Presbyterianism: Does it Matter?
The Hart’s are members of Grace Church in Buckhannon, WV — a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. We have been members in good-standing for nearly two years, and it is the congregation of our sons’ baptisms. Unlike the forefathers and saints before us, modern Americans have mostly enjoyed what I like to call the privilege of volition. And while it is not always acted upon, Christians have been rightly afforded the freedom to choose their own-denominational associations.
With secularism and contemporary evangelicalism in full swing in the West, many have opted to exercise this privilege by leaving Protestantism altogether or by transferring to a church with their preferred doctrinal commitments (if any). In fairness, this is similar to the procedure my wife and I have adopted over the years. After converting to Christianity in the earliest years of my undergraduate study, we began attending a church that our friends had made a habit of frequenting. As our doctrinal insights developed, we then transferred to a small Calvinistic-Baptist church in the area. And now, for similar reasons, we have found ourselves at home in the Presbyterian Church in America.
I assume that many will find this article to be superfluous. Does it really matter where one attends church? To that I submit Thomas Witherow for consideration:
“The great bulk of men take their opinions on trust; they will not undergo the toil of thinking, searching, and reasoning about anything, and one of the most usual expedients adopted to save them the trouble of inquiry, and to turn aside the force of any disagreeable fact, is to meet it by saying, “The matter is not essential to salvation; therefore we need give ourselves little concern on the subject.” (Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?)
In other words, the smallest stroke of the Spirit’s pen is of inestimably more value than any slobbering opinion of man. We are Presbyterian as a matter of conviction, and all Christians, in all places, ought to take great care in those areas of which God speaks — all of them.
Does It Matter?
I will begin by laying a basic foundation for why Christians should be concerned with polity and conclude with a few reasons why we have elected to become Presbyterian. Please note that I have assumed from the reader our common agreement on the validity of church membership. I will not attempt to argue otherwise.
The first reason it matters whether we be Presbyterian or not is that God has not been silent to the ordering affairs of his church. We take it as a law that our Lord has promised to be the “head” of his body and the “Shepherd” of his sheep. Jesus Christ is the final fulfillment of the gracious covenant with David, the ultimate Ruler, and throne-bearer. He is the true mouthpiece of God, a Prophet to the superlative degree. Our Lord is the Great High Priest, making way to the most holy place through the curtain of his flesh. When we take the doctrinal testimony of Scripture at large, far be it from us to conclude that God has nothing to say about the way in which he governs — or the one whom he has appointed to govern us. Would it not be an absurd claim to insist that our Lord had died out of love, but rules out of estrangement? It is for this first reason that we acknowledge the necessity of God’s witness in the Bible as it relates to polity.
The second reason we ought to consider the church we belong to is that every church will give an account for their deeds. In the final analysis of our Lord’s prophetic ministry in the book of Revelation, we find the Christ arguing with his bride over her many failures to abide by the teachings of the Spirit. For some it was a matter of the head, others of the heart. The Apostle Paul, admonishing Timothy in his eldership at Ephesus, concludes two things: Be watchful of your doctrine and your life — this will save many. We should not take the Protestant doctrine of justification as liberty to act and speak in needless ways. We will give an account before the throne for what we have believed on earth. Let us not act like fools and throw off our duty to be diligent over all matters of the Christian faith, especially those in which God has given clear commands to the contrary.
The third and final reason we should take our church membership seriously is that God has granted certain rights and obligatory powers to his saints for the further propagation and purity of the church in the world. Far be it from the church to have little to no power on matters of spiritual order and discipline. Before his ascension, the Lord proclaimed “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Proceeding from this declaration was the bestowment of a ministerial authority in the formation of his church — the Word and Sacrament as the only true means of discipling the world. God has not elected to save dismembered peoples from amongst the nations. He has called and regenerated an organization, a holy assembly, and a family of saints. In this house is order and rule; freedoms and privileges. He establishes structures of government so that no child is left unprotected or undisciplined.
While I could proceed by laying out the biblical and historical rationale for being a Presbyterian, of which the Scriptures are rife with legitimate argumentation, I will rather conclude by briefly demonstrating our journey toward becoming Presbyterians over the last two years. There are a few things that have shaped our theological commitments along the way, and they are as follows.
Soon after my conversion to the Lord, I began to feel the weight of Scripture appealing to the great necessity of the Christian assembly. After reading, and rereading the Apostle’s words to the Ephesian elders, it dawned on me, in much fewer words, that the hope of salvation was to be found there. We were once separated and now we have been brought near. This language pierced to the heart. Christ is the head of the body; the body must grow up into him. It was according to this conviction that we set our sails against the tide of individualism and joined a church. We were convinced that if we were to mature in the new man, it was to be tied to the New Covenant.
At the heart of Presbyterian polity is the centrality of the church governed by Christ their King. No polity is truly anti-monarchic. Although the Presbyterian may reject the prelacy and abiding authority of the high courts over Christ’s courts, the Lord is our one-true Monarch, calling and sending his vice-regents to serve him in all the world. Presbyterianism satisfied this godly desire, and for this reason, it was only a matter of time before we found our way “home.”
Unlike many of our peers, we began our journey into the Doctrines of Grace soon after our conversion to Christianity. We learned early on that there were only two camps regarding Dordt’s theology — those who were for it and those who were against it. Thankfully, this made the denominational pie easier to manage. Calvinism, though the term can be somewhat misleading, was a great grace toward our learning how to read the Bible in light of the sovereign glory of God. Fortunately, our convictions were founded and renewed in the text of Scripture, rather than any cult of celebrity. We love Calvinism and Presbyterians are Calvinists.
Calvinism, however, is not enough if one is to be righty considered Reformed. Reformed Theology is a coherent system of doctrine, which is no less than Dordt but is vastly more. As we picked up more books and listened more widely within the historic Reformed tradition, it became clear to us that its theology was comprised of three basic elements: Calvinism, Confessionalism, and the Covenant. We heartily loved the sovereignty of God but didn’t quite understand the final two emphases. This led us into an exploration of the final point.
The Means of Grace
I mention above that Word and Sacrament are the only true means of discipling the nations. A bold claim, I admit. If you’re a bit reticent to acknowledge this reality, don’t take my word for it — take the Lord’s. We are to teach and baptize in the name of our Triune God. This authority the Lord gives to his church, and his church exercises this right in the world.
Two things assisted our thinking on the matter: The Westminster Confession of Faith (Word-Confessional) and the rightful administration of the Baptismal Sacrament to the children of believers (Sacrament-Covenantal). The confession is a legitimate attempt to define the doctrines and doctrinal system of the Reformed faith, while the baptizing of believer’s children is our attempt to obey the Lord’s commands within the community of the Covenant of Grace. I will not lodge my arguments here. Wiser, older theologians have done this leg work already. My objective is to grant a degree of clarity to those who are left wondering why Christians have expended much energy on the articles of the Christian religion. The decision to become a Presbyterian did not happen in a vacuum. It was over a great length of time, with rigorous study, and the counsel of godly people. These three points — The Church, its Theology, and The Means of Grace — are three strands of a strong cord that cannot be easily broken.
It is not my hope that one would read this article and become a Presbyterian. While I would consider that great gain, I have not commended any formal argumentation for doing so. Instead, I am attempting to address the subtle ill of modern evangelicals to diminish our great traditions. Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, and Lutherans have plenty to celebrate — plenty to mourn. The fallacy of non-denominationalism is that it exists in perpetual neutrality, avoiding the tragic pitfalls of every other historic tradition. This cannot be further from the truth. Rather than overemphasizing ecumenism to the degradation of history, let us rather embrace history to the healthy emphasis of the church universal.
If you’re an Anglican, be a good Anglican. If you’re a Baptist, be a good Baptist.
But if you’re a Presbyterian, be a good Presbyterian. If we continue in the contemporary pattern of refusing to cherish the traditions in which we find ourselves, we will not stand to gain more of Christianity. Instead, we run the risk of losing it all. Be discerning and decisive about your affiliations. Enjoy the full and rich wells of their history and doctrine. And might we all consider the theology of the church a matter of great importance. It must be — God has spoken to us.