If the Church is not a hierarchical institution but an organism, as this blog asserts in previous articles, and if pastors are not authoritative rulers in that false professional paradigm, as this blog also claims; then what should one do about the biblical texts, which mention a Presbytery? Who or what—if anything—is responsible for producing a minister? Are local bodies of believers to be at the mercy of renegades, rogues and mavericks? On the other hand, is one left to resort to bureaucratic commissions and ordinations by an often relationally disconnected and academics-focused organizational board?
Commonly, Presbytery is defined as:
1. a body of church elders and ministers, especially (in Presbyterian churches) an administrative body (court) representing all the local congregations of a district.
◦ a district represented by a presbytery.
2. the house of a Roman Catholic parish priest.
(New Oxford American Dictionary)
Rather than an institutional governing body for a local church or a denomination or diocese, the Bible data support a Presbytery being something organic in makeup and doing the specified and limited work of after-the-fact confirmations for gifted and called persons within the Body of Christ. That is, one’s ministry does not begin as a result of receiving “approval” from a Presbytery, nor as a matter of course after academic study. The Holy Spirit alone calls and gifts and commissions individual members of the Body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). Other “leadership gifts” in local bodies are to help equip (by exercise of their own spiritual gifts) that one for their calling (Ephesians 4; 1 Corinthians 3 & 7). And, after one has regularly demonstrated the calling and gifting by consistently showing the works and attitudes of Jesus, as well as speaking the words of Jesus, then a Presbytery recognizes and affirms what God already has called, gifted and commissioned.
One gains a first look at the organic composition and affirming function of a presbytery—though it is not named such—by reading Acts 13:1-4.
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (ESV)
Who Does the Sending?
Who sent Paul and Barnabas out? The Holy Spirit (v. 4); and if one does not account for the previous 17+ years of Paul’s work, as testified in Galatians 1:15—2:10, then the reader of Acts 13:1-4 might think Paul’s & Barnabas’ ministerial work began that day in Antioch. It did not.
Elders Recognizing God’s Plan & Servant
We are told in Acts 11: 26 that Barnabas and Paul communed with the church for an entire year. However, Paul, Barnabas and Titus had been doing what God had called them to for more than 1.5 decades before the presbytery at Antioch recognized their work. Peter recognized it originally many years before others; and then—apparently in the middle of mission (Galatian 2:2)—God directly told Paul to go to Jerusalem and talk with James, Peter and John… NOT to seek approval (i.e. “assessment of ministry readiness,” commission or ordination), but Galatians 1-2 indicate the same sort of recognition and affirmation of God’s plan (via Paul and Barnabas) was practiced by the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem. Just as in Jerusalem, so also in Antioch, the Holy Spirit convinced mature believers of His plan for His servants. Paul’s and Barnabas’ history of ministry effectiveness was hard to deny, and their qualifications were not mere credentialing or aptitudes. They, by the direction and empowerment of the Spirit, had been doing the work; and God’s special commission is what the elders recognized and affirmed!
Of paramount importance is this: once Paul & Barnabas knew they had completed the particular purpose for which the Spirit had commissioned them, they returned to Antioch.
26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. (Acts 14:26-28 ESV)
Many Elders; More than One Congregation, Not All at Once
Again, Jerusalem happened before Antioch, and Paul met with Peter before Jerusalem. These meetings and affirmations were not all at once but sometimes with months or even many years between. One thing is sure: the affirmations were from more than one congregation and from more than one elder.
Special Endowments can Occur during a Presbytery
While a Presbytery does not determine readiness or commission or ordain the called, 1 Timothy 4:14 records Timothy’s presbytery experience was a thing not to be forgotten. Apparently, Timothy received a special spiritual gift as a result of the Spirit charging an elder (likely a Prophet, among the others laying on hands and praying) to deliver a prophecy about Timothy. For this reason, fasting and prayer should be practiced when laying on hands and praying (Acts 13:1-3).
Not Hastily Done
Paul also charges Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22 to not lay hands on anyone hastily. Gill comments:
the sense is, do not hastily and at once admit any person into the sacred work of the ministry, or constitute him an elder, or pastor, over a church of Christ; but let him be first proved, and let it plainly appear, that he has the grace of God in him, and has gifts for public service bestowed on him; that he is sound in faith, and of a good life and conversation; and a man of uprightness and fidelity; (https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/1-timothy-5-22.html)
Clearly, a Presbytery is not an experience to be done without thoroughly knowing the individual or the ministry effectiveness of the individual. Rather, time and relationship are supposed to be exercised within the local church setting. That is hardly a thing that can be done by a relationally sterile organizational panel or as a result of credentials earned in an academic setting. It can be argued, albeit from silence, that Paul’s original meeting with Peter may have resulted in Peter saying something like,
Well Paul, if God has truly called you (who once persecuted the Church), then obey. Go do it. Then, come back and talk to me again, if God directs you to do so… in order for me to hear about what God does and know His plan.
Whatever the discussion was or however it went, we know certainly that Paul’s return to Jerusalem and to Peter after all those years only bolstered Peter’s ability to recognize what God was doing in and through Paul.
In a most candid 40 minute discussion, found HERE, Dr. Mike Heiser similarly communicates the need of local churches to train, mentor, and affirm the future leaders of the Church… instead of seminary, with its disillusion, debt and disconnection.
Contrary to contemporary practices and definition, a Presbytery is not an institutional board or panel that performs administrative duties or ordains and commissions candidates for the work of the ministry. The biblical data support a definition of Presbytery as something altogether more organic and relational, even mystical. A Presbytery can happen in one or many local congregations; but it will always happen through more than one elder. More than one Presbytery may happen in one’s course of life and service to God; and each can or may afford special endowments of spiritual gifting necessary for what comes after the Presbytery’s recognition of God’s gifting in and calling on a person. A Presbytery does not pass judgment on a candidate’s “ministerial readiness,” but it rather recognizes and affirms God’s Plan at work in and through one of His already-called and already-commissioned servants. A Presbytery is not something to be sought as a right of passage or the source of one’s ministerial legitimacy; but a Presbytery does give the stamp of authenticity by the Body on one who has already been doing the work of the ministry to which he or she is called. All in all, a Presbytery is a human agency both in recognizing what God is already doing AND in affirming the one He is working in and through to accomplish a unique-to-that-person mission.