Presbyterian (or presbyteral) polity is a method of church governance
("ecclesiastical polity") typified by the rule of assemblies of
presbyters, or elders. Each local church is governed by a body of
elected elders usually called the session or consistory, though other
terms, such as church board, may apply. Groups of local churches
are governed by a higher assembly of elders known as the presbytery or
classis; presbyteries can be grouped into a synod, and presbyteries
and synods nationwide often join together in a general assembly.
Responsibility for conduct of church services is reserved to an
ordained minister or pastor known as a teaching elder, or a minister
of the word and sacrament.
Presbyterian polity was developed as a rejection of governance by
hierarchies of single bishops (episcopal polity), but also differs
from the congregationalist polity in which each congregation is
independent. In contrast to the other two forms, authority in the
presbyterian polity flows both from the top down (as higher assemblies
exercise limited but important authority over individual
congregations, e.g., only the presbytery can ordain ministers, install
pastors, and start up, close, and approve relocating a congregation)
and from the bottom up (e.g., the moderator and officers are not
appointed from above but are rather elected by and from among the
members of the assembly). This theory of governance developed in
John Calvin and was introduced to
Scotland by John Knox
after his period of exile in Geneva. It is strongly associated with
French, Dutch, Swiss and
Scottish Reformation movements, and the
Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
4 Governing bodies
4.4 General assembly
5.1 British Isles
6 Cultural influences
7 See also
8 References and notes
9 External links
Among the early church fathers, it was noted that the offices of elder
and bishop were identical, and were not differentiated until later,
and that plurality of elders was the norm for church
St. Jerome (347–420) "In Epistle
Titus", vol. iv, said, "Elder is identical with bishop; and before the
urging of the devil gave rise to factionalism in religion, so much
that it was being said among the people, 'I am of Paul, I of Apollos,
I of Cephas', the churches were governed by a joint council of elders.
After it was... decreed throughout the world that one chosen from
among the presbyters should be placed over the others." This
observation was also made by
Chrysostom (349–407) in "Homilia i, in
Phil. i, 1" and
Theodoret (393–457) in "Interpret ad. Phil. iii",
Presbyterianism was first described in detail by
Martin Bucer of
Strasbourg, who believed that the early Christian church implemented
presbyterian polity. The first modern implementation was by the
Geneva church under the leadership of
John Calvin in 1541.
Presbyterian polity is constructed on specific assumptions about the
form of the government intended by the Bible:
Koine Greek "episcopos") and "elder" (Koine Greek
"presbyteros") are (in this view) synonymous terms. Episcopos means
literally overseer and describes the function of the elder, rather
than the maturity of the officer. A bishop holds the highest office of
the church (there is no Patriarch or Pope over bishops).
Preaching (the ministry of the Word) and the administration of the
sacraments is ordinarily entrusted to specially trained elders (known
as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, sometimes called "teaching
elders") in each local congregation, approved for these tasks by a
governing presbytery, or classis, and called by the local
In addition to these ministers, there are also "others … with gifts
for government … commonly call[ed] "elders" or "ruling elders"
(but not in the sense of "presbyteros").
Pastoral care, church discipline, leadership and legislation are
committed to the care of ruling assemblies of presbyters among whom
the ministers and "ruling elders" are equal participants.
All Christian people together are the priesthood (see priesthood of
all believers), on behalf of whom the elders are called to serve by
the consent of the congregation.
Presbyterianism uses a conciliar method of church government (that is,
leadership by the group or council). Thus, the presbyters and "elders"
govern together as a group, and at all times the office is for the
service of the congregation, to pray for them and to encourage them in
the faith. The elders together exercise oversight (episcopacy) over
the local congregation, with superior groups of elders gathered on a
regional basis exercising wider oversight.
Presbyterians typically have viewed this method of government as
approximating that of the
New Testament and earliest churches.
However, sometimes it is admitted that episcopacy was a form of
government that was used very early in the church for practical
Presbyterianism is also distinct from congregationalism, in that
individual congregations are not independent, but are answerable to
the wider church, through its governing bodies (presbyteries, synods
and assemblies). Moreover, the ordained ministry possesses a distinct
responsibility for preaching and sacraments. Congregational churches
are sometimes called "Presbyterian" if they are governed by a council
of elders; but the difference is that every local congregation is
independent, and its elders are accountable to its members, and
congregationalism's wider assemblies are not ordinarily empowered to
enforce discipline. Thus, these are ruled by elders only at the level
of the congregations, which are united with one another by covenants
Reformed Baptist churches are organized to be governed by
elders, on the congregationalist model.
The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, by John Henry Lorimer,
1891. National Gallery of Scotland.
There are two types of elder; the teaching elder (see The Minister
below) and the ruling elder. An excerpt from Miller (1831) expands
this. (Chapter 1)
In every Church completely organized, that is, furnished with all the
officers which Christ has instituted and which are necessary for
carrying into full effect the laws of his kingdom, there ought to be
three classes of officers, viz: at least one Teaching Elder, Bishop,
Pastor — a bench of Ruling Elders — and Deacons. The first to
"minister in the Word and Doctrine", and to dispense the sacraments;
— the second to assist in the inspection and government of the
Church; — and the third to "serve tables"; that is, to take care of
the Church's funds destined for the support of the poor, and sometimes
to manage whatever relates to the temporal support of the gospel and
Depending upon the specific denomination, teaching elders may also be
referred to with terms such as "Minister of Word and Sacrament".
The elders are persons chosen from among the congregation and ordained
for this service. Beyond that, practices vary: sometimes elders are
elected by the congregation,  sometimes appointed by the session,
in some denominations elders serve for life, others have fixed terms,
and some churches appoint elders on a rotation from among willing
members in good standing in the church. However, in
many churches, ruling elders retain their ordination for life, even
though they serve fixed terms. Even after the end of their terms, they
may be active in presbyteries or other bodies, and may serve
In addition to sitting on the session and other church courts, ruling
elders have duties as individuals. Again, Miller (1831) explains,
It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the
members of the congregation; and, for this purpose, to cultivate a
universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every
family in the flock of which they are made "overseers".
See also: Holy Orders § Presbyterian churches
In some denominations they are called Ministers of Word and Sacrament,
and in others they are called Teaching Elders. Ministers called to a
particular congregation are called pastors, and serve a function
analogous to clergy in other denominations. (Because ruling elders
are often ordained in a fashion nearly identical to teaching elders,
the distinction between lay and clergy is not as clear under the
Presbyterian system as in others.)
Ministers may be considered equal in status with the other elders, but
they have a distinct ordination and distinct function. They are the
primary preachers and teachers, celebrants of sacraments. There are
sometimes further distinctions between the minister and the other
elders. Some Presbyterian denominations enroll ministers as members of
their respective congregations, while others enroll the minister as a
member of the regional presbytery. The presbyteries are responsible
for the ordination of the ministers.
Until the 20th century, only men had been eligible for ordination as
elders or ministers of the word and sacrament. This is widely not the
case any longer, although it is usually considered a demarcation
issue, distinguishing "liberal" from "conservative" Presbyterian
denominations. In North America, the Reformed Church in America,
Christian Reformed Church in North America
Christian Reformed Church in North America (both of Dutch Reformed
heritage), Presbyterian Church in Canada, Evangelical Presbyterian
Church, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, Cumberland
Presbyterian Church and
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are denominations
with presbyterian polity which allow for the ordination of women.
The general assembly of a denomination often decides on what grounds a
person may be ordained, but the ordination of ministers is the right
of the presbytery or classis, and the right to extend a call to a
minister is the privilege of the members of the parish or
congregation.   
The office of deacon has different meanings among different
presbyterian churches. In some churches, deacons exercise
responsibility for practical matters of finance and fabric, either
separately or together with the elders. In some cases deacons
administer the welfare matters of the congregation, while a separate
board of management or trustees administers the other material
business of the congregation, such as its endowments, salaries and
Main article: Session (Presbyterian)
Elders make decisions for the local parish through an elected council
called the Session (Latin. sessio from sedere "to sit"), sometimes the
Kirk session, church session, or (in Continental Reformed usage)
consistory. The members of the session are the pastor(s) of that
congregation (sometimes referred to as a teaching elder) and the
installed ruling or canon elders (ruling or canon because they are
responsible for measuring the spiritual life and work of a
congregation). In some Continental Reformed churches, deacons are
members of the consistory; others, such as the Christian Reformed
Church in North America, distinguish between the consistory,
comprising the pastor and elders, and the council, which comprises the
pastor(s), the elders, and the deacons.
In most denominations the pastor serves as Moderator and presides over
the session (primus inter pares), in which all elders have an equal
vote.(Chapter 9) In some denominations, the pastor is not given a
vote; however, in a sitting body of an even number or with a quorum of
the session counted she or he can break a tie by a casting vote.
In the Polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the pastor and
associate pastor(s) have votes as members of the session on any and
all matters; however, often she or he refrains from voting except
in tie situations. The
Pastor is not a voting member of the
With the Session there is one person, sometimes an elder but not
always, that will be given the title, "Clerk of Session." This person
is more or less the secretary for Session. They take notes on each
meeting and is given the ability to keep meetings on track.
Presbytery flags of the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu
In presbyterianism, congregations are united in accountability to a
regional body called the presbytery, or, in Continental Reformed
terminology, the classis, which comes from the
Latin word for "fleet."
Presbyteries are made up of the minister and an elder 'commissioned'
from each parish, as well as other clergy, such as theological college
professors, chaplains, and retired ministers. When there is a larger
number of ordained ministers than ruling elders, additional ruling
elders are appointed to redress the imbalance. The commissioners of
the presbytery are expected to exercise their own judgement and are
not required to represent the majority view of their congregations. In
some Dutch Reformed bodies, a classis serves as a delegated body,
which ceases to exist in between meetings, whereas a presbytery exists
The officers of a presbytery are a moderator and a stated or principal
clerk. The moderator acts as chair of presbytery meetings and has a
casting, but not deliberative, vote. As with the moderators of synods
and assemblies, the moderatorship is a primus inter pares position
appointed by the presbytery itself. The moderator is addressed as
"moderator" during meetings, but his/her position has no bearing
outside of the presbytery meeting and affords him/her no special place
in other courts, although typically the moderator (especially if a
member of the clergy) will conduct worship and oversee ordinations and
installations of ministers as a "liturgical" bishop, and other
ordinances which are seen as acts of the presbytery.
The stated or principal clerk takes minutes and deals with the
correspondence of the presbytery, and is often appointed for an
indefinite term. Presbytery Clerks are the ecclesiastical
administrators and generally regarded as substantially influential due
to their greater experience of the governance of the church and their
ordering of the business of the presbytery. They are thus very much
more than secretaries and often in fact are the lynch pin of the
Presbyteries meet at a regularity between monthly and quarterly, some
In denominations too large for all the work of the denomination to be
done by a single presbytery, the parishes may be divided into several
presbyteries under synods and general assemblies, the synod being the
lower court of the two. In the United Church of Canada, this is
referred to as "conferences" and "General Council." However, the
United Church of Canada
United Church of Canada does not bear the formal ecclesiastical
structure of classic Presbyterianism.
Often all members of the constituent presbyteries are members of the
synod. Like the commissioners to presbyteries, the commissioners to
synods do not act on instruction from their congregations or
presbyteries, but exercise their own judgement. A synod also has a
moderator and clerk, and generally meet less often than the
Some presbyterian churches, like the
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Orthodox Presbyterian Church and
Presbyterian Church in America
Presbyterian Church in America have no intermediate court between the
presbytery and the general assembly.
The general assembly (or general synod) is the highest court of
presbyterian polity. Each presbytery selects a number of its members
to be commissioners to the general assembly. The general assembly is
chaired by its own moderator, who is usually elected to a single term.
He or she is addressed as moderator during meetings, but like the
other moderators, his/her position has no bearing outside of the
assembly meeting and affords him/her no special place in other courts.
He or she presides over meetings of the assembly, and may be called on
in a representative function for the remainder of the year.
The stated clerk and deputy clerk of the general assembly administer
the minutes, correspondence, and business of the assembly. In some
cases a separate business convenor is appointed to deal with the
agenda. General assemblies meet less regularly than their subordinate
courts, often annually, or in the case of the Presbyterian Church
(USA), every other year.
The General Assembly also has members serve as Advisory Delegates.
There are four different types of advisory delegates, each with a
focus on a different area in the Presbyterian Church like young adult,
theological student, missionary and ecumenical. The role of an
advisory delegate is to speak about issues or topics that
commissioners would usually not worry about or care to speak about
during a General Assembly meeting. Advisory Delegates may not present
motions or vote in meetings of the General Assembly.
The powers of the general assembly are usually wide-ranging. However,
they may be limited by some form of external review. For example, the
rules of the Church of
Scotland include the Barrier Act, which
requires that certain major changes to the polity of the church be
referred to the presbyteries, before being enacted by the general
Presbyterianism § Regions
The word "Presbyterianism," when capitalized, often refers
specifically to churches founded on principles of presbyterian polity
British Isles and their derivatives in other countries.
In France, presbyterianism is represented by the Eglise Reformée de
France. There are also Lutherans and Evangelicals. The logo is a
Huguenot Cross (Croix Huguenote) with the burning bush.
The origins of the
Waldensian Evangelical Church
Waldensian Evangelical Church lie in the medieval
Waldensian movement for religious reform. The
Calvinist theology during the Reformation and became the Italian
branch of the Reformed churches. In 1975 the Waldensian Church joined
with the Italian Methodist Church to form the Union of Waldensian and
Methodist Churches, which is a member of the World Council of
Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World
Robert Burns published a brief irreverent poem, On A Celebrated Ruling
Elder, as an elegy for a Scottish Presbyterian.
Moderators and clerks in the Church of Scotland
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Moderator of the General Assembly
Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Presbyterian Historical Society
For a full list of individual denominations see List of Christian
denominations#Reformed Churches and List of Christian
References and notes
^ For example, the Church of the Nazarene, which subscribes to a body
of religious doctrines that are quite distinct from those of most
properly named Presbyterian denominations (and which instead descends
historically from the Wesleyan Holiness Movement), employs a blend of
congregationalist, episcopal, and presbyterian polities; its local
churches are governed by an elected body known as the church board or
simply "board members"; the term elder in the Nazarene Church has a
different use entirely, referring to an ordained minister of that
^ W.A. Jurgens, "The Faith of the Early Fathers." The Order of St.
Benedict, Inc., 1979, pg. 194
^ a b "Presbyterianism, n."
OED Online. Draft revision March 2007.
Oxford University Press. Retrieved on February 8, 2008,
^ a b c d Westminster Assembly, 1645A "The Form of Presbyterial
Church-Government" (ASSEMBLY AT EDINBURGH, February 10, 1645, Sess.
16. ACT of the GENERAL ASSEMBLY of the KIRK of SCOTLAND, approving the
Propositions concerning Kirk-government, and Ordination of Ministers).
Online at CRTA, retrieved on September 6, 2006.
^ a b c d Miller, Samuel (1842), An essay on the warrant, nature, and
duties of the office of the ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church,
^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2007. "Book of Order"
^ a b
Catholic Encyclopedia 1914,
Presbyterianism by J. A. MCHUGH.
Online edition retrieved on September 6, 2006.
^ Presbyterian Publications Office, London, 1884, "The Qualifications
and Duties of Elders", in Matthews, George D. ed "Alliance of the
Reformed Church Holding the Presbyterian System, Minutes and
Proceedings of the Third General Council, Belfast, 1884"
^ As an example of qualifications for office as teaching elder, many
denominations require a period of theological education at university
^ Christian Reformed Church of North America Church Order Article 35
^ PCUSA Book of Order G-10.0101
^ PCUSA Book of Order G-7.0308
^ "General Assembly" (PDF).
^ Benedict, Philip (2002). Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social
History of Calvinism. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xiv.
^ Burns, Robert. "On A Celebrated Ruling Elder" available online in
English translation from The World Burns Club. Retrieved on August 25,
World Alliance of Reformed Churches
Catholic Encyclopedia 1914,
Presbyterianism by J. A. MCHUGH. Online
Samuel Miller, 1831. An Essay, on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of
the Office of the Ruling Elder, in the Presbyterian Church (New York).
Book in the public domain, available online at The Internet Archive
Westminster Assembly, 1645 "The Form of Presbyterial