Despite what you may think, Presbyterian ecclesiology is not primarily defined by churches governed by elders, but by churches governed by presbyteries. Presbyteries can encompass the elders of a local church, a regional church, and what is termed a “general assembly.” This view is established from the oneness of the visible church. Based on the sufficiency of Scripture, Presbyterians hold that the church is governed jure divino (by divine right). There are certain fixed principles in the government of the church. We hold that Christ has blessed the church with the Scriptures, church officers, and sacraments. In doing so, Christ has “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” (Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order).
While there is much that Presbyterians and classic congregationalists can agree on, nevertheless, against the congregationalist view, Presbyterians affirm the authority of presbyteries beyond the local church. That’s the crux of the issue between Presbyterians and congregationalists: authority.
Primacy of the Universal Church
Presbyterianism holds to the idea of a universal visible church as the goal of ecclesiology. This principle arises from the scriptural idea of church unity. The Nicene Creed speaks of “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The Scriptures are clear about the oneness of the visible church, for there “is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5; see also John 17:20-23).