Does God Speak Presbyterian?

Michael J. Glodo[1]

One of my most unsettling moments in a church court was a few years ago when a committee of the court presented a recommendation. As the presbyters were presented with the evidence and arguments behind the recommendation, the chairman of the committee enthusiastically and earnestly endorsed their recommendation by saying, “The Holy Spirit has led us to this recommendation. This is from God.” If, in fact, this was true, it should not have been a recommendation but merely an announcement. It was jaw-dropping in that it was so fundamentally across the grain of what Presbyterians believe and that it was said by a leader of the court. Once the Spirit’s endorsement was announced, the fix was in and no one could question or challenge the recommendation. It was adopted, but I wondered if anyone else had noticed that the whole premise for the presbyters gathering and deliberating had been swept out from under us. If the presentation was correct, we should have all stayed home.

The designation “Presbyterian” has become a dubious theological identifier these days. This has been the case for decades now. The same seems just true for identifying polity. This is ironic given that our name is polity-based, meaning “ruled by elders.” The murkiness is evidenced in paper polity of the vast continuum from the hyper-legislated PC(USA) to the minimalist PCA forms of government. My denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, was a fine specimen on paper until a reader-friendly revision carried out by polity novices in the late 2000s gave away a lot of the family jewels in a yard sale.[2]

These days, to describe one’s practice as Presbyterian is even more murky that the polity on paper. The loss of Presbyterian muscle memory which was progressing incrementally during the EPC’s first thirty years was accelerated by the deluge of refugees from the PC(USA) who fled their former home’s polity excesses as well as its theological devolution.[3] Of the antediluvian EPC congregations, there was already a preexisting trajectory toward greater and greater assumption and exercise of authority by ministers; senior pastors in particular, especially in larger more progressive congregations. That trajectory of executive style pastoral leadership has accelerated without strong Presbyterian autoimmune polity instincts.

But just as with doctrine and life, the diminution of Presbyterians’ polity vitality is not solely its own fault. Environmental factors have presented unprecedented pressures against “walking like a Presbyterian.” The external factors leading to decline in Presbyterian practice are twofold. First, the busyness and information overload of ordinary life mean that volunteer leadership of all organizations is highly stressed. Inboxes are hopelessly overloaded, calendars are frenetically over-scheduled, and the hoped-for efficiencies of technology have only produced greater volumes of tasks and information. In the past, scheduling a lunch could be done in a sixty second phone call. Today it takes between three and eight emails or texts, depending how many get ignored or buried in the process. Among the inundated souls are ruling elders. The margins that formerly allowed them forethought and follow through for church ministry are gone. As a result, elders are more and more dependent upon the pastor to tell them what’s going on and what needs done.

Conversely, executive leaders of all organizations, including churches, are drawn deeper into the complexities of their operational environments, requiring more complex subject knowledge and higher and higher states of vigilance. From the high-altitude tasks of defining vision, mission, and core values down to the low altitude details of execution, professional leaders face greater and greater demands of expertise in a world that is evolving exponentially.

Pastors face this same leadership challenge in doing church in the early 21st century. The decline of Christendom, hyper-modernism, affluence, technology, mobility, and countless other factors converge into headwinds the church hasn’t faced in previous times. “It’s complicated” is a ridiculous understatement of the nature of ministry for most pastors today. Even as populism is generating the “death of expertise,” virtually every profession is having to dive deeper into the complexities of its field. [4] This is true for the mechanic who diagnoses an engine with a computer, a doctor who has to keep up with the vast array of new medical information while having to develop a business model, and pastors who are diagnosing increasingly complex idolatries, social dynamics, and fractured attention spans of people.

Under these conditions, an elder’s role can easily be reduced to being a cheerleader and supporter of the pastor. After all, the pastor’s work is hard and his hours are long and who is the volunteer elder to question all the thought, energy, and expertise which has gone into the pastor’s ideas? The same thing is happening on the presbytery level and General Assembly levels. The officers and leaders are the experts—especially the paid ones. The rest of the commissioners begin to view their role as only that of supporters.

So here’s the thing—fundamental to Presbyterian polity is the plurality of elders meeting in the deliberative assembly, that the mind of Christ is most faithfully discerned by the church’s undershepherds meeting, praying, discussing, and deciding. The deliberative assembly is the heart of a Presbyterian church’s life. In other words, we don’t know what the Holy Spirit wants us to do until we’ve deliberated.

Presbyterian polity’s strength vis a vis other systems has always been its appeal to biblical patterns.[5] The most dramatic decision moment in the life of the first followers of Jesus starkly demonstrates the profundity of the deliberative assembly. The decision of the council at Jerusalem regarding Gentiles and adherence to the Old Testament law constituted a watershed moment (Acts 15). The issues presented a theological, sociological, political, and missiological moment which should teach us all not to separate these aspects of decision making from one another.[6]

The momentousness of the Jerusalem council, though, was more than not requiring Gentile adherence to ceremonial aspects of the law. It was a momentous occasion for the early church’s polity. It was not only the apostles who gathered in Jerusalem, but also the “elders” (v 6) who participated in the deliberation and shared in the conclusion (v 22). Most remarkably, the decision was not only that of the apostles and elders, but of the Holy Spirit (v 28). Consider the implications of this account for how the church is to be led. The apostles didn’t dictate to the elders. They didn’t merely receive input from them. They deliberated with them. And the result of that deliberation was knowing the mind of Christ for that set of issues.

This was an historic moment in redemptive history. In the coming years the apostles would disappear from the earth until the resurrection. God would provide the ministry and the eldership to build on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles in order to be shepherds on behalf of the Good Shepherd. Just as Paul instructed Timothy in a way that anticipated the passing of the baton from the apostolic to the post-apostolic age (2 Tim 2:2), the Jerusalem Council anticipated that transition. As the future of the Gentile mission hung in the balance, God made known his will through the spirited debate of godly men, most of whose names we don’t even know. The fact that anonymous elders participated as peers with the apostles and contributed to the discussion by bringing reports from the field exhibited another fundamental Presbyterian principle—power must ascend before it descends.[7] Everyone mattered, not just the “influencers.”

These are perilous times. Presbyterianism is under stress in unprecedented ways. Doubtless many would say it is a theological luxury to try to work through the deliberative assembly with its slowness and inefficiency when the times require a nimble, responsive, and visionary style of operation. Yet stress is not new for Christians. In fact, one of the most Presbyterian passages in the New Testament, 1 Peter 5:1-5, is addressed to the church under the greatest duress.

Others, lacking theological imagination, will have difficulty distinguishing a virile Presbyterian polity from the real and perceived bureaucracies around us. No paper polity is perfect or permanent. Continued self-reflection and improvement essential to retrieving the muscle memory we have lost and to embracing the church’s mission going forward, but the last thing we would want to suggest is that the Presbyterian-behaving Apostles lacked a missional focus. They saw the deliberative assembly as mission critical.

What are some concrete steps a Presbyterian-minded presbyter can take at the session, presbytery, and General Assembly levels?

  1. Learn the work. No matter what you have seen or experienced in the courts of the church, take your job description from the scriptures and learn how it is worked out in our polity.[8] Ask questions. Read (see footnote 2). Learn polity. The Book of Order is really not that long as books go.
  2. Do the work. Prepare. Show up. Charitably participate. Give input. Listen and pray.
  3. Require the work from others. Apply accountability. Don’t become a rubber stamp. Ask questions.
  4. Demand integrity and transparency. It is not enough for officers and leaders of the church courts to say “Trust me.” True integrity doesn’t simply cash the check of trust, but provides transparency in order to earn trust.

Faith has never been easy, but duress can be enormously clarifying. Faith lays hold of God’s promises, but only has a legitimate claim to them when walking by faith. We can be about the Lord’s work, but can only expect his blessing when we do it in the Lord’s way. As Francis Schaeffer put it

The real problem is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.[9]

We can achieve results in the wrong way, but it is a contrived self-faith that trusts those results will be the Lord’s results. Following by faith the biblical pattern of polity by doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way is the only assured path of seeing the Lord’s blessings on our work.

No individual or group should ever stand before a court of the church and tell the court what the Spirit wants. Rather, those who stand before us should invite us to participate in discerning what the Spirit wants.

Next installment: the essential need for integrity in Presbyterian church leaders.

[1] Mike Glodo is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando where he has taught Old Testament, New Testament, preaching, and pastoral theology for twenty-four years. Ordained a deacon in the EPC in 1983 and a minister in 1987, he served two terms as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the EPC (2000-2006). He carries on an active consulting and preaching ministry primarily among various conservative Presbyterian denominations, often assisting sessions and congregations in difficulty. This is the first in a planned series of posts on the general state of being Presbyterian in the current climate and how sound, biblical Presbyterian faith and practice provides vital guidance to the church in fulfilling God’s mission.

[2] The EPC’s original Book of Government was fundamentally the work of Andy Jumper, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. Andy was a fervent evangelist from the pulpit and learned a skilled churchman. He knew well the overreach of the mainline polity, yet he knew the solution was not to return to the days of the Judges when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Because that BoG was the work of a single mind and hand, it had a unified character as well as historic grounding. My predecessor as Stated Clerk, L. Edward Davis was also keenly minded in polity, and together they helped the denomination to a Goldilocks, “just right,” balance.

[3] In no way do I wish to cast aspersions on my brothers and sisters who have entered the EPC’s ark. Many of them are more well-schooled in historical theology and Reformed worship than those in the EPC who were trained in generic evangelical environments and never learned the tongue of Presbyterian Mother Zion. Yet I have heard countless stories of young pastors trained in sound Reformed seminaries who have been overtly opposed and resisted in teaching Reformed distinctives by elders of more recently-received congregations. It was a great concern of mine as I was leaving the Stated Clerk’s office that the EPC would be deluged by cultural conservatism more than biblical conservatism. With these stories of elder opposition to confessional teaching, that fear has proven founded in some cases.

[4] Ironically, while we are witnessing the “death of expertise” [Thomas M. Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2017)] the actual need for expertise is increasing.

[5] For the full biblical case, see James Wutherow, “The Apostolic Church: Which Is It?” in Paradigms in Polity, ed. David W. Hall and Joseph H. Hall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 35-52 and Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2011).

[6] A planned future post will address the question of how mission and governance are to be partners rather than opponents.

[7] A planned future post will develop the ascending-descending nature of power.

[8] Polity is to be the application of scriptural principles for governance. It only takes a little imagination, and perhaps asking someone who knows, to see how micro-provisions of polity are designed to apply the macro-principles of church polity derived from scripture.

[9] Francis A. Schaeffer, “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 3 (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1982), 41-51.





%d bloggers like this: