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DEC

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Christian Education Committee Meeting
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Bible Search

Presbyterian 101

Why do we call ourselves “Reformed?”

One of our most quoted Presbyterian mottos is “Reformed and always to be reformed.” This reminds us of two things: (1) that we belong to the branch of the Protestant family of churches that traces its roots to the 1587 Reformation from Luther through John Calvin, John Knox, and the Swiss Reformers; and (2) – most importantly – that we acknowledge that we are a people who are always being formed by the Holy Spirit and needing to be continually re-formed in the Spirit. It tells us, in other words, that we are a people in process, that the transformation of the Spirit is not complete in us, and that we need to be open to the change to which the Holy Spirit calls us as we are growing up in the Lord.

Now if only we could really believe and embrace this cherished belief! It calls for considerable humility and a flexible spirit. The newly-revised Form of Government is giving us a fresh chance to put this motto into practice. “We have always done it this way” has no place among us anymore. This can be challenging, but also freeing. It calls us to re-root ourselves continually, not in the structures and practices in which we have learned to feel comfortable, but in the free and flowing Holy Spirit, who continually leads us into new territory. Such a way of living out our faith calls for a strong practice of prayer and wise discernment. It also calls for the correcting influence of community.

May God continually form and re-form each of us and all of us, until the kingdom comes!


Who’s in charge here?

One of the distinctly Presbyterian catch phrases is “doing all things decently and in order.” Sounds dull, doesn’t it? But deep in the Presbyterian soul is a commitment to an appropriately boundaried life – an ordered life -- as a way to maintain the peace of the community and to enable the vibrant life of the Holy Spirit to flow within it.

The church exists to serve God in the world, and the whole church is called to this ministry. But some are called to particular functions or roles within the overall ministry of the church, to help build up the church until it’s able to answer the call of God as it should. Here’s how the new Form of Government puts it:

“G-2.0101 The Church’s ministry is a gift from Jesus Christ to the whole Church. Christ alone rules, calls, teaches, and uses the Church as he wills, exercising authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of God’s new creation…” [Wow! And we thought the Church was to serve us!]

G-2.0101 goes on to say, “The basic form of ministry is the ministry of the whole people of God, from whose midst some are called to ordered ministries, to fulfill particular functions. Members and those in ordered ministries serve together under the mandate of Christ.” The ordered ministries of the church are: deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders. [Remember, Ministers are called teaching elders now.) Each “ordered ministry” has a particular call. Each has been given particular gifts, suitable to their work. Each is called and ordained by God, confirmed through the congregation’s election.

Some questions to ponder: How shall we help each other recognize, affirm, and empower each other to the ministry Jesus is giving to each? But here’s the kicker question, as I’ve been pondering it: I wonder if we don’t sometimes imagine it’s necessary to dis-empower one person’s role in the church in order to empower another’s. Does the pastor (the teaching elder) really need to be disempowered in order to empower the ruling elders? Does the ruling elder need to be disempowered in order to empower the teaching elder or the member at large? Or is there something in the design of our Presbyterian branch of the Church that says each has a role, and each role is the gift of God, to be respected and enabled, under the inspiration of the Spirit….?

Being Presbyterian isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s a balancing act and demands that we live with each other and with the questions in such a way that we are always looking beyond ourselves, to the call and guidance of Christ our Lord. I happen to think that’s not a bad system….

Blessings, in our Lord Jesus Christ!

 


What is a pastor for?....

Under the newly revised Form of Government, the language applied to ordained Ministers has changed. Now we refer to them as Teaching Elders, who may hold the office of Pastor or other such offices in the church. But names aside, in this congregation there’s some ambiguity in people’s minds about just what a pastor is for. Here is the defining section of the new Form of Government (G-2.0501) to help us begin to think about that question. (The bold face is my emphasis.)

Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacraments) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). They may serve in a variety of ministries, as authorized by the presbytery. When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service. When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation. When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life. When they serve as presbyters, they shall participate in the responsibilities of governance, seeking always to discern he mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate, and decision.”

Ruling elders, a term we’re more familiar with, has also been defined (G-2.0301): “As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people. Accordingly, congregations should elect persons of wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit. Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of the congregation as well as the whole church…”

Teaching Elders – i.e., pastors -- have a singular position in the congregation’s life. They are a spiritual leader with unique skills, training, and preparation for the office. They are interpreters of Scripture, discerners of God’s Spirit, vision casters, care-givers, community builders. Ruling Elders share the responsibilities of discernment and governance, but they do not do so without the guidance and participation of the pastor. Each ruling elder is not a “little pastor” (as I’ve heard one suggest), but is part of a pastoral team – the Session.

 


Did You Know?

We Presbyterians do things the way we do them because of our beliefs. Our convictions shape the way we “do church,” and as newcomers can tell you, that shape is distinctive from most other Christian denominations. These convictions have been called the “historic principles of church order,” which date from 1788 -- a long and distinguished history of shared theology and practice. Briefly, these are the principles by which we practice being a community of faith:

  1. “God alone is Lord of the conscience …”

 

  1. “Therefore, we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.”

 

  1. “…every Christian Church… is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members…”

 

  1. “…our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers, not only to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation of both truth and duty…” [We are responsible to Christ for the welfare of the Church]

 

  1. “… truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness…By their fruits ye shall know them.”

 

  1. “… there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” [So fighting and denigrating each other is out of order, even over theological differences and spiritual practices!]

 

  1. “…the election of persons to the exercise of… authority, in any particular society, is in that society.” [Again, no bishops’ appointments, only congregational elections.]

 

  1. “All Church power… is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners.” [The Session or Presbytery can’t sue you for your money or throw you in jail! They can only persuade you on the strength of the Gospel.]

 

  1. “… if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church….” [Amen!]

Did you know…..

…that Presbyterians believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through communities to reveal the will of God and to guide our life together? Not through just one or two especially holy or smart people, nor through a hierarchy that dispenses wisdom from the top down. Not through a bishop, nor even through a pastor or an elder acting on his or her own authority. The community discerns together the way forward.

That’s why we do things the way we do them. Even though it is sometimes frustratingly slow, and it demands (to our frustration) that we work and pray and struggle together to figure out what is right and how to get there. That’s why we do most of our work through committees or teams, and it’s why we can’t “phone in” our vote, or meet without praying. Because we believe that when we come together in prayer, and ask the Spirit of God to guide us, the Spirit will somehow work through our human minds, our humbled wills, our holy desires, and our inspired imaginations to figure out together the next step God wants us to take.

We believe that the Presbytery can’t discern the will of God for us better than we can, and that a Pope or a Bishop (if we had such things, which we don’t) could do no better either. That’s why it can take so long to get a new pastor when one has moved on. It’s why we sometimes talk through issues far longer than some of us would like. But it’s also why, when something goes really right and fills us with joy, we can rejoice in how God has worked through us and for us.

To be sure, doing things even through the community can prove painful and difficult, in any church at any time. Nothing in this life, as long as it involves human beings, will be perfect. God is stuck with working through imperfect vessels. If you want fast and easy at any cost, don’t become a Presbyterian. But if you want the adventure of discerning the will of God and going on a Godly adventure together, then you are in the right place!


“The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people…. The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity….”

These are some of the opening words of the new Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that was recently approved, in the first section called “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity”. This opening statement continues with the following summary affirmations:

F-1.0101 God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church…

F-1.0202 Christ Calls and Equips the Church

F-1.0203 Christ Gives the Church Its Life

F-1.0204 Christ Is the Church’s Hope

F-1.0204 Christ Is the Foundation of the Church

F-1.03 The Church Is the Body of Christ

Nothing could be clearer in all this than that God in Christ is the heart and soul, the head and the driving force, of the Church. It’s God’s will that brought us together in an inexplicable, God-given, saving communion with Christ, and thus into community with each other. It’s God’s vision and will that gives us our identity as Christians and tells us what we are called to do in this world, as the community of faith called the Church.

We do not imagine that we are perfect, still less that our own strong ideas, opinions and desires should rule the day. We do not so much “make decisions” on our own, as we seek to discern the will of God together. We believe that we are called to be in this community known as Church, by the will and the grace of God alone.

Presbyterians are not organized to be a democracy, but a theocracy. We are not here to pursue our own agenda, but God’s. We are to pursue that agenda in God’s way, the way of committed discipleship. We have been drafted into a new life-purpose that is larger than we would ever have imagined for ourselves. We are part of a vast instrument for accomplishing God’s mission, and that mission is nothing less than (look again at the first paragraph, above) the transformation of the world. (Are you breathless yet?)

Pray for the Church. Let’s ask particularly that God will give us the spiritual gift of clear discernment and faithful response to our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

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