is installed.

Comment: The moderator of the presbytery is one of its members, elected annually, able to succeed himself in accordance with the will of the presbytery. He may serve a shorter term or for a specified purpose. A presbytery may elect someone, for example, to moderate it in the event of the presbytery acting as a trial judicatory, while retaining the already elected moderator to serve in its non-judicial meetings in that same time frame. Whoever is elected moderator serves the annual or lesser term, remaining in the chair until his elected successor is installed as moderator. This means that his service does not end with the election of a new moderator but only with the installation of a new moderator.

Some have argued that since ministers are its continuing members and ruling elders its occasional members (serving only when commissioned by the session to vote at presbytery), ministers should ordinarily serve as moderators of the presbytery. In practice, most presbyteries elect ministers to moderate and this seems in keeping with the requirement that presbytery chose a moderator “from among its members”: only ministers have their membership in the presbytery (and are thus its permanent members), ruling elders having their membership in the local congregations. That having been said, in more recent years presbyteries have also elected ruling elders to serve as moderators.

5. The presbytery has the power to order whatever pertains to the spiritual welfare of the churches under its care, always respecting the liberties guaranteed to the individual congregations under the constitution. In the exercise of its jurisdiction the presbytery has responsibility for evangelism within the bounds of its region, especially in areas which are not within the sphere of service in any one congregation. Similarly the presbytery shall seek to foster fellowship in worship and nurture in the church as a whole within its region.

The presbytery has the power to organize and receive congregations (cf. Chapter XXIX), to unite and dissolve congregations, at the request of the people and with the advice of the sessions involved, to visit particular churches for the purpose of inquiring into their state and of taking proper measures to insure that the evils which may have arisen in them shall be redressed. Presbytery shall examine and approve or censure the records of church sessions.

Further, the presbytery has power to receive and issue all appeals, and other matters, that are brought before it from church sessions in a regular manner, subject to the provisions of the Book of Discipline; to resolve questions of doctrine or discipline seriously and reasonably proposed; to condemn erroneous opinions which injure the purity or peace of the church; to take under its care, examine, and license candidates for the holy ministry; and to ordain, install, remove, and judge ministers.

Comment: The government of the Presbyterian church is importantly one of graded judicatories. Thus, the first sentence of this section indicates that the power of the presbytery is not merely advisory but real and fundamental to the Presbyterian church. The Presbyterian church, in fact, over against the conception of church held by some other Reformed churches, does not properly exist in any given area simply by the existence of a church or two that is Presbyterian: it exists only when those churches form a presbytery. This can be seen in the case of the American Presbyterian church. There were various Presbyterian churches in existence before 1706, but the Presbyterian church was not reckoned to exist in this country until the formation of the first presbytery in Philadelphia in 1706.[2]  

At the same time, there is a balance struck here between the power of the presbytery and the liberties enjoyed by the individual congregations that constitute that presbytery. Even as there is a balance in office and shared power between ministers and ruling elders, so there is also such a balance when it comes to the church in its local manifestation and in its regional expression (in the presbytery). Note the language of “spiritual welfare” as a reminder, as we saw particularly in the commentary on the first four chapters of this FG, that the calling and the task of the church is a spiritual one. This also implies that the maintenance and welfare of physical matters (such a local congregation’s land and properties) remains under the control of those at the local level.

To say that the presbytery has responsibility for evangelism within the bounds of its region is to acknowledge that the presbytery, whatever local churches may or may not be doing with respect to evangelism, has a specific calling to reach all within its boundaries with the gospel. To this end, most presbyteries have some sort of church planting and home missions committee that helps the presbytery tend to this task; many presbyteries  employ a regional home missionary particularly focused on this task. The presbytery, then, should be planting mission churches in its task of gathering and discipling the saints (WCF 25). Such church planting efforts find a special focus in the areas of the presbytery with no local OPC congregation nearby that could reach out in gospel witness.

The presbytery should also seek fellowship with other sound churches of its region, especially other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian bodies with whom the OPC has fraternal relations (one thinks especially of NAPARC[3] churches here). This would commonly be expressed by a presbytery sending representatives (fraternal delegates) of itself to the regional meetings of other Reformed and Presbyterian churches and receiving such delegates of those churches at its meetings. Another way that ecumenicity may be expressed, e.g., is when OPC and PCA presbyteries (or OPC presbyteries and URC classes) have joint meetings and pulpit exchanges as an expression of this ecumenical unity.

The presbytery has the power to organize and receive congregations, in accordance with FG 29 (further discussed in the commentary on that chapter), as well as power to unite and dissolve congregations within its bounds. This power, however, is exercised only with the approbation of the people and in consultation with the respective sessions. It is not a unilateral power but one shared between the higher judicatory (the presbytery) and those congregations proposing to come into the presbytery or come to an end of their existence as local churches.

The presbytery exercises direct oversight of the churches in its region both by its power of visitation of those churches and its review of the minutes of the sessions under its jurisdiction. Many presbyteries, in order to carry out this mandate of the FG, have visitation committees that go to the churches on a regular schedule or in the case of evident need, either as raised by the church or observed by the presbytery. It is fitting that the session of a local congregation invite such a visitation (whether regular or in the case of particular need(s)) and welcome the visitation committee. Ordinary visits look over the whole scope of the ministry and assess the state of all the programs of the local church. Presbytery by-laws or standing rules customarily detail what should occur in such visits. Visits, initiated either by the presbytery or the session, which occur to address particular needs or emergencies, may be more narrowly focused on those crises that occasioned presbyters being called in to help in the local church.

It is not, however, the case in Presbyterianism that if the presbytery is aware of acute need and wishes to visit a particular church, the local session should seek to stop such a visit. Such sentiment bespeaks congregationalism and is unworthy of a Presbyterian church. To be sure, presbytery should ordinarily be deferential to the local church with respect to visitation, but not to the point of ignoring local situations where the presbytery is clearly needed. When manifest wrongs occur in a congregation and the local session refuses to invite or receive a visitation from presbytery, Presbyterianism suffers. Presbytery interaction to help a local congregation through some of its most challenging problems or crises is one of the great blessings of Presbyterianism and should not be resisted but received as such. At the same time, presbytery must never be abusive of its congregations and sessions, but humbly assist and direct them in support of their mutual ministries.

Additionally, presbytery is the recipient of appeals coming from the local churches in its region, whether of complaints brought on appeal (BD 9) or appeals of judicial cases (BD 7). This is all detailed at the appropriate places in the BD and will be duly commented on at such points. Further, presbytery may address all matters brought before it in a regular manner (“according to the rule”) from the sessions beneath it, such as those seeking its counsel and guidance. In this respect it may also resolve questions having to do with teaching (doctrine) or life (discipline) that are seriously proposed and brought before it, either by its members or from the churches within its bounds. As a part of this power it may condemn seriously erroneous positions (ones which harm the purity or peace of the church), perhaps taking action against such after careful study by a committee appointed for that purpose.

It should be noted that sometimes matters from congregations or members thereof percolate up to presbytery in an irregular manner (perhaps not through the appeal process). This does not mean that the presbytery should ignore or simply dismiss such concerns but should address them in some fashion, especially when it may appear that those bringing disputes to presbytery by letter or other means may be unclear about the church’s proper polity procedures. At every level of governance (session, presbytery, and general assembly) those given rule and ministry in such should take care to do right by those with concerns, even if those concerns are expressed in an irregular or arguably disorderly fashion. Justice and equity demand that the church hears matters, or helps those with concerns to put them in proper form, even when those matters may be improperly presented or expressed.

Finally, perhaps the most important regular duty of the presbytery is the whole process of ordaining and installing men for the gospel ministry. The process, detailed later in the FG (chapter 21 and following), begins with the presbytery taking a prospective candidate for the gospel ministry under the care of the presbytery, often at the point of entry into seminary or shortly thereafter. The candidate proceeds down a path that includes examination for licensure, licensing, the processing of a call that has been issued, and further examination in advance of ordination and installation. The presbytery customarily employs a committee on candidates and credentials to aid in this work. The presbytery also dissolves pastoral relationships when a man retires, takes another call, or leaves the ministry. It also judicially tries and censures impenitent ministers and restores penitent ministers. Again, all of this is described in great detail later in the FG and in the BD.

6. It shall be the duty of the presbytery to keep an accurate record of its proceedings and to submit this record to the general assembly for examination at least once each year. The presbytery shall also report to the general assembly each year the licensures, ordinations, the receiving or dismissing of members, the removal of members by death, the organization, reception, union, or dissolution of congregations, or the formation of new ones, and in general, all the important changes which have taken place within its bounds in the course of the year.

Comment: The presbytery, as is true of the session (see comments on FG 13), is to keep an accurate record of its proceedings and of its actions (minutes) and submit the same to the general assembly for yearly review. These minutes shall include all of the matters detailed here in this section in the manner required by the GA in its “Rule for Keeping Presbytery Minutes.”[4]

7. The presbytery shall meet on its own adjournment; and when any emergency shall require a meeting sooner than the time to which it stands adjourned, the moderator, or, in case of his absence, death, or inability to act, the stated clerk, shall, at the request of any two ministers and two ruling elders, the ruling elders being of different congregations, call a special meeting; the moderator or the stated clerk, as the case may be, if otherwise qualified to do so, may be one of those making the request. For this purpose a circular letter shall be sent, specifying the particular business of the intended meeting, to every minister and the clerk of every session under the jurisdiction of the presbytery, at least ten days prior to the meeting. Nothing shall be transacted at such special meeting besides the particular business for which the judicatory has been convened.

Comment: The first sentence means that the presbytery will determine the date, places, and times of its stated meetings, meeting thereupon, and meeting again when it determines to do so. The presbyteries in the OPC tend to hold regular (stated) meetings from two to four times annually. Special meetings of the presbytery may occur when any emergency arises requiring such before the next stated meeting. It should here be noted that “emergency” is to be taken in the classical sense of the word—an occasion that emerges necessitating attention sooner than the stated meeting would permit. Presbyteries are free to define further what may constitute such emergencies in their by-laws or standing rules.

For presbyteries that have fewer stated meetings annually (say, two or less) than others that have three or four, it seems ill-advised to be overly restrictive with what constitutes an emergency. One might argue that only two stated meetings annually are inimical to the idea of a regional church, whose presbytery would better gather oftener in the regular enjoyment of mutual service and fellowship. Further, making particular local churches wait months before calls can be processed and other matters of moment properly addressed can discourage local churches and induce the sense that presbytery is not a tool of mutual edification but an obstacle to be overcome by the local church.

Both local churches and presbyteries must strive harder to make their relationship a better one—one that works for the good of both local churches and the regional church. One solution to this is geographically closer presbyteries that meet more often. In any case, there always remains much work to be done to achieve a better and more functional Presbyterianism.

Special meetings are to be called by the moderator of presbytery, or in his inability to do so, the stated clerk upon the request of two ministers and two ruling elders (these being from different congregations). The moderator and stated clerk, if otherwise qualified to do so (two ruling elders from the same congregation, for instance, could not do so), may make up the required number and office needed to call such a special meeting. A call to a special meeting must be issued at least ten days in advance of the meeting, either in a letter by the post or electronic circulation, and must specify the business that is to be conducted at the special meeting, customarily describing it with the addition of “and matters germane,” so that what properly pertains to the special business may be done even if not specifically detailed. No other business may be transacted at such a special meeting except that which was contained in the call to the meeting.

8. Each day's session shall be opened and closed with prayer.

Comment: The meetings of presbytery, because a meeting of the judicatory of the regional church, should be opened and closed with prayer.  

9. Uncommissioned elders of the regional church, and presbyters in good standing in other presbyteries or in churches of like faith and practice, who may be present, may be invited to sit with the presbytery as corresponding members. Such members shall be entitled to deliberate and advise, but not to vote in any decisions of the presbytery.

Comment: Any given meeting of the presbytery will have not only ministers and commissioned elders in attendance but will usually also have other ruling elders of that presbytery, who have not been commissioned by a session, present. It is customary to invite (though not automatic or required) such men to sit with the presbytery as corresponding members, which means that they have the privilege of the floor and may enter into deliberations and offer advice to the presbytery but may not vote. Those who are presbyters in good standing (meaning that they are not under judicial censure) in other presbyteries within the OPC, or other churches of like faith and practice (NAPARC churches, for instance), may also be invited to be a part of the presbytery as corresponding members (all also without vote).

It should be noted that “presbyters” here tends to assume that such men are ministers, since it speaks of them as coming from other presbyteries, and only ministers properly come from “other presbyteries,” whereas ruling elders come from other churches in other presbyteries. This does mean that a ruling elder present at a meeting of a presbytery other than the one of which his church is a part may not be seated as a corresponding member of the presbytery he visits. It is to say, however, that the provision to seat visiting presbyters would thus not automatically apply to ruling elders from other presbyteries (in the same way it would to ministers), who would not necessarily be seated as corresponding members but who may be given the privilege of the floor, especially at the point needed to address the bodies in which they are guests.

Endnotes

[1] Minutes of the Seventy-First General Assembly of the OPC (2004), 267. This is from the Report of the Committee to Study the View of Creation and reflects some of the polity considerations of that committee.

[2] Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, 24–32.

[3] North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

[4] Standing Rules and Instruments of the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 18, accessed at https://www.opc.org/GA/StandingRules2019-2020.pdf on 1/28/21.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, March 2021. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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