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Christian or Presbyterian?


Christian or Presbyterian?

When someone I have recently met finds out that I’m a pastor, the next question is often “What kind?” There are two good answers at that point—“Christian” and “Presbyterian”—and depending on the context and the questioner, one might be more helpful than the other. Thankfully, these two ways of identifying one’s self are not mutually exclusive, and both point to some really significant connections that are vital to who I am and who all of us are—“pastors” or not.

This month (February 2016) we will have lots of “Presbyterian” things happening around Southwood: congregational meetings with elections (and later ordination/installation) of elders and deacons, brothers from our Presbytery coming to install a senior pastor, church officers going on a retreat to pray and plan for our church, perhaps even a mention or two of a Book of Church Order. Is all this Presbyterianism just silliness dressed in robes and formality? Can it be genuinely meaningful without being of ultimate importance? Can it serve the beauty of our Christianity rather than detract from it?

CONNECTED IN CHRIST

I have seen even in the last decade or so how telling someone I’m the kind of pastor (or person) who loves and trusts Jesus, or who is a “Christian” is increasingly satisfying to what they are asking. This is particularly true anywhere outside of the Bible Belt, where “Christian” may sometimes be assumed. And I’m thankful for this reality because in many ways the deepest connection, the one most fundamental to our identity is our union with Christ, which connects us to brothers and sisters in his body of all different kinds. First and foremost, we are connected in Christ to all sorts of people, Presbyterian and not.

These connections, these relationships and partnerships with Christians in many ways very different from us, help us remember what’s most important. We have the privilege of being co-laborers to see God’s kingdom advance with people whose Sunday mornings may look and feel very different from ours, whose views on the end times may differ greatly from ours, but whose commitment to King Jesus is exactly the same. About half of our local ministry partners are not Presbyterian, and we work great with each other because we are serving the same King and seeking his honor rather than our own.

In fact, we often find that we have certain strengths and our non-Presbyterian brothers and sisters have others, which is one way to say we’re different parts of the body of Christ that all need each other! Presbyterians have sometimes been accused of being only brains, but whatever part of the body we may be, we function better to serve the Head when we value and stay connected to the other parts.

This is perhaps even more evident in global contexts, where smaller numbers of Christians often make denominational differences less significant. To state it bluntly, if we are seeking to reach an unreached people group with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are longing for them to know Jesus, not John Calvin—to be Christians, not necessarily Presbyterians. When there are 50,000 Auburn fans in the stadium, you may be picky about which one you enjoy watching the game with, but when you find yourself somewhere with 50 Auburn fans in the entire country, you’d be happy just to be with someone pulling for your team.

These realities and priorities should caution us against finding our identity primarily in our particular church or denominational commitments. We should repent when we find our hearts competing against other churches or measuring our relative “success” against theirs as though the warfare God has called us into pits us against them. In that case we would find ourselves attacking the very body we are called to build up and fight alongside against the forces of darkness! Our identity is first and foremost in Christ, and we should celebrate and draw on the connections this affords us with people in Huntsville and around the world who love and serve our King, who also have God for their Father and Jesus for their elder brother, and who are functioning as different parts of his body—the Church universal.


PRESBYTERIAN CONNECTIONS

When Christy and I were in New Orleans a couple years ago, one young man who had grown up in that very Catholic context was visibly confused to encounter a pastor—“priest” as I agreed for him to understand me—who had a wife. We were still “Christians,” I assured him, but the flavor was one called “Presbyterian,” with which he was not particularly familiar. While being Presbyterian is not more important than being Christian, it is not mutually exclusive either (praise God!), and there is some real beauty in Presbyterian distinctives, in particular in our connection and commitment to each other.

The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “Presbuteros,” which means “elder.” Thus, a Presbyterian church is one led by elders. The Bible gives clear instructions for organizing a church with elders (and deacons) particularly in the New Testament epistles, where Paul addresses the elders and deacons of particular churches (e.g. Philippians 1:1) and also commands Timothy, Titus, and others to appoint elders in various churches while writing at length on the qualifications for such church officers (I Timothy 3, Titus 1). Jesus is the King and Head of the Church, and he exercises that authority through those called to serve his Church as officers.

Our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) teaches the plurality and parity of elders. Plurality means that there should never be an elder ruling by himself; more than one is necessary for the establishment of a church, and the senior pastor doesn’t lead by fiat and absolute power. Parity means that all elders—the senior pastor included—are equal in authority and vote.

What all this means is that we need each other within the body. Just as Presbyterians need Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and others, so Presbyterians need other Presbyterians and other elders God has called to lead his Church. One of the fundamental commitments of Presbyterianism that I believe is both fully biblical and deeply beneficial is our being a connectional Church. Stated simply, we need each other. There are many ways we are stronger together and many reasons a local church like Southwood benefits from being connected in a broader church/denomination.

Engaging more broadly helps us remember that the kingdom of God is bigger than Southwood (or the PCA, for that matter!). God is at work in a host of beautiful ways in cities and countries different from ours, and we can partner with others in many ways in a well coordinated denomination to see the gospel advance in ways we never could alone. Global missions, church planting, and theological education are often stronger when we are connected well to each other and pulling in the same direction.

Being connected also allows us to help each other—day in and day out as well as in times of particular crisis. The beauty of a local body of Christ and the diversity of gifts God has placed there is only increased when it is expanded to a presbytery or international denomination. Our local churches resource each other in a variety of areas, our pastors encourage each other, our committees maintain good accountability. We are also committed to being there for each other when assistance is needed. I have needed it and will need it again, and I am thankful to have brothers to call on in difficulty.

These are reasons, among others, why it can be beautiful to celebrate the election of new church officers. These are reasons, among others, why we should be grateful to have men from across North Alabama come to Southwood to install a senior pastor. We celebrate and are thankful because we are vitally connected—not merely in theory but actually in the ministry of the gospel together—for the sake of our common King. Presbyterians are certainly not perfect; neither are Christians, though. Our Savior and King—the true Head of the Church—thankfully is! So we can rejoice in how He has connected us to himself and to each other while humbly and gladly remaining Christians and Presbyterians!