Where Faith Goes to Die
It’s an old joke among Christian leaders to “accidentally” refer to seminary as cemetery. “Back when I was in cemetery…er, seminary…” Or to a young prospect for the pastorate: “So, you’re heading to cemetery…er, seminary, eh? Well, hang in there. You’ll be involved in real ministry eventually.” The joker's purposeful subliminal slip assumes that theological education and vital, faith-filled ministry are in tension with one another, if they’re not outright enemies. Well, if seminary is where an aspiring minister’s faith goes to die, then Presbytery meetings must be purgatory.
For Presbyterian denominations within Christ’s church, Presbytery is the deliberative assembly of elders from a particular geographical region that gathers to make decisions which will guide the local congregations within that region. The Synod (or General Assembly) is the Presbytery meeting of all Presbyteries in the denomination. All the stereotypes, the alleged faith-killing aspects of seminary – dry discussions of dust-accumulating documents written by dead theologians who were barely interesting in their own day – are made to live again in debates among seminary graduates and other church leaders. Any vitality from fresh ideas in these debates is short-lived; soon those sparks of life are laid to rest in the coffins of committee work. So goes the stereotype, the sardonic view of theological education and the deliberative assemblies of those who’ve been so educated.
In 2006, I completed my seminary training, and I’m writing this blog as I participate in the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (and paying very good attention while I’m writing.) While I can laugh along with some of these jokes – especially as we in Synod discuss our discussions about our discussions - the overwhelming attitude of my heart regarding my seminary education and the Synods in which I’ve participated is not frustration or regret, but deep gratitude and joy.
It’s true that certain seminaries or particular experiences within any seminary may feel spiritually deadening and so can presbytery meetings for some of the same reasons. But deadening classroom experiences are an abuse of theological academia, not a function of it. And interminable discussions about bureaucratic minutia are not coterminous with good church polity, though at times they may arise within it! The vitality of seminary education or presbytery deliberations is a function of the content around which those experiences are centered and of the soul-level love for that content among the people participating in those experiences.
I am profoundly grateful that my alma mater, the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, continues unlike many seminaries to actually believe that Jesus Christ is alive from the dead and that the Bible is in every sense the very word of the living God. Scripture is breathed out by God (“inspired”) and therefore by definition infallible and inerrant (Psalm 119, Matthew 5:17-18, 2 Timothy 3:16), and I am so glad to have been taught the sacred Scriptures by professors - who at RPTS are also pastors – utterly in awe of the triune God and therefore of his Word. These teachers, in the midst of a self-deifying culture in which we exalt ourselves as the makers of meaning and builders of truth, continue to stress that truth is knowable, that we are accountable to God’s revelation of himself in creation and Scripture, and that his most magnificent revelation is the eternal Son of God become flesh, to whom Scripture points on every page.
Death defines a theological education which denies Christ’s resurrection and posits not Scripture but self - or a community of selves – as the highest authority for faith and life. What’s there to get truly excited about when we’re told that our deepest longings and highest affections as humans can never truly tap into the transcendent? What parches the soul like the self-refuting idea that our perception of truth can never rise up and break through the ceiling of self? What is more truly frustrating to spiritual growth than these soul-stunting sentiments taught as gospel truth?
But when the seminary’s subject matter is the sovereign, gracious Savior; when the primary textbook his living Word; and when that Word is taught and received by Christians who love and desire above all else to glorify the risen Christ – that kind of theological educational experience sings (sometimes literally!). That joyful ethos carries over into the ecclesiastical courts. At our Synod this week, there’s been a lot of singing.
Presbytery meetings can certainly be the scene for criminal levels of tedium. But careful process is not itself the culprit. After all, what ardent fan of a sports team doesn’t love to parse the fine details of the team’s history, player statistics, and championship potential for the current season? (Alas, my beloved Red Sox). Love yields a great desire for details about the object of affection and a great desire to honor that object through careful, thoughtful, personal engagement. So, too, with deliberative meetings meant to honor Christ, to help God’s people know him more personally, and to make him known among the spiritually lost. Process need not be an enemy of passionate faith; it can be a function of passionate faith.
Presbyterianism is equipped to encourage vital faith in another way. It is inherently opposed to the murderous desire to _be _God, to autonomy (Genesis 3). I am deeply grateful as a member of my Presbytery that my ordination was not my own doing. It was certainly my desire to become a pastor, but I rejoice that my desire was not the most important factor in its coming to fruition. Men much more mature in the faith than I - subsequent to my seminary training, ministry experience in other contexts and being discipled by members of that very court – believed that it was the Lord’s desire for me to serve him and his people in the pastorate. That process, culminating in the Presbytery’s ordaining me, has literally gotten me through the door as a pastor as I walked tremblingly, Bible in hand, into the personal crises of deeply hurting people, or walked into the pulpit Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day to preach God’s Word. I love knowing that my preaching and teaching is subject to the critique and review of my fellow elders and that no matter how sincerely I might believe that I’m right about something in the service of Christ, I have no right to impose my personal view upon the congregation. Nor do I have any more authority in the church than my fellow elders. None of that is good for my pride, which means all of that is good for God’s people.
In Presbyterianism, the local churches are accountable to a Presbytery, which is accountable to the Synod. Autonomy is checked at every level. Any system can be abused, but the Lord designed this form of government to train the church’s focus away from individuals in church leadership and resolutely upon the Lord’s Word. We seek God’s will through the prayer filled, Scripturally-studied consensus of a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; see also Numbers 11:11ff and Acts 15). Some of that counsel comes from the writings of Christ followers who’ve long been in heaven (Hebrews 11-12:1-2). Though the ink is dry on their compositions, in some cases for thousands of years, their expositions of God’s Word continue to satiate thirsty souls. As the Lord blesses, Presbyterian polity facilitates the preservation, protection and promotion of vital faith among church leaders for the encouragement of the same among all whom those leaders serve.
That vitality has been on full display this past week at Synod. I’ve seen the Synod break out several times in loud applause as we’ve heard of the great works of God around the world and here in the States. I’ve seen church leaders openly weep upon hearing of Satan’s work in all but destroying a congregation overseas and upon a pastor’s reporting the recent death of a child in his congregation. We’ve been sobered as to the storm clouds of political persecution gathering over the church in North America, darkening as we prepare to hear whether the Supreme Court will presume to legislate a new definition of a fundamental, millennium and globe spanning institution of society and to punish all dissenters. We’ve been heartened by the presence of leaders from or currently serving overseas who’ve personally faced violent persecution and who for the sake of the gospel are willing to endure more of it. We even had a Skype Psalm sing, as we lifted our voices to God to be a blessing to aged saints in the Reformed Presbyterian Home watching via computer from nearly nine hours away. And all of this within the wonderful, historically significant setting of the meeting, a concurrent Synod with our brethren from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Because Jesus is risen and is blessing us through the Holy Spirit’s obvious work among us, this has not been a week of dry discussions and bureaucratic tedium. It’s been a soul enriching, vital week of growing faith in the risen King bound by God’s grace to bless the congregations and institutions of this part of Christ’s church.
Jesus calls his church not to death and deadness, the source and byproduct of resurrection denying, relativistic religion. Jesus calls us not to the consequent self-exaltation as makers of meaning and builders of “truth.” Jesus calls us to self-denial in humble submission to his written word, within which are his royal claims over all the earth. And in so doing, Jesus calls us to abundant life.
Thanks be to God!