Rev. J.C. Austin

One of the themes that came out of the congregational Town Hall meeting that we had back in February was a desire for more insight on what it means to be Presbyterian. So I thought this might be a good time to share an article that I wrote for publication elsewhere a few years ago on the question: “Does It Matter That We’re Presbyterian?”

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Does it matter that we're Presbyterian? Well, it depends on what you mean by "matter." There are denominations and traditions that believe it matters for the salvation of your soul whether you are one of them. They believe they are the only true Church, that all others who call themselves Christians are wrong, or incomplete, or even beyond God’s grace. So for us, no, it doesn’t matter in that sense. Being Presbyterian is one way of being Christian, and we think a particularly helpful way, but certainly not the only way. Ironically, that's one of the first things we can affirm about why being Presbyterian does matter: We are an ecumenical Church. The word "ecumenical" comes from the Greek word for "household." As Presbyterians, we believe we are part of God's household, not all of it; we don't think that we, and we alone, fully understand God's truth and exclusively receive God's salvation. In fact, we think that we as human beings get a lot of things wrong. Which is why one of the mottos of the Presbyterian Church is that we are "reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God." We are forever a work in progress, always seeking to better understand God's will for us, and to respond accordingly. How do we know how to do that? Well, that's one of the main reasons it matters that we are a connectional Church. Being Presbyterian means that we believe we need others to discern God's will. In fact, Presbyterians think we need others to do just about anything. The reason we do almost everything by committee is that we think the Church makes a lot more mistakes when too few people have too much power. And we don't just need other people, but other kinds of people. For Presbyterians, diversity is not just about hospitality and inclusion; we need diversity to be faithful to Christ’s calling. That’s’ because if we get too many people who are too much alike in thought or identity or experience, it's very easy to start confusing our own preferences and biases with God's will. We need people from different walks of life, different viewpoints, and different experiences of the Church to give us the best chance at “discerning the mind of Christ,” as our church constitution puts it. And since no individual congregation can incorporate the fullness of humanity inside itself, the Presbyterian Church as a whole is structured so that we have to be in relationship with others who are different from us, supporting each other, holding each other accountable, and doing together what we cannot or should not do separately. One of the most important ways we are connected is through our theological tradition. That's why it matters that the Presbyterian Church is a confessional Church; not in the sense of saying what we've done wrong (though we do that, too), but in the sense of saying what we believe. We have a whole Book of Confessions, a collection of theological documents written at different times through the ages when questions within the Church or circumstances beyond it made it necessary to state publicly (or "confess") our basic understanding of God, the Gospel, and how we are to live as a Church as a result. From those documents, there are certain theological themes that Presbyterians emphasize, such as: that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior; that we are saved only by God's grace through Christ, never by anything we can say or do; that Scripture is the ultimate and unique guide to understanding God’s will and living the Christian life; that all of existence is under God's authority, and thus there is no part of existence that is beyond God’s authority or the Church’s concern; that the Church needs preaching, baptism and the Lord's Supper to be done faithfully and well if it is to truly exist, and so on. Finally, it matters that we are a missional Church. That's a relatively recent word for a historic conviction: that the Church does not exist to maintain itself, but to embody Christ's love, mercy, justice and peace in the world. When John Calvin founded what became the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition in 16th-century Geneva, he did not simply lead the reformation of the Church's inward life. No, he began one of the first mandatory public education systems in the world; he converted old church buildings into places providing medical care and assistance to refugees from the Reformation wars; and so on. For Calvin, the Church could not be the Church if it was not both worshipping God and serving others, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. So, while being Presbyterian may not be a question of life or death, it is an answer to life, at least: a strong answer to why we need each other and how we can help each other to live out our calling to be the most faithful followers of Jesus Christ that we can be. And that matters a great deal, indeed! Grace & Peace, JC