What does it mean to be Presbyterian?
How does our particular version of Presbyterianism differ from other forms of Presbyterianism?
Presbyterianism is one of the earliest forms of Protestantism. The Presbyterianism finds its origins roots mainly in the reform movement of Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer and most especially John Calvin. John Calvin had trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood but became influenced with reformation ideas of Martin Luther which he began to re-interpret in his own way. Zwingli and Bucer were both Catholic Priests who became reformers.
Out of the work of John Calvin (as well as Bucer and Zwingli), the Reformed tradition grew, becoming distinct and different from Lutheranism having gone further than Martin Luther in their reforms and their theology. And so Presbyterians are part of the Reformed family of Protestant Churches that exist all over the world which include Presbyterians, as well as the Dutch Reformed Churches, the Swiss Reformed Churches, Reformed Church of Germany and the French Huguenots.
When the Reformation ideas of John Calvin began to reach Scotland, John Knox who was a Catholic priest felt inspired. He left Scotland, travelled to Geneva where John Calvin was based and became a kind of a disciple of John Calvin. Although John Knox was originally a Catholic Priest, he became the Catholic Church’s fieriest critic in Scotland. His aim was to make Scotland the most Protestant country in Europe. Through his fiery preaching and strong personality, John Knox introduced the Reformed Tradition of John Calvin to Scotland where it became known as Presbyterianism. Today, any Church around the world that bears the name Presbyterian can trace it’s roots back to Scottish Presbyterianism.
Most Presbyterians share three things in common:
1 – Firstly, most Presbyterians hold to the theology of John Calvin, and so, most Presbyterians are called Calvinists. In the British Isles, Calvinist theology is summarised in the Westminster Confession of Faith, written during the English Civil War by 121 Reformed theologians and ministers in Westminster Abbey and first published in 1646. We explored the Westminster Confession of Faith briefly two weeks ago.
One of the most controversial ideas in the Westminster Confession of faith was the idea of double predestination, whereby Calvin believed that God has predestined some human beings to be saved, while on the other hand, he believed that God had predestined the rest of human beings to roast in eternal damnation. And there is really in the end nothing you can do because Calvin believed that God has decided before hand who is to be saved and who is to be condemned.
This aspect of Presbyterianism, the theology of Calvin, is the part of Presbyterianism that we as Non-Subscribers don’t subscribe to. Our denomination is therefore not Calvinist in our theology.
The Non-Subscribers of Ireland believed that it was not very Protestant to impose a new belief system on Christians. They believed that every Christian should have access to the Bible and to be able to come to their own conclusions.
2 – Secondly, all Presbyterian Churches share the same ideas on Church polity of Church government that come particularly from the ideas of the Reformer Martin Bucer. This is the part of Presbyterianism that we share with all other Presbyterian Churches. Presbyterianism essentially refers to a Church system that is governed by assemblies or groups of elders. Early pioneers of the Reformed tradition, said that it was not new at all, but they believed it was how the early Church of the New Testament times was structured.
Elders in the New Testament are called Presbyters elders, which in the New Testament is the Greek word, Presbyteros. And so that is where the name Presbyterian comes from. Presbyterians rule their Churches by Elders or Presbyters.
In Presbyterianism, there are two kinds of elders: Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. Originally, Ruling Elders took care of the running of the Church and assisted with pastoral care, and the Teaching elder took care of the teaching and preaching. Originally, all elders were supposed to be equal, but over time it seems that the teaching elder, or minister or pastor became elevated in importance. This is probably for two reasons, 1. Firstly every Sunday, he or she is elevated in a pulpit and people a literally forced to look up to him or her. 2. Secondly Ministers are generally the only paid Elders and as a result a lot more work and responsibility is directed to the Minister.
But still, theoretically all elders are meant to be equal.
The next important feature of Presbyterian Church government is that decisions are not made by one person, but instead are made collectively by elders. This is what makes Presbyterians different from the Church of Ireland or the Catholic Church who both have bishops. In the Catholic Church and Church of Ireland, a Bishop is appointed for life (until they die or retire), and the Bishop exercises the ministry of oversight. Bishops are a little bit like a local Church King who rules from the top down, even if it is still in their best interests to consult.
But Presbyterianism however represents an early Western form of democracy and was probably responsible for the spreading of democratic political ideas. Elders are elected and chosen by the people, (although, like Bishops, once ordained they are elders for life). But the big difference is that elders operate democratically where decisions are made by voting amongst themselves while also consulting the local congregations
And so at a local level, in the Presbyterian system, the church elects elders to be ordained who then collectively make decisions for the local church. The Elders form what is called the session, sometimes called the Kirk-Session, and they are assisted by a committee of elected members.
At the next level of Presbyterianism is the Presbytery refers to a number of local churches that have been together often based on geography (but not always the case). All ministers or teaching elders are automatically members of Presbytery, and in addition, each local Church elects another elder to represent them at Presbytery to help vote and make decisions.
Again, all decisions at Presbytery are made democratically. Every year, a new minister is elected to be the chairperson, or the Moderator. The Moderator also represents the Presbytery in official functions. The Moderator is assisted by the Clerk of the Presbytery who does all the admin and paper work. (For my sins I have become the clerk of the Presbytery of Bangor). It is the role of Presbytery as a whole to exercise the ministry of oversight over all the local churches under them. And so Presbytery as a whole fulfils the function which a bishop does in other churches like the Church of Ireland or in the Catholic Church.
The next level of Presbyterianism ifs generally called a Synod or General Synod. Synod Meets once a year and all the members of each Presbytery are represented at Synod consisting of ministers and representative Elders. Again a t General Synod, a moderator is elected annually with a clerk to do all the admin. Again, all decisions are made democratically.
Again Moderators are temporary positions who are more like chairpersons. They only hold very limited and temporary power as temporary managers, compared to a Bishop who holds the position for life and who is like a King in their own diocese.
And so the Presbyterian form of government is a sort of democracy with power from below and power or oversight from above.
This was a very radical change in Europe, and it challenged the power of Monarchs. Kings and Queens much preferred Churches to be run by bishops, because bishops were like mini kings themselves. Church government by Bishops was a top down authority which worked in a similar way to Kings and Queens who ruled from the top down. In England, Wales and Ireland for a long time, Monarchs appointed their own Bishops and if they kept Bishops on their side, they could use bishops to do their bidding. But this was not possible with the Presbyterian form of government. Because it was far more democratic and moderators changed every year, the Kings and Queens could not rely on them as much. Presbyterianism was therefore perceived as a threat and a challenge to the power of Monarchs which is why in England, Ireland and Wales the Monarchs made sure that the established Churches retained their bishops. But in Scotland, John Knox’s Presbyterian Reformation had been so successful that the Monarchs could never restore the power of bishops even though they tried, and so, the established Church of Scotland became the only one in the United Kingdom that was Presbyterian.
Because Presbyterians were perceived as a threat to the power of the monarch, at various times, the monarch’s tried to stamp out Presbyterianism (along with other non-conforming Protestant groups) and were therefore often persecuted in favour of the Church or England, Wales and the Church of Ireland.
Someone asked me what the term black-mouthed Presbyterians means. In my reading, the term black-mouth was used as a derogatory term against Presbyterians who were regarded as radicals against the state. Their radicalness lay in the fact that they were often persecuted by the state and the established Church of Ireland and who therefore desired to throw off the authority of their persecutors with a desire for political democracy in line with the democratic nature of their own church government. I understand it the term Blackmouth was first applied to Presbyterians in the days of the Volunteers and United Irishman. The story goes that some of these radicals had to hide in the hills and eat black-berries which made their mouths black, but some dispute whether this part of the story was actually true or not.
Thirdly, the last characteristic of Presbyterianism is their form of worship:
Presbyterianism together with other churches in the Reformed tradition, wanted to do away with anything that smacked of Romanism or Catholicism. And so they away with all unnecessary ritual. Worship became much simpler. The focus became on preaching from Scripture, interspersed with prayer and singing. Initially singing was without instruments and was only Scripture based. Church buildings were not called Churches, because according to the Reformed tradition, the people were the church, not the building. Churches were therefore called Meeting Houses to emphasize the fact that they were functional. There was nothing especially holy about the building itself. Meeting Houses were therefore initially very plain and simple.
Interestingly, on the theme of worship, according to John Calvin, Communion was still supposed to be the central act of worship which he said should take place every week. But for whatever reason most Reformed Churches never took this up. Maybe they felt that this was still too Catholic?
Communion in Reformed Churches therefore only takes place normally once a quarter or twice a year and possibly once a month. Although a small minority have begun to celebrate communion weekly in line with Calvin’s ideas.
Reformed and Presbyterian’s would practice communion differently from the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic churches. In these other churches, as a sign of reverence, people would normally kneel to receive communion. This was always the case in the Catholic Church up until the 1960’s when most Catholics began to receive communion standing. But Presbyterians receive communion sitting, because Presbyterians would say that we as Christians sit at the table of Christ as God’s children, rather than kneeling as though we were grovelling before God as God’s servants. But as with so many things that divide us as Christians, both ways of receiving communion could be justified from scripture.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, at communion, it is believed that a change happens so that the bread and wine, literally become the body and blood of Christ, even though they retain the outward appearance of bread and wine.
In the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther believed that the Bread and Wine remain bread and wine, but that Christ becomes especially present in the Bread and Wine. It is one step away from Roman Catholicism.
In the Presbyterian tradition, Calvin believed that Christ is truly present at Communion, but Christ’s presence is not connected with the Bread and Wine. The Bread and Wine are outward symbols that enable us to remember Christ’s great sacrifice and in doing so help us to become more deeply aware of the Christ who joins his Church in worship.
As Non-subscribing Presbyterians, both our Worship and our Church government is shared in common with most other Presbyterians. We simply give every member the right to come to their own theological conclusions, and in this sense we are different from most other Presbyterians.
• Next Week we will explore how the NSPCI was formed -
• When I am back from leave we will explore also the emblem of the Burning Bush that all Presbyterians hold in common – and the history of it.
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