What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian?

[Part IV of my application for Candidacy in the PC(USA) Ordination Process]

To modify a famous quote often applied to the state of Texas, “I wasn’t born a Presbyterian, but I got here as fast as I could.” That said, I don’t think that the awareness of what it means to be a Presbyterian always grows out of participation in the life of a particular church alone. For me, it has grown out of participation in many Presbyterian communities—particular churches among them, but also camps, conferences, retreats, seminary classes, online communities, missions, and general assemblies. There are, however, some common threads that weave through them all:

To be Presbyterian is to be Confessional—I was tempted to say “biblical,” but this seems to be an abused concept in many churches today. Most churches claim to be biblical, when what they generally mean is that they subscribe to is a particular understanding or interpretation of the bible, or that they emphasize certain parts of it while largely ignoring others. Presbyterians are guided by the historic confessions of the church, which are in turn grounded in scripture and the combined wisdom, tradition, and experience of our forbears. Our confessions lead us, teach us, but most importantly unite us—in our theology, our polity, and in our worship when we recite them together. Individually, each speaks to a crisis or an occasion in the history of the church, showing us that the church is contextual and local. Cumulatively, they show us that the church grows and changes, but remains universal and continuous. I became aware of this at the feet of Dr. Ellen Babinsky, in participation with a classroom community at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

To be Presbyterian is to be Thoughtful—The founders of our tradition were lawyers, theologians, and professors, who valued and affirmed the capacity of all individuals to read, study, and investigate the scriptures for themselves, forming intelligent and rational conclusions. This is visible in the high commitment to Christian education found in most Presbyterian churches, in the rigorous academic training required of Presbyterian ministers and scholars, and in the very nature and purpose of the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms found among our confessions. Moreover, my own experience in Presbyterian communities has shown them to be places where questioning, doubt, freedom of expression, and challenges to the conventional wisdom are welcomed and carefully engaged, rather than feared, denounced, or suppressed in the name of doctrinal unity. I first became aware of this reverence for intellectual discourse through participation in church sponsored Bible studies, and then again in my seminary studies and pursuit of ordination.

To be Presbyterian is to be Reformed and always being Reformed—We live in the constant tension between the defining events of the 16th century Reformation that gave birth to Presbyterianism, and the future God is calling us into as Presbyterians in the 21st century. On one hand, we cannot forget or abandon our past—the principles of reform for which Calvin, Knox, and others advocated so diligently. But on the other hand, we cannot not freeze-dry their doctrines so much that we are unable to follow their example. In every age, we must be reformed anew by God’s Word and Spirit, particularly in our ecclesial structures and observances. The Scots Confession teaches “not that we think any policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies which men have devised are but temporal, so they may, and ought to be, changed, when they foster superstition rather than edify the [Church]” (3.20). I became aware of this concept of continual reform through my participation in the gatherings and conversations of Presbymergent, a community committed to exploring the intersection between the PC(USA) and the Emerging Church.

To be Presbyterian is to be (for better or worse) Calvinist—The contributions of John Calvin to the development of the Presbyterian church are inescapable, and the influence of his Institutes of the Christian Religion is imprinted on almost every page of the confessions. Calvin’s strong commitment to God’s providence led him to the theological doctrine most associated with Presbyterianism: predestination. Whether we stand with or apart from Calvin on this issue, we continue to define ourselves in relation to him. Perhaps more positively, Calvin’s thoroughly sacramental theology and his attempts to strike a thoughtful balance between the sacramentology of Luther and Zwingli give us both our high regard for the sacraments and a model for ecumenical dialogue. I was dragged kicking and screaming to an awareness of Calvin through unwilling participation in several seminary classes, and then later came to a genuine appreciation of him through a book study among an online community of Presbyterians exploring Calvin’s views on the Sacraments.

To be Presbyterian is to be Missional—Missional is a word that means different things to different people, but I equate it with the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to social justice issues in our own country and around the world. As Christ showed compassion to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, our mission should be the same as his. The Brief Statement of Faith enjoins us, with Spirit-given courage “to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace” (10.4). In various times and circumstances, Presbyterians have lived into this call through relief efforts, mission work, protests & boycotts, bold resolutions, calls for action, fair trade advocacy and practices, and through ecumenical and interfaith dialogues. I became aware of this missional side of the Presbyterian church while in community (SHYC) with a gathering of young Presbyterians listening to the prophetic words and experiences of Rick Ufford-Chase, then through mission trips, and in working with Presbyterian churches in Juarez, Mexico through the border ministry of Pasos de Fe.

To be Presbyterian is to be Representational—Perhaps the most easily identifiable aspect of Presbyterian churches and Presbyterian governing bodies is leadership by elected elders and representatives. Like many mainline Protestant denominations, Presbyterians are connectional; we are part of a larger structure of support and acocuntability that extends beyond particular churches. However, there is no episcopacy in the Presbyterian church, for as laid out in the Second Helvetic Confession, “Christ is the sole head of the church…the highest Pontiff before God the Father [who] performs all the duties of a bishop or pastor… and therefore does not need a substitute for one who is absent” (5.131). The polity of the church protects the will of the majority, the voice of the minority, and promotes orderly dialogue and processes at all levels. I first became aware of this aspect of Presbyterian polity as a staff member at a Presbyterian church, through participation in session meetings, and more recently as a participant (first as a “remote” observer, then as a “present” observer) in the 218th and 219th General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

To be Presbyterian is to be Tribal—I borrow this term from one of the PC(USA)’s newest theologians, Carol Howard Merritt, who says that “among a new generation, ‘tribe’ has become a term for subculture, a network of relationships, or a group of people who care for each other in the most basic ways.”1 Many people wear baseball caps emblazoned with the logo of their favorite sports teams; my baseball cap has the PC(USA) logo on it. Being Presbyterian has become part of my core identity in a way that goes beyond doctrines or church membership. The vast majority of friends I interact with on a daily basis via Facebook, Twitter, and Second Life are dispersed across the nation, yet share my affiliation with and passion for the “Presbyterian Tribe.” These are the first people to congratulate me when I have good news, the first to comfort or counsel me in when I am in crisis. I first became aware of my tribe in the early days of online social networking, as Presbyterians were venturing out and looking for familiar connections in unfamiliar places. But my tribe doesn’t stop there. We are an extended family—online, but also at conferences, assemblies, campfires, classes, and even random encounters on airplanes. We have our own tribal culture, with our own quirks and inside jokes, our own rifts, rivalries, and drama. Most importantly, wherever we are, we come together around a shared table, lovingly prepared by a heavenly parent.

1Carol Howard Merrit, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation. Herndon, Va: Alban Institute, 2007.


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