Studying the Book of Church Order: Some Resources

By Jared Nelson | September 5, 2023

Image Source: Presbyterian Polity

There are many potential motivations for studying the Book of Church Order (BCO): for personal growth and edification, to understand presbytery or General Assembly meetings better, to work through a difficult church matter, or to pass your BCO/polity exams for officer training. No matter the motivation, early in the process you find yourself searching for resources. What resources are available to study the PCA’s Book of Church Order?

There is a new resource coming in the form of a podcast called Polity Matters featuring Teaching Elders Ben Ratliff, Scott Edburg, and myself talking Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ecclesiology. The Polity Matters podcast will have a recurring segment on the BCO, seeking to provide an audio guide to the BCO.

And if we now review the other current available resources, it may be clear why more tools and reference guides are needed in our day:

1. The Book Itself

The best way to study the Book of Church Order is to read it yourself. The language is not overly archaic or technical. You may either order a physical copy from the PCA Book Store: or download a free PDF copy from the PCA Website:

2. Commentaries

The Next Category of resources you may consult are commentaries. Unfortunately, the most current commentary on the BCO ceased updates in 2007, so the only resources available are historical works that have varying levels of usefulness.[1]

Morton Howison Smith’s Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order (updated 2007)

PCA Founding Father and first Stated Clerk of the denomination Dr. Morton Howison Smith published a section-by-section commentary of the PCA BCO, last updated in 2007. While it lacks any updates since that date, the bulk of the BCO remains the same and his comments are the standard reference for the BCO.

Physical Copies are available from the PCA Bookstore here and the Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (GPTS) shop here. Digital copies are available from the GPTS shop here, as well.

Franklin Pierce Ramsay’s An Exposition of the Form of Book of Church Order (1898)

In the late 1800’s, F.P. Ramsay noted the lack of commentary on the BCO compared to the Westminster Confession and Catechism. To rectify this, Ramsay wrote a section-by-section commentary of the Form of Government portion of the Southern Presbyterian (PCUS) Book of Church Order. This was updated until his death, after which it was followed by summary versions that never matched the precision or heart of Ramsay’s original. As a primary source document, this commentary does not incorporate many changes over the years or the PCA’s particulars. However, the basics it covered remain relevant for examining how words were intended and interpreted historically. Ramsay has been cited in PCA Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) decisions by members such as TE Fred Greco and RE Howie Donahoe, showing that his insights are still useful today.

Physical reproduction copies are available on Amazon here.

Digital copies are available on Presbyterian Polity here, and at the Log College Press archive (F. P. Ramsay Author Page; Book Link).

J. Aspinwall Hodge’s What is Presbyterian Law as Defined by Church Courts? (1899)In the late 1800s, while Ramsay was writing his work in the South, J. Aspinwall Hodge tackled the Northern Presbyterian (PCUSA) BCO. While not as detailed as Ramsay’s Commentary, Hodge goes chapter-by-chapter in a helpful catechetical (Question and Answer) format. He also summarized the actions of the Northern Presbyterian Church and gives some context to debates over officers, deaconesses, grape juice in communion, and other interesting historical actions.

Physical reproduction copies are available on Amazon here.

Digital copies are available on Presbyterian Polity here, and at the Log College Press archive (J. Aspinwell Hodge Author Page; Book Link).

PCA BCO Website – Historical Revision Guide to BCOWhile not a traditional commentary, the resource at is a hidden gem of a resource for tracking how sections of the BCO have been revised over the years, going back to the old PCUS BCO, with some historical commentary along the way. Wayne Sparkman, the PCA Archivist, has provided an invaluable resource for understanding the development of the BCO, and this page should be bookmarked by every PCA churchman:

3. Historical Works on Ecclesiology

In the late 1800s (a peak period for interest in church polity), several men produced works that summarized the functioning or history of General Assembly Actions. The following are particularly of note as they were relatively popular and are still available in various forms today:

Alexander Taggart McGill’s Church Government (1888)

McGill was brought to Princeton at the insistence of Charles Hodge to teach church government. An Old Schooler with roots in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), McGill published his class lectures and notes in this volume that is instructive of the workings of the PCUSA in the late 1800s.

Physical reproduction copies are available on Amazon here.

Digital copies are available on Presbyterian Polity here, and at the Log College Press archive (Alexander Taggart McGill Author Page; Book Link).

Thomas Ephraim Peck’s Notes on Ecclesiology (1892)

Around the same time that McGill published his work, a Southern Presbyterian (PCUS) professor at Columbia, Thomas Peck, published his shorter work on Ecclesiology that reflected the PCUS distinct approach to polity.

Physical reproduction copies are available on Amazon here.

Digital copies are available on Presbyterian Polity here, and at the Log College Press archive (Thomas Ephraim Peck Author Page; Book Link).

James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ

While not on American Presbyterianism, Free Church of Scotland professor James Bannerman has written what many consider to be the best large-scale summary of Presbyterian polity and principles of the last 200 years. This is essential reading for any polity aficionado.

The Banner of Truth Trust has republished this significant work in an attractive hardback volume, available here. Other sellers, such as Reformation Heritage Books here, also have it available at a lower price.

The good folks at have produced an indexed PDF version and other free digital versions here.

4. Modern Summaries

A few modern Summaries have been produced that may help as introductions before deeper study. Check out the following:

Reformed Theological Seminary professor Guy Prentiss Waters’s two short books on polity, Well Ordered, Living Well (2022) and How Jesus Runs the Church (2011).

Independent Presbyterian Church of Memphis (PCA) Senior Minister Sean Michael Lucas’s On Being Presbyterian (2006) is a popular introductory work to Presbyterianism, also frequently used in many seminaries.

5. Quick Reference Guides

Finally, I want to mention just a few overviews and quick reference guides of note:

Grove City College Professor and PCA Teaching Elder Dr. T. David Gordon constructed a checklist to help those going through discipline process to make sure BCO procedure has been followed. That PDF is available here.

Teaching Elder Don MacNair (1922-2001) put together an overview guide to certain aspects of the BCO, however it was last updated in 1995, and is out of date in sections. It is still available in the PCA Bookstore here.

Wait there’s one more thing!

While we could cite other broader or historical guides, for now we leave you with the final developing resource. As stated before, three PCA Teaching Elders with an interest in Ecclesiology are starting the Polity Matters Podcast, which will feature a recurring “Bring Your Own BCO” segment, in which we will study the BCO together and help others to understand and study it as well.

We hope it will be a resource to the Church as we seek to love Christ by loving His Bride.

Jared Nelson is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, PA.

[1] Author’s Note: There are at least three PCA teaching elders who have explored writing a BCO Commentary, with one currently looking for a publisher of a finished work which we will publicize as it becomes available.