One Year of Being Presbyterian
December 8, 2014
In September of 2013 I took vows as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Two months later I was officially installed as Lead Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. For all of this I am profoundly grateful.
There were all sorts of things that led to my embrace of Presbyterianism. First there was the long and sometimes painful embrace of the Doctrines of Grace as undeniably biblical. I say “painful” because the Doctrines of Grace, which are affirmed throughout the Scriptures, represented a clear break with much of what I had been taught all my life. I knew that embracing this system of doctrine would put me at odds with the majority of the denomination in which I served (Southern Baptist Convention). However, I received much comfort from discovering such organizations as Founders Ministries and the newly formed (at the time) Nine Marks Ministries. It was also clear that something of a Reformed resurgence was going on through the influence of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. It was good to know that I was not the only Calvinistic Southern Baptist out there.
For me, however, the Doctrines of Grace were simply the first step toward a full embrace of Covenant Theology. I saw a strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments built upon the unifying motif of covenant. At that point I knew that my understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper had changed from what would be acceptable in Baptist churches. After a disappointing sojourn in a non-denominational church I was blessed to enter the communion of the PCA.
As I reflect on the past year as a Presbyterian several things emerge for me as sources of regular gratitude.
1. The Westminster Confession of Faith
The Westminster Confession of Faith is one of the most helpful and beautiful theological documents outside of Scripture. As a friend of mine once said regarding confessions of faith: “They need to have a lot of words.” Indeed. Many churches have built a sort of unity around a common set of “core values” or a mission statement. And while those things can be helpful, they are no substitute for a comprehensive and clear confession of faith. For the body of Christ, unity based on shared values, while good, is no substitute for unity based upon doctrinal convictions.
Likewise a unity based on the merest sort of Christian confession is not robust enough to navigate the confusing waters of contemporary evangelicalism. In the 1960’s and 70’s there was perhaps an evangelical center. That center was anchored to men like John Stott and Francis Schaeffer. This has changed of course. Once men like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell were tolerated within evangelicalism’s big tent the foundations of the once unified center could no longer bear the weight of its own contradictions.
Certainly there are many contributing factors, but the idea of a mere Christianity in today’s evangelicalism is, I believe, not possible. We need, and beyond that, ought to desire, a confession that carefully guards the church from being carried off by every wind of doctrine. For the denomination to which I belong the Westminster Confession of Faith is that confession. If you are a Baptist then perhaps you ought to investigate the London Baptist Confession.
2. The Book of Church Order
The Book of Church Order (BCO) is used by the PCA as a guide for governance and polity. It is a thick three ring blue binder. Some of my friends who attended a Presbyterian seminary refer to it as the “big blue sleeping pill.” It is true that the BCO does not always offer the most compelling reading experience. However, for this man raised in an autonomous church tradition, the BCO has been a welcome source of clarity and security. No more entering elder meetings with fear and trembling not know what will be done or said. No more making things up on the fly. No more trying to navigate issues of discipline without properly constituted church courts. No more ordaining nice but manifestly unqualified men for church office.
Also, the BCO makes things blessedly less efficient than a CEO model of church leadership. And while that will frustrate the entrepreneurial pastor, it is a source of protection for the church (and the pastor!). It means that there are clearly defined ways of running meetings, exercising discipline, administering the sacraments, ordaining and calling pastors, installing elders, running meetings of the session and congregation, ordering congregational worship, etc.
Does the BCO protect against every conceivable contingency? Is it a guarantee that nothing will go wrong? Of course not. Do things go wrong in Presbyterian churches? Of course! But I am convinced that the Book of Church order is the best game in town for properly, wisely, and biblically ordering the church.
3. The Presbytery to Which I Belong
I am a member of the Blue Ridge Presbytery. I have found this fellowship of brothers to be a place of much grace, wisdom, and even fun. I look forward to our quarterly meetings. The church in which I serve knows that, in addition to the session, there is a presbytery to whom I am directly accountable as well. They are also assured by the fact that the presbytery is one more layer of accountability, wisdom, appeal, and support for the church. If there are vexing troubles between congregation and session or between session and pastor, the presbytery is there to help.
I found out directly that it is a difficult task to become a member of the Blue Ridge Presbytery. The exam process was grueling. I was in the process of moving my family to another state and had just left a terribly stressful ministry context. In the middle of this I was taking the exams to transfer my ordination to the PCA. The process involved six written and two oral exams. It took me more than ten hours to complete the Bible exam and another 10 hours for the doctrine exam. In all, I wrote over 100 pages worth of answers.
I am grateful the process is hard. It should be. Much is required of the one who teaches. Certainly no process is perfect. But the sort of examination that men being ordained by the PCA are required to go through is a good means of weeding out knuckleheads.
4. Covenant Presbyterian Church
The church in which I serve was planted in the 1980’s by Trinity PCA in Charlottesville. Since then it has pleased the Lord to grow the church and provide it with a strong foundation of faithful biblical exposition. It is also a church that has consistently sought to minister faithfully in its unique setting.
Covenant Presbyterian is located in a thriving university town (James Madison University, Bridgewater College, Eastern Mennonite University). It is also home to a significant number of immigrants from Latin America, Russia, and Arabic speaking nations. Wisely the leadership of Covenant launched a Spanish speaking congregation led by one of our pastors (a PCA Teaching Elder born and raised in Mexico City). Alianza now has over 100 congregants. Covenant also hosts an Arab speaking Sunday School class each week.
I am also daily grateful for the Session of Covenant Presbyterian Church. I am blessed to serve with qualified brothers who love the Lord and His church. They are also a regular source of encouragement for me. What is more, I serve with likeminded pastors and ministry leaders. I have learned that this is one of the great blessings a pastor can receive in his ministry.
So, after one year of being a Presbyterian I am more convinced than ever that I am home. I am thankful especially for my bride of almost 25 years for partnering with me and being the help I needed during the dark times that proceeded our move. There is no place I would rather be and no person I would rather be with.