Our good friend and colleague, Ivor MacDonald has just written this outstanding piece on “Why I am a Presbyterian?” A must read! Republished with his permission.
Presbyterianism is the ruling of the church by representative elders. On the surface of things that seems a pretty sensible idea. You would also think that since Scotland is widely regarded as the land that birthed it that Presbyterianism would be regarded as something of a national treasure.
Not so. Our media, intent on its great project of re-writing Scottish history are of course only too eager to lump Presbyterianism in with its other bogey men of “repressive Calvinism,” “gloomy Sabbatarianism” etc. etc. That kind of attitude from the secularising press is to be expected. Less so when similar negativity is found nearer home. At times it seems that the myth of Presbyterianism as a malignant force has entered into the thinking of her own children.
There are various reasons for that. For some the myth has simply begun to take hold. If you are continually being told to connect Presbyterianism with church splits, heavy handed bureaucracy and a combative way of doing church you can end up thinking it must be so.
For those like myself raised within the Church of Scotland the temptation was always to think congregationally. As far as engaging with things beyond the local congregation the mind set tended to be “here be dragons.” When you have ministered in a situation where the presbytery was the enemy and the General Assembly required a vast army of administrators to service it you can end up wanting to throw out the baby with the bath water.
However, Presbyterianism per se is not the culprit. Once any church ceases to walk in line with the gospel it will begin to show all the symptoms of an ailing, worldly institution (competitive, combative behaviour, division, and the institution usurping the organism.
Why then stick with Presbyterianism rather than the rest?
Firstly, Presbyterianism, because of its connectionalism reflects Biblical community. Biblical religion is family religion. God who dwells in a community of love in the Trinity deals with us as communities, families, tribes, nations, generations of people. The western individualism that pervades much of Christianity (“which church meets my needs?”) is miles away from the corporate mind set of the Bible.
Presbyterianism enables the strong to support the weak. Our own congregation in Coatbridge received support from other stronger congregations for a time because our presbytery sees it as important to have a Free Church presence here. Now, by God’s grace, we are strong enough to help other congregations who are being revitalised.
Independency may enable individual congregations to grow bigger but it does not carry the same obligation to look out for the congregation or the minister going through a season of difficulty. It is a joy in our Glasgow and Argyll presbytery to hear reports from a wide range of ministries from urban church planting to outreach to Muslims to revitalisation in remote rural contexts. Recently one young minster labouring in a tough situation spoke of being ministered to by the presbytery meetings he had attended. These provide opportunities for encouraging and challenging one another and for those in small or struggling situations to know that they are organically part of something much bigger.
Similarly, the church is not served well by imposing secular ideals of democracy on its structure (rule by church meeting). Rule by assemblies of elder reflects the fact that God deals with representative heads (most notably in the family). Presbyterianism forces elders to take the wider church seriously.
Connectionalism is closely aligned to accountability. You don’t have to be a Presbyterian church to be confessional but holding leaders to confessional standards is more difficult the further away churches move from meaningful connection.
Presbyterianism at its best takes seriously the unity of the church. I have never bought into the mantra “What Scotland needs is just gospel churches”. In other words, we have moved beyond the age of denominations and we should just concentrate on healthy individual congregations. I am all in favour of healthy gospel congregations but we need more than that. We need to express our unity in Christ in organic, visible ways. “Families of churches”, “networks” and “gospel partnerships” may all be the flavour of the month but to the extent to which they avoid organic unity they all shy clear of the clear Biblical church unity that reflects the Trinity and glorifies God. That, of course, also means that disunity between gospel loyal Presbyterian churches is completely anomalous and has to be addressed.
I am a Presbyterian because Presbyterianism is the way of doing church that seems to fit most logically with Calvinism and covenant baptism. I’m going to push the boat out here and suggest that other ecclesiologies which stress individualism and autonomy are a more natural fit for Arminian and credo baptist beliefs. Certainly, Presbyterianism is historically associated with a stress on divine sovereignty.
Finally, Presbyterianism is identifiably Scottish! The average Scot understands “minister”, “kirk” and General Assembly”. They know what you’re talking about. They’re not so sure about “pastors” who are in church “partnerships.” In a missionary context it makes sense to use language that is familiar and minimises the gap in cultures.
So here is my wish list:
Let’s have the courage to be Presbyterian and recognise the treasure that we have here.
Let’s build bridges with those Reformed groups who are convinced Presbyterians but are separated from us as well as those who have become disenchanted. Pragmatism must not obscure the goal of a national Presbyterian church. The Free Church of Scotland as the biggest of the conservative denominations should take the lead in generous, risk taking ecumenism.
Let’s do all we can to avoid the business, the legal or the corporate models of “doing church” and guard jealously Biblical Presbyterianism- Presbyterianism characterised by true worship, openness, mutual support, spontaneous moments of prayer, and creative, ambitious, missional thinking.