Questioning Kevin DeYoung’s Good Word on Presbyterianism


Not so fast! That’s my quick response to Kevin DeYoung’s six-point post called “Putting in a Good Word for Presbyterianism.”

It is always amusing for us congregationalists to engage our presbyterian friends. Hearing presbyterians magnanimously describe congregationalists reminds me of the Bugatti dealer conceding that the Ford Pinto has a surprising array of brown tones on offer. And sadly we sheepishly acknowledge we are the illegitimate step children of the Protestant Reformation. Many in the Reformed community view congregational history along these lines: “John Bunyan, going mad in prison, created a church polity that curiously survived the slings and arrows of eighteenth century revivals and was later sullied by the New Living Translation.” Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but if you cannot follow me here then ask an OPC pastor what he thinks of the PCA and you will get a sense of the plight of modern day reformed congregationalists.

In any event, I wanted to pen a brief response to Kevin DeYoung’s recent post on Presbyterianism. Kevin was gracious in his comments, and I hope to be equally gracious in mine. These are great discussions to have, especially when done amicably! Jeremiah Burroughs once said of Thomas Edwards, the polemical presbyterian pamphleteer, “He would not dislike me so much if we were not so close together!” (my paraphrase). And indeed, reformed presbyterians and congregationalists share strong historical similarities.


My goal here is not to provide a defense of congregational polity, but to simply address the points Kevin made on his blog. (Nor do I hope to ignite a series of polity rejoinders!) I simply want to say, “Not so fast.” Each of the six points below corresponds to Kevin’s six paragraphs here.

1) It is not entirely true that the congregationalists argue power resides only in the members of the church. Many of the Westminster congregational divines believed there was a unique power in the elders that came directly from Christ rather than being derived from the people. At the same time, many Presbyterians argued that all church power was first in the people, but the ability to exercise this power resided in the elders as their representatives. There was no reformed consensus on this point. True, the WCF argues that the keys are in the hands of the elders, but they were very careful in how they worded that point. In their debates, there was an extremely wide variety of opinions on the subject. In fact, just before the Westminster Assembly voted to affirm that the keys were in the elders, Charles Herle, the celebrated presbyterian, warned that they risked departing from a teaching many “fathers and schoolmen” had taught: namely, that the power the keys did in some measure also belong to the people.

2) A congregational divine could agree with this paragraph. Certainly men like Burroughs, Goodwin, Nye, Bridge, and, later, Owen, would have. Elders have authority given to them in the Bible. They should be obeyed. The problem is whether that paragraph says all there is to say about church power. If church members are to vote on their elders, and if church members have a right to vote in excommunication (which many Reformed divines, particularly some notable Dutch divines, argued for), then we must say that there is some church power in the congregation as a whole. But that does not by any means argue against the unique role of elders and the fact that the Bible commands churches to submit to their elders. Nor does this mean that people are mini-elders arbitrarily deciding when and where they actually submit to their leaders. If a church feels a tension there, then that is actually a good thing. The reformed divines certainly did.

3) As you say, this paragraph does not prove the point. It is factually not true that virtually every single reformed divine and confession believed “tell the church” only meant tell their officers. I could name several divines, both 16th- and 17th-century, that argued for a role of the people in church government. Indeed, the 1563 version of the Heidelberg catechism stated that discipline cases can be “complained of to the Church or to its proper officers.” Yet, the version used today for the by the Reformed Church in America—which I assume Kevin is using—states, “who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose.” That a is significant change from the 16th-century version. And it belies the fact that this was not an easily settled issue.

Certainly, neither version argues that you could complain to the entire “universal church,” which would be case if “church” meant (or even included) the universal church. The question is not only whether there were multiple churches in Jerusalem, or Antioch, or wherever. The question is, what kind of power did any assembly (if there were any) have over their churches? Did they have a binding power, or not? This is a crucial point. Many Reformed divines, even some widely considered Presbyterian, believed that presbytery could adjudicate matters, but they did not have binding power over a particular church.

4) The Westminster divines were by no means of one mind as to whether “church” referred to the sanhedrin. Certainly, Christ promised that he would build his church—meaning there was something genuinely new about the church.

5) Just because Christ does not mention “this extra step” of telling the elders first in Matthew 18 does not mean congregationalists are inconsistent (my word, not Kevin’s). After all, Christ makes no mention of elders in Matthew 18, and yet we believe they are part of the church. In Matthew 16 and 18 we are dealing with the first two instances of “church” in the NT, and therefore we should not expect a robust definition of how a church functions when it is still, as it were, in its embryonic form.

6) Agreed!

It is true some congregationalists fear elders because of the tyranny of the few, but on the other hand some presbyterians fear members involvement because of the anarchy of the many. But fear never leads to good polity. The question really comes down to this: Did Christ give any share of church power to the congregation? If so, then we must account for it.

Hunter Powell
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