I remember as a child riding in the backseat of our family’s station wagon. Like many small towns our community in south central Minnesota had a lot of churches — more than seemed warranted by the population of our town. With my nose pressed up against the window as we passed different churches I’d quiz my parents. They would do their best to give some general idea of what each congregation believed. I don’t know why but I distinctly remember the morning when I asked: “What’s a Pres…pres-by-ter…” Being unable to sound the word out very well, I recall my mom simply saying: “Oh, those are Presbyterians.” Now, more than thirty years later, I find myself as a happy Presbyterian pastor.
I always tell people that I was a pragmatic Presbyterian before I was a principled Presbyterian. I grew up in a context that rarely thought about the governing principles of a church and, as a result, I saw the bad effects of a poorly ordered congregation. Our pastor often said: “We have the word ‘free’ in our name because we’re free to do what we want.” There were no agreed upon standards and patterns by which to make decisions. There wasn’t a clear path to express disagreement and no recourse to challenge the decisions of others. At its best these things were guided by the arbitrary will of the majority or, at worst, it was left to the control of a single individual. In that environment it’s hard for mercy or justice to flourish.
That’s one of the reasons I was so impressed when I was first introduced to Presbyterianism. At its heart Presbyterianism seeks to find a way to structure the church according to the character and interest of God. The Apostle Paul wrote: “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). This command isn’t based on some long-shot hope to mitigate potential headaches or even because it’s the most efficient. Rather, as he previously mentioned, it’s because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Presbyterianism — and I know we’re not the only denomination that does — seeks to do that through agreed upon standards, policies, and procedures. These things give an expression to what we believe, how we worship, and how we conduct the business of the church.
More than that, Presbyterianism aims for a form of government that is concerned with the interest of God. What do I mean? God is interested in justice and equity because they’re expressions of his perfect character. Those ideals aren’t easily achieved in a sinful and fallen world — and even in a sinful church. Presbyterianism, however, seeks to build an environment where those things can be achieved and even flourish.
We do this first, by our agreed upon confession. Presbyterians confess as biblical the statement of faith found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says: “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.4). Let’s face it, no church and no actions and decisions made by the church are infallible — or, incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.
Of course, it takes humility to recognize it when it happens but it's an inescapable truth. Church leaders can make wrong and errant decisions.
Second, we reject as destructive to the liberty of the conscience “[T]he requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience” (WCF 20:2). Implicit faith is a blind trust in a person or church that isn’t based on reasonable knowledge and persuasion. This means that the leadership of the church should be prepared to give biblical (or where appropriate rational) reasons for the decisions it makes – using explantion, instruction, and persuasion. People may not be convinced or agree at the end of the day, but we never simply say: "Trust us."
Third, we seek to ensure that the minority voice can get the most public and widespread hearing possible. Generally speaking, Presbyterians practice this through complaint or appeal – the former is a written statement against any decision or act, and the latter relates to a judicial decision. This is a basic right and privilege that is extended to every member of the church. If a disagreement arises between an individual and the decisions or actions of leadership, there’s a way for them to be heard beyond the local leadership and in a way where errant decisions or actions can be modified or even overturned.
While the first two points are cornerstones not only of Presbyterianism but of good Protestantism, this final point is especially important to Presbyterians. A hallmark of the Independent form of church government is that there is no process of appeal outside of a local congregation. Ralph Wardlaw defended this, writing: “It is the full competency of every distinct church to manage, without appeal, its own affairs” (Congregational Independency, 231-232). Presbyterianism isn’t so self-confident that a local congregation is equipped with every grace and gift to accomplish the broad work of the ministry (see Acts 15:1-21). Because we believe every congregation is a part of the whole, there’s always an avenue to get the whole involved in the part.
There’s tremendous biblical wisdom in that. As one of my friends likes to say: “Presbyterianism exists because conflict and differences exist in the church.” In recognizing the minority’s right and privilege to be heard as publicly and broadly as possible, Presbyterianism fosters an environment where each side can be heard publicly and openly, evidences and reasons can be carefully weighed, and determinations can be reached about what is right and good. That doesn’t mean it always perfectly works itself out. Admittedly, our practices are rarely as good as our principles when sin is involved — there can be politicking, partiality, circumventing, party spirits, pseudo-hierarchies, and even a dislike of the procedures themselves. But it is an agreed on process that shows love to all parties and aims at the public honor and glory of Jesus.
I thought about this today as I opened the digital folder and began reading the paperwork for the upcoming meeting of our denomination’s Synod — the broadest court in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. In the hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading there’s some awfully challenging things. When we meet next month we’ll publicly be taking up serious issues that are affecting (and possibly infecting!) our congregations and our denomination’s witness — questions about judicial proceedings, administration, conflicts, and decisions that have been made. I’ll admit, it’s easy to have a dread settle over my mind and heart as I look toward these meetings.
But, I’m reminded that this is where the rubber meets the road. This is Presbyterianism at work addressing what is, at least broadly speaking, the third mark of the church: issues of discipline. This is an exercise of the keys of the kingdom. It isn’t ancillary to the work of the church but rests upon the very foundation of our identity which we believe is biblically based (see WCF 31.3). It is, therefore, in a very true way, a means of grace. I pray that in the hands of the Holy Spirit it would indeed be that.