This is the first of a series on Presbyterian polity and on our doctrine of the Church.
A question that has come up time and again in many churches is this: “Why hasn’t the Session/Elder/Minister responded to my issue?” The situation and its circumstances vary, but the essence of the concern usually involves: a) How long must I wait for an answer?, or b) I don’t like the answer.
Nestled within these two questions lie a multitude of deep principles that could be better understood. Before diving into these matters, we should take note that our modern electronic age has resulted in changes that exacerbate the communications aspect of expectations. You will soon see why this article begins with this topic.
Effect of electronic communications
Prior to the development of electronic communications (email, social media, etc.) the way that written communications operated was very different. Going back before the invention of the printing press communications (letters) were hand-written. The invention of the printing press made it easier to produce multiple copies of documents that previously took a lot more effort to produce. The printing press was a bonanza for the publishing and distribution of documents.
The handling of printed documents generally followed the age-old process of sending them to, or placing them, into the hands of a clerk who would present them to a body as business for consideration and action. Mass distribution might have led to expectation of faster response, however there was usually a recognition of the fact that a response might take some time.
The invention and adoption of electronic communications meant that any electronic document can be directed at any number of people at the same time. One thing that changed dramatically over the last few decades is the expectation implied by the ability to blast messages out to a large audience.
The production of documents via the printing press takes time and process. The delays between writing, printing, and distribution were beneficial in two ways; Firstly, the delay allowed rapid withdrawal to compensate for early regret – a realization that what was written might have been incorrect or offensive. Secondly, there were more opportunities to retract a document or message before it found its way into many hands.
Electronic distribution of documents means that there are few barriers to immediate mass placement into people’s hands together with an increasing expectation of immediate reaction and/or response. Additionally, it has become possible to place into almost an unlimited number of person’s possession of a huge volume (many thousands of pages) – all with one click on a send button.
The development of electronic communications has changed public expectations in respect of immediacy of response, psychological pressure to act on a communication, and consequentially this has a substantial impact on what Presbyterians call the deliberative process. Another way to look at this is that it is Presbyterian practice to take time to consider issues that need to be discussed and considered. For example, a Session that receives a communication may need to appoint officer(s) to research the scriptures, confessional standards, prior decisions or guidelines that have been published by other courts of the church, and so on. These things take time, and the time that can be allocated to such research and preparation for discussion may need to be slotted into an ocean of other priorities, some or all of which may be time-critical.
The Session – its role and its function.
The Session of the church is the body that consists of the minister(s) and the ruling elders. The Session has the responsibility to govern the smooth operation of the local church. The Session exercises authority by delegation from Christ. (See the OPC Book of Church Order, Form of Government, Chapter 3.2). Government by presbyters or elders is a New Testament ordinance; their joint exercise of jurisdiction in presbyterial assemblies is set forth in the New Testament; and the organization of subordinate and superior courts is founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, expressing the unity of the church and the derivation of ministerial authority from Christ the Head of the church.
All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section 2).
All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.
Church government is a valid and authentic jurisdiction to which Christians are commanded to submit themselves. Therefore the decisions of church officers when properly rendered and if in accord with 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” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXI, Section 2).
The next article will speak to the roles and responsibilities inherent in the work of the Session.
Elder John H. Terpsta