October 29, 2019, 12:00 PM


One thing that Presbyterians tend to really concern themselves with is how the church is organized and does business. In fact, we have a whole book about it. Part two of our Constitution is our Book of Order. In our Book of Order we set down specifically how our church is organized, the purpose of that organization, and how decisions are made within that organization.

To some this might seem like a silly thing to waste time on. However Presbyterians have always held to the idea that the church is a God instituted organization and as such, that institution has a certain amount of God given authority. If we start from this point then how the church organizes and how the church makes decisions is extremely important.

I want to start off by saying that I recognize that throughout its history that Church authority has been abused, and that Presbyterians are not immune to this abuse. For those abuses I am sorry and this particular blog is one small attempt to rectify it by placing church authority within its proper context.

The first part of this reflection will revolve around how Presbyterians have chosen to organize themselves. We believe that within the church God has chosen individuals and called them to be officers within the church. These individuals are no different than any other Christian except in function. Their call is to participate in the order of the church. These individuals are ordained to the office of elder (Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders) by the approval of the councils to which they will belong.

These elders are elected by the people and not chosen by other elders. This keeps the congregations and all members of the church involved in the process of selecting and affirming those that God has called. This is an important part of the process that we cannot forget. It is an essential aspect of keeping a check on the abuse of church power.

These elders are gathered into councils and it is through these councils that the authority of the church is exercise. In these councils the Book of Order is very specific. Those called to councils are commissioners and not representatives. They are charged to seek and find the will of Christ not just give voice to the will of the people. This is an important part of understanding the conciliar nature of the church. Presbyterians do not just believe that councils are how we make decisions. We believe that councils are how God’s will for the church is heard and discerned. This does not mean that councils are infallible (we explicitly state that they are not). It does, however, mean that we believe that God is still active and speaking to God’s church and that God’s voice is discerned by elders chosen by the people convene together in council and seek that voice.

To make the claim that God can speak to the church through the voice of councils is a heavy claim. This kind of authority implies a certain amount of trust and humility that plays itself out in the relationship between church and council. Therefore it is important to examine the authority that comes along with this claim. In order to keep this authority from being abused, Presbyterians have adopted a set of historic principles which guide councils in the authority that they have.

The second part of this reflection will revolve around the nature of church authority as it is expressed in these historic principles. These are found and explained in chapter 3 of the Book of Order. They include the principles of God alone is Lord of the conscience, Corporate Judgement, and Mutual Forbearance. These principles along with the others promote the idea that no council has the right to bind the conscience of others in regards to faith in God and that councils agree to bear with one another and seek to maintain unity within diversity.

These principles are important because they outline the values of the church at large and contain what is seen as inherent rights in all people. These inherent rights were given by God and are not subject to control by a council. Presbyterians uphold the individuality of people and recognize that God works in and through individuals. Therefore a person’s conscience is first and foremost their authority when it comes to matters of faith and religion. This is held in tension with the idea that groups of Christians (denomination) have the right to set certain corporate ideals forward. We seek to hold in balance the importance of the individual and the community. At the end of the day this is displayed in our commitment to mutual forbearance. We have covenanted with each other to seek understanding and unity in all that we do. Therefore we believe that unity is more important than being right. So when we disagree, and Presbyterians definitely do that, we disagree in love and agree to be patient with each other even when we have differing opinions.

The Book of Order places restriction on what kind of power and authority the church, through its councils, can be exercised. All church authority is limited to what is “ministerial and declarative.” This means that decisions of councils should be limited to what serves the church at large and works at declaring the good news in Jesus Christ. Anything beyond this is often an abuse of the authority that God has granted the church. If we can focus on the tasks given to us we will be more effective and we will reduce the abuse which so often occurs when churches attempt to exercise authority not granted to them.

As Presbyterians we are a conciliar people. When practiced correctly it is a beautiful thing. Watching God work through commissioners to councils and hearing God’s Word through the witness of these councils is an amazing and awe-inspiring moment. Being Presbyterian means that we trust this process.

Next post we will discuss another aspect of our organization and one that Councils represent…Connectionalism.

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.

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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.


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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