Why are you a Presbyterian? What specifically are the advantages of belonging to this denomination called Presbyterian Church, USA? Let me explain why I am asking you this question. I am 75 years old and my credentials in the Presbyterian Church, USA are based solely on 65 year membership – from time to time serving as Deacon then Elder (inactive), teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, making pledges, and, I must admit holding down a pew and resting on my laurels for the past ten years or so. While resting in 2005, I awoke and found myself in a 2500 member Presbyterian, USA congregation that was becoming increasingly emotional in their negative criticisms of the denomination and showing every indication of jumping ship.
With each passing day my church drifted further away from anything resembling a Presbyterian church. It was reported to our congregation that “Louisville” was solely responsible for creating this rift between church and denomination all because of General Assembly Staff’s one-sided support of contentious overtures brought before the GA every time that body met. We would often hear comments from pastors in the pulpit, from staff and certain congregation members indicating their complete frustration or utter disgust with virtually everything Presbyterian i.e., seminaries, preachers, missions, books, teaching material etc…. Of course this negative message in my church was reinforced daily by newspaper, TV and Internet sensationalism regarding foibles within nearly every denomination in the country!
Although I made a last ditch effort to stop a disaffiliation action by the Session, it was not meant to be. The Session voted to disaffiliate, the Pastors resigned and were hired by the church corporation and the congregation approved both actions by a very significant majority. Because my church was focusing on what they were running away from with little or no regard as to what they might be running toward, I decided to withdraw from that congregation and with sadness away from many friends and some family.
At the time my question was, “Are we really that bad?” There is no doubt that some in our denomination are continually trying to push certain very controversial matters onto the agenda at General Assembly. However, is it not possible to either maintain or change our church from within using the democratic process that is a Presbyterian hallmark? Or, are we going to convert to a Congregational or Episcopal form of government? My question now is not whether I will go to church but rather why should it be a Presbyterian, USA church? And, this is a question that I had never seriously thought about before. However, it is a good question and a question more and more Presbyterians are asking themselves with each day that passes. Furthermore, this is the one question every active and inactive Elder in the Presbyterian Church, USA, must consider, if our denomination is to be deserving of survival and growth.
It is far too easy for a congregation to elect a few well-intentioned members to a board of directors or a committee and then call that group a Session and that church Presbyterian. That is an invitation to all sorts of non-Presbyterian mischief. Churches that leave the Presbyterian, USA denomination can certainly survive if they are of sufficient size and budget and are energized by strong pastors utilizing the latest communication techniques with power point displays accompanied by live TV feeds of “canned sermons” plus coffee and doughnuts before every conventional and/or contemporary service; but, what is the governing structure behind these organizations when pastors are to be examined and/or called or when difficult questions must be resolved. A trained and stable Session with Book of Order in hand is what is most often missing in times of difficulty.
My answer to the ‘why be Presbyterian question’ is the same now as it has always been, i.e. Presbyterian representative government is messy to say the least but unfortunately there is none better. The crusade now must be to do what we can to strengthen that belief in our form of government throughout the Denomination wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. And, to encourage all Elders to study the Book of Order, study the papers coming out of Louisville, educate each other in every way possible and be prepared to attend Presbytery meetings and, yes, even serve on committees. We must learn how and when to lobby and educate our church members; and, strive within the Presbyterian, USA bounds of polity to pass or defeat any proposal or overture according to our prayerful interpretation of Christ’s teachings. I do not have any agenda other than I want Christ to be the measure of my church. Although John Stott in his book “Evangelical Truth” stated, “The balance between discipline and tolerance is not easy to find…”, I am convinced that Presbyterian men and women of good will with prayer and work within the confines of our present Book of Order, the Confessions and Holy Scripture can render right decisions on tough questions of discipline and tolerance every day of the week. But, it takes work to be prepared!
For example: The General Assembly mandated Form of Government Task Force (FOG) is currently meeting in sessions for purpose of revising a large part of the Book of Order. Already there have been serious questions asked about some of the early drafts particularly in the treatment given to the first five chapters. Maybe it is too late to raise questions concerning the legal drafting by this Task Force. However, this is the type of question with potential for future discord or misunderstanding that should concern all Presbyterian Elders. My suggestion to assist the revision of the Book of Order would be for every Session in every church to instigate a Sunday school class for the sole purpose of studying the progress of the FOG Task Force. At least every one would be familiar with the new document when it comes before the General Assembly in 2008.
You may have other ideas and answers to this question, “why be Presbyterian?” Great! Put them forth and work toward implementation. All I know is that God wants his Elders to be involved. But, if you rest on your laurels and go to sleep in your pew, God only knows what might be going on when you wake up.
William E. Diggs