Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism

In recent months more than one of our ministers has said to me jokingly: “I believe we could do with a bishop in our churches.” They said this with a view to our system of calling ministers. My usual answer was: “I don’t mind, as long as you make me the bishop!” Generally that was the end of the discussion!

But it cannot be denied that there is a problem. For the last six months I have been rather closely connected with the work of calling and. to be honest, I can well understand the reaction of these ministers. There is something unsatisfactory in our system. The whole congregation has to decide which minister it wants to call. but in many cases they do not know either of the ministers whose names are proposed by the session. What makes things even worse is that quite often even the session knows very little about the ministers they propose. They go by the information they have received, either directly (from an elder in the congregation of the minister) or indirectly (from hearsay). Quite often it is little more than a sensible guess and at times it looks very much like a “gamble,” especially if the men who were at the top of the list have declined the call.

Would it not be good, in this situation, to have a man, who possesses the necessary wisdom, who knows the ecclesiastical “map” and has the authority to “send” a certain minister to a certain vacant congregation? Could such a “bishop” (for such would be his function) not be a great advantage for the whole church?

Last week I received a copy of the inaugural lecture of Professor J. Plomp, the new professor of Church Polity in the Seminary at Kampen. I have read this lecture with great interest, because it deals with this problem. The title of the lecture reads; “PRESBYTERIAL – EPISCOPAL?” The question mark does not mean much. Actually it should be an exclamation mark, for Prof. Plomp believes that we should accept an “element” of episcopacy in our presbyterial system.

He deals with three questions. Is it permitted? Is it desirable? Is it possible?

First, is it PERMITTED? Under this heading he mentions two separate aspects. May we do it on the basis of SCRIPTURE? The answer to this question is Yes. Although Prof. Plomp believes that there is a considerable amount of agreement between our presbyterial system and the New Testament, he also believes that the New Testament does not altogether exclude an episcopal element. The second aspect is: is it in conformity with the teaching of CALVIN and the other REFORMERS? Again the answer is Yes. Prof. Plomp freely admits that the Reformers of the 16th century were presbyterial-synodical in their organization of the church, but he adds that they were not as strictly presbyterial-synodical as some of their followers. He points to Calvin’s attitude to churches with an episcopal structure (notably the Church of England of his day), to the First Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland which contained a provision for superintendents, and to some Dutch Synods which allowed synodical “inspectors” or “visitors.” The strict view we owe to Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, rather than to Calvin himself. In Britain this strict view was laid down in The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, adopted by the famous Westminster Assembly. Some 17th century Reformed theologians spoke of a “divine right” of presbyterial church government. They meant that this system is not only in conformity with Scripture, but also that it is the ONLY scriptural system. Yet there always remained many Reformed theologians, who had a broader view. Although they did believe that the presbyterial system is in agreement with Scripture, they also maintained that it cannot simply be copied from the New Testament, which shows a rather fluid and fluctuating pattern. Because Prof. Plomp shares this view, he can also approve the introduction of some episcopal elements into the presbyterial system.

The second question is: is it DESIRABLE? Again the answer of Prof. Plomp is positive. He mentions three main reasons.

First, there is the matter of LEADERSHIP in the church. According to Prof. Plomp there is often a shocking lack of care for the well being of the church as a whole. As an example he mentions the matter of calling. This is entirely in the hands of the local congregations and often there is far too much competition between them. Each congregation tries to “grab” the “best” minister, without asking whether it would be better for the church as a whole, if he served somewhere else. Prof. Plomp believes that Reformed Churches should be willing to have their liberty curbed by an agency, which has some kind of episcopal authority. This also applies to another aspect. There is also a great lack of efficiency in the “management” of the church. One could again point to our calling system, but it also appears in the general procedure. When an important decision has to be taken, usually some ten people have to take part in the deliberations, which means a great loss of time and energy. And it is by no means certain that the great number of counsellors always produces the best result.

The second reason why an episcopal clement would be desirable is the PASTORAL CARE FOR THE OFFICE-BEARERS, especially the ministers. As it is now, a minister is usually left all by himself at critical moments in his personal life and ministerial career. He has every reason to complain: They always call upon me, but T have no one to look after my soul. A “PASTOR PASTORUM,” that is, literally, a “shepherd of the shepherds,” could be a tremendous help. But again, this would mean the introduction of an office with some kind of episcopal authority.

In the third place Prof. Plomp mentions the point of DISUNITY among the Reformed Christians. Some people have even been speaking of “presbyterianitis” in this respect. Is this perhaps a result of our democratic way of church government, stressing the parity of the ministers? Could it be that this will be remedied by introducing ministers with an episcopal authority? Prof. Plomp is inclined to answer the last question in the affirmative. Finally, there is the question: is it POSSIBLE? Could an episcopal element be introduced into our presbyterial system, without destroying it? Again Prof. Plomp answers with Yes. Of course, he rejects the hierarchical bishop, who has the full ecclesiastical authority. Such a bishop “can in no way be fitted into the presbyterial-synodical church order.” But there is also another possibility, namely, that of the “SYNODICAL BISHOP” or the “BISHOP-IN-PRESBYTERY.” Such a bishop would have to be chosen by the church itself, he would have to cooperate with the assemblies of the church, it should be possible to take his authority from him, if this were better for the church, and yet he should have sufficient episcopal powers to do his work properly. In other words, Prof. Plomp wants to surround this new office with many safeguards, in order to prevent it from becoming hierarchical.

Dr. Klaas Runia is Professor of Theology at the Geelong Theological Seminary, Geelong, Australia.