Persistent Presbyterianism

Lay Leadership and the Future of Christianity in the West

By John Roxborogh


During its formative centuries in Europe, lay leadership through the eldership gave Reformed Christianity a distinctive powerbase and structure as it engaged with modernity. Now in different geographical, cultural, and metaphysical environments, like other churches, Presbyterianism faces changes that challenge its historic solutions to questions of identity and polity. Among the complex of factors involved in transition from a modernist, secular and mono-cultural environment, to a postmodern, resacuralised and multi-cultural world lay leadership and organizational culture may be considered relevant issues for a persistent Presbyterianism.



Changes in the organizational culture of society by globalization and migration is a factor in the relationship of church to society. Lay leadership and the lay-clerical differentiation is a further dimension of this. Organization culture is a way of either embodying the Christian message or acting in a way which is contrary to what we believe. Whether or not we function as a community in a way society finds comprehensible, makes a difference to our ability to relate and communicate. Our organizational culture in the church makes it possible or difficult to identify with groups in society which may be a focus of our mission or a basis of our support.

To explore this further we need to clarify the organizational and leadership values of the Christian faith, be aware of the organizational cultures of society, and have a critical process for evaluating what should or should not happen. It is at least a question whether the place of laity in the leadership structures of Reformed churches was a key element in their connecting with the emerging political and economic ethos of the modern world. Current debates concerning ordination and lay ministry in Presbyterian churches can also be set in the context of their relationship to features of contemporary organizational culture.


Church communicates through roles and structures - not just belief and rituals

The relationship of a church to its context is not only a matter of credibility of doctrine, relevance of ritual, correlation of belief and behaviour, or homogeneity of class culture and language; but also of roles and structures of leadership. As in other dimensions of its life, the organization of a church is a factor in its ability both to connect with its environment and to be distinct from it. Organisation is a form of language that may or may not connect with the language of the wider community. Organization also structures the way in which the community participates in the life of the church, engages in decision-making, and shares in leadership.

A difficulty in determing a basis for addressing these issues which apply to other traditions as well as Catholic, is that of finding a theological framework for talking about organisation and culture. Like other branches of theology, ecclesiology tends to be more concerned with the affirmation of validity and the justification of difference than with exploring the murky influence of the world on the thinking and practice of the church. To admit the mundane origins of something claiming divine sanction is rather easily seen as weakening one’s case, especially if ecclesiastical competition is involved. When religious authority lies in text and hierarchy over against society, it is not surprising that discussion of church polity is often concerned with questions of biblical precedent and theological principle, without reference to context. Theologians are often by training and philosophy people whose instincts tell them that anything that has its origins in pragmatism is inherently suspect, if not intrinsically wrong.


Lay leadership and the organisational structure of Presbyterianism

Presbyterianism is defined as much by its polity as by its creeds. While the Reformed tradition of which Presbyterian churches are part trace their origins to Calvin, it is not simply questions of the sovereignty of God and of predestination, or the theology of Calvin’s Institutes as mediated by later formulations such as the Westminster Confession, but a style of church government marked by significant lay leadership which remains central to its identity.


Presbyterians are happy to believe that their form of government appears to be not inconsistent with biblical precedents and theology, take comfort from the mention of elders widely throughout the Bible, and are not interested in digging further. They generally believe that presbuteroi and episkopoi are synonymous in the New Testament and think that further thought about the value of bishops is unnecessary. They are usually happy for other traditions to make their own decisions about valid forms of church polity, but church union discussions can be testing.


The example of the Scottish Evangelical Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)remains important for attaching greater value to the mission of the church than to its structures, or even to its Confession, and in that very spirit he increased the role of the laity as he revived the deaconate as distinct group, engaged elders in systematic parish visitation, and set up Sunday Schools and missionary societies. His organisational genius, applied to church extension and eventually to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland at the Disruption of 1843, derived from a background of a family business, interest in science and economics, and the teaching of political economy at the University of St Andrews. His restructuring of parish life, not just his preaching, gave space to emerging middle class entrepreneurs in the church by adapting to the models and values of a group ultimately strong enough to forge their own denomination as a breakaway national church.

While the structures of Presbyterianism have served it well, in recent decades a number of points of tension have arisen in relation to organisation, not just matters of theology or ethics. Today laity are called on to exercise more responsibility for ministry in the church at the same time as they are usually affirmed in their ministry in the community. When volunteer time is at a premium, and in families both parents usually work, choices need to be made. What for some is an affirmation of gifting and calling is for others an imposition of unwelcome responsibility. Among some there is a feeling that barriers to sacramental leadership are artificial, and that the requirement of lifelong ordination for eldership or anything else, is unrealistic. Avenues for recognised service in the name of the church that were for a time provided by the Deaconess order, without male equivalent, disappeared with the ordination of women. While opening avenues to ordination for a larger group of laity responds to the sense of call of some in lay pastoral ministry, for others it is seen as shifting a problematic boundary rather than addressing the issue of its validity, and not all who seek responsibility and recognition in the exercise of spiritual gifts want to be ordained and lead sacraments. Lay people called to responsible service often lack a framework for their affirmation and support outside the traditional roles of eldership and ordained ministry of word and sacrament. The eldership certainly increases participation in the life of the church and has potential to increase the relevance of the church to society, but its very character makes it difficult for minority views to find a space unless there is an explicit commitment to diversity.

It is a feature of the Presbyterian tradition that despite the importance of the eldership to its structure and character, it has failed to resolve a longstanding ambivalence about ruling elders and the significance of their ordination. The word ordination and the requirements which go with it, together with views of equivalence of status (reflected in equal numbers of elders and ministers in Presbytery and Assembly), support the view that elders should be considered as clergy rather than laity. This is reinforced when the Church authorises elders to preside at Communion and baptise. On the other hand, if being clergy is about authorisation to administer sacraments, then given that elders are not, simply by virtue of being elders, authorised to administer sacraments, it is argued that they are laity, albeit lay leaders

In general eldership is evidence of lay leadership more than of a different order of clergy, but authorisation to preside at sacraments will change this. Whether a lay/clergy distinction is felt strongly or not, the point of that distinction lies with authorisation to preside at the sacraments, not with the use of the word ordination.


'Lay' and 'Clerical'

... the late laicised Catholic priest, Adrian Hastings described a "theology of the laity" as a "well-intentioned mistake," an "anachronistic medieval model, sadly out of touch with the reality . . . of an increasingly declericalised Christian life in which the category of 'laity' has become basically redundant." A difficulty is that categories of leaders and led, experts and others, are the nature of human society. Doing away with language for differentiation of function may not so much remove a distinction as reduce our ability to redefine it. Contemporary organisational culture is easily seen as eliminating hierarchy, when it may more accurately be portrayed as being about reformulating roles and allowing for frequent change.


... One wonders if the analogy of sheep and shepherds has in practice been taken to suggest leaders and led are different in kind rather than function or position, or as Herbert Haag has asked, did Jesus intend two tiers?


... Since postmodernism, the eldership has been struggling to find a role that is spiritual as well as formal. The idea of liminality stresses the creativity of change, ritual, and uncertainty and the fact that interesting things happen on the edge of stable systems. Despite its origins in the work of Victor Turner with primal societies, this evocative concept has been found helpful in exploring the marginal state of the church in Western society. However attractive, its use is limited when the focus is less on the change that is going on as a learning event, than on the ongoing significance of the relationship between structures and the effectiveness of the church.

Conclusion: Laity and organisational culture

Where theology allows it and the values of the church as an organisation are consistent with its teaching, then coherence with the organisational culture of society may be a way by which lay leadership and ministry can flourish and unnecessary barriers to faith and to effective community life removed. Whatever advantage Presbyterianism may have held in its formative centuries by virtue of its significant lay participation is no longer a distinctive feature. Other traditions provide different ways in which lay leadership can be exercised. All traditions need to address the missiological question whether those ways are soundly based and effective, if they are to persist in a changing environment.