THE LOCAL CHURCH
The first Christians were Jews who were accustomed to attend the Temple in Jerusalem or their local synagogue. But when the Apostles began to preach the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Christians began to gather in homes or halls to hear them. They prayed and broke bread together, and shared in the Lord’s Supper according to Christ’s command. This gathering of Christians was called a church, congregation or assembly. In each place where the gospel was preached and people believed, they came together for worship as the church in that place. Leaders called elders and deacons were appointed for each local church (Acts 6, 20:17).
But the local church was also in contact with other local churches. Paul’s letters were passed around between them and collections were taken to send to churches in need. Moreover, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 was actually a presbytery or assembly of apostles and elders from various churches. Their decisions were binding on all other churches, and brought them much joy. The local church therefore is not independent of other churches.
Each local PCEA congregation has a body of elders called the Session. The teaching elder is called a minister. To the local Session belongs the responsibility of admitting new members, as well as the exercise of pastoral care and discipline. Elders are to lead as under-shepherds of the flock who must give account to the Chief Shepherd (Jesus) in whose name they serve (1 Peter 5:1-4). The deacons and elders act together for financial and administrative purposes at a meeting called the Deacons' Court. It is worth noting that in the PCEA every member of the congregation has the right to raise concerns with, and make suggestions to, their local Session.
The minister and an elder from a number of congregations come together to form a Presbytery. Presbyteries oversee the ordination of ministers and have general pastoral oversight of the congregations within their bounds (1 Timothy 4:14). It is the body to which ministers are immediately responsible for the discharge of their duties. When all Presbyteries meet together it is called a Synod. This meets annually to review matters from lower courts and determine national policy.
Different matters are dealt with and decisions made at each of these courts of the Church according to the constitution. These bodies are called ‘courts of the church’ because they administer and apply the law of God in Scripture to particular situations. Appeals can be made through the courts of the Church with regard to a decision or action. The system of graded courts (session, presbytery, synod), provides a system of checks and balances, and helps to ensure that Church leaders remember that their calling is not to dominate nor oppress the Lord's people, but to serve (l Peter 3:5).
Ours is an age of individualism and of the rejection of traditional institutions. It is not surprising therefore, to find some Christians maintaining that the Bible has little to say about the institutional aspects of Church life. It is very easy for someone with a strong personality to dominate in a so-called ‘independent’ church. We must also be aware of preaching what itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). The Bible commands that ‘all things be done decently and in order’, because God is not the author of confusion (1Corinthians 14:33, 40). We must remember that the Church is Christ's permanent institution (Matthew 16:18) and that Christ is the head of the church- not the Pope or Archbishop or any self appointed man (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22).
The denominational term, Presbyterian, arose because of our historic testimony for the Biblical role of the corporate eldership as over and against the claims, on the one hand, of Roman Catholic and Anglican hierarchy and, on the other, of Congregational independency.
Elders. These are men (not women) who are appropriately qualified, gifted spiritually and chosen by the people (1 Timothy 3:1-7; cf. Acts 1:15-26). In the New Testament these rulers are sometimes called ‘bishops’, or ‘overseers’ (Greek, episkopos), and sometimes ‘elders’ (Greek, presbuteros). The same office is meant by both terms. Some elders are chosen and trained to focus on preaching and teaching. We call these ‘teaching elders’ or ‘ministers’. All elders are equal in authority and operate corporately at both the local and broader levels (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7; Acts 14:23).
Deacons. In the Bible we read of those who were set apart to a ministry of administration and mercy (Acts 6:1-6, cf. Philippians 1:1). These officers are called 'deacons' and, as for the eldership, their qualifications and functions are outlined in the Pastoral Epistles (for elders see: 1Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; for deacons see: 1Timothy 3:8-13). In line with Scripture, the PCEA admits only qualified men into this office.
The Bible assumes all believers will identify with the local Church. It exhorts us not to forsake coming together for worship (Hebrews 10:25). Membership in the PCEA is open to all who profess saving faith in Christ, and whose life gives evidence of a sincere desire to walk with the Lord. Members are encouraged to gain a greater knowledge of the doctrines held by the Church, but only office bearers are required to subscribe to the Subordinate Standard (the Westminster Confession of Faith). Members are exhorted to develop a devotional life including the practice of regular private prayer, Bible reading, and family worship, in addition to attending meetings of the Church. We want all to use their gifts for the Lord and to participate as fully as possible in the life of their local congregation.
CHURCH and STATE
Our Federal and State Governments exist by divine institution (Romans 13:1-4 and 1 Peter 2:13, 14), with elected men and women occupying seats in such government. The institution of the State is part of God's moral government, i.e. it concerns all people, regardless of their specific relationship to God. It is therefore an aspect of God's favour which he shows all his creatures - in Reformed theology termed ‘common grace’. Rulers are to legislate and govern with an eye to the perfect standard of the God who will require of them an account, and citizens are to give due obedience to the lawful enactments of their rulers, remembering that ‘whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God’ (Romans 13:2).
The Church also exists by divine institution, but with Christ as the permanent Head of the Church. While both Government and Church are instituted by God, they operate in two different spheres, namely the civil and the spiritual. Yet there is a relationship between State and Church and this is detailed in the so called ‘Establishment Principle’. This principle starts with the fact that Jesus is Lord over all things (Colossians 1:16-20). Every sphere of human action is therefore accountable to the King of kings, Jesus Christ (John 5:22). Accordingly, rulers have a duty to protect, promote, and to support the interests of true religion (Psalm 72:10, 11; Isaiah 49:23). For her part, the Church has a responsibility to pray for leaders in government (1Timothy 2:1, 2), to teach the duties of Christian citizenship, and to give guidance, or admonition when appropriate, from God's Word (cf. 2 Chronicles 19:8-11).
Today we hear much about denominational union as promoted by the ecumenical movement. Unfortunately, the union promoted is often at the expense of truth. All true believers enjoy union with Christ and therefore, as members of his body, spiritual solidarity with one another. It is true that this spiritual fellowship should be given greater visible expression, and we cannot endorse the actions of those who are rightly called schismatic.
But we also believe that there can be no real union between Churches without the bond of true religion. That means an uncompromising loyalty to Christ as Head, a unity of faith founded upon the Scriptures, and fidelity to the principles of Biblical worship. Such union was achieved, for instance, when the congregations of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria joined the PCEA in 1953.
The PCEA is not prepared to forsake truth and communion with God for the sake of 'peace' and 'fellowship' with men. Yet it is our prayer that ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock’ (Jeremiah 31:10). And because we value true Christian unity we are always open to faithful co-operation with other believers on the local level. The PCEA has fraternal relations with a number of other churches and is a member of the International Conference of Reformed Churches.