Why I am Presbyterian (and Why You Should Be, Too). by Charles Williams.
This represents the first in a series of guest posts by Charles Williams, Ordained Elder at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler (OPC). The series contain four parts: An Argument from Experience, Reason, Scripture, and the Benefits of Presbyterianism.
“The LORD says to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
– Psalm 110:1.
A few months ago I visited my family back home in sunny F-L-A, whereupon I was asked to give a brief talk defending why I had defected from my Bapticostal roots to embrace the glories of Presbyterianism. Of course, by “Presbyterian,” I am referring, not to matters of Christ or salvation, but specifically to the mode of church government. Why, in other words, do I find the notion of the parity and plurality of elders, the general principle of a subordination of ecclesiastical courts, and the Robert’s Rules of Order downright snazzy?
It was a good question. I don’t know a lot of lay folk who think long and hard about these issues much. For starters, congregational polity seems to be the default mode of thinking among most in the Deep South. But if one were pressed, the average evangelical pew-goer would see church polity a matter of indifference at worst, and personal taste at best. From my own experience, when the crowds I hung out with in college talked about church, if they went to church at all, the first thing they would mention was the value of community. “What I really loved was the sense of belonging,” was the mantra set on repeat ad nauseum. Like that guy who inserts $11 into the jukebox so that the Waffle House theme song can play 44 times, while he eats his hash browns smothered, covered, diced and chunked, with that smug grin on his face as the ditty crooning over the loudspeakers drives everyone else to the point of madness.
(It was totally worth the eleven bucks, by the way.)
What I’d like to do in this short essay is convince you why you should get jazzed up about Presbyterian polity – or at the very least, to convince you to think more carefully about the importance of the how the church is to be governed.
Part 1: Experience.
First comes the argument from experience. I grew up in a mid-sized Southern Baptist church in Jacksonville, Florida, which extolled the virtues of congregational autonomy. I don’t regret growing up in a church that instilled in me a love for the inerrancy (i.e., that the Bible does not err) and infallibility (that the Bible cannot err) of Scripture. But at the same time, I grew up under the tutelage of a well-meaning albeit sinful pastor whose passion for control was left unchecked. In the mid-90s, our church broke away from the SBC to embrace the non-denominational ethos of the time. (In other words, the praise team bought a kick drum and a projection screen.) Within a few years, we embraced the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit. In time, our church sold their century-old property and relocated into a strip mall on the other side of town. By the time I was in college, we were just a few quarts shy of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid.
When I was twenty-three, one Sunday morning without warning I was called before the church and publicly denounced in front of the congregation for living in sin. I had been accused of bar-hopping, which was untrue. My pastor of nearly two decades told me that I had brought reproach on the name of Christ, as well as the church. He said that he was no longer my pastor, and that he had never been my pastor, and in front of my parents called me Judas Iscariot. I never was given a chance to defend myself. Rather, my pastor acted as Judge Judy and Executioner – all without trial.
John Calvin once wrote that the only thing worse than one pope is a thousand, and in the Christ-haunted South it seems as though evangelicalism had traded in Creed’s Greatest Hit LP only to get Nickelback’s entire catalogue with a live concert in your back yard. In many ways, my experiences in church seemed to jump out of the pages of a Flannery O’Connor story, where self-proclaimed prophets ruled as territorial warlords of local shopping mall churches.
But my personal experience at best simply highlights my disdain for unchecked tyranny. You, on the other hand, may have grown up in a congregational setting and not experienced the abuse I had. You may have grown up in a Catholic or Episcopalian Church where you suffered no abuse. Or you may have grown up in a Presbyterian church, and may have suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of an entire session. If I argued strictly from experience, then, it would only kowtow to the popular notion that ecclesiastical polity is merely a matter of personal preference or taste.
But, like I said earlier, I want to argue that Presbyterian polity is a matter of something more than idiosyncratic preferences.
Stay Tuned for Part Two.