Blog >


September 26, 2019, 11:00 AM

Over the next few weeks I want to spend some time reflecting on what it means to be Presbyterian. At the turn of this decade the leaders of our denomination (PCUSA) reflected that the biggest issue facing us as a community of faith is a lack of identity. In our current religious culture, often a family does not choose a church based upon identity but based upon programs that the church offers or possibly the charisma of its leaders. One only has to look at the continued rise and growth of “Non-Denominational” congregations to see this.

There is nothing wrong with non-denominational groups. There is nothing wrong with choosing a church based upon its children’s program or its youth/young adult program. There is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy hearing your pastor preach or having charismatic leadership in a church. In fact, I would hope that no church, regardless of denominational affiliation or lack thereof would use the concept of identity as an excuse to not have good programming or solid leadership. My hope is actually quite the opposite…that an understanding of identity would lead to a more robust worship and a deep educational program.

I can only speak to the identity of the group that I am a part of (PCUSA), which is what I hope to do over the next few weekly blogs. However, I do believe that this lack of identity is common among mainline protestants and is one of the contributing factors of the overall decline in membership. Therefore, it is an issue which I hope to address, at least for my own congregation and hopefully might spark some thought in readers who might belong elsewhere.

The first part of the Presbyterian identity that I want to address and discuss is that of being confessional. A Presbyterian church has a Confession of Faith. The PCUSA actually has a Book of Confessions. The leaders of our church, when ordained, are asked if they adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confession of our church. We see these confessional documents as important to our identity as Presbyterians. In fact, I would say they are essential to who we are.

A couple of notes on the Confessions…

1) They are not infallible. The Confessions of Faith that we have in our Book of Confessions span the entire history of Christendom. We have ancient creeds, protestant confessions from the time of the reformation, and modern ecumenical confessions. Each of these documents are recognized as being subordinate to the scriptures. These documents are produced by the councils of the church and these councils are not above error…which brings us to our second point.

2) These documents are written at a specific time and often address a specific need. Whether you are looking at the creedal statements such as the "Nicene Creed" which were attempting to define the limits of orthodoxy…or at the protestant confessions, such as the "Second Helvetic Confession" which often served as an apology for the reformation…or at the ecumenical statements of faith such as "The Theological Declaration of Barmen" which sought to provide a faithful response to the rise of Nazi Germany…all of these documents are historical documents and are best understood in light of the circumstances that caused them to be written.


So if the Book of Confessions is just a collection of historical documents which are not infallible then why have them? Why not just use the scripture? Why are they important to who we are as Presbyterians?

First, they are important because Presbyterians see the role of the church as one of confessing the faith. The church is charged with declaring the truth to the age in which it exists. Therefore, it is essential that the church be able to articulate its faith in relation to the context that it finds itself in. The Confessions of our church are examples of the church doing that task. Our Book of Confessions is not a closed document. Other confessions will be added as the church continues to confess the faith in light of new issues that we face in each generation. However, we, as Presbyterians, will not leave the essential tenants of the Reformed faith behind. The Book of Confessions will serve as a guide as the church stays faithful in this calling. The church will confess the truth of the gospel to current circumstance while at the same time maintaining fidelity to the historic faith that it has always held. 

The second reason that the Book of Confessions is important to our identity as Presbyterians is that it emphasizes the role of the community in faith development over that of individual interpretation. Each of the creeds and confessions were given authority not by a single person but by an official council of the church. So, it is not a person saying, “I believe this” but rather the church as a community declaring, “This is OUR faith.” In an era where individualism is King being confessional displays our belief that the community is important. As Presbyterians we value an individual’s relationship with God but that relationship is never isolated from the larger community of faith. It’s the role of this community that gathers in councils which will be the subject of next week’s post.

So, Presbyterians are a Confessional people. We are a people who see the value of proclaiming truth to the circumstances of life. We are a people who do this not as individuals but as a community of God’s people. Being confessional is essential to our identity. It is who we are. It is what makes us ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda…the church reformed and always reforming.

Post a Comment