One of the most famous preachers of the early 19th century was Barton W. Stone. In 1803, Stone and other Presbyterian ministers, having withdrawn from the Transylvania Presbytery, formed the Springfield Presbytery. By the next year the Springfield Presbytery included “fifteen ‘regular societies’ of the new movement, of which, seven were in Ohio, and eight were in Kentucky.”1 But it was not to last. On June 28, 1804, a formal document entitled, The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery was composed and signed by five Presbyterian ministers, including Barton W. Stone. The document announced their withdrawal from any form of man-made presbytery in order to be organized in keeping with Scripture, stating their desire that “this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.”2
Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). He is “head over all things to the church, which is his body,” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Instead of a religious hierarchy where one man or body of men rules over several congregations, Christ’s will is that each local congregation, having reached maturity, be guided according to the Scriptures by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 15:6; 20:17; Philippians 1:1). Elders are to be men who by their wisdom and experience have demonstrated that they are suited to care spiritually for God’s family just as they have their own (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). These shepherds are exhorted to, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 5:2-4). Peter referred to “the flock of God which is among you,” just as Paul had exhorted elders to beware of wolves that would “enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). It is evident that these shepherds were to be among the local flock to care for them and set an example. The members of the local congregation could know those who labored among them as overseers (1 Thessalonians 5:12). A presbytery composed of men not all among one local congregation who enforced policy on many congregations in keeping with man-made creeds such as the Westminster Confession of Faith does not fit the will of Christ expressed in the New Testament.
Preachers are not the authority over the local congregations they address. An elder may minister in the word and doctrine as a preacher (1 Timothy 5:17), but it is the local eldership who makes sure the flock is fed spiritually (1 Peter 5:2). They may commission a man to do this in preaching, giving their consent that he preach God’s word. Such is described in 1 Timothy 4:14, the only place in the KJV where the word “presbytery” is used, denoting the local eldership. The English word is derived from the Greek word for elder: presbuteros. The modern pastor system is not found in the Bible. The plural “pastors” is used in the KJV in Ephesians 4:11 to refer to elders. “Pastor” is a term that means shepherd. While great respect is proper for able preachers of the Gospel, Christ is to be glorified in His church and every member is to function as part of His body (Romans 12:3-5).
Barton W. Stone and his fellow Presbyterian ministers who signed that document on July 28, 1804 had come to realize that just as they had legitimate scriptural objections to the Kentucky synod, Washington Presbytery, Transylvania Presbytery and other man-made organizational structures with which they disagreed, there were also legitimate scriptural objections to setting up their own man-made presbytery. This realization was a watershed moment in the restoration movement in this area of the country. May we likewise continually pursue Christ’s will and not man’s will regarding what we believe and practice. May we have the courage to repent when we realize any error in our ways.
– Mark Day
- Charles C. Ware, Barton Warren Stone, p. 140
- Douglas Allen Foster, Paul M. Blowers, D. Newell Williams and Anthony L. Dunnavant, The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004