Taylor describes in part the conditions under which the polity of the PCA came about: “the PCA originated out of Southern Presbyterianism, which by the nature of the case had an aversion to centralized authority and had a strong emphasis on authority in the lower levels of the Church” (Uniqueness, 1). I’d suggest that the cultural setting in which the PCA was founded helped its founders more clearly see the biblical design of the church.
Part III: A Review of Presbyterian Polity (Read Part I and Part II here)
As previously noted, “Presbyterians, from the Reformation forward, have not regarded Presbyterian polity as necessary to the existence of the church, but as essential to the perfection of the church” (Taylor, Presbyterianism, 95-96). Because it is not necessary, we can accept members of other churches with Episcopal, congregational, and other forms of government as members of the church catholic and thus commune with them. Yet we would also say that those churches, because they do not have a biblically based polity, lack the essential help that Presbyterian government provides in the areas of doctrinal fidelity, mutual accountability, cooperative ministry, and checks and balances (Taylor, 96-98).
We reformed Presbyterians have historically regarded the marks of the church to be 1) the faithful preaching of the Word, 2) the proper administration of the sacraments, and 3) the practice of discipline. And we designed the polity of the church to help safeguard them: “Presbyterian Church Government is representative because the people choose their spiritual leaders to govern the church (its members and officers) on the local, regional, and national levels. We practice mutual accountability and discipline through our representative government” (Taylor, Uniqueness, 2).
This polity safeguards the marks of the church in three ways. First, there is a two-way flow of wisdom in the church from top to bottom and vice versa. Second, there is accountability of those lower in the church to those higher up in the church; members of the local church are accountable to their elders, the elders are accountable to the presbytery, and the presbyteries are accountable to the general assembly. Third, those higher in the church are accountable to those lower in the church and to other churches around them. These two systems of accountability work differently, however.
The accountability of those lower to those higher in the church is generally through discipline, through teaching, exhorting, counseling, and in the church courts. Faithful Christians who join the church but at some point err in what they believe or in what they do can be subject to discipline in the courts. Accountability of those higher in the church to those lower works differently. Beyond the election process, the laity has no authority to exercise discipline over the elders in the church when they err individually or collectively. But the laity can play a role by encouraging local church elders to use the overture process to call out to the PCA General Assembly when it heads in the wrong direction, or even when it errs. Because err it will. “Reformed Christians hold that the church is simultaneously and always holy yet imperfect, wise but not infallible” (Taylor, Presbyterianism, 96). Christian laity should expect that their church will err and not be afraid to point out when it does.