The word “presbyterian” comes from the New Testament Greek word for “elder.” First and foremost, then, presbyterianism is a form of church government based upon the Bible’s teaching that since the close of the Apostolic age, Christ has ordained that His Church be led and ruled by duly ordained officers known as Elders (see Acts 15:1-2, 4, 6 & 22-23, Acts 20:17 & 28, 1 Timothy 3:1 & 4-5, and Titus 1:5). There are two types of Elders distinguished in Scripture, namely, the Teaching Elder/Minister and the Ruling Elder (see 1 Timothy 5:17).*
The Teaching Elder/Minister has the unique tasks of leading the public worship of God, preaching the Holy Scriptures from week to week, administering the sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper, and blessing the congregation in the name and authority of God Almighty (1 Timothy 4:6 & 12-16 and 2 Timothy 2:14-16 & 4:1-2). Ordinarily, the Minister/Teaching Elder is paid by the congregation so that he may be free from other employment in order to devote his time to study and pastoral work (Galatians 6:6 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18), chief of which is the exposition of the Holy Scriptures and the administration of the Sacraments (Acts 6:2, 1 Timothy 4:13 and 2 Timothy 4:1-5).
The Ruling Elder is given the tasks of teaching the Holy Scriptures (1 Timothy 3:2 & Titus 1:9), overseeing and governing the local congregation (Acts 20:17 & 28), and assisting the Minister in his more general tasks, such as prayer, visiting the sick and needy, and various administrative duties (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 & Titus 1:5-9). Ordinarily, Ruling Elders are not paid by the congregation but hold employment outside of the church.
In presbyterianism a church ordinarily has a plurality of Elders to lead a local congregation. At minimum this usually means at least one Minister/Teaching Elder and two Ruling Elders, though many presbyterian congregations have more than two Ruling Elders, and some have more than one Minister (i.e., in addition to the senior pastor there may be an assistant pastor and/or a youth pastor). When there is at least one Minister/Teaching Elder and two Ruling Elders for a congregaton, they together form a governing Board called “the Session,” which is charged with overseeing the worship and business of the local church.
In addition to the two types of Elders,* the Bible teaches that the local congregation is ordinarily to have Deacons who are given the particular task to tend to the physical needs of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, both within the congregation and the local community (see Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 3:8-12). Like Elders, Deacons are ordained officers in the church, but they are always under the authority of the Elder Board (i.e., the Session). Ordinarily presbyterian congregations have more than one Deacon, however, there is no requirement for a set number of Deacons. Their number is usually determined by (a) how many men are qualified and willing to serve and (b) how many men are needed to meet the demands of the diaconal work, which varies from congregation to congregation. Occasionally, a local church may be without Deacons for a time, in which case the diaconal responsibilities fall upon the Session until men can be trained, ordained, and installed as Deacons.
In accordance and submission to the Word of God, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church restricts the offices of Minister, Ruling Elder, and Deacon to qualified men (see 1 Timothy 3:2 & 11-12, Titus 1:6, and 1 Timothy 2:11-12).
In accordance to the general principles of the Bible (see Acts 15) and because no church officer or church court is above error or abuse, Presbyterianism is committed to mutual accountability between officers and local congregations. Consequently, there are various levels of church government arranged in graded courts, each of which contains a plurality of both Teaching and Ruling Elders, who are obligated to rule and be ruled according to the Word of God and to submit to one another in Christian love.
As discussed above, “the local church” is overseen by “the Session,” which is made up of at least one Minister/Teaching Elder and two Ruling Elders. To this local governing body of Elders, all members of the local congregation must give submission (Hebrews 13:17) and due respect (1 Timothy 5:17) to the degree that it governs according to the Holy Bible. The Session of each local church usually meets once a month to conduct business.
In addition, each local congregation within a particular geographical boundary is part of a “regional church.” This regional church is likewise overseen by a governing body known as “the Presbytery.” Just like the Session of the local church, the Presbytery of the regional church is made up of both Teaching Elders/Ministers and Ruling Elders. The Presbytery of each regional church meets between two and four times a year to conduct business. All the Ministers and one Ruling Elder from every local congregation within the regional church must attend the Presbytery meetings when they are held. Currently there are seventeen Presbyteries in the OPC. Providence Presbyterian Church belongs to the Presbytery of the Southeast, which covers eastern Kentucky, central and eastern Tennessee, the lower half of Virginia, all of North and South Carolina, and the northern half of Georgia.
Finally, all of the regional churches together make up the “denominational church” (in our case the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). And just like the local and regional churches, the denomination is overseen by a governing body known as “the General Assembly.” This body is likewise made up of Teaching Elders/Ministers and Ruling Elders. The General Assembly meets once annually and is usually a body of delegates elected by and representing the various Presbyteries.
If you would like more detail about Presbyterian church government as practiced in the OPC, please consult our denomination’s Form of Government.
*A debate continues within the OPC as to whether the Minister and the Ruling Elder are two separate offices or two catagories of the one general office of “Elder.” In seeking to describe presbyterian government as practiced in the OPC, we do not intend the above statments to be a promotion of one view over the other, which is why we use the dual designation “Teaching Elder” and “Minister” throughout.