This is not an age when it is popular to belong to a particular church denomination. Most Christians shun such distinctives, mostly because denominational boundaries have become a symbol for the stereotype that Christians simply can’t get along with one another. Sometimes I am asked if it wouldn’t be easier if we just took the word “Presbyterian” off our sign in front of our church. Maybe it would be better if we just called ourselves, “New Life Community Church.”
Perhaps there is some wisdom in this, and maybe I’ll change my mind one day, but there are reasons why we retain the word “Presbyterian” as a description of who we are. It’s because that word communicates some important distinctions about the way we do church.
Presbyterians in our tradition most value the centrality of the free grace of the Gospel, the final authority of Scripture in all matters of life and doctrine, and the importance of God’s sovereignty, among many other things. But these values are shared by many churches and various traditions. The three points below, while not exclusive to Presbyterianism, do highlight some attributes that distinguish us from the broad swath of evangelicalism, and therefore should not be easily discarded:
1) ‘Presbyterian’ means we are confessional. As Presbyterians, we hold to a doctrinal statement called the Westminster Confession of Faith. Many Christians proclaim that they “just believe the Bible,” but that statement begs a larger question: what do you believe the Bible teaches? Confessions and creeds are not intended to rival or usurp the Bible’s authority; instead, they are written as a way of explaining “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Further, history has shown that it is always the tendency of the church to wander from orthodoxy into any number of doctrinal errors and heresies, which is why Heb. 13:9 warns us against getting carried away by strange teachings. Confessions function as “crucial defensive instruments,” as Kenneth Gentry states in his excellent article on the usefulness of creeds. Rather than replace the Bible’s authority, confessions help to defend it.
Almost all churches have a doctrinal statement of some kind. We simply see no need to reinvent the wheel when the WCF already summarizes so well the thrust of Biblical doctrine. For further reading on this topic, see Carl Trueman’s book, The Creedal Imperative.
2) ‘Presbyterian’ means we are connectional. As Presbyterians, we believe it is important not only for individual Christians to be connected to one another in local churches, but for local churches to be connected to one another as a demonstration of the unity of the church universal.
For Scriptural support of this idea, read Acts 15. This is the account of the Jerusalem Council, which was convened to resolve the question of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. After much discussion, a decision was made, which Paul and Timothy were then dispatched to deliver to the churches in the region for their “observance” (Acts 16:4). It is clear that there is some kind of formal connection here among the early, first-century churches, and that those congregations functioned under some kind of official oversight.
Of course there are many strong and healthy independent churches, and it is true that “official oversight” run amok can create problems for local churches, but Acts 15 is in the Bible for a reason. When you go to a Presbyterian church, you can know that you are attending a church that is not isolated, but in formal relation with other like-minded churches that share its doctrinal convictions (see point 1).
3) ‘Presbyterian’ means we are covenantal. As Presbyterians, we believe the Old Testament and New Testament in the Bible are united by a grand covenantal framework that makes the Bible a coherent whole from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is one story about one plan of salvation through one Savior for one redeemed people of God.
This essential unity of the Scriptures leads us to certain conclusions about the way baptism is practiced, for instance; it also leads us to deny a popular theological system known as dispensationalism. (Dispensationalism has given rise to the commonly accepted “rapture theology,” which actually does not enjoy universal acceptance even among orthodox evangelicals.)
I don’t mean to suggest that we Presbyterians do everything right. We have our issues. We’re known as the “frozen chosen.” We can tend to be overly intellectual. We can be hard on people who don’t agree with us doctrinally. We lack ethnic diversity, both in the pews and in our pulpits. We have a reputation for not being very evangelistic. But nonetheless, there are good reasons to identify with this particular denomination, and so for now I think we’ll keep our name — New Life Presbyterian Church.