Lesson 7 – Synods and Councils


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©2011

Ecclesiology: Lesson 7 – Synods and Councils
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2002, 2011

Lesson Index
The Organization of the Church Courts
The Officers of the Church
The Higher Courts of the Church
The Work of the Church Courts

NOTE: The sections of the Confession within [square brackets] were eliminated when the first American Presbyterian churches modified the confession shortly after its adoption for use outside of the influence of the English church. The parts in {curly brackets} were added by the American churches to compensate for the portions removed.

The Organization of the Church Courts

Westminster Confession of Faith 31

I. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils: {and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church.}
[II. As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ, of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies.]
II. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.
III. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

The Bible does not present the church of the New Testament as a disjointed body of believers having no concern or respect for one another. They met together, shared in mutual care, joined in the broader work of God’s Kingdom, and respected the authority of the leaders ordained to teach and to oversee the congregations.

In the previous lesson we examined the authority of the Elders of local churches in their shepherding duty working together as a Session to censure members through the process of ecclesiastical discipline. In this lesson we will look at the more generalized organization of the church as specified in God’s word.

Authority in the Church
Jesus Christ is the head of the church. He alone is the final authority over all things. In Ephesians 1:22-23 Paul writes, “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.”

As head Jesus tells us what the church is to be, what it is to do, and how it is to operate. He makes this known by means of the revealed word of God. That word is preserved for us in the infallible and inerrant Scriptures (see our notes on chapter 1 of the confession).

The Offices of the Church
Jesus Christ has explained in his word that his church is to be organized in a particular way under officers who meet the qualifications detailed in his word. Within these guidelines there is room for diversity. However, the boundaries set by Scripture regulating these offices may not be ignored or changed. The officers are to carry out the will of God in the way made known in the Bible.

There are two offices that were established to continue in the New Testament form of the Church.

1) The Elder
The word “Elder” in the New Testament translates the Greek word presbuteros (πρεσβυτερος) from which we get the words “Presbyter” and ‘Presbyterian”. A Presbyterian church is one where its government is made up of Elders (Presbyters). The word by itself simply means someone who is old or mature, either physically or in wisdom. The word “Elder” was used for the ordained church officers of the church who were to be wise in applying God’s word.

In the Old Testament the word translated as ‘Elder” is the Hebrew word zaqaen (זקן), which also means a person of old age or of mature wisdom. The term is used over 150 times in the Old Testament.

Before Moses, families and communities of families were guided spiritually by their oldest men. When God organized his people into a Covenant Nation under Moses, Elders were chosen from among the respected family heads to rule, judge, and guide the people of Israel in wise submission to God’s word.

These Elders were set aside, ordained, to be the covenant representatives of the people to God and to communicate God’s truths, wisdom, and promises to the people (Exodus 3:16ff). They shared the spiritual burden that Moses bore in his shepherding care of the nation (Numbers 11:14-16, 24-26). They acted as a court of judges when there were disputes or crimes among the people (Deuteronomy 25:7-9). They also watched over the faithfulness of the people in their obedience to God (Deuteronomy 31:26-29).

During the time of the dispersion of Israel, the Temple worship was interrupted. Synagogues were organized locally for the care and instruction of the people and for the gatherings of worship on the Sabbath. The people were overseen by trained, examined, and ordained Elders who were recognized for their godly wisdom. They continued the duties given to them by God through Moses in teaching the people and overseeing their worship and communities. They did not intrude upon the priestly work which was to be done only by the Levites at the Temple in Jerusalem.

As the New Testament begins, Synagogues under the oversight of ordained Elders existed in every city where a sufficient number of Jewish families lived. This is the understanding of the eldership that was in the minds and lives of those the Apostles taught and to whom the letters of the New Testament were written.

As new churches were established, Elders were appointed to lead the congregations as teachers, shepherds, ministers, and judges. Acts 14:23 explains, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

The specific duties of this office are carefully laid out in the New Testament and summarized in three very helpful passages:
1. Paul’s address to the Elders in Acts 20:28-31
2. Paul’s Pastoral letter of 1 Timothy and Titus
3. Peter’s comments in 1 Peter 5:1-4

As God calls men to the eldership, the church recognizes this calling when it sees godly men emerge among them who manifest God’s enablement to carry out the duties of the office well. Specific qualifications for the Elder are given more particularly in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. With the help of Samuel Miller’s book The Ruling Elder I offer this summary:

An Elder must be a male. This principle is not based upon any thought that males are superior to females. It is based upon the principle of headship which God has over his creation and church, and which he has chosen to reveal by means of the headship of males in the family and church. We have discussed this principle in detail in the chapter about Man’s Fall into Sin (particularly the section on the curses pronounced after Adam’s sin), and in the chapter about Marriage. The eldership represents the shepherding, ruling, and judging authority Jesus bears over his church. The Elders should rule with the same humility and care our Lord shows to those he redeems by grace.

Though many denominations have recently allowed women into offices of headship, it is a departure from the direct teachings of Scripture, and presumes that culture more than the Holy Spirit directed the Apostles in their writings of the New Testament. Unlike Paul’s instructions about the implications of cultural issues such as hair length and clothing, he rests the male headship concept upon the creation principles that go all the way back to Eden and the pronouncements of God after the fall. If we hold to an infallible view of the inspiration of the Bible we are not permitted to lay aside its standards to accommodate social pressures to reject the concept of authority as God chose to reveal it by sovereignly giving that duty particularly to males.

An Elder must live a genuinely godly life. He must show clear evidence that he is redeemed and is growing in the visibility of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his life (Galatians 5:22-23). He must not be doubting, wavering, or inconsistent in his commitment to the Lord and his Kingdom. Elders struggle and are imperfect as are all humans, but they must be habitually driven by the gospel hope and by their trust in the promises of God through Jesus Christ.

An Elder must have good sense and sound judgment. He must show evidence that he carefully and prayerfully considers and thinks through difficult matters. He does not measure the options by his own opinions or desires, but by full submission to the revealed word of God as preserved in the Bible.

An Elder must be sound in the faith and well informed by God’s truth. Since the Bible records the information God has given us by which Christ continues to rule as head of his church, the Elders who rule must know that word and understand its teachings thoroughly. They must be alert to the dangers of ideas which do not come from God’s word, able to recognize unbiblical teachings, and ready to correct them patiently and in love. They must also be able to teach God’s truths to others in the church so that all may be guided by eternal principles and promises in their daily lives.

An Elder must exhibit biblical wisdom. He must not be rash, eccentric, undignified, or indiscreet. He must be able to discern what is right according to God’s standards and recognize the most godly way of dealing with issues to promote God’s glory and the spiritual growth and well being of his people. As James 1:19 reminds us all, he must be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The Elder should remember that it can cause great damage if he discusses session matters or personal matters made known to him in confidence.

An Elder must have a good reputation to those outside the church. He must be a man of integrity and be trusted in all his dealings. He must not be suspected of dishonesty or of corruption.

An Elder must be a willing worker. He must be willing to spend the time needed to do his work well and responsibly. His commitment to the strengthening and extension of Christ’s Kingdom should be tireless, though he wisely knows the importance of budgeting his time so that he remains faithful to the care of his family, his community, and the health of his own body.

An Elder must be well practiced in prayer. He understands its power and importance. He makes it part of his daily life as he brings to God his concerns for the church, its workers, and its every member.

An Elder must be able to rule and to teach. This is the nature of his office. He must be able to rule according to God’s word and in consideration of what is best for the church. He must be responsible in carrying out the decisions he and the other Elders make. He should be able to communicate effectively all that God has revealed in his word. He should be able to shepherd the flock of God in tenderness and godliness.

An Elder must be mature. Though the word Elder means “older one”, the common use of the term more specifically means “mature one”. The important issue is that he must not be a novice in the matters of God, but should be experienced and have an established reputation by which the legitimacy of his gifts for the office can be evaluated responsibly before he is ordained. He must have demonstrated an endurance of his faith in Christ and ability to carry out the duties of his office.

The church should not impart these responsibilities to someone who does not have evidences of them already. When congregations elect Elders and Sessions ordain them, they are recognizing God’s call upon these men. Therefore placing a person in this office should not be done hastily (1 Timothy 5:22). It should be done after much prayer and examination of the candidates for office. Congregations should never elect men to the eldership simply to fill a vacancy, to encourage men to be more involved, to bring fresh ideas to the session, to reward years of faithful service, or to introduce particular views into the session.

The Elders should be respected for the calling God has placed upon them.

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.”

Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit {to them}; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

Every member of the church must understand that the Elders act by God’s authority as long as they are carrying out the instructions given to us in God’s word. This is how our resurrected Savior reigns over his Kingdom on earth. No one should show disrespect to the Elders even when it becomes necessary to admonish or to exercise the other sanctions of church discipline.

Since the Elders are told to be discrete in their work, others may not be aware of all the officers know when they take various actions. Members should not presume to judge them based upon their own limited knowledge of issues being handled. Their judgments should be honored as long as they remain within the boundaries God has set for them. We should be careful to speak respectfully of them particularly as we discuss church matters before our children and those outside of the church.

As good sheep we should try to get to know our Elders personally. We should encourage them directly and hold them up regularly in prayer. When there are issues of concern they should not become topics for gossip. Instead, they should be brought in private before those God has appointed to handle problems in his church. We should follow the example of these leaders as we are reminded in Hebrews 13:7, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.”

The other office established for the New Testament church is that of …
2) The Deacon
The word “Deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos (διακονος) which means “servant”. In one sense, we are all called to be servants of one another. Many in the New Testament are called “servants” (deacons) in this general sense. We need to be careful not to confuse this with the office of Deacon to which some were ordained.

The office appears to have its beginning shortly after the ascension of Jesus when the separation of the church from the Old Testament rituals and priesthood was initiated. Since the sacrifices and the sacrificial forms of worship were completed in the finished work of Jesus Christ, there was no longer a purpose for the Levitical order of priests. The duties of the priests still had to be performed in the fulfilled system of the New Testament church. The leading of worship, counsel in God’s word, and teaching ministries were continued in the office of the Elder. The Apostles held this position as the church was being organized. The work of care for the needy was also carried on by the Apostles. This became a time demanding task since many synagogues refused to continue relief of the needy who were part of families that had become Christians. The office of Priest no longer took care of the daily administrations of the tithe to widows, orphans, and the incapacitated. The Apostles were also needed in the spiritual guidance and teaching of the Covenant nation. In Jerusalem some perceived (accurately or not) a problem.

Acts 6:1-6, “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.’ And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.”

In this passage we see seven men set apart by ordination to serve in a new and special office. Their duty was to take up the daily administrations of the church to allow the Apostles (who served as Elders of the church) to focus their time and efforts toward prayer and to the teaching of the word.

Later we see those serving in this capacity came to be called Deacons. While all believers are to be servants, these men were to take leadership in serving. While the Elders had the duty of making policy based upon God’s word, the Deacons were those given the work of administering or carrying out those policies.

Since Deacons are given a great responsibility in leading the people by example in service, many of the same spiritual qualities are required of them as are expected of the Elders. The evidences that someone is called by God to the office of Deacon are very similar to those required of the office of Elder. The Pastoral letters of Paul show only a few differences. The Deacons are not expected to be specially gifted in the area of teaching and ruling over the church. These were the matters assigned particularly to the Elders.

The main distinctive of the Deacon is the ability to be a servant. As Jesus explained in Luke 22:24-27, humble service is what makes one great in the Kingdom of God. Humility and the ability to be truly concerned for the needs of others is a Christ-like attribute that should be growing in all of us. The Deacon exemplifies this characteristic by humbly carrying out the policies of Christ under the authority of the Elders in service to others in the daily needs of the church.

The kinds of things the Deacons care for would include the ministries of mercy to those in need of material help and spiritual encouragement in the church. To do this they may be entrusted with receiving the tithes and offerings, handling the bank account and seeing that the budget adopted by the Elders is implemented honestly and responsibly. They report to the Session of Elders about how the finances are keeping up with the budgeted needs. It would be appropriate for them to make recommendations to the Elders about financial needs or programs. They would also make sure that the material needs of the church are cared for such as overseeing care of the facilities. They should also be active in visiting the sick and shut-ins, keeping contact with any in the church who are in need of financial aid, and in being good and visible examples to the congregation in the area of service to one another.

Since the qualifications for the offices of both Elder and Deacon are given to the churches by being preserved in the New Testament, we understand that God intended them to be offices that continue through this church age. There are no such lists of qualifications for other offices in the church such as that of Apostle. Those two offices, Elder and Deacon continue to have God-granted authority in the New Testament church.

The Work and Duties of the Congregation
The congregation recognizes God’s calling upon its officers. It is the duty of the members to compare the gifts of individuals with those explained in Scripture so that they can prayerfully concur in recognizing God’s call upon their Elders (both Pastors and Ruling Elders) and Deacons.

Modern law also grants the congregation control over its property as a corporation. As they vote to buy or sell property as a corporation under the laws of an individual state the congregation must remember that the laws of man cannot give them authority that God has already given to the officers of his church. Therefore in all the business legally assigned to it by the state the congregation must heed the spiritual instruction and advice of its duly ordained and installed Elders.

All the members of the congregation are to strive to find ways to lend their individual skills, interests, knowledge and energies to the service of Christ’s Kingdom. They work to minister to one another’s needs, to encourage one another, and to help the church in her various ministries as sheep under the care of shepherds. Ultimately their service under the authority of officers is a testimony to Christ as the true head of the church. He calls his people to serve him under the rule of his written word administered by the officers called by him.

For example, in the membership vows of the Presbyterian Church in America each communicant member publicly and before the session solemnly vows and covenants to “promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability” and “to submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace.” (Book of Church Order 57.5)

General Types of Church Governments

There are some groups of churches that do not follow the Presbyterian system of government. Instead of the rule of Elders, they have organized authority in the church in a different way.

Some churches are Episcopal
An Episcopal church is one that is ruled by Bishops. They are a class of ordained officers above the Elders of the local church. The Anglican and Methodist churches have Bishops. The Roman church also has its Pope and Cardinals.

The word “bishop” in the King James Version translates the Greek word episkopos (επισκοπος) which means “overseer.” It is a compound word made up by combining the prefix “epi” (upon, over), and “skopos” which means to watch, to see, to look at. The word describes one of the duties of the Elders. It does not establish another higher office. The Reformed groups which have an Episcopal government only see the work of Bishop as a higher duty assigned to certain Elders who show special maturity and ability to guide the other shepherds.

Some churches are Congregational.
In a congregational church the members rule as a united body of believers. Though they may vote to delegate some decisions to officers, the congregation remains responsible as a whole for all its work. Most Baptist and Independent congregations follow some form of Congregationalism. The Reformed Baptists continue to follow a Presbyterian form of church government.

A congregational church does not recognize that the rule of Elders as God had previously established was carried over in the early Apostolic church. A careful look at the verses in the New Testament describing the joint actions of church members do not represent them as voting to determine primary policies, admission to the sacraments, budgets, affiliations, and ministries. The presumption that a church is ruled to serve the desires of the governed is contrary to the biblical teaching that qualified, ordained Elders are to rule the church so that it serves the desires of God toward his people as revealed in his word.

The Work of the Church Courts

Westminster Confession of Faith 31

IV. Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

The “Higher Courts” of the Church.
Acts 15 tells about the Council at Jerusalem. It shows how Elders gathered to deal with broad problems that faced the church. We call such councils “higher courts” not because they have greater authority than the same Elders have when they serve in their local churches, but because they represent more Elders from more churches.

Jointly the gathered Elders share their biblical knowledge and wisdom to come to decisions based upon a broader base than a single church has at its disposal. Since the same authority is held by the Elders of all united churches we must heed the warnings and advice of such courts when they gather to warn and advise us as our God-appointed shepherds. This is how the decisions of the Jerusalem Council were represented in the New Testament.

Presbyterians usually speak of three primary levels of church courts.
The Session is the “sitting together” of the Elders of a local church to carry out its business and to oversee its members and ministries.

The Session consists of both the Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders (which are also called Pastors). Together they have immediate responsibility for all the members under their care. They hear any cases of complaint or discipline of members before they can be taken to a higher court (Matthew 18:17-20). Sessions may admonish, suspend from the sacraments, suspend from office, or remove members permanently from the sacraments and from office. Members can appeal session’s decisions to Presbytery, then to the General Assembly if they are unsatisfied with the judgments rendered. Since the responsibility of the work of the church falls upon its officers it is usually wise when practical to have an Elder serving as at least an ex-officio member of every committee or agency both to advise the people and to effect communication with the Session. Committees may recommend actions to the session, or carry out duties specifically assigned to them, but they do not have biblical authority to adopt policies and programs on their own.

The Presbytery is the gathering of the Ruling and Teaching Elders in a given region as a more broad assembly to oversee the work of one another as officers of the churches. Teaching Elders are examined and ordained by the other Elders of their Presbytery and therefore are considered to be members of Presbytery not the church in which they minister. When cases are brought against ministers they should be brought to the Presbytery. Cases involving the discipline of church members that have been decided by sessions may be appealed for review to the presbytery if the parties or other members of the church believe that an improper or unbiblical decision was made.

The General Assembly is a still broader assembly of Elders. All member churches meet to conduct the business Christ has entrusted to their care. They can hear appeals of judgments made by Presbyteries if there is a question concerning their decisions. The members of all higher courts have the same authority they have as officers in their own local churches, no more, no less. Since the courts are assemblies of duly ordained Elders, all church members are obligated to show them respect and to submit to their deliberations about particular issues brought before them.

The higher courts may not change officers in a local church without the church’s consent. They may remove a congregation from the higher court if it does not submit to it’s properly exercised authority. This is the highest censure a higher court can impose on a lower court. The “higher courts” may not usurp the authority of lower courts.

Presbyterians believe that Hebrews 13:17 demands that the advice and rulings of elders must be respected and honored as long as they are made within the bounds of the authority Christ has delegated to them as shepherds of his church. They recognize a responsibility to care for sister churches to the best of their ability when they need help and encouragement.

Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit {to them}; for they keep watch over
your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy
and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

Note: The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

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