Part I – Structure of Church Government
The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, Principles of Order and Government
To better understand our Presbyterian form of government it is important to first understand that our form of government is rooted in our theological belief in the unity of the church. This is not a new belief for Presbyterians, see F-3.0201 in the new Form of Government (nFOG) and G-1.0400 in the old.
We believe all of our congregations share a relational connection as one church governed by groups of elders, elected by the members, in ascending councils; sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly. It is a thoroughly Presbyterian understanding of church government that places authority in the higher councils of the church over the lower councils. We are one church manifest in 10,000 congregations across the denomination where the actions of one council are the action of the whole. We govern ourselves as Presbyterians.
Our Presbyterian form of government stands in contrast with the Episcopal form of government that places power in the hierarchy of bishops, and the Congregational form of government that places power in the congregation itself. We place power in our elders who we elect and send to the higher councils of the denomination.
In the sense that our higher councils have authority over the lower councils this is “top-down” but we must always keep in mind that the “top” is comprised of elders elected and sent from the “down” and the true head at the top of the church is Jesus Christ.
One change in the nFOG is how we refer to the councils of the church. Previously we referred to our councils as being “separate and independent.” The nFOG describes councils as being “distinct.”
The change reflects a recommendation made in a Special Committee on Middle Governing Body Relationships report from 1999 that pointed out “No PC(USA) governing body is an island; indeed, none can serve its historic role apart from the others.”
Dan Williams served as served as Co-Moderator of the Form of Government Task Force from 2008-2010, and as Vice Moderator of the Assembly Committee on Form of Government Revisions at the 218th General Assembly (2008). In his blog where he shared information about the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and new Form of Government he wrote this,
“The councils of the church are distinct, with powers and responsibilities reserved to each, as defined by our constitution. However, the councils of the church are not, and never have been, islands unto themselves. We have always governed the less inclusive parts of the church by the more inclusive councils, but never as “us” and “them,” but “we,” as presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly do not exist except for the ruling elders and teaching elders that constitute them, as determined by the actions of our congregations, sessions, and presbyteries.”
“Separate and independent” is much more Congregational than Presbyterian and did not genuinely reflect our theological understanding that while we are “distinct” we are nonetheless one church. In the body of Jesus Christ we are not independent, we are united.
Despite critiques to the contrary, we are no more “top-down” in the nFOG than we were in the old.
Another change between the old and the new is that members who previously “put themselves under the leadership of their officers, whom they elect” (G-7.0103) in the old Book of Order now “put themselves under the leadership of the session and the higher councils (presbytery, synod, and General Assembly” (G-1.0103) in the nFOG. And I would add, the higher councils whom we elect and send from our pews.
Again, this change in language better reflects a Presbyterian form of government and our theological understanding of the unity we share in the church. It’s a change that reflects what has already been true.
One other change to address is language that was removed in the nFOG that specifically gave members of the congregation “permissive powers” such as “the desire to lodge all administrative responsibility in the session, or the request to presbytery for exemption from one or more requirements because of limited size” (G-7.0304a(5))
Keep in mind, this change is only related to the business permitted by the members of a congregation in an official congregational meeting. I’m not sure what undefined “permissive powers” the members would want, or should even have in our Presbyterian form of government. As Presbyterians we elect elders to represent the members, we are not congregationalists.
I realize there is an example circulating online about a presbytery who was “very aware” that a congregation “now has more limited powers” and was quick to point out that “under the new Form of Government, a congregation is not allowed to have a congregational meeting and take a vote on whether or not to request dismissal from the PCUSA. They did decide that the presbytery could hold a gathering and allow the congregation to indicate its preference.”
It is very misleading to make connection between the loss of “permissive powers” and the presbytery’s actions described above. It’s true members of a congregation do not have the authority to vote to dismiss the congregation under the nFOG, but they didn’t have that authority under the old form either. That authority did (G-11.0103i), and still does (G-3.0303b), reside solely with the presbytery.
Members have always been limited in the actions they can take in a congregational meeting however there is nothing in the nFOG preventing a congregation from taking a non-bind “straw poll” of it’s members. If any presbytery suggest otherwise I contend they are out of line.
In general, the concerns I’ve seen about the structure of church government in the nFOG stem from changes we made in either our language or actual form of government that better reflect our long held theological understanding of the unity we share in the church, as well as the corollary to this which is a perceived loss of independence.
Perhaps it’s not at all surprising that those who are concerned with the PC(USA)’s nFOG are gravitating to ECO with its strong bend toward an independent form of government. A form of government presenting its own opportunities for problems. See Polity Matters…A Lot.
Let’s #StayPCUSA together.