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The Presbyterian Church's Foundational 
Principles for Governance
Chapter 5 - The Church and Its Officers

Christ’s Ministry

All ministry in the Church is a gift from Jesus Christ. Members and officers alike serve mutually under the mandate of Christ who is the chief minister of all. His ministry is the basis of all ministries; the standard for all offices is the pattern of the one who came "not to be served but to serve" (Mt. 20:28). The purpose and pattern of leadership in the church in all its forms of ministry shall be understood not in terms of power but of service. 

Election by the People

The government of this church is representative. The members of a particular church voluntarily put themselves under the leadership of their officers, whom they elect. No person can be placed in any permanent office in a congregation or governing body except by election of that body. The right of God’s people to elect their officers is inalienable. The Church offices mentioned in the New Testament, which this church has maintained, include those of presbyters (ministers of the Word and Sacrament and elders) and deacons. The existence of these offices in no way diminishes the commitment of all members to the ministry of the church. Those called to office respond to the call of God; they must have the approval of God’s people and the concurring judgment of a governing body of the church. Both men and women shall be eligible to hold church offices. 

Freedom of Conscience—Individual and Corporate

It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve in it as officers shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.(1) 

It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. 

Gifts and Abilities

In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and acquired, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Officers are responsible for a quality of life and relationships that commend the gospel to all persons and that communicate its joy and its justice.(2)

Ministers and Presbytery

The Lord has set aside through calling and training certain members to perform a special ministry of the Word and Sacrament and has committed to them a variety of work to do. While the ministry is one, there may be forms of ministry in which primary emphasis is given to proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments, forms that stress deeds of love and mercy, forms that are primarily educational, administrative, legislative, or judicial, and forms that are primarily prophetic. The church through the presbytery calls them to the responsibility and office of ministers of the Word and Sacrament, receives them as members of the presbytery, and designates them to such work that may be helpful to the church in mission, in the performance of which they shall be accountable to the presbytery. 

Elders and Deacons

As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament Church provided persons with particular gifts to share in governing and ministry.

Elders, together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibility for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. When elected to service in higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office.

The office of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of sympathy, witness, and service after the example of Jesus Christ. 

Continuation in Office

As long as an officer is in good standing as a member of a congregation or presbytery, the elder, deacon, or minister of Word and Sacrament, continues to bear the responsibilities of the office. While they are active members of any particular church of this denomination, elders or deacons not in active service on a session or board of deacons continue to bear the responsibilities of the office(s) to which they have been ordained. 

Election Provisions

Every congregation shall elect men and women from among its active members to office. Nominations for office shall be made by a representative nominating committee of active members of the church, subject to principles of participation and representation. 

Ordination for Church Office

Ordination is the act by which the church sets apart persons elected to office. The minister or moderator shall ask those preparing to be ordained or installed to stand before the congregation or presbytery and to give affirmative answer to the questions prescribed by the Constitution. Prayer and the laying on of hands shall follow. Ordination to the office of minister of the Word and Sacrament is an act of the presbytery. Ordination to the offices of elder and deacon is an act of the session. 


1. Very early in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, even before the General Assembly was established, the plan of reunion of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia contained the following sentences: "That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permits him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government." His. Dig. (P) p. 1310.) (Plan of Union of 1758, par. II.) 
2. In 1997, a statement regarding faithfulness in marriage and chastity in singleness, along with a specification that officers be repentant of all behaviors the confessions call sin, was appended to this foundational statement.