The Curse of Presbyterianism
“Because of the transgression of a land, many are its princes; but by a man of understanding and knowledge right will be prolonged.” (Prov. 28:2)
I’m a Presbyterian. I grew up in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, my father is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister, my siblings are all members of Presbyterian churches, and I know of at least three sets of aunts and uncles as well as a set of grand parents that were members of Presbyterian churches (when they were living). I know and love reformed Presbyterianism well.
Moreover, I’m in general agreement with the principle of polity, rule by a plurality of elders (presbyters) made up of both clergy (ministers/doctors) and lay representatives (elders). However, I also believe that we are not given many clear instructions beyond that (though I admit there are several fairly clear threads of practice in history), but I’m pretty comfortable with the idea that this is all on purpose, meaning, that different contexts, cultures, time periods can use this basic set up with different emphases and concerns to address. For example, I’m comfortable with a continuum stretching from some forms of Episcopal government to a ‘low Presbyterianism’ which borrows some from a congregational government. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all-church government, much less Presbyterianism. That said, while the Proverbs teach us that in the multitude of counselors there is wisdom, we also have this Proverb that teaches us that sometimes there are a multitude of counselors who think they ALL have wisdom. In other words, just because you have a room full of people talking doesn’t mean you automatically have anything more than a room full of hot air.
The fact is God made humanity to function best with leaders, wise and knowledgeable individuals who God raises up sometimes within and sometimes outside of the usual step-ladders of authority. But we live in a day, particularly in reformed Presbyterianism where just about everyone thinks they are a well spring of knowledge and wisdom. And of course here I am typing away on my little barrel of whiskey, and someone is bound to ask, ‘what about you, mister?’
But the difference has everything to do with the difference between princes and counselors. Those who give counsel know that they are merely doing that, giving honest, heartfelt advice. When they have finished giving counsel they shut up and follow their leader whether or not their advice is followed. Those who are princes (or think they are) believe they are in line for the throne and perhaps in some anticipatory way, already have a share in that rule. These types give their opinion and then are offended when their advice is not taken. Choosing not to follow their counsel is tantamount to betrayal. This point is made wonderfully in C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian. Trumpkin, the dwarf, tells Caspian what he thinks: “your Majesty knows I think the Horn–and that bit of broken stone over there–and your great King Peter–and your Lion Aslan–are all eggs in moonshine…” But later when Caspian decides to blow the horn anyway and needs to send a messenger to find whomever the horn brings into Narnia, Trumpkin volunteers. When asked why he’s willing to go when he doesn’t even believe any of it’s true, he replies: “You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s time for orders.”
Presbyterian government should be a blessing: the opportunity for the congregation to elect representatives to help in the decision making with the ordained clergy of the Church. But often this has turned into a council of popes, a congregation of bishops, rather than the counsel it is intended to be. And then following their leaders, all manner of self appointed princes and judges surface on the internet or wherever. But Kings or queens or presidents lead nations; ministers, priests, or bishops lead churches; heads of households lead families. God has instituted numerous opportunities for wise leaders to hearken to wise counsel, and it can be fitting for congregations and nations to be given the opportunity to make some decisions, but God has not instituted a pure democracy at any level.