Old Version

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by Rev. Robert P. Kerr


Such being the government under which the Church was living when the apostles were sent out to Christianize the world, it was natural that they should follow the time-honored customs of God’s people in every land whither they went; so we find that as they journeyed among the nations, preaching the gospel and organizing congregations of converts, they “ordained them elders in every church” (Acts xiv. 23)—that is to say, they carried out the old synagogue system of government by elders, with which the Jews dwelling among the nations were familiar. They were not organizing a new Church, but only extending the old Church of God and proclaiming that the Christ had come. The Jews who rejected Christ cast themselves out and virtually made themselves a new body.

We discover, on the one hand, no traces of Congregationalism, for “every church” was ruled, not by the people directly, but by their representatives; nor, on the other hand, of Episcopacy, for the congregation was committed to the care, not of one man, but of several elders. In Acts xx. 28, where Paul was instructing the elders of the church at Ephesus, whom he had requested to come to Miletus, he said, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops” (επισκοποι). This word was translated “overseers” in the Old Version, but in the new one—prepared principally by Episcopalians—it is correctly rendered “bishops.” This passage alone shows conclusively that “bishop” was simply another name for elder, for these were elders to whom the apostle was speaking. In the seventeenth verse we read: “And from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church.

A grand feature of the Presbyterian system is the perfect equality in rank of all the elders. It is entirely opposed to the Episcopal distinctions of bishops, priests and deacons. Paul shows the equality of all elders in 1 Tim. v. 17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” This shows that the elders had the office of ruling in common, but that some, in addition to ruling, “labored in the word and doctrine.” In 1 Tim. iv. 14 ordination is shown to be, not by one bishop, but by “the laying on of the hands of the Presbytery,” which was composed of several elders, or bishops, as they were indifferently styled. In Jerusalem a General Assembly (Acts xv.), composed of “apostles and elders,” was held to decide a question concerning the observance of the ceremonial law, and the decision of this body was sent out to the churches as authoritative. This is conclusive against both Congregationalism and Episcopacy.

We have found that the governmental principle of Presbyterianism runs throughout the whole Bible history; and now, in the book of Revelation, we can catch a glimpse of the same principle operating in the government of the redeemed in heaven. In chap. iv. 4 we read that “round about the throne were four and twenty seats, and upon the seats were four and twenty elders sitting” (not standing), “clothed in white raiment, and they had upon their heads crowns of gold.” The facts that they were “sitting” and that they wore “crowns” indicate authority. Christ on the throne, and the elders sitting around Him, constituted the governing body of the saints. This is the final endorsement of the grand principle of Church government by elders in “that Holy City, the New Jerusalem,” which shall at last descend out of heaven, when “the tabernacle of God shall be with men.”

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