What does it mean to be Presbyterian?

  Presbyterian (from the Greek presbuteros meaning “elder“) refers to the branch of the great historical and worldwide church which governs itself through a system of elders or presbyters. Its traditional links in Australia are with Scotland and Ireland, but it also has close links with the Reformed Churches in Europe. Today it is very much a multicultural church filled with worshippers whose origins are from all parts or the world.

In terms of teaching, the core of Presbyterianism is the Christian faith common to all the mainstream churches, focussing on the work of God in redeeming His fallen human creation. Presbyterians place a heavy emphasis on the initiatives that God has taken to secure the redemption of each individual.

The broad sense in which the Christian faith is understood is contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 as modified by the Australian church in 1901.

Elders are men or women who have been elected, ordained and inducted to that office by their fellow Christians following recognition of their spiritual leadership and talents in teaching.  Ideally they are mature Christians who come from all walks of life and have shown over years of experience that their Christian faith is relevant in the day-to-day affairs of life. The elders of each parish meet together in a court called the Session.

Two distinct roles have evolved within the office of the eldership over the years.

The first is that of the ruling elder, with a responsibility to share with ministers the pastoral work of the church.  The second is that of the minister of the Word and sacraments, sometimes called the pastor, whose function is centred on a special trusteeship of the Word of God. The minister is an elder who has been specially called, trained and set apart for full time pastoral work and teaching. At the time of writing, only men may be ordained as ministers.


The Macquarie Presbyterian Church in
Sydney's north-west has a modern practical

A Federation of State Churches

Presbyterian  Churches, or Reformed Churches as they are sometimes called, are organized into a series of courts, based on a federal model.

The term “federal” does not mean a national or geographical framework for politics. It refers to an organization or government where the higher levels exercise their authority only when defined and limited by agreement with the lower levels. Each part of the organization, in our case the state churches, has a high degree of autonomy.

In the Presbyterian Church, the extent of each church court's jurisdiction is clearly defined in writing.  No court may involve itself in matters that fall properly within the domain of another court, except as a result of procedures such as appeal or petition ... and only then when the matter falls into the domain of the higher court.

The Australian Constitution and the civil court system are also examples of  federal structures.
All this contrasts with some other churches and organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church and government departments, which are bureaucratic or hierarchical in their structure. In these cases authority lies at the top and is delegated to the lower levels of the organization.
Australian Presbyterianism has adapted its organization to  the geography and politics of our continent and nation.

In 1901 the state churches united to form the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The constitutional foundation for this union is a document called the Scheme of Union, which sets out the doctrine and organization of the new church. The Scheme contains a declaratory statement which specifies doctrine vital to the Christian faith, and allows liberty of opinion on any other matters.
The document also defines the rights of dissenting groups when changes  are made to the doctrinal base of the church.

1977 saw the formation of the Uniting Church which was a union of the Methodist Church and significant elements of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches. More than half of Presbyterian congregations in NSW, dissatisfied with the doctrinal foundations of the new church’s constitution, chose to continue to be Presbyterian under the 1901 Scheme of Union.

The Scheme of Union

   The Presbyterian Church of Australia was formed from a union of the various state Presbyterian Churches in 1901, the same year that the states formed the Commonwealth of Australia.

The constitutional and legal framework for that union is contained in a document  called the Scheme of Union. This Scheme is in two distinct parts, each covering a different area.

1. The Articles of Agreement.
These articles set out the administrative structures of the new church.
They state, among other things, how membership of the General Assembly of Australia (the GAA) is determined, and how this court organizes itself when acting in its legislative and judicial roles.

They state that the GAA is supreme on matters of doctrine, worship, discipline, missions at home and overseas, training of students for the ministry, the reception of ministers from other churches and from overseas, Christian Education and the national journal of the church.

The Articles of Agreement can be amended by a simple majority of the state assemblies and presbyteries. This has been done on several occasions and has usually involved sending the changes down to presbyteries under the Barrier Act. However, this is not a requirement.

2. The Basis of Union
These articles set out the doctrinal basis for the union of the churches and they may be amended only by a three fifths majority of the General Assembly, the presbyteries and a majority of the state assemblies. Under the Basis of Union, amendments to the doctrine of the church allow congregations not agreeing to the changes to withdraw from the church taking  their property with them.
The first article states that the Supreme Standard of the Church "shall be the Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament".

The second article states that the Subordinate Standard of the church "shall be the Westminster Confession of Faith, read in the light of the ... declaratory statement ..."

The declaratory statement is particularly significant and consists of six paragraphs, explaining the Westminster Confession on the matters of redemption, predestination, death in infancy, man's fallen nature, the role of the civil authorities and liberty of conscience.

   The Scheme of Union is in effect the constitution of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. As such it sets out the organizational structure of the church as well as defining the rights and responsibilities of those who are its members and office-bearers.

It should serve to unite Presbyterians in the love of Christ. It should bind them together in fellowship. It should enable them to grow together in the faith, to serve God better and to witness before the world to the working of His Spirit in their lives.

To read a copy of the Basis of Union click here.

The Lower Courts of the Church

     There are four levels of courts that operate within the Presbyterian Church of Australia, called, in ascending order, Session, Presbytery, State General Assembly and the General Assembly of Australia.
Each court has functions that can be described as legislative (rule-making), judicial (administering justice)  and executive (leadership and management).

All church members have the right to petition an appropriate court and to expect a fair hearing on matters that are of concern. They have a clear right of appeal to higher courts.

The Session
The church court governing all the affairs and welfare of the local congregation is called the Session, and consists of the minister and a body of elected elders.

The Session promotes the spiritual life of the congregation, including worship, pastoral care, Christian education, evangelism and discipline. It has oversight of all the organizations that operate within the congregation.

Members of Session are also ex officio members of  the Committee of Management, which is the body elected to handle the property and financial aspects of the congregation's activities.
The minister of the congregation acts as the moderator or chairperson of the Session.

Elders are elected to office by their congregations and are ordained for life. However they cannot transfer their membership of a Session to another congregation. In a process similar to  the ministers' call, they must wait until their new congregation recognizes their gifts and agrees to their induction.

The Presbytery
The next court upwards from the Session is the Presbytery, which comprises equal numbers of ministers and  elders from all parishes in a geographical region.

Among its concerns are the selection, ordination,  induction and welfare of ministers within its bounds, the supervision of doctrine and order in congregations,  and the definition of parish boundaries.

All ministers who have been inducted into a pastoral charge are members of a Presbytery.  Retired ministers and people who hold an office, such as a Convener or an Assembly committee or Director of a church department, are also granted seats on Presbytery.

Elders on Presbytery are appointed to represent their sessions. Where necessary, extra elders are appointed by Presbyteries to maintain equal numbers of ministers and elders.

The Higher Courts of the Church

The State Assembly
Each state has a General Assembly, consisting of the minister and an elder from every congregation, all retired ministers, and a range of ministers and elders who hold an administrative office in the church. Territories are grouped with state assemblies.

The General Assembly meets annually and has the responsibility for overseeing a range of matters such as the rules of the church, broad strategies, property, investments, church schools, outreach, Christian education, training for the ministry and many other areas.

Much of the executive work of the Assembly is handled routinely by executive committees that meet regularly during the year. These are supervised by a Standing Committee of representatives from Presbyteries.

The NSW Committees include Ministry and Mission, Church and Nation, Christian Education, Code, Evangelism, Theological Education, Financial Co-ordination, Indemnity Fund, Social Services, and others such as school and hostel boards.

A Commission of Assembly is appointed to transact any special business remitted to it by the Assembly during the year.

The General Assembly of Australia

The General Assembly of Australia, which meets triennially, has a broad responsibility for matters such as doctrine, world mission, and standards for the ministry and the eldership.

Its members are made up of equal numbers of ministers and elders, appointed by Presbyteries and Assemblies in proportion to the number of parishes within their bounds.

The next meeting of the General Assembly of Australia is scheduled for September 2010.

  Assembly The NSW General Assembly meets
in the grounds of the Presbyterian
Ladies College at Croydon in Sydney.
The Barrier Act

    Reflecting the federal nature of the church, the Presbyterian Church of Australia has adopted the Barrier Act, passed by the Church of Scotland in 1697.

This act requires that any proposed changes to the rules and constitutions of the church that are to be binding on members and the courts of the church must be sent down to Presbyteries for their consent before they become law. Questions sent down under the Barrier Act require a yes or no answer.

This has the effect of ensuring that hasty decisions are difficult to make, and power is not unevenly concentrated within the church. In particular it prevents the Assembly from dominating the rank and file opinion of the church.

Higher courts can send down matters “for consideration and report” without reference to the Barrier Act and they frequently do so

The Code

    The body of church laws and regulations is called The Code and it may be changed only by the appropriate assembly acting within its field of jurisdiction, and usually only then under the provisions of the Barrier Act. It is, in fact, a compendium of extracted minutes of assemblies codified for easy reference.

The General Assembly of Australia and the state Assemblies maintain their own Codes.

Using NSW as an example, there are three parts to The Code.

Part 1 consists of the Standing Orders, which are the rules whereby the courts and committees of the church conduct their meetings.

Part 2 comprises the Standing Laws of the church, which are the regulations under which  the church, its membership, congregations and courts, are organized. They are the decisions of Assembly which have ongoing effect.

Part 3 is made up of the constitutions and regulations of the committees, boards, organizations and institutions that operate as part of the church. All regulations must be approved by the assembly.