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September 26, 2019, 11:00 AM

A REFLECTION ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE PRESBYTERIAN…PART ONE: CONFESSIONAL


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.

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March 26, 2019, 11:00 AM

A Church without an Altar


 

One thing you are not likely to hear in the context of a Presbyterian worship service is “Let’s come to the altar!” Presbyterian Churches don’t have altars. We are a church without an altar. In all truthfulness…you’re not likely to hear much language concerning sacrifice in our worship or our sermons. There is good reason for that and it is what I want to write about today.

The main reason that Presbyterian Churches don’t have altars is because we do not offer up sacrifices to God. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us over and over again that Christ offered himself up...a final sacrifice…once and for all. Christ’s offering was so perfect that it brought the sacrificial system to a halt. In Christ we see what ransom and atonement really look like. An altar is a place of blood and death. Christ offers us life and renewal. We present ourselves not upon an altar waiting to die but as LIVING sacrifices who seek to bear witness to the Kingdom of God breaking into our reality.

So where do Presbyterians meet with God???? Presbyterian Churches don’t have altars but we definitely do have places where we meet God.

Presbyterian Churches have pulpits. We are reminded that God still speaks to us today. We come into God’s house expecting to hear from the scriptures. We come expecting to meet the Living Revealed Word through the preached and written word.

Presbyterian Churches have fonts. It is at the font we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. We meet God in the water where we are reminded of the promises of the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of creation. It is at the font where the Holy Spirit seals upon our hearts these promises given to us in Christ.

Presbyterian Churches have tables, specifically a table upon which we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We meet God in bread and wine.  At the table Christ himself offers us his body and blood and the Holy Spirit seals these promises to our hearts, and by faith we find our union with Christ in the partaking of this means of grace.

Having an altar would emphasize what we bring to God. However, when we look at what God has given to us we quickly realize we have nothing to offer. The pulpit, font, and table emphasize God’s welcome to us. These places remind us that it is God that calls, God that redeems, God that sustains, and it will be God that brings this whole creation to completion. When you come to worship this Sunday come, not to the altar, but to the pulpit, the font, and the table. Be reminded of what it is that God offers to you. Be reminded of the promises that God has made and that God will fulfill. Be reminded of the grace that is yours in Christ, not because of the sacrifices you have made but because of the work that Christ has completed.



Comments

03-26-2019 at 10:23 PM
Eileen Norman
Great idea to have the blog. And this one was both informative and inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to touch us that have been having a difficult time getting to church.
03-26-2019 at 12:18 PM
Rev. Mike R
Beautifully said! Congratulations on getting your blog started; I'm working on the same goal. Keep those keys clickin' :-D
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