Presbyterian Identity

Historically the Christian faith as understood by Presbyterians has experienced tension between the three aspects of correct doctrine, personal piety and social engagement. All these aspects are necessary to a well-rounded Christian faith.

They were well represented in James Forbes (1813-51), the first Christian minister settled in that capacity in Melbourne. He served the Scots’ Church and then founded the Free Presbyterian body in 1846. On the one hand he held definitely to the Confession of Faith and thought deviation from strict adherence would come back to haunt the church, but he also maintained a personal devotion and piety that included special gatherings for prayer with other evangelical believers. On top of that he was a foremost educationalist, and principal founder of the Melbourne Academy (later known as Scotch College) as well as involved in many of the early community enterprises such as the hospital, the temperance society and missions to aborigines.

It is not surprising that Australian Presbyterianism has manifested some divergence. In any church of some size different emphases will develop through geographical, social and political factors as well as the influence of significant people.

The impact of the early dominance of the Free Church of Scotland and Irish ministers in Victoria, the much greater Established Church of Scotland influence in New South Wales and the strong Irish Church and Glasgow Bible Training Institute influence in Queensland is seen to this day in the main Presbyterian denomination [PCA] in this country. Differences between rural and city PCEA congregations are another example.

Worship issues

In my youth I used to think that if a church of my own stripe was not available then the Baptists would be best; nowadays I’d say a PCA church would be preferred, but when I go I’m not sure what I’ll find in the worship service.  I may find something similar to my own denomination, or I may find a very traditional PCA style like the 1950s, or increasingly, it seems, I’ll find a rather casual approach with plenty of music and a charismatic feel.

If one attends a charismatic church one tends to find a pretty common style for all that charismatics usually want to stress they are a Spirit-led community and not a structured denomination. So how is it that Presbyterians, who identify as a structured church body without denying being Spirit-led, have such wide divergences in worship?

I want to suggest that in fact these variations in Presbyterian worship, as in anything else, reflect theological commitments. It may be the love of order, beauty, continuity and tradition that controls what we do, or it may be the desire to be with it, and to get people in without being very precise about method. In either case we are missing the Presbyterian point. As Christians who strive to be biblical we are supposed to be committed to the view that the glory of God is the chief purpose for which we are made and that this is the way to enjoy him forever.

So how does the glory of God illuminate our Presbyterian identity?

1. Scripture nourishes the life of the church

We can readily pay lip service to the authority of Scripture while we actually let our own experience and culture interpret it rather than the other way around. The Church can only live by God’s word. Sometimes one has the impression the Code book is more important! The seriously liberal phase in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Australia reflected not just an imbalance in the three aspects mentioned already but an alien intrusion of anti-supernaturalism so that man’s thoughts and not God’s were dominant and directive. And of course the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man proved a very empty response to the human predicament.

Similarly, the emphasis in much of the charismatic movement since the 1970s is on my feelings, my desires, my happiness. The concept of sin, if it’s not blamed on demonic forces, is downplayed as negative and uphelpful.  In this way the path to a God-centred life and true happiness is blocked up. The wonder of the love of God and the significance of the cross of Christ is evacuated of its true meaning. God in his glory and grace is reduced to my good mate, hymns become Christianised love songs to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is there to give us good feelings about ourselves but not lead us in the disciplined life of true godliness.

2. The church is the gathering of God’s people by means of his word and Spirit

Paul was clearly well aware of the culture and intellectual influences in Athens when he spoke in the Areopagus (Acts 17). He employed that knowledge so that he might speak more effectively to them of Jesus and the resurrection. We need to be abreast of the intellectual influences in our culture also, but we must not descend to social and management theory as if they are to control how we see the work of the church. Ministers are not managers per se but preachers and proclaimers, shepherds of the flock. Statistics have a place but the great means for the extension of God’s kingdom is the word of God blessed by the Spirit. After all, the church is not a human institution although there is that face. Ultimately it is Christ who said, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ Clever psychology and slick marketing is no substitute.

3. Understanding of Scripture occurs in the community of faith in the context of our Confession of Faith

The New Testament emphasizes that the Gospel is to be traditioned, that is, passed on faithfully. Thus Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition (Gk: paradosis) that you received from us.” He uses accounting terms when elsewhere he writes: “what I received I also passed on to you” The Gospel was passed on without addition or subtraction. The gospel is not to be understood individualisticly as if I can adjust it to my preferences, but it to be understood communally. Hence we have a consensus creed in the Confession of Faith.

Now clearly various procedures and aspects of how we worship need not be everywhere the same so long as they follow the general principles of Scripture.  The Confession says that. And the Confession is not the rule of faith but a help to faith. The Confession also says that. However, Presbyterians are committed to the position that Scripture rules doctrine and life, and that in matters of worship the express direction of Scripture or the good and necessary consequence of its teaching is required.

Ministers have both form and freedom, but it’s to be an ordered freedom. Too often we can act like independents as if we can ignore the wisdom of our fathers and the consensus that binds us together. In the Presbyterian system holy moderation ought to be furthered. “Here”, said Alexander Henderson, the great Scottish Churchman of the 17th century, “Here is superiority without tyranny, . . . here is parity without confusion and disorder . . . and lastly, here is subjection without slavery.”


4. Worship on the Lord’s Day is at the heart of the church’s life

Public worship on the Lord’s Day is the meeting of God’s people with their Lord. The older continental Reformed orders of worship bring this out. They began with a votum or promise, a response to God’s call to worship him, such as “Our help is in the Lord who made the heavens and the earth.” Then followed a salutation or greeting such as “Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Benediction at the close is not so much a prayer but a blessing from the Lord as we leave his special presence.

Neglect of public worship is dishonouring to God and destructive of piety. But when that worship is centred on us as a kind of pick-me-up, glossy show, we are moving on dangerous ground indeed.  James S. B. Monsell was right: “O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness/Bow down before him, his glory proclaim.”  Some trends in the PCA as regards worship and the Lord’s Day are very disappointing. We in the PCEA need to let our light shine.

A New Year resolution?

A brief article like this can only hint at issues. The recovery of family worship and the use of the catechism are also important. Princeton Professor B.B.Warfield somewhere tells the story of two men of calm and purposeful bearing, whose very demeanor inspired confidence, walking towards each other in a street of a city then in the midst of commotion and violence. They passed, then turned around and one asked, “What is the chief end of man?” The other answered, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’ ”—“Ah!” said the first man, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy, adds Warfield. They grow to be men. And better than that, they are exceedingly apt to grow to be men of God. So apt, that we cannot afford to have them miss the chance of it. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

In 2012 let us resolve that God and his glory, supremely seen in Christ, may be our chief joy. Then we will find our identity as Presbyterian Christians!