In November of 1988, the Presbytery of Shenandoah, at the First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, VA, examined me for ordination. As I stood before a gathering of ministers and elders from churches throughout the Shenandoah Valley, I was intimidated to say the least. I was asked questions by the Committee on Preparation concerning my theology, Bible knowledge, worship and sacraments, and polity (church government). It was this last question that caused the problem. After each question by the committee, the floor was opened for further questions by the members of Presbytery. One member of the Presbytery asked the question, “What authority does General Assembly have?” To which I responded that the authority of General Assembly is in matters of constitution alone.
Then another member of Presbytery asked the question" Does General Assembly have any authority at all?” To which I responded that the General Assembly has authority only in matters concerning the constitution. Before I knew it, a debate arose between these two ministers over the authority of General Assembly.
I was a dishrag.
What had I said? Four years of college and three years of seminary down the drain because I did not answer the question appropriately. After a few minutes, a wonderful pastor who had been around the Presbytery for a long time made the motion to rest the examination; and if those two pastors wanted to continue their fight, they could take it to the parking lot. I discovered later that these two individuals had been debating the issue for several months. I provided a catalyst for airing it out on the floor of Presbytery.
For those of you who are new to the Presbyterian church, this story is probably confusing. What is the General Assembly? What is Presbytery?
In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of which we are a member church, there are four “councils,” formerly referred to as “governing bodies.” Councils are the decision-making bodies of the church. At the local level, the church is governed by the session, which I wrote about last month.
Above the session are the Presbytery, the Synod, and the General Assembly. Each of these has ecclesiastical or administrative oversight on the councils below them. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has over 10,000 congregations, which are organized into 172 presbyteries (district governing bodies) and 16 synods (regional governing bodies).
The presbytery consists of congregations in a designated region. For instance, we are a member of the Presbytery of the James (POJ). The POJ is comprised of churches in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and west of West Point, VA, North to Culpepper and South to the Virginia/North Carolina border. When we speak of “the presbytery” we can be referring to one of two things. First of all, membership in the presbytery consists of churches and pastors. Periodically, the presbytery holds meetings. At these meetings, ministers and at least one elder from each congregation are considered commissioners. They vote on matters brought before the presbytery.
The presbytery (member churches and ministers) have hired staff to carry out day-to-day functions on their behalf. This staff and its offices are also referred to as the “presbytery.” However, only the gatherings of they are your voice when these matters come before the presbytery.
The presbytery (member churches and ministers) have hired staff to carry out day-to-day functions on their behalf. This staff and its offices are also referred to as the “presbytery.” However, only the gatherings of the commissioners have authority to make decisions. The staff operates under its direction. The presbytery is responsible for ministries that take place within its region (i.e., camps and conferences,, and examinations of candidates for ministry within its churches).
Above the presbytery is the synod. Like presbytery, the synod is made up of presbyteries within a specific region. The Presbytery of the James is a member of the Synod of the Mid Atlantic. Presbyteries in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina make up the Synod. Each presbytery elects elders and ministers as their commissioners to the meetings of Synod. Again, a staff supports the Synod, but the Synod is the
churches and presbyteries within its region.
Finally, there is the big animal known as the General Assembly. Again there can be some confusion. General
Assembly, or GA, is comprised of all the synods, presbyteries, and churches within the United States.
The body of General Assembly is made up of commissioners (both elders and ministers) elected by the presbyteries.
This body meets every two years. GA also has staff and offices to support its mission. These offices
are located in Louisville, KY.
Some confusion arises with the expectation of a hierarchy within these councils. Just the opposite is so.
The power within the PC (U.S.A.) rests in the local congregations. Through our election of representatives to
the session, from session to presbytery, from presbytery to synod, from presbytery to GA, the voice remains
with the local congregation. Each of our voices is joined with others in making decisions concerning the ministries
of our denomination. Any decision made by the GA at its biennial meeting must be ratified by a majority
of its 162 presbyteries. Each presbytery votes on all constitutional matters. Your pastor and your commissioner
are your voice when these matters come before the presbytery.