By Carlos Wilton
I love our new Form of Government – most of it. It’s lean, efficient, and places our historic principles of Presbyterian governance clearly at the foundations, building upwards from there. Because of the way we had to vote on it up or down, though – as a single package – I made the decision to support it, even though I had serious reservations about one aspect. Still do.
My reservations are about the swapping of the term “minister of the Word and Sacrament” for “teaching elder.”
It’s not a total swap: the book uses “teaching elder” throughout, but allows for “minister of the Word and Sacrament” as an alternate title (G-2.0501). In the several years we’ve been living under our present Form of Government, I’ve seen us benefit from its simple, intuitive structure in more ways than I can count. I’d never go back to the unnecessary, cobbled-together complexity of the old one.
I dutifully use “teaching elder” in technical discussions about polity. When I teach Presbyterian Polity at Princeton Seminary this fall, I’ll use it. But there’s a part of me that winces every time I hear the term, or even say it.
It’s not that there are no advantages to “teaching elder.” Laid alongside “ruling elder,” the term highlights our central principle of the parity of ministries: in presbytery, synod and General Assembly, equal numbers of teaching elders and ruling elders call the shots. It’s a vital check-and-balance that helps define who we are as Presbyterians.