The Session and the Courts of the Church

This series of articles so far has described the nature of oversight within the church, the responsibilities of the three persisting offices in the church, the qualifications for office, and how elders govern the life and conduct of the church. This is the final article in the series, and closes with an overview of the governing bodies of the church. The work of each of these bodies has bearing on the responsibilities and expectations that are placed on all ordained elders (ministers and ruling elders).

Each governing body exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. Matters that are deliberated and ruled upon by a lower court may be appealed to a higher court. Higher courts may receive judgments on appeal and also exercise original jurisdiction, both are limited by the constitutional standards of the church (the Scriptures, confessional standards, and the OPC Book of Church Order).

The Session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, Sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body (BCO FG XII:2).

Each governing body elects its moderator, a clerk, and whatever temporary and standing committees it needs to facilitate its smooth conduct.

The Local Session
The Session meets on regular intervals, known as regular stated meetings, at which the regular conduct of the operation of the church is handled. Regular matters include reception and dismissal of members, oversight of the work of the pastor and the ruling elders, general shepherding oversight, review of visitation activities (see: A reformed Perspective on Home visitation, also see: On Doing Home Visitation), and other business that requires Sessional oversight. When special occasions arise, the Session may assemble to deliberate and to arrive at a position that comports with the Scriptures, the confessional standards (Westminster Confession and its Catechisms), and the Book of Church Order. The Session consists of all the ministers of the Word (including teaching elders, evangelists, etc.) and ruling elders.

The Session shall convene at the call of the moderator, the presbytery, any two members of the session, or upon its own adjournment. A quorum of a Session is two ruling elders, if there are three or more, or one ruling elder if there are fewer than three, together with the pastor or one of the pastors of the local congregation. In no case may the Session conduct its business with fewer than two present who are entitled to vote. (BCO FG XIII:5).

The Session is charged with maintaining the government of the congregation. It shall oversee all matters concerning the conduct of public worship; it shall carry out the best measures for promoting the spiritual growth and evangelistic witness of the congregation (BCO FG XIII:7).

A church that has a large and distributed membership (for example, several thousand), the duty of elders to visit members per FG X:3 clearly requires a larger body of ruling elders.  A smaller church of 100 communicant members that equates approximately to 40 families that need to be visited at least per year would require 40 visits in addition to the ad hoc needs that invariably occur.  On average there are about 20 weeks per year when families can be reached, thus a Session of 4 elders who visit in pairs will each need to visit 2 families per week in addition to ad hoc visits. This is a challenging task for sure!

Temporary committees may be erected to gather information for deliberation when the Session meets together. This is just one example of the advice Moses father in law gave him (Exodus 18:13-27) and forms the basis of the principle of the division of labor. The constitution of the governing body known as the Regional Church is a provision for the self-same division of labor.

The Regional Church and its Presbytery
A regional church consists of all the members of the local congregations and the ministers within a certain district. The general assembly may organize a regional church when there are at least four congregations, two ministers, and two ruling elders, within a region. The presbytery is the governing body of a regional church. It consists of all the ministers and all the ruling elders of the congregations of the regional church (BCO FG XIV).

The Presbytery typically holds regular meetings – two or three times per year, and may convene for special business when required. An example of special business meetings includes services of ordination and installation for ministers, and when the need arises, to sit as a judicial court.

A Presbytery typically also elects elders (ministers and ruling elders) to serve on standing committees. Examples of standing committees include: Regional Home Missions, Christian Education, Candidates and Credentials, Bills and Overtures (also known as Appeals and Complaints), Sessional Records Review, and others. Standing committees perform all the work of preparation for the business that must be brought to the floor of Presbytery when it convenes for its regular business.  All ministers and ruling elders are expected to serve when elected to these tasks – this is another example of the division of labor for the health and well-being of the church.

The Whole Church and Its General Assembly
The general assembly meets once per year, and is the governing body of the whole church. It consists of not more than one hundred and fifty-five voting commissioners, including the moderator and stated clerk of the previous assembly, the stated clerk of the current assembly, and such ministers and ruling elders as are commissioned by the respective presbyteries in accordance with proportions determined by a previous general assembly. In the event that the general assembly fails to establish such proportions, the next general assembly shall consist of every minister and of one ruling elder from every local church (BCO FG XV).

The general assembly seeks to advance the worship, edification, and witness of the whole church. It seeks to resolve all doctrinal and disciplinary questions regularly brought before it from the lower assemblies. It serves to promote the unity of the church of Christ through correspondence with other churches.

The duties peculiar to the general assembly include organizing regional churches, reviewing the records of the presbyteries, and calling ministers or licentiates to the missionary or other ministries of the whole church directly or through its standing committees. Its standing committees include: Ministerial Care, Christian Education, Home Missions, Foreign Missions, Fraternal Relations, Appeals and Complaints, Presbyterial Records Review, and more. Any suitably qualified elder (minister or ruling elder) may be elected by the General Assembly to serve one one or more standing committees of the General Assembly.

The Lord our God calls men and women to gather as a local body for the purpose of conducting weekly public worship. The division of labor necessary to assure the smooth, respectful, and efficient operation of the mission of the church – the calling in of God’s elect and the nurture and edification of the saints – has been described in a series of articles of which this is the last.

The Lord calls all his saints to serve faithfully in the life of the church. Every member has roles and responsibilities for which the Lord provides the skills and the gifts needed.  Members elect and call men to serve in the special offices of the local church, but also to serve in the Regional Church and its General Assembly. Being a member of Christ’s Church in a life of self-sacrifice for the nurture and edification of others. May God grant you clarity in your calling to serve him, and may you do the bidding of the Lord faithfully and cheerfully.