Reformed Baptist vs Presbyterian Church Governance
by Elmer Wiebe
I was recently asked to describe the differences between the Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian forms of church government and how they are scripturally established.
First of all, we will define terms for a clearer understanding and see the contrast between the two governments. The term 'Presbyterian' refers to the form of government that is used by a church or a group of churches. It derives its meaning from the Greek word 'presbuteros,' which is used throughout the New Testament in connection with the rule of the church, and is usually translated 'elder.' A Presbyterian church governs its congregation by both teaching elders (the pastor) and ruling elders (mature Christian men in the congregation gifted accordingly). Together they make up the 'Session' and join with 'Sessions' of other regional churches in their denomination forming a 'Presbytery.
The role of the elders or session in each church is to promote and protect the purity and peace of its members. Its rule is of an ecclesiastical (pertaining to the church) and spiritual nature. Those ordained have been charged to watch diligently over the flock in their care by being a good and humble example, by teaching, exhorting, and encouraging the congregation with sound doctrine, by praying continually for its people, by visiting the sick, by administering the sacraments, by disciplining the disobedient and unrepentant, and by governing the worship service and church gatherings in a manner which reflects the love and care of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Presbyterian churches find their roots in Scotland during the Reformation of the mid 1500's. John Knox, a disciple of John Calvin, helped reform the churches in Scotland to this form of government.
Presbyterian church government is in contrast to two other forms of church government, Hierarchal and Congregational. The hierarchal form was and is seen most clearly in the Roman Catholic church, where there are many different ranks of office, each rank subordinate to a higher rank, and headed by the pope. Congregational churches, on the other hand, are separate and autonomous from each other in rule. Reformers believed that the sole head of the Church was Christ Himself, who works through offices which He has clearly instituted in His word, and not a single leader on earth. They also believed in maintaining a sense of unity and purpose with other churches, especially in matters of appeal and denominational policy."
You may read more about presbyterian government and the duties of the elders by referring to the VPC session page or the PCA Book of Church Order.
The Reformed Baptist view consists of autonomous local churches similar to the example given throughout the New Testament as the early apostles visited local autonomous churches. These Reformed Baptist churches usually operate in a two eldership format.
Acts 6:1-6 bears this out. It records the institution of the office and details its nature. The apostles were overburdened with work and were faced with a difficult situation. It was necessary to sort out priorities; while the temporal needs were important, and could not be neglected, they could not lay aside their duties in the Word of God. Their proposed remedy was very simple. They charged the church with the task of choosing trustworthy men, able to fulfill the task. These were the first deacons, given the responsibility of administering this temporal distribution after they were ordained into office by the apostles.
We need to make several important points. 1. The apostles recognized aspects of their own duty other than the ministry of the word, but could not perform them because of human limitations. 2. They expected the congregation of disciples to choose the seven men who would meet the qualifications and perform the task well. 3. The apostles did not relinquish their responsibility, only delegate it; i.e. they did not establish a group of men to be overseers of the temporal things of the church, as a separate and equal entity. Rather they established a group of men who would perform this function in subjection to them. From its beginning, this office was intended by the apostles to be a serving office under the authority of the spiritual office in the church. Deacons are never rulers, but always servants.
The responsibilities of this office are basically two: the first is to carry out the benevolence work of the church. In vs. 1, this was the original circumstance which brought about the institution of the office; meeting the daily needs of widows out of the finances of the church. Benevolence is primary. Notice that the deacons did not set policy, only carried it out. At the discretion of the spiritual leaders, they performed this necessary task-they were the hands of the apostles in helping those who were suffering.
Their second task is to manage and implement the temporal business affairs of the church: finances, building maintenance, local ordinances, etc. Too often, this is viewed as the primary function of deacons, but it is not. It is important, but ought not to displace benevolence.
These are the gifts given by our Lord Jesus Christ to his beloved church. Let us receive them with thanksgiving, praying that these men might serve Christ and his church well.
1 Peter 5:5-6
5 Likewise, you younger men, be subject to the elders. And all of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.