British King George III is said to have described the American War of Independence as a “Presbyterian rebellion.” American Presbyterians often chuckle with pride about this. Sometimes it seems like we almost take credit for the whole American project… while carefully not rebelling against hardly anything ever since. As if we did our part in setting this thing up in the beginning and now our work here is done. In so doing we get fixated on a sanitized version of our history… but it does not occur to us that there is still anything revolutionary left to do.
But at the heart of our movement there remains a truly radical, revolutionary, and insurgent set of principles and practices. Noam Chomsky defines anarchism as always questioning and resisting the accumulation of power, and ensuring that the burden of proof in any decision always falls with the party wielding the most power. Anarchy, then, is not social chaos; it is about diffusing power.
This insight also describes the heart of Presbyterian polity, distilled to its essence. Briefly put, if our polity is any indication, we Presbyterians inherently mistrust and reject entrenched power and privilege. Presbyterianism is about the diffusion of power away from particular individuals and classes, and into gathered groups. Power is distributed; the organizational structure is relatively flat, with widening circles of increasing inclusivity; and authority is spread around among presbyters essentially equal in power. Councils are leaderless… save for their stated allegiance to the One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Except when talking about worship, one searches the Book of Order in vain for anyone but Jesus named as a “leader.” By Chomsky’s definition, Presbyterians are anarchists.
This is as it must be for anyone who bases their life on the Bible. The Bible begins with a band of slaves escaping from one empire and concludes with the resurrection of a preacher and healer lynched by another empire for blasphemy and sedition. The Bible hates and militates against the accumulation of power among an elite few. The Reformers’ insights about polity reflect this inherent biblical sensitivity.
The third chapter of the Book of Order bears this out. Here we find two common themes: first, the church is a community and functions communally. While provision is made for individual “officers,” who have particular functions within the gathering, leadership isn’t one of those functions (F-3.0103). The “officers” are called presbyters, or elders (F-3.0202), and their roles are further clarified to include the discernment and assessment of the group’s fidelity to the Word (ruling elders) and to equip the people for mission (teaching elders). These officers have no power as individuals, but only as gathered into councils (F-3.0208).
Secondly, the church rejects altogether what the world calls power, that is, coercive force (F-3.0101b, F-3.0107, F-3.0108). A profound suspicion of power pervades the whole chapter. Indeed, these principles, like the Scriptures, are written from the perspective of people who had experienced the business-end of this kind of power and wanted no part of it.
Local gatherings are independent of each other (F-3.0102, F-3.0106) and function according to open-source principles like mutual forbearance (F-3.0105), with the rights of private judgment (F-3.0101) held in balance with the mission of the group (F-3.0102), all under the Word of God (F-3.0101, F-3.0103).
At the same time, these groups consider themselves to be parts of a single collective entity (F-3.0201). There are councils beyond and including the local, of increasing inclusivity, with the more inclusive, or larger, overseeing the smaller (F-3.0208), in balance with the independence noted in the previous section. The practice of majority rule (F-3.0205) prevents power from accruing to a privileged, elite minority.
Discipline is how we encourage and challenge each other to fuller and better discipleship of the Lord Jesus (F-3.0204, D-1.0101). It has nothing to do with power-over others, still less violence of any kind. The most severe resort is removal from the gathering.
So, if we were asked to describe the character of Presbyterian ecclesiology based only on this chapter of the Book of Order, we might imagine it to be a network of semi-independent small groups gathering to encounter and be formed by the Word of God (F-1.02, F-3.0204). While they assign some individuals to particular roles, the groups recognize no leader except Jesus Christ. Local groups recognize the authority of more inclusive, larger groups, of which they are constituent parts.
We see here an organization that is anything but the kind of top-down, centralized, leader-driven system pervasive in an imperialist or corporate model. The Book of Order does not describe a pyramid. It reflects something more like the “tribal confederation” we see in early Israel. This system keeps power as diffuse and localized as possible, while at the same time maintaining a common identity, story, and purpose in the center.
Most importantly, the center is Jesus Christ. And he is not found at the top and then distributed downward. He is not even in the middle and emanating outward. Rather, he emerges everywhere, in each disciple, each presbyter, and each local gathering, with the more inclusive gatherings having a more full and comprehensive vision of him.
Thus, seen in its larger social context, the Presbyterian Church is supposed to function as an alternative polity that witnesses to a set of values, goals, stories, and behaviors radically different from those of the prevailing culture. We gather in explicit opposition to hierarchies, command-and-control structures, corporate organizational charts, and all power-over, domination-based polities. Indeed, we’re not even “democratic” because the party whose will we are most concerned to reflect is not that of the people but Jesus Christ.
As such this makes us truly and essentially anarchists. I mean we’re talking about basing our life together on someone who proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the economic redistribution of the biblical jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), and whose mother identifies him before he is born as one who would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53). Can it get more anarchistic than that? Jesus’ life is about reversal and uprising (anastasis, “resurrection”).
Obviously we have forgotten about all this. People generally do not think of Presbyterian congregations as cells of anarchists, witnessing to and plotting the overthrow of empires. But this sense still lurks there deep in our DNA, in words many of us know well, but maybe haven’t really thought about for a long time. Maybe it’s time to get that part of our identity back.