Monday, January 14, 2013

What does it mean to be "presbyterian"?

[From Pastor Ed… 1/13/2013 and 1/20/2013]

I once had a conversation with my friend Robert, in which we were talking about understanding our theological and ecclesiastical identities. I asked him how he would answer someone if, stopping at the back door of his church to greet him after worship, they asked him, "what does it mean to be a presbyterian?"

Such a context doesn't allow for nuance or elaboration, and I wanted him to give me the 50-words-or-less answer — not the eight-week-Sunday-School-class answer. He got that, and accommodated me.

"That I know my own tendency to sin, and therefore I need the Body of Christ to keep me straight."

Presbyterians are fond of saying that a presbyterian church is a "connectional" church, and I think this — what my friend told me — is what we mean by that: we are connected to one another, and that connection is vital to our spiritual health, growth, and survival. The Body of Christ is a connected body, and each part needs the rest (Romans 12).

It seems to me that this should be a natural result of our conversion and faith in Christ. Once we recognize our dependence on Christ, we begin to realize also that, in a sense, we cannot completely trust ourselves. Overconfidence in my own abilities — even those abilities to do and understand and be very good things, like reading the Bible, praying, refraining from sin, giving glory to God — is the path to spiritually-treacherous ground.

I may be absolutely confident, for example, that I understand a certain Bible passage, only to learn from others that I missed a key point or downplayed the central theme. I might believe that I know the right way to pray for someone, but then I will hear the prayer for them of a fellow Christian and be challenged at how feeble my own prayer was. I could think myself invulnerable to a particular sin, only to be tempted in the presence of a brother or sister who then encourages me and prays for me about it. I may even take confidence that my service is fully devoted to Christ's glory, then later be challenged by the awareness of pride and haughtiness that is exposed by a comment from another believer which wasn't even directed at me.

Thus, I need the Body. And in those moments when I don't think I need the Body, when I feel the greatest confidence in myself, when I believe more in my own ability than I do in the Gospel — in those times I need the Body all the more!

This is true for all Christians, of course. While our cultural tendencies lead us to think individually and with ever-increasing confidence in ourselves — and while the truths of our individual role in our relationship and faith in Christ are an essential part of our Christianity — we do well to hold these in tension with our deep need and dependence upon Christ and, therefore, on His Body. Remember that Jesus exhorts us, in Luke 18:14, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

We mustn't view the Church as an optional benefit to our faith; rather, we must recognize the Church for what it is, according to Scripture: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). If we are dependent upon Christ, then we are inevitably dependent upon His body.

Of course, there is more nuance and explanation to being presbyterian than this. But if you get this, you are far along the way to understanding the vital nature of the church!

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