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"Seeking Your Spiritual Identity"
Part Two: "Why Be a Presbyterian?"

By Al Butzer
1 Timothy 4:11-16

Text: "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by [the presbytery]." (1 Timothy 4:14)

Several months ago I went to the eye doctor for a long overdue appointment. After he had finished the exam the doctor said to me, "The good news is that you have excellent vision. The bad news is that you’re getting to the age where soon your up-close vision will begin to fail. It’s what we eye doctors call presbyopia." Not long after, I’m sad to say, the doctor’s prediction came true and I now need glasses to help me read.

There is a kind of cruel irony in this—that I, a Presbyterian minister, now have to contend with something called presbyopia. Recently, I opened my great big dictionary with the little biddy print, put on my reading glasses and looked up the word. Presbyopia—it comes from two Greek words, presbys for "old man" and opia from which we get words like "optics" and "optical." "Oh, great!" I said to myself. "Just what I’ve always wanted: old man’s eyes. What part of my body is going to fall apart next!"

In the dictionary, I happened to notice that the word presbyopia is followed immediately by words like presbyter, Presbyterian and presbytery. That’s because all of these words come from the same root word—the word that means "elder" or "old man." Now this is not to say that the Presbyterian Church is an old man’s, or an old woman’s denomination. But it is to say that we Presbyterians give a significant role to members of the congregation whom we elect as elders and ask to serve, along with the pastors, as spiritual leaders of the congregation. At its most basic level then, a Presbyterian Church is a church that is governed by a group of elders.

Part of what I want to stress this morning is that we Presbyterians didn’t invent the idea of church government by elders. Rather, it has roots in the First Century Christian Church and even before that in the religion of the people of Israel. As far back as the Book of Numbers, Moses complained to God that the burden of leading the people was too great for him alone. This is what God told Moses to do:

Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. (Numbers 11:16-17)

Isn’t that a beautiful phrase! God says, "I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself." It is, you see, an example of shared leadership.

Not surprisingly, the early Christian church, which had roots in the Hebrew faith, adopted the idea of leadership by elders. Do you know the letters to Timothy in the New Testament? Timothy was a young protégé of the Apostle Paul who accompanied Paul on several of his missionary journeys. Sometime later Paul (or someone who wrote for Paul and signed the letter with Paul’s name) sent a letter to Timothy, which spelled out some ideas for church leadership. In the midst of that advice is this reminder to Timothy: "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders, or the presbytery as those words are sometimes translated" (1 Timothy 4:14). Indeed, this word presbytery and the word presbyter or elder from which it comes occur many times in the New Testament, suggesting that from the very beginning the Christian church had a form of government which had an important role for lay people called elders. Part of what Presbyterians believe in is a form of church government where elders along with the ministers provide spiritual leadership for the congregation.

We Presbyterians can be proud of the fact that when our spiritual ancestors came to this country, almost immediately they began to make their religious presence felt. It just so happened that when the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a constitution for our nation, the Presbyterian Church was holding its first General Assembly just down the street in the same city at the same time. Several people were delegates to both of these meetings simultaneously. And it is not by accident that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church and the Constitution of the United States, both of which stress a representative form of government, were each ratified in the very same year.

Of course, we Presbyterians are not only known for our form of church government, we are also known for other things as well. One of them is our emphasis on higher education. There was a time when education was reserved for the rich and the well to do. If you had money and social standing, you could get a good education. If you didn’t, well then you’d probably spend your life performing some form of manual labor. Presbyterians took exception to this, believing that education should be available to everyone. As a result everywhere Presbyterians went they built schools and colleges and seminaries. The list of schools organized by Presbyterian laity and clergy is long and impressive: Princeton, Davidson, Lafayette, Agnes Scott, Mary Baldwin, Hampden-Sydney, the University of Michigan, Ohio State, the Universities of North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and the list goes on and on. In the South after the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church organized more than 120 schools to provide basic education for the children of newly emancipated slaves—elementary schools, high schools and colleges. Most of these schools have disappeared; they have been absorbed into the public school system. But they were founded by Presbyterians (some of this information comes from John M. Buchanan "Why I’m Still a Presbyterian," an unpublished sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago). The bottom line says my seminary classmate Doug Brouwer in his recent book is this—we Presbyterians promote education because we believe that if people learn how to read and write, if people can get a good education, then the Kingdom of God will come a little closer to reality. (See Douglas Brouwer, Remembering the Faith, p. 157).

A form of church government by elders, a emphasis on higher education—these are hallmarks of the Presbyterian Church, but still there’s more to being Presbyterian than that. A big part of being Presbyterian is understanding what Presbyterians believe. While we share many beliefs with other Christians—for example, like most Christians we believe in God, in Jesus as God’s divine son, in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in prayer, in the Sacraments and so on, there are several beliefs which are particularly Presbyterian. One of them is our belief that God is sovereign. That’s just a fancy way of saying that we believe that God is in charge of our world and everything in it. We’re not in charge; kings and queens and presidents are not in charge; multinational corporations are not in charge; rather, God is in charge.

Sometime ago I read about the time when General Omar Bradley boarded a commercial airplane for a long flight. For some reason, he was wearing a business suit rather than his military uniform. He found his way to his seat and began to work on some important papers. It just so happened that the general’s seatmate was a young Army private who sat down and struck up a conversation. The young soldier failed to recognize the famous general so, perhaps, we can forgive him for his overly friendly attitude. He said to Bradley, "Sir, we’re going to be traveling together for some time. I think it would be nice if we got to know one another. I’m guessing that you are a banker."

Bradley, not wanting to be rude but wanting to get some work done, replied, "No, I’m not a banker. I’m Omar Bradley, a five-star General in the United States Army. I’m head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C." The young soldier swallowed hard and then after a slight pause he replied, "Well, Sir, that’s a very important job. I sure hope you don’t blow it." (See Maxie Dunnam, Living the Psalms, p. 114.) The fact of the matter is we may blow it. Even generals and presidents and CEOs can occasionally blow it, but God will not blow it because God is in charge, because God is sovereign.

Now, you need to know that this belief often gets us Presbyterians into trouble. You see, we believe that God is not only in charge of the spiritual life, but all of life. God in not just in charge of the church world, but the whole world. As a result, we Presbyterians are forever sticking our noses in the world’s business, even when the world would prefer that we mind our own business. (Buchanan, ibid.). Let me give you seven brief but specific examples from our church history:

  • In sixteenth century Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin, the founder of our type of theology, enacted the first child labor laws. God demands, said Calvin, that children should not be abused in the workforce.
  • In sixteenth century Scotland, a Presbyterian statement of belief called The Scots Confession grew out of the religious and political turmoil of the day. It begins, "We confess and acknowledge one God alone…" implying, of course, that the King of England was not God, that Parliament was not God.
  • In seventeenth century England, the Westminster Confession of Faith, perhaps the greatest statement of our belief, came into being as King James of England locked horns with the Presbyterians. As seminary professor Jack Rodgers suggests, the King had had enough of the Presbyterians with their alarming notions about the rights of congregations to organize themselves, worship in their own way and govern themselves. The King feared that if people could decide for themselves about religion, they might also decide for themselves about politics. (Jack Rodgers, Presbyterian Creeds, p. 149).
  • Here in this country Presbyterians played a major role in the War for Independence. Of the fifty-six people who signed the Declaration of Independence, twelve of them were Presbyterians. Only one cleric signed the Declaration, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey named John Witherspoon. Indeed, Presbyterians were so involved that a member of the British Parliament once referred to the American Revolution as "the Presbyterian Revolt."
  • Prior to and during the Civil War, many Presbyterians spoke out against slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of a Calvinist minister, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which called attention to the problem of slavery.
  • In Germany prior to World War II, when Adolf Hitler was putting more and more pressure on churches, a group of Reformed Protestants under the leadership of theologian Karl Barth created The Barman Declaration which challenged the rise of National Socialism in Germany. They claimed in essence that neither Hitler nor the Nazis was God. Only God is God.
  • Back here in this country during the volatile 1960s, the Presbyterian Church through its Confession of 1967 became a strong advocate for civil rights.
Do you see what I am saying? Throughout our history we Presbyterians have spoken out against the wrongs we have observed and experienced in the world. Often we have done so to the chagrin of some of our own members who would prefer that we stick to the business of saving souls instead of trying to save the world. But members who believe that fail to understand our deep and long-standing emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Because we believe that God is in charge, we Presbyterians take seriously the words we pray every Sunday—"Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven"—and we work hard to make that prayer come true.

I’m running out of time, but briefly I’d like to highlight one more thing for which we Presbyterians in our best moments are known. Because we believe that God is in charge, we acknowledge that we are not in charge. As a result, there is a certain modesty to our claims about the truth. For example, we consider ourselves to be one part of the Holy catholic Church, but just one part. We do not try to claim that our way of being Christian is the only way. That is why we work in partnership with other Christian denominations rather than assume that we alone have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is why we invite all Christians, not just Presbyterians, to share in Holy Communion. That is why we recognize that baptism performed in some other Christian church is legitimate and does not need to be performed again by a Presbyterian minister.

This modesty of belief also means that we allow our members some freedom and flexibility in deciding what to believe and how to interpret the Bible. While the denomination has official positions with regard to hot button issues like abortion and homosexuality, each Presbyterian has the freedom to agree or disagree with that official position because as we like to say "God alone is Lord of the conscience." (See Book of Order G-1.0301). Similarly, we acknowledge that sometimes our denomination has made mistakes, and therefore, we Presbyterians have been known to occasionally change our minds as the Holy Spirit has led us to some new understanding of the truth.

I think that what the Pope did last Sunday was truly remarkable, apologizing for the sins of the Catholic Church over the years against Jewish people, against other cultures and religions, against women and ethnic minorities. In essence what the Pope said is this—"We have made mistakes. We ask for your forgiveness. And we promise to try to do better in the future." Presbyterians have been saying things like that for years. And we will continue to say them as the Spirit leads us to know more and more the Truth that is God.

© Copyright, 2004, Albert G. Butzer, III
All Rights Reserved.
Providence Presbyterian Church
Fairfax, Virginia

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