The Distinctives of Presbyterianism
Why are Presbyterians Fundamentally Distinct in their Beliefs?
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
The most important principle of the Reformation is this:
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 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
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 ...
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,
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"
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.
We have only two offices in the church.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
We speak of three levels of church courts in the PCA.
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