The Distinctives of Presbyterianism
by Pastor Bob Burridge 1996

Why are Presbyterians Fundamentally Distinct in their Beliefs?

The Reformation
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses (questions for debate) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He proposed no new doctrines, but challenged believers to weed out errors that had crept in, and to return to the teachings of the Apostolic church, based only upon what is taught in Scripture.

When any idea is added to our beliefs that does not come from God's word, the interpretation of the rest of Scripture is effected. Luther was disturbed by the corruption and deception that had resulted when teachings contrary to Scripture became accepted by the church. He saw hurting people being taught things that were not true and would not bring God's peace and joy into their lives. This is why he took a bold stand which God used to shake the foundations of a corrupt society.

In 1536 at Geneva, John Calvin took a more radical course of action. Instead of just looking for errors in what we believe and practice, he set out to begin all over again! What could not be clearly learned from the Bible alone, was not to be accepted as God's truth. He wanted every thing about our lives to be based on the principles and promises of the Bible alone. While the followers of Luther were willing to allow what was not forbidden in God's word, the Reformed believers chose to accept as a matter of faith, only what God had directly said. Calvin published his findings in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The Westminster Assembly
On July 1, 1643 an assembly of godly scholars assembled at the call of the English Parliament at Westminster Abbey to begin the process of subjecting every doctrine of the church to the test of Scripture. The assembly began its actual work on July 12, 1643 and continued until it adjourned on February 22, 1649 after five and a half years of careful and prayerful deliberations. The result was the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two catechisms. Hundreds of years later Dr. John Murray calls those statements, "the finest creedal formulations of the Christian Faith that the church of Christ has yet produced."

The most important principle of the Reformation is this:
God's word is the only reliable authority to teach us what is true, what is our duty, and what are the promises of God.

Since the most basic Reformed belief is that God's word is preserved for us in the Bible alone, its method of study and the results of its study are unique. We call the theology it produces "Reformed" because it always seeks to be reshaping its beliefs and practices around the one perfect standard, the Bible.

Since God chose human language to communicate his truth to us, we must study the Bible's words and grammar carefully. Reformed scholars place great importance on learning the original biblical languages and the history behind each biblical book, so that they will only teach what is solidly grounded in what God has made known.

The Bible makes it possible to learn with confidence what God has said. Unclear passages need to be understood by cautiously comparing them with other passages where God has spoken more directly on each topic.

There is an important warning for us to remember: We need to be careful not to allow ideas to be introduced into our thinking and world-view that do not come from the Scriptures, but are from our own feelings, or imaginations.

This is how we as reformed Christians approach what God says about himself, about us, about salvation, about what belongs in worship, about how our church operates and is governed. This is what makes us fundamentally different.

Today's Reformed and Presbyterian churches are heirs of that principle.
The work of reformation is a continuing one. We must always be on guard against introducing ideas and practices that are not biblical. Though appealing to our fallen nature and appearing to be helpful in reaching our materialistic goals, unbiblical teachings lead us away from God's ways and into dangerous and forbidden territories.

The church of Christ must always Guard, Love, and Obey what God has spoken in the Bible. The on-going work of reformation is not one of coming up with innovations. It is the constant vigilance of comparing what we believe and do with the form God has given us in Scripture.

The Sovereignty of God
God is presented in his word as one who is really Sovereign over all of creation. Nothing controls or limits him. He is not changed by the actions, desires or rebellion of his creatures.

Psalm 115:3 "Our God ... does whatever He pleases."

Our Sovereign Lord even uses the rebellion of his creatures to accomplish his purposes. This does not excuse sin. Wickedness flows from the corrupted hearts of created individuals. God is not in us producing evil. Yet he has determined to employ even the hatred of fallen hearts to display and accomplish his eternal plan. Peter explained this to the people at Pentecost when he said of Jesus ...

Acts 2:23 "This man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death."

The fundamental principle of the Reformed faith demands that we should not take the liberty to invent ideas to explain human responsibility beyond what God has revealed in his word. To imply that the Sovereign election of some to life is unfair, is to assume a principle that comes from our own fallen understanding of the world not from any text of the Bible.

God is also Sovereign when it comes to our salvation. It is his grace, not our own choice, that determines who will be saved from judgment by the work of Christ. Both our choice and faith in Christ are evidences of the transforming work of God's grace in us. They are not the cause of grace. That would contradict what the Bible tells us about man's ability and about God's unchangeableness and kingship over all things.

Rather the Bible says,

2 Timothy 1:9 (it is God) "who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity."

John 1:13 (speaking of those who receive Jesus Christ) "who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast."

God's Sovereignty is also seen in the success of what Jesus came to do in his death for sin. If he came intending to save all fallen humans, then he failed. But if he came to save only those given to him by the Father (John 6:37,44; 17:9), then he fully succeeded and accomplished the eternal plan of an unchanging God.

The Reformed principle of using the Bible alone roots out the humanistic idea that claims power for individuals to force God to change his plans by what they desire. Grace must remain grace. If our work, choice or decision determines our salvation, then grace is no longer grace but becomes merit. That is absolutely incompatible with what the Scriptures teach.

The Biblical Concept of "Church"
Our study of the church in Scripture leads us to speak of it in two different senses. Together they describe and help us understand the covenant community God founded by grace. The members of that community are to represent Christ's kingship to those around them.

There is a sense in which the church is Invisible. Only God knows who are the true Christians. The Westminster Confession (25.1) says, the invisible church, "consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof..."

But the New Testament primarily speaks of a Visible church. The Westminster Confession (25.2) says, the visible church "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God ..."

Those of the New Testament church knew that as fallen humans they needed to be accountable to one another. They knew that God required them to follow the organizational structure he established for them.

In each community local churches were established. They didn't attempt to be able to know who was truly regenerated by grace. The invisible church remains invisible to us. But our duty is to make our faith and our Savior's lordship visible by joining together as a Christian community to carry out the work Christ commands of his church.

1. To provide for a Witness to Christ.
It is our duty to confess him before men (Romans 10:9-10). Its through our words and example that the message of God's grace in Christ is spread to others. As members of a local church family, we can do so much more to make a public testimony to the Lordship of Christ. Together we can show the love, support and care our Lord provides in his church.

2. To provide opportunity for Service as the body of Christ.
It is our duty to encourage one another in helpful fellowship. Hebrews 10:24 "Stimulate one another to love and good works." Out of love for God we will want to keep his Sabbath holy and keep our worship centered on God.

Hebrews 10:25 "not forsaking our own assembling together"

Acts 20:7 "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread ..."

1 Corinthians 12 details the need for all to work together sharing and respecting one another's gifts in our Personal Ministries for Christ.

3. To manage the Stewardship of believers.
1 Corinthians 16:2 "on the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come."

Charities, missions agencies and cults may ask us for contributions and appear sound and worthy of our support. But how can any individual keep up with every agency he supports? How can we support the needs of so many agencies? We must support the Lord's work through the local church first by tithing, then by our offerings. This is the method God gives us in Scripture for financing worship, and providing for the legitimate needs of the church family and the community.

4. To guard Admission to the Sacraments.
1 Corinthians 11:30 explains that all who partake of the Lord's Supper must have truly repented and come to Christ as their Redeemer. They must rightly understand what the sacrament represents. Jesus delegated the authority of oversight to the church leaders. It is their responsibility to add believers to, and remove members from, the role of the church. It is necessary to keep disobedient and unbelieving members from the sacraments if they refuse to repent in true sorrow for their sins, and turn to Christ for forgiveness and deliverance (1 Corinthians 5, particularly verses 5, 6 and 11). The officers, qualified and ordained according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, are the only ones with God given authority to admit someone to, or to bar them from the sacraments. (Matthew 16 & 18)

5. To provides Leadership by biblically ordained officers.
The Bible has a great deal to say about how a church ought to be organized and managed. It is within this structure of the local church that order is preserved.

Hebrews 13:17 "obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you."

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 "appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instructions, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work."

Without membership in a local congregation, no one could obey these commandments of our Lord. Without some kind of defined membership, the local church would be without the leadership described in these verses.

6. To provide Care for God's flock.
Paul charged the elders in the region of Ephesus with the duty of being shepherds. Acts 20:28-31 indicates that the elders must be on guard for themselves and for their flock. The Holy Spirit made them overseers by God's authority. As shepherds of the flock of God, they are to watch over those purchased by the work of the Son. They are to be on the alert for deceivers. Acts 6:1-6 tells us that deacons were ordained to lead in the care of daily mercy needs of the church.

Membership in a local congregation is a serious matter. To operate outside of the bounds of a local church is to abandon New Testament Christianity by replacing God's way with our own ways.

We have only two offices in the church.
We have Elders to teach and rule in Christ's church.
From the earliest days when God's people first began to worship as a community of families, they were to be led by Elders. All through the periods of Priests, Judges, Kings, and Prophets the local communities had a council of Elders to teach and govern them.

The New Testament church didn't change this. Acts 20:28-32 shows that the shepherds were to be Elders, like those who directed God's people before Christ. The biblical letters of Timothy, Titus and Peter explain the details of the elder's job.

We have Deacons to administer the material needs of the church.
Due to the increasing work load seven men were chosen to care for the administration of the material needs of the people of the church (Acts 6:1-6). The Apostles had to be freed to devote themselves to the elders' work of prayer and teaching.

All officers swear by oath and vow, that they "sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (Book of Church Order 23.5.2). If they find themselves at odds with anything in our standards, it is their duty before God to inform the court in which they have membership (Session or Presbytery).

Our church is not Episcopal.
An Episcopal church is one that is ruled by bishops. They are a class of ordained officers above the elders of the local church. The Anglican and Methodist churches have bishops. The Roman church also has its Pope and Cardinals.

The Bible does not teach levels of authority among church officers. The word "bishop" in the King James Version translates the Greek word "episkopos" which means "overseer." The word describes one of the duties of the elders. It does not establish another, higher office.

Our church is not Congregational.
In a congregational church the members vote on all matters of its own business. Though they may vote to delegate some decisions to officers, the congregation remains responsible as a whole body and therefore they rule the church as a socialist democracy. Most Baptist and Independent congregations follow some form of Congregational church government.

A congregational church rejects the rule of elders as God had previously established and was carried over in the early Apostolic church. They also reject a true connectivity between churches denying that the members of one local church must recognize God's authority represented in the officers of another church of like faith.

The New Testament never represents a congregation voting to determine the course of its business. The humanist presumption that a church is ruled to serve the desires of the governed is contrary to the biblical idea that qualified, ordained elders are to rule the church so that it serves the desires of God toward his people as revealed in his word.

The Work and Duties of the Congregation
The congregation recognizes God's calling upon its officers. It is the duty of the members to compare the gifts of individuals with those explained in Scripture so that they can prayerfully concur in recognizing God's call upon their elders (both pastors and ruling elders) and deacons.

Modern law also grants the congregation, as a corporation, control over its property. As they vote to buy or sell property as a corporation, under the laws of an individual state, the congregation must remember that the laws of man cannot give them authority that God has already given to the officers of his church. Therefore in all the business legally assigned to it by the state, the congregation must heed the spiritual instruction and advice of its duly ordained and installed elders.

All the members of the congregation are to strive to find ways to lend their individual skills, interests, knowledge and energies to the service of Christ's kingdom. They work to minister to one another's needs, to encourage one another, to help the church in her various ministries as sheep under the care of shepherds. Ultimately their service under the authority of officers is a testimony to Christ as the true head of the church. He calls his people to serve him under the rule of his written word administered by the officers called by him.

All communicant members of a PCA church publicly and before the session solemnly vow and covenant to "promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability" and "to submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace." (Book of Church Order 57.5)

The "Higher Courts" of the Church.
Acts 15 tells about the Council at Jerusalem. It shows how elders should gather to deal with broad problems that face the church. We call such councils "higher courts" not because they have greater authority than the same elders have when they serve in their local churches, but because they represent more elders from more churches. Jointly they share their biblical knowledge and wisdom to come to decisions based upon a broader base than a single church has at its disposal. Since the same authority is held by the elders of all united churches we must heed the warnings and advice of such courts when they gather to warn and advise us as our God-appointed shepherds.

We speak of three levels of church courts in the PCA.
The Session is the sitting together of the elders of a local church to carry out its business and to oversee its members and ministries. The Session consists of both the ruling elders and teaching elders (which are also called pastors). Together they have immediate responsibility for all the members under their care. They hear any cases of complaint or discipline of members before they can be taken to a higher court (Matthew 18:17-20). Sessions may admonish, suspend from the sacraments, suspend from office, or remove members permanently from the sacraments and from office. Members can appeal session's decisions to Presbytery, then to the General Assembly if they are unsatisfied with the judgments rendered. Since the responsibility of the work of the church falls upon its officers it is usually wise, when practical, to have an elder serving as an ex-officio member of every committee or agency both to advise the people and to effect communication with the Session. Committees may recommend actions to the session, or carry out duties specifically assigned to them. But they do not have biblical authority to adopt policies and programs on their own.

The Presbytery is the gathering of the ruling and teaching elders in a given region as a more broad assembly to oversee the work of one another as officers of churches. Teaching elders are examined and ordained by the other teaching elders of their presbytery and therefore are members of presbytery, not the church in which they minister. When cases are brought against ministers, they should be brought to the presbytery. Cases of discipline that have been decided by sessions may be appealed for review to the presbytery if the parties or other members of the church believe that an improper or unbiblical decision was made.

The General Assembly is the broadest assembly of ruling and teaching elders. All our member churches meet to conduct the business Christ has entrusted to our care. They can hear appeals of judgments made by presbyteries if there is a question concerning their decisions. The members of all higher courts have the same authority they have as officers in their own local churches, no more, no less. Since the courts are assemblies of duly examined, ordained and installed elders, all members are obligated to show them respect and submission when they agree on particular issues brought before them. The higher courts may not change or install new officers in a local church. They may remove a congregation from its role that does not submit to the authority Christ has entrusted to his elders. This is the highest censure a higher court can impose on a lower court. But the "higher courts" may not usurp the authority of lower courts, nor may they take over in areas of local authority without either direct consent, or the process of a proper trial.

As Presbyterians we believe that Hebrews 13:17 demands that the advice and rulings of elders must be respected and honored as long as they are made within the bounds of Christ's authority over his church. We also recognize our responsibility to care for our sister churches to the best of our ability when they need our help and encouragement.

The basic reformed principle is that Scripture alone is our foundation in all matters of faith and practice. When that principle is applied to each area of our lives, unique principles and beliefs will emerge. There are many distinctives of Presbyterianism. This booklet has summarized a few of the more outstanding differences that exist between churches of the reformed heritage and others built on a different foundation. If God's word is alone our standard, it will effect how we manage our marriages and raise our children. It will effect how we expect our communities to be governed. It will effect how we view schooling, our occupations and the way we manage our money and property. Life is complex. We of the reformed faith pray that God will direct us and enable us as his people to keep bringing all things into conformity with his word. Our hope is that in all things Christ might be glorified.

Copyright © 1996 Bob Burridge

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