Basics of Presbyterian Polity

The King and Head of the Church

Jesus Christ, upon whose shoulders the government rests, whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace; of the increase of whose government and peace there shall be no end; who sits upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom to order it and to establish it with judgment and justice from henceforth, even forever (Isaiah 9:6-7); having all power given unto Him in heaven and in earth by the Father, who raised Him from the dead and set Him at His own right hand, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and ever name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come, and has put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23); He, being ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things, received gifts for His Church, and gave all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints (Ephesians 4:10-13).

Jesus, the Mediator, the sole Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Head of the Church, contains in Himself, by way of eminency, all the offices in His Church, an dhas many of their names attributed to Him in the Scriptures. He is Apostle, Teacher, Pastor, Minister, Bishop and the only Lawgiver in Zion.

It belongs to His Majesty from His throne of glory to rule and teach the Church through His Word and Spirit by the ministry of men; thus mediately exercising His own authority and enforcing His own laws, unto the edification and establishment of His Kingdom.

Christ, as King, has given to His Church officers, oracles, and ordinances; and especially has He ordained therein His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them naught be taken away.

Since the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven, He is present with the Church by His Word and Spirit, and the benefits of all His offices are effectually applied by the Holy Ghost.

~ Preface to the Book of Church Order

Preliminary Principles

The Presbyterian Church in America, in setting forth the form of government founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates the following great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:

  1. 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. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.
  2. 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.
  3. Our blessed Saviour, 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.
  4. Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according to our Saviour’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). 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.
  5. 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 toward each other.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever, but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church.

If the preceding scriptural principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of government and discipline, applied with pastoral prudence and Christian love, will contribute to the glory and well-being of the Church.

~ Preface to the Book of Church Order

Constitutional Documents

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger (1-115; 116-196) and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.

~ Preface to the Book of Church Order

Please note that of the chapters comprising The Directory for the Worship of God (Part III of the Book of Church Order, chapters 47 through 63), only BCO 56, 57, 58, and 59-3 have been given full constitutional authority.

Parliamentary Procedure

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) conducts its meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the globally recognized standard for parliamentary procedure. For more information about Robert’s Rules, visit or search this site for summary material pertinent to the PCA.

Ecclesiastical Structure

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) lays out the PCA’s ecclesiastical structure in chapters 1 through 26. Taken together, these chapters constitute the BCO’s first part, treating the PCA’s Form of Government.

In referring here to ecclesiastical structure, we want especially to describe the ecclesiastical jurisdiction exercised jointly by presbyters (i.e., Elders) working together in the courts of the Church (see BCO 1-5), which include “various courts, in regular gradation, which are all, nevertheless, Presbyteries, as being composed exclusively of presbyters” (BCO 10-1). These various courts are called “Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly” (BCO 10-2; see also chapters 12, 13, and 14).

Though Sessions, Presbyteries, and the General Assembly represent three different grades of Church courts, they “are one in nature, constituted of the same elements, possessed inherently of the same kinds of rights and powers, and differing only as the Constitution may provide” (BCO 11-3). The specified “sphere of action,” or jurisdiction, of a Session is “over a single church;” of a Presbytery is “over what is common to the ministers, Sessions, and churches within a prescribed district;” and of the General Assembly is “over such matters as concern the whole Church” (BCO 11-4). “Although each court exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters especially belonging to it, the lower courts are subject to the review and control of the higher courts, in regular gradation. These courts are not separate and independent tribunals, but they have a mutual relation, and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole Church performed by it through the appropriate organ” (BCO 11-4). In other words, the authority of the lower court does not nullify the responsibilities of the higher court to review and control disputed matters (referrals and appeals from the lower courts), and neither does the position of a higher court infringe upon the authority and original jurisdiction of any and all lower courts.

Each court is empowered to appoint or elect committees and commissions to promote the work of the court. A committee is “appointed to examine, consider and report” back to its respective court for the purpose of studying a particular issue or situation and/or to make recommendations for the consideration of the court (BCO 15-1). A commission is “authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business” referred to it by its respective court (BCO 15-1). The one exception to this general power of commissions to conclude the Presbytery’s business is in “the case of judicial commissions of a Presbytery appointed under BCO 15-3” (BCO 15-1). Once a judicial commission renders a judgment, the commission must then submit its judgment along with “a full statement of the case” to Presbytery for approval (BCO 15-3). At the General Assembly level of the Church, there is an elected body called the Standing Judicial Commission which addresses “all matters governed by the Rules of Discipline” committed to it by the General Assembly (BCO 15-4).