The Rise and Dangers of Presbyterialism
April 11, 2023

I became the pastor of Westminster Bible Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky soon after completing my Ph.D. in church history. On paper, it was the ideal church for me. Even the name, I thought smacked of my preferences: the Westminster Confession with idealistic Biblicism. I didn’t know it had been, originally, Westminster Presbyterian Church, with the PCA, nor did I comprehend what a presbyterian local church government severed from presbyteries, synods and general assemblies would mean for me, the pastor. To cut to the chase, I moved out of Bowling Green 20 years ago.

The title is not a typo. Presbyterialism is a cross between presbyterian polity — with its multiple church elders — and congregationalism — with its local church independence. It’s the logical church government for the nondenominational, baptistic churches who can be easily convinced of a “plurality of elders” but can’t be sold on denominational structure. After all, the New Testament shows that the first churches had multiple elders — although it doesn’t command it — but doesn’t explicitly show overseeing hierarchies (although one could argue that the apostles were just that.) The result is “elder led” or — a tad more hierarchical — “elder ruled” churches, with one or more pastors and several lay elders, all terminology which should amuse Presbyterians since it’s a reinvention of their wheel.

When some New England Puritans drifted toward an inclusive parish church (in which the church effectively included all members of its community), the polity also moved toward what Robert Pope termed “presbyterial” (rule by elders but with congregational-style local church autonomy, thus no extra-local presbytery or classis.)1 Presbyterialism developed in New England because of the peculiar situation Congregationalists there found themselves. Like their brothers in England, they were supposed to be independent, free churches, committed to a regenerate church membership, in which ideally there was as little as possible distinction between the visible church – that is, the local church’s official membership – and the true, invisible one of the elect. But in New England, this congregational ideal was married to established, parish churches that covered all residents under its pastoral wings. So, while only the visible saints were to be members of the church, all residents were under their local church. In some places, as the distinction between the visible saints and the unregenerate became more difficult to discern, the church government shifted to being “elder led,” presbyterial.

Over the past century, a similar dynamic has arisen in the “Bible churches” and other non-denominational churches, usually baptist. Revivalism and dispensationalism tend to create nominal believers. Their churches are pastorally responsible for them because they conferred on them assurance of salvation. But most serious church members don’t think these nominal believers should have the say in church government that congregationalism allows. Revivalism dispenses assurance of salvation like Oprah giving out cars: “You get assurance. You get assurance. Everybody gets assurance.” In congregationalism, that assurance confers church membership and a vote. When church discipline falls by the way-side, we have churches with 500 or more people on the membership roll, any of whom can show up and vote in the next business meeting even if they haven’t stepped foot inside the church building in 35 years. I knew just such a man.

Dispensationalism, the theology of many “Bible churches,” likewise creates superficially converted church members. Having relegated “the Law,” to a prior “dispensation,” it presents a truncated “gospel of grace” which can produce “believers” whose faith has no works. It even invented a name to describe the inevitable result of its antinomianism: “the carnal Christian.” The carnal Christian has “prayed the prayer” and perhaps been rushed through a baptism but doesn’t live any differently. The problem for congregationalism mixed with such theology is obvious: the man who abandoned his wife to move in with a girl-friend is not someone you want helping decide on the next pastor. The logical conclusion, then, if you’re not going to rethink your theology, is to shift the balance of power away from the congregation to a board of elders, a select few men, who are more likely, you hope, to be godly. You opt for “presbyterialism” and call it “elder led” or “elder ruled,” if you don’t bother to consult the Presbyterians’ lexicon.

The problem: presbyterian local church government was only meant to exist in the larger system of denominational accountability, with presbyteries and synods looming over the horizon. When it’s married to congregationalism’s local church autonomy, abuse by prominent members becomes more likely, as I discovered.

Westminster Presbyterian Church had been wrested from the PCA by a history professor who shared none of the theology the church was obviously founded to preserve. A history professor had to know that “Westminster” excluded his Arminianism (or Pelagianism.) He claimed to be baptist too. He almost certainly didn’t reveal his theology before being included on “the session,” as Presbyterians typically call their elder board.  But a Presbyterian church had one feature that any of the many baptistic, squishy Arminian churches around didn’t have: the opportunity to get on the elder board — “the session” — and direct the church behind the scenes. By the time I arrived, he had already ousted two sound, Presbyterian pastors and led the church out of the PCA, now as an independent church retaining the “session” (elder led): hence, presbyterial. How he overcame oversight by the presbytery, I’m not sure. When I arrived, there was no oversight. So, the presbyterial system has no brake on the abusive, over-bearing reign of a prominent elder. In congregationalism, he would have been only one voice among many. In a true Presbyterian church, he’d be accountable to the presbytery. But in presbyterialism there’s nothing to stop his abuse except the integrity of the other elders and where that’s lacking — often because they’re lackeys — it’s game, set, match. When he sprung his trap against me, there was no presbytery to step in.

Over the past generation there’s been a lot of chatter about the excellencies of a “plurality of elders” among Baptists (denominational) and baptists (nondenominational). Some see it as the solution to the abusive pastor, warned about with the regularity of a clock chime. Yes, there are abusive pastors, so I’ve heard. I’ve actually never met one. The solution to an abusive pastor in congregationalism is simple: either the congregation dismisses him or you can leave.

I believe the dominant form of abuse in today’s churches is the abuse meted out to pastors by members, frequently by prominent men. That’s a problem in Baptist churches where the “deacons” preside like a session of elders. (The worst of all possible polities. It’s presbyterialism without self-awareness.) In a truly congregational church, the troublesome member’s potential for mayhem is watered down by the other members among he’s an equal. But, along comes the effusive praise of a “plurality of elders” – the cumbersome phrase revealing that this has become a ill-thought-out cliché. Yes, any faithful pastor wants all the pastoral help he can get and to enable the gifts of other men called to be elders (if there are any available.) But within all the chatter, there’s less talk of the problems that arise when unqualified, sometimes pernicious men, become elders, like that history professor who lingers in my memory as perhaps the most evil character I’ve ever had the displeasure to encounter. There are almost no warnings about the dangers of presbyterialism: of empowering a few prominent leaders, with no outside oversight. Presbyterialism lacks the institutional memory of presbyterianism. It’s rife for abuse and mostly the one being abused will be the one the culture reflexively suspects of abuse. If you’re a pastor, that’s you.

John B. Carpenter, Ph.D., is pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, in Danville, VA. and the author of Seven Pillars of a Biblical Church (Wipf and Stock, 2022).

  1. Robert G. Pope, The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 200. ↩︎
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