Presbyters: The grownups who run a church.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 October 2020
PRESBYTER 'prɛz.bə.dər, 'prɛs.bə.dər noun. An elder in a Christian church.
2. The formal title of a minister or priest, in certain Christian denominations.
[Presbyteral prɛz'bə.dər.əl adjective, presbyterial prɛz.bə'tɪ.ri.əl adjective, presbyterian prɛz.bə'tɪ.ri.ən adjective.]

You likely know the word presbyterian because there are presbyterian churches, and a few presbyterian denominations. The word’s in their names. Y’might not know what it means: It indicates these particular churches aren’t run by the head pastor, nor run from afar by a bishop, nor are they a democracy where all the members get a vote. They’re run by a limited number of qualified mature Christians. They’re run by elders.

The New Testament word which we translate “elder” is πρεσβύτερος/presvýteros, and in the Latin bible this became presbyter. So yeah, it’s a Latin word. Still means “elder.”

The ancient church was run by elders for a few centuries, but it gradually evolved into something more hierarchical: Presbyters became the priests who run the church services; bishops were the supervisors who oversaw all the churches in town; archbishops oversaw all the bishops in the province; patriarchs oversaw all the bishops in the country. Western churches got it into their heads their patriarch oversaw all the bishops in the world, including other patriarchs… and that’s one of the ways the Roman Catholic Church grew distant and distinct from the Orthodox Church, causing the universal church to officially split in 1054. But both those churches still think of presbyter and priest as the same thing—and an elder as something entirely different.

After the Protestant movement began, churches still largely ran the same way, with archbishops and bishops and priests. But once the Church of Scotland went Protestant, they started to rethink the whole church leadership idea. Top-down leadership wasn’t working for them… and not everybody in the church was spiritually mature enough to responsibly vote for things. So who should lead? Their solution, which they’re pretty sure comes from bible: Elders.

Titus 1.5-9 ESV
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

True, lots of Christians like to make a distinction between elder and overseer (Greek ἐπίσκοπον/epískopon, “supervisor”; KJV “bishop”) as two different titles and offices in a church. But the way Paul of Tarsus phrased it to Titus of Crete, he treated the terms as interchangeable. Elders supervise. (And there’s still a little bit of hierarchy: Titus was to appoint these elders, and supervise them. Whether you’re fine with hierarchical churches or not, every Christian answers to every other Christian, y’know.)

How presbyterian churches oughta work, is presbyters get selected from the congregation: Somebody in leadership recognizes you’re mature enough to be included in the leadership, and invites you to join in. And now you’re contributing to how the church is run. You have a say. Your voice gets heard. And the presbyters actually do run stuff.

Yeah, the church has a head pastor, because somebody needs to be the executive around there, but the pastor doesn’t run everything; the presbyters do. The pastor doesn’t do all the work—and no church’s pastor should do all the work!—but presbyters do. And the pastor doesn’t decide everything, like the church’s mission statement or policies or goals or faith statement: Presbyters do.

How presbyterian churches actually do work, varies.

Presbyterian in name only.

My denomination isn’t presbyterian. It’s top-down: Each church is run by its pastor. Many of the churches have a governing board… because the government requires every 501(c)3 noprofit organization to have a governing board. But y’know how many companies’ governing boards don‘t actually govern, but simply rubber-stamp everything the executive does? Happens in churches too. Some pastors simply select a board where the members do everything they wish. Other pastors (wisely, in my opinion) select a board where they can get honest feedback. And some pastors actually have the board do all the work, while they focus on “vision-casting” and writing sermons. But regardless, the pastor’s in charge. Presbyters aren’t.

Now, when the pastors gather together with their fellow licensed ministers for district meetings, then they start calling one another “presbyters.” Because then they function as a democracy: Every presbyter gets a vote. Every presbyter has a say. They’re generally treated as equals. They get to elect officials. But even then, it’s not wholly presbyterian; it’s democratic. They’re just using the word “presbyter.”

I’ve likewise visited democratic churches where they call the voting members “presbyters,” but again: It’s not presbyterian. And the voters aren’t elders: They’re church members. The requirements for church membership are usually really easy: You gotta attend, you gotta tithe, you can’t be publicly known for your sins (so, for many of ’em, you gotta hide your sins, and be a hypocrite) and you gotta be at least 16 years old. I grew up in a democratic church, and I know from experience they’re so not run by mature Christians. Quite the opposite.

And I’ve seen “presbyterian” churches where the pastor’s really in charge, and decides who’s a presbyter and who isn’t—and if you don’t agree with him, you won’t stay a presbyter long. The “presbyters” are really the pastor’s subordinates. They may run stuff, but they lead nothing.

Likewise “presbyterian” churches which are really oligarchies: The “presbyters” are a clique, and only let you join ’em if you’re connected, not if you’re devout. They’re more interested in maintaining the status quo, than actually ministering to the lost and needy and growing God’s kingdom. The pastor dare not defy them and really preach the gospel.

Yep, some such churches totally call themselves presbyterian. Even in their church’s name. But properly, a presbyterian church is run by presbyters, by mature Christians, by the grownups in their church. And when it’s not, the church definitely acts it. So pay attention to its fruit. Is it led by spiritually mature people? Are all its leaders and teachers suitable candidates for leadership, or are they letting immature Christians slip through the cracks and get into positions of authority? No church should be doing that, but presbyterian churches should particularly know better.