The Lord has blessed His Church with many precious gifts for equipping the saints for the work of ministry and for building up the body of Christ. Among these gifts are basic biblical principles for the system of government and discipline of His Church. Applying this wisdom to our time and place, we learn how to conduct ourselves in the Household of Faith as we labor with other congregations and undershepherds in mutual accountability and love.
We believe the Book of Church Order, whose roots stretch back to Calvin’s Geneva, is an excellent outworking of these principles. John Calvin wrote the first modern Presbyterian Book of Order for the church at Geneva in 1542.
John Knox learned under John Calvin’s teaching and pastoral ministry for several years, and then returned to Scotland. He wrote the “First Book of Discipline” for the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in 1560. The whole history of Presbyterian church government in Scotland goes back to this First Book of Discipline.
The Westminster Assembly, which met in London in 1643, wrote not only the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, but also “The Form of Presbyterian Church Government.” The Presbyterian Churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland adopted this Westminster Form of Government.
When our Presbyterian forefathers came to America they brought with them the Westminster “Form of Presbyterian Church Government,” and it became the basis of Church law in the American Presbyterian Church.
The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America was organized in 1789. The General Synod in preparing for the organization of the General Assembly practically rewrote The Form of Presbyterian Church Government in 1788, in order to adjust it to the conditions in America. This new book was called “The Form of Government and Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.” It was revised a number of times prior to 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War, when the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches were tragically divided. At that time, the Southern Presbyterians withdrew and formed The Presbyterian Church in the United States.
When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) was organized on December 4, 1861, it adopted the Form of Government and Discipline which had been in use since 1788. In 1863 the General Assembly took steps to revise this Form of Government and Discipline with the result that a thoroughgoing revision was adopted in 1879. A great many amendments were added during the next forty years.
In 1921 the PCUS General Assembly took steps to revise the Book of Church Order again. Another thoroughgoing revision was proposed by the Committee on Revision, adopted by the General Assembly, approved by a large majority of the Presbyteries, and enacted into law by the General Assembly of 1925.
The Form of Government and Rules of Discipline of this 2019 Book of Church Order are based in part on a 1933 revision to the PCUS Book of Church Order and portions of the current Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order. The Directory for Worship is based on the one in use by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
While this current version seeks to likewise build on the solid foundation of centuries of Reformed polity, an important difference should be noted. The fellowship of churches governed by this Book of Church Order is committed to the good and pleasant unity of brothers whose convictions about the time and mode of baptism differ. We grieve over the almost-perpetual division of reformed believers which has been watched by the world and the larger evangelical community during the last century, as it has been demonstrated over a whole host of secondary doctrinal matters. It’s our desire to demonstrate unity amidst diversity at points where the system of doctrine taught by reformed standards such as the Belgic Confession, the London Baptist Confession, and the Westminster Standards, etc. is not at stake. We believe the time and mode of baptism to be such a place.
Our work to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace means placing ourselves in yoke with like-minded churches who have committed themselves to both aspects of the Reformation Motto: The Church Reformed and Always Reforming. Perhaps no work of reform is more desperately needed in the church today than discipline and accountability. An expositor of a prior version of the Book of Church Order observed—in 1898—the dangerous tendency in the church of that time to avoid discipline and the inevitable harmful fruit of such unfaithfulness:
Discipline, thorough and scriptural, is possible under our system. It is not necessary to argue that discipline is a duty enjoined in the Scriptures; but there is among us, one is tempted to say, a pervading infidelity of the worth of such teachings. Outside of the discipline of ministers charged with heresies, and of very notorious offenders in morality, there is seldom anything in the nature of judicial prosecution among us; and there is reason to believe that there is even less of that forewarning which looks forward to such prosecution. . . .
It is not easy to exercise discipline, not only on account of the imperfection of those who are to exercise it, but also on account of the strength of corruption that has come for the lack of discipline; and discipline is especially difficult where the revenues of the church come from voluntary contributions. To censure offenders generally endangers revenue. It requires a lofty indifference to financial considerations in comparison with spiritual results, or the inexperience of youth, to embolden to attempt thorough discipline. Many attempts have failed largely because the men who failed when they had less wisdom of experience and less maturity of spiritual growth have not attempted it when they became better qualified. Their former failures, and the new Book, make them afraid. But we must come to it or we perish. The churches of America must learn to exercise discipline, or the experiment of religious liberty, without financial aid from the civil power, will prove a failure. Such a result will not come, for the churches will learn this lesson of discipline. It may be through bitter experience of the fruits of laxity and of the consequent worldly corruption of the church, but to discipline the church must come. And it is here insisted that we have the usable machinery of discipline, and all we need now is the spiritual power to make it efficient.
Now, 120 years later, we are in no less need of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying presence and power. And so we commit this work to God’s hands, trusting Him to supply all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
B. Preliminary Principles
The Evangel Presbytery, in presenting to the Christian public the system of union, and the form of government and discipline which they have adopted, have thought proper to state, by way of introduction, a few of the general principles by which they have been governed in the formation of the plan. This, it is hoped, will, in some measure, prevent those rash misconstructions, and uncandid reflections, which usually proceed from an imperfect view of any subject; as well as make the several parts of the system plain, and the whole perspicuous and fully understood. They are unanimously of opinion:
- God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.
- In perfect consistency with the above principle, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.
- Our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.
- Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” No opinion can be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon the same level.On the contrary, there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
- While, under the conviction of the above principle, it is necessary to make effective provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.
- Though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of officer investiture, the power to elect persons to the exercise of authority in any particular society resides in that society.
- All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience. All church courts may err through human frailty, yet it rests upon them to uphold the laws of Scripture though this obligation be lodged with fallible men.
- Since ecclesiastical discipline derives its force only from the power and authority of Christ, the great Head of the Church Universal, it must be purely moral and spiritual in its nature.
If the preceding scriptural principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of disciplines will contribute to the glory and well-being of the Church.
C. Constitution Defined
The Constitution of Evangel Presbytery, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the infallible Word of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms; the Book of Church Order, which comprises the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline, and the Directory for the Worship of God; and the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and Athanasian Creed; all as adopted by the Presbytery (BCO 29.1).
- All quotations from The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America used by permission from the Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. ↵
- Psalm 133. ↵
- F. P. Ramsay, An Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1898), 7-9. ↵
- Matthew 7:20. ↵
- American revisions as adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, https://evangelpresbytery.com/westminster-confession-of-faith. ↵
- https://evangelpresbytery.com/westminster-larger-catechism. ↵
- https://evangelpresbytery.com/westminster-shorter-catechism. ↵