What is Presbyterianism?
The essential concept of Presbyterianism has to do with the biblical form of church government. Presbyterianism is founded on the idea of a plurality of elders and the connectivity of local churches for governance, accountability, and ministerial collaboration.
The highly esteemed eighteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister John “Rabbi” Duncan once famously stated: “I am first a Christian, next a catholic (i.e., a member of the universal church), then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” Duncan was highlighting the fact that there is a basic order of priority regarding what value believers often place on a variety of biblical truths.
For most people, the word Presbyterian carries with it the idea of distinctive practices and teachings of churches that go by that name (e.g., Reformed theology, covenantal baptism, liturgical worship, a confession of faith, and a book of church order). Although these doctrinal matters certainly fit within the historical context of Presbyterianism, the biblical essence of Presbyterianism has little to nothing to do with any of these specifics. Rather, the essential concept of Presbyterianism has to do with the biblical form of church government. Presbyterianism is founded on the idea of a plurality of elders and the connectivity of local churches for governance, accountability, and ministerial collaboration.
Presbyterianism derives its name and idea from the Greek word presbyteros. This word is found in many places in the New Testament (Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2–6, Acts 22; Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1; James 5:14). Translators of English versions of the New Testament have translated the word presbyteros as “elder.” This word presbyteros is synonymous with the Greek word episkopos, which is translated “overseer” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). The word presbyteros captures with it the idea of the dignity of the office of an elder, whereas the word episkopos expresses the function of the office.
There is a need for a plurality of elders on a local church level, as well as on a regional and national level. Each local congregation in the Apostolic age was overseen by elders. This is evident from Paul’s appeal to the elders in the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17–38). It is also demonstrated by the way in which Paul charged Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5).