Of Councils, Emperors, and Powers

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
February 6, 2020


As I write, we still await the final Senate vote on whether President Trump shall be removed from office in response to the impeachment articles advanced by the House of Representatives. A near party-line vote is expected, which assures that the President will not be removed. Many of his supporters will call it full “exoneration,” others “acquittal” due to insufficient evidence to convict. Some will vote to leave him in office despite believing him guilty as charged, but that the wrongdoing was not egregious enough to justify his removal. Left unresolved is the question, “What are the limits, if any, on a president doing whatever she or he pleases?”

Many who support his impeachment worry that letting the President get away with what he did will embolden him to exercise more broadly his power to get his way, regardless of what may be in the best public interest. They fear that we are empowering the President to act as an Emperor, wielding rule without restraint. And if such unaccountable behavior is okay for the President, why wouldn’t it be also okay for the rest of us?

Our republic was designed to be governed by an intricate set of checks and balances that seeks to guarantee that no branch of government will have absolute power. We believe deeply the wisdom of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Mindful of the ever-present human tendency to corruption, our constitutional framers designed our government in such a way that no person or group holds absolute power.

The U.S. republican governmental design reflects much of the Presbyterian form of government. In Scottish Presbyterianism, no individual holds power of governance. No bishops, ever! Interestingly, some Reformed churches in Europe and abroad do have bishops, though none of them grant bishops absolute power. Scottish Presbyterians took pride in developing an order in which the church was ruled by the “corporate bishop,” by a representative council making all the decisions and executing all the actions that had been the exclusive domain of Roman bishops. That tradition is the foundation of the form of government in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Governance by councils, rather than by individuals, seems to be the norm in the New Testament church. The gathering of the Jerusalem Council to address whether Gentile Christians were required to keep Jewish Law demonstrates this pattern in action. (Acts 15:1-35) A problem had arisen that required authoritative interpretation. Individuals representing various views were heard by a council of leaders, who prayerfully deliberated the question together, then issued a decision that was sent to all the churches for their adoption.

Leadership by council is far less efficient than leadership by emperor. Decisions are reached and implemented, it seems, at a snail’s pace. We do this not only to avoid hasty mistakes, but because we believe that when members of the church work together in serving the Lord, the Holy Spirit is at work, and God’s will is more likely to prevail. (1 Corinthians 12)

As we witness the unfolding impeachment drama, we must beware the danger of allowing emerging political norms to shape how we conduct ourselves as a church. Let us be clear that we can never justify in the church the use of entrusted power for personal benefit. Let us be clear that we can never justify in the church lack of transparency in the actions we take on behalf of those we are supposed to serve. Let us be clear that we can never justify in the church bending the truth in order to achieve desired ends, no matter how base or noble they may be. Honesty. Integrity. Transparency. Humility. Now more than ever we need to champion these counter-cultural leadership norms, remembering Jesus’ cautionary contrast between how his disciples conduct themselves and how worldly powers rule. (Mark 10:42-45)

Our Book of Order rightly declares that councils can err. (F-3.0107) Only the Word of God is always true. Yet, for all their fallibility, councils are far less likely to operate by whim and avarice than are individuals granted untrammeled personal authority.

The presidential impeachment battle is a contest between contrasting understandings of how power is best exercised in our republic. Shall it tilt toward an individual (the president) or a council (congress)? The balance of powers on which a republic depends is delicate and deeply endangered when one side seeks to dominate or block the other. The Presbyterian instinct in such a situation is to insist that councils not be subjugated to individuals.

What does this mean for how our church works? It means that I don’t run the presbytery, nor does the Stated Clerk. The pastor doesn’t run the church, nor does a dominating elder or two. Clergy govern the church always in company with ruling elders. Power must be understood and exercised as a shared gift and sober trust. Through our collaboration, the Holy Spirit works to accomplish everything that God calls us to be and do.

Yours in shared service,

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