A few years ago I was helping out at our church's booth during fall festival. We’d set up a sailboat race and saw several hundred people try the game. Next to our prizes was a stack of flyers about the church. Many would look at our materials and say something like, “Presby... Presby-what?” For those who could pronounce Presbyterian, their next question was something like, “So what kind of church is that?”
Often, in my attempts to explain what a Presbyterian church is, I got the impression the person regretted asking the question! And I regretting trying to answer it; in the end I’d rather talk about the gospel. But there are reasons why we are Presbyterian, and as I’ve gotten better at explaining why, I thought I’d share with you three key things that have been helpful.
It Doesn’t Tell You Much About Theological Convictions
First and foremost a we are a Christian Church. This is why, in addition to supporting our own denominational church plants, we support the planting of a Reformed Baptist Church in Nairobi; we are also helping a non-denominational church plant here in West Jordan by letting them use our building on Sunday evenings.
“Presbyterian” really tells you more about a church’s government than it does its theology. Presbyterian churches trace back to a common origin, but now you will find a pretty wide range of theological positions within various Presbyterian denominations. In fact, we have more in common theologically with many non-denominational churches than we do with some Presbyterian churches.
The word “presbyterian” comes from the greek word presbuteros, which is often translated as “elder” in our english Bibles. (Acts 20:17, 1 Peter 5:1) Most simply, “presbyterian” means “elder-led.” Pastors are called teaching elders, and ruling elders are lay people elected by the local congregation. When eldership is mentioned in the New Testament church, it’s almost always spoken of in the plural. Thus, a Presbyterian church will always have at least one ruling and one teaching elder. If a church has only one elder, elders from other churches will be assigned to help oversee that local church until it elects its own. There is never one person in authority; it’s always shared.
This ties in to the next distinctive of Presbyterian churches: there are multiple layers of accountability. Our local elders are accountable to a presbytery, all the elders from a particular region. We are part of the Northern California Presbytery and meet three times a year. Additionally, presbyteries are accountable to what is called the General Assembly, which is the collection of all the Presbyteries in our denomination. Everyone in a Presbyterian church is accountable in one way or another.
Why it matters
Why do we care about all this? For one, it means we can take comfort in knowing there are a lot of checks and balances in our church and denomination. It is much harder for a pastor or church to stray theologically in our form of government. It also means that members of a presbyterian church have a process of appeal if they believe a local church or presbytery has erred. The Presbyterian form of church government makes it possible for an individual’s voice from a local church to be heard.
Just this week, I was listening to a podcast interview with Thomas Crumplar*, an attorney who has spent a lot of time prosecuting sex abuse cases, particularly ones in churches. In his interview he made a bold claim: “If I had any advice to the church on how to avoid abuse, I’d say [choose a] presbyterian form of government.” As much as I wish this was because we sinned less than others (we don’t!), it’s in part because of the two distinctives I mentioned: plurality and accountability. He said presbyterian churches are the least likely to be caught up in sex abuse suits, because “they catch them and do something about it.” We certainly aren’t perfect, and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking sexual abuse couldn’t happen in our church. (We must always be on guard and wise.) But I’m thankful to be part of a denomination that provides robust accountability to keep sin from spreading and to give victims ways to make their voices heard.
* Get the whole interview at: http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/podcast/44247