Recently I felt led to submit a letter to the editor to The Presbyterian Layman. They're not my favorite publication - due to what I've come to perceive as a longstanding pattern of deliberate distortion of the news - but recently they published an open letter that seemed so obviously based on a misunderstanding of Presbyterian polity that I felt I just had to respond.
The open letter was written by Winfield Casey Jones. I'm copying the text of my response below:
Open letter based on two common misunderstandings of Presbyterian polity
Posted Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The February 21, 2011 article by Winfield Casey Jones, "Larger churches systematically under-represented," appears to be based on two common misunderstandings of Presbyterian polity.
The first has to do with representation. The Form of Government says there are two types of members in a presbytery: ministers and churches. That's why the elders who vote in presbytery meetings are called "commissioners," not "representatives." Commissioners are not members of presbytery; their churches are. It's a fine distinction, but an important one. Never has our polity incorporated the Congregationalist idea that presbyteries are meant to be "representative" of the people in the pews, either numerically or in accepting instructions on how to vote.
Mr. Jones bases his analysis on the concept of what he calls "representative power." While that may be how Congregationalists operate, in a Presbyterian system it's a misnomer. When ministers and elder commissioners come together to constitute the presbytery, they are forming a body that's intended to become, by the power of the Spirit, more than the sum of its parts. "Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ" (G-4.0301d). The presbytery – not the congregation – is, in fact, the fundamental unit of church government (hence, our name). That's why the constitution declares that powers not specifically assigned to congregations, synods or the General Assembly are "reserved to the presbyteries" (G-9.0103).
Practically speaking, as Mr. Jones accurately points out, ministers and elders sitting in a presbytery meeting continue to be informed by the "life, values, ethos and theology" of the congregations in which they spend much of their time. Distinctive local perspectives are extremely valuable, and ought to be freely shared. Yet, when such individuals enter into the common life of the presbytery, they agree to take a larger view, collectively assuming responsibility "for the mission and government of the church throughout its geographical district" (G-11.0103). They pledge themselves to represent the interests of every congregation in that area, not just their own.
The Form of Government does, of course, contain a fixed formula for increasing the numbers of commissioners from larger churches. Up to the 2,000-member mark, it's one additional commissioner for every 500 members; above that mark, one for every 1,000. Personally, I could be convinced that amending the formula to apply the 1-500 ratio consistently, even above 2,000 members, is a good idea. Many presbyteries, including my own, allocate some of their additional elder-commissioner slots resulting from the annual rebalancing of minister-elder parity to accomplish just that.
The second misunderstanding implicit in Mr. Jones' article has to do with per-capita apportionments. "The system" does not in fact say to congregations, "we want you to pay a per-capita that is strictly proportional to your membership." This form of direct apportionment is not used by every presbytery. Individual presbyteries may choose to say something like this – and most do – but the Form of Government does not require it. The Form of Government only mandates that presbyteries pay per-capita. How the presbyteries come up with the money is up to them.
The General Assembly PJC has ruled that, even in presbyteries that do expect congregations to remit per-capita contributions, those contributions are voluntary. The General Assembly has declared, however, that sessions deciding how to respond to such an appeal ought to consider it "a solemn moral obligation" to comply.
Mr. Jones' argument evokes echoes of "no taxation without representation." In fact, that association is wrong on two counts, because per-capita is not taxation, nor is the election of elder commissioners representation.
Carl Wilton, Stated Clerk
Presbytery of Momouth