Reformed Church Distinctive: Presbyterian Church Polity: Office bearers
In the history of the Reformation, various church bodies emerge, which adopt various ways of governing the church. The Church of England opted to retain the episcopal form of government, while the Particular Baptists and Congregationalists adopted the congregational form of government. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches adopt the Presbyterian form of church governance, which they believe to be the most biblical form of government which is taught in Scripture. Thus, while there could be church bodies believing in much of Reformed theology that do not embrace Presbyterian church polity, it could still be said that Presbyterian church polity is a true distinctive of a consistent Reformed church.
In episcopal church polity, church leadership is arranged in a hierarchy where the clergy are ranked above the laity, and higher clergy like bishops are ranked higher than priests. Episcopal church polity is strongly institutional and authority is centralized in the highest office of the church, for example an Archbishop. Opposite to episcopalianism is congregational church polity. In a church governed by strict congregational church polity, power and authority is vested in the members of the congregation, and thus highly decentralized. Where there are pastors and elders and deacons, they are seen as servants of the church, with no substantial difference between them and other church members, except that somebody has to be employed to do the work of the church which most church members do not have the time or the energy to do.
Presbyterian church polity is in the middle of the spectrum between episcopalianism on the one end and strict congregationalism on the other. In Presbyterian church polity, there is some measure of "hierarchy" in that office bearers (pastors, elders, deacons) have a calling from God that is not shared with other church members. But such a calling is not a hierarchy of being or intellect or anything of that sort, but strictly of whom God calls to the office. (The concept of the special call would be fleshed out later.) It does not multiply offices neither does it arrange them in a hierarchy as in episcopalianism, and it does not deny the special vocation of office bearers like in congregationalism. On the issue of authority, it does not centralize authority in the highest office bearer, neither does it decentralize authority in everyone.
There are two offices in Presbyterianism, or three if one holds that pastors are of a separate office from elders. Pastors and elders rule the church and take care of major issues (especially spiritual issues) concerning the church. Deacons take care of the material aspect of church life especially care for the physical needs of the members. Each office should be occupied by many men, such that there should be a plurality of elders, and a plurality of deacons where possible. All office bearers have equal standing among their peers, with no one elder higher than another or one deacon lower than another deacon. The elders and especially the deacons stand as representatives of the local assembly they serve, and thus they make decisions on behalf of the entire church body. They do not make decisions then impose them on the church, neither do they make decisions only where every church member agrees with the decision. Rather, they make decisions as representing the entire church corporately.
Presbyterian church polity is also connectional. Therefore, Presbyterian churches come together to form higher assemblies such as Presbyteries, Synods and General Assemblies. In these higher assemblies, pastors and elders from various churches come together to deliberate matters pertaining to the churches and to provide oversight and accountability for the various works of the denomination. This is done so that they may be order, greater visible unity, and greater synergy in the work of the Church, which glorifies God. While that council is certainly unique, we do see the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as providing a pattern for such higher assemblies.