The Church and Government

A proper structure in church government is essential to preserve good order and to maintain the purity and peace of the Church. Three main forms of organization are found in the visible Church :- Prelacy, Independency and Presbyterianism.

Prelacy, represented by Anglicanism, holds that there are different orders such as deacons, priests, canons, deans, bishops and archbishops. These orders are of an ascending nature and form a hierarchy. Prelacy makes a clear distinction between ‘clergy’ and the ‘laity’.

Independency, on the other hand, sees no difference in rank among ministers, but holds that each congregation is autonomous and subject to no higher ecclesiastical authority.

Presbyterianism is that form of Church government exercised by presbyters or elders, among whom there is no distinction of rank or order. It is of the essence of Presbyterianism to recognise the authority of ascending courts, that is, Session, Presbytery, Synod, etc. The Reformed Presbyterian Church believes that this is the form of church government outlined in Holy Scripture.


The sole headship of Christ over His Church implies that in government, as in all things, we are to be guided by the teaching of Scripture. The principles of Church government, its institutions and offices, are outlined in the Word of God. The Bible teaches that those who exercise the gifts and functions of government are called elders. Toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey he and his companion Barnabas retraced their steps and “ordained them elders in every church.” Titus was left in Crete to ordain elders in every city (Titus 1:5). Those so ordained were called bishops (Titus 1:7). From Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the Church to come and visit him (Acts 20:17). He called them bishops or overseers who had the responsibility for the welfare of the Church (v.28). Peter, speaking as an elder, exhorted his fellow-elders to provide spiritual food and oversight for the welfare of the flock (1Peter 5:1,2). In the New Testament the word translated ‘bishop’ is identical with ‘elder’ in respect of function and office, and these terms are used interchangeably (Titus 1:7; Acts 20:17, 28); the one indicating function (oversight), the other, maturity of the person holding this office.

Parity and Plurality

1Timothy 5:17 makes it clear that all elders have equal authority to rule and that others, in addition to ruling, have the responsibility of preaching the Word. The passages of Scripture referred to in the previous paragraph make it clear that there was a plurality of elders in every church. Thus the principle of parity stands side by side with that of plurality. There is no evidence in the New Testament of any form of hierarchy. The elders exercised their supervision in unison and on a parity with one another.

In the outworking of these principles, Presbyterian churches must be careful not to invest the minister with an authority that is contrary to the Word of God. It is true that those “who labour in the Word and doctrine” are to be given due respect on account of their knowledge and experience, but, with regard to ruling, the minister of the Word is on a parity with other elders. Presbyterianism must be adhered to in practice as well as in theory.

Eldership restricted to Men

The Scriptures clearly teach that the office of the eldership is restricted to men (1 Tim.2:11-3:7). “But I suffer not a women to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” The reason is clearly defined: “It was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression.” In 1Tim.2:13 we are shown that the order of creation is the determining factor for authority. Man, in being created first, is endued with dominion and authority, and woman, being created after man, is to be in subjection. In verse 14, the Fall is introduced and attention is drawn to the fact that it was the woman who was deceived. Paul does not elaborate on this. It is possible, however, that he introduces this incident to demonstrate that when the roles established by God in creation were reversed it had a disastrous effect. Therefore, we see that this prohibition is made, not on cultural grounds, but on account of a creation ordinance.

This does not mean that the woman is in any way inferior to the man. Before God they stand as equals. They share created dignity, being both made in the image of God (Gen.1:27). They have in common their native depravity, both being sinners (Rom.3:23). They also share the same redemptive privilege, for in the kingdom of God “there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Equality, however, does not imply that God has given to each the same role in the life and work of the Church.

While women are not permitted to rule or to teach, they have unique gifts that should be used in the service of the Church. We have the examples of Dorcas, Priscilla and Phebe, who, by exercising their God-given gifts, brought great blessing to many in their service for Christ and His Church. (Matt.27:55,56; Acts 9:36; 18:26; Rom. 16:1; Prov.31:20)


In the New Testament Church it soon became apparent that an order of officers was needed to be responsible for the compassionate outreach, the practical administration and other forms of service in the Church. In Acts chapter 6 we read that the Greek-speaking believers felt that their widows were not getting a fair share of what had been contributed for the benefit of the poor. Seven men were appointed and ordained to take charge of this important work, thus leaving the apostles more time for the ministry of the Word and prayer. While the term deacon is not used in Acts 6, we believe that the practice here described was foundational to the office of deacon.

A deacon, therefore, is a servant of the Church. The qualifications for the deacon are clearly defined in 1Timothy 3: 8-13.


In the administration of government within the Church there is an application of these basic principles in the functioning of a gradation of church courts. The primary court is the Session. A higher court is the Presbytery which has the supervision of a number of congregations in a defined area. Traditionally, its membership is composed of the ministers in that area and one other elder from each of the congregations.

The supreme court in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the Synod which exercises authority over the Presbyteries, the Sessions and the Congregations. Its function is mainly legislative and its decisions are transmitted to the membership of the Church through the Presbyteries and Sessions. An example of Presbyterial oversight is found in Acts chapter 15 where the apostles and elders assembled to consider a problem which had arisen at Antioch. “And the apostles and elders met to consider this question.”

The general rules for the appointment of officers in the various courts of the Church and for the management of business in these courts are set out in the Code, the Book of Government and Order of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The purpose of such a document is that “all things be done decently and in order.”