Written by: Ted Vial
Presbyterians have a pyramid structure: each church has a consistory or session. Above each congregation is the Presbytery, which consists of elders and ministers from each congregation. Above the Presbytery is the Synod, and finally the governing authority is the General Assembly. It is crucial to Presbyterians that at each level both clergy and laity are equally represented. This derives from the Reformed principle (that they share with Luther) of the priesthood of all believers. There are no intermediaries between individuals and God, each human is equally a sinner, and each saint (saved human) has equal status. Ministers are called to their offices because of special gifts (preaching, for example), but others have gifts equally necessary for the community, and ministers enjoy no special status.
The German Reformed Church is structured on the Presbyterian model, but with some differences based on the German context. In Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries the spiritual life of the people was ultimately the responsibility of the prince. German Reformed churches also have four levels of polity: local congregation run by a consistory, class or district (equivalent to a Presbytery), Synod, and General Synod. But in Germany the lay representatives to the consistory and class were appointed by the civil authority (rather than elected from the community members). The lay representatives were appointed by the Church Council (Kirchenrath), which was a body convened by the prince to help administer the Church. The General Synod met at the pleasure of the Church Council.
The Dutch Reformed Church had the same four levels of governance, but lay members were not appointed by the civil authority. This became the model for the Presbyterian churches in America.
1. How does doctrine help to create community organization?
2. What leadership structure do Reformed Churches prefer?
3. Where did the word Presbyterian originate? Why?
4. Why is it helpful to think of the Presbyterian Church’s organization as a pyramid?