In 1517, Martin Luther started a movement that led to, among other things, the Presbyterian tradition. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaching, it seems a good time to revisit this article by FAPC's parish associate, the Rev. J.C. Austin, which first appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of our magazine, The VOICE.
By J.C. Austin
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 in that sense, no, it doesn’t matter. Being Presbyterian is one way of being Christian, 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 we, and we alone, fully understand God's truth and 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 catch phrases 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.
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, because if we get too many people who are too much alike in identity or experience, it's easy to start confusing our perspective with God's will. We need people from different walks of life, different viewpoints, different places in the country, different experiences of the Church to give us the best chance at discerning God's will.
FAPC treasures its diversity, as it should. But no individual congregation can incorporate the fullness of humanity inside itself. And so the Presbyterian Church 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 particularly emphasize, such as: that Scripture is the ultimate guide to living the Christian life; that we are saved by God's grace, not by anything we can say or do; that all of existence is under God's authority; 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.
If you listen, you'll hear all those themes and more coming up regularly in FAPC's worship services and educational programs.
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. (Almost 500 years later, FAPC's homeless shelter is a contemporary version of this original act.) For Calvin, the Church could not be the Church if it was not both worshipping God and serving others.
So, while being Presbyterian may not be a question of life or death, it is an answer to life, at least: an answer to why we need each other and how we help each other to live the Christian life faithfully and well.
And that matters a great deal, indeed.
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