Over the course of the week, Kat and I have been delving into the teachings, the doctrines, and the ways of the Presbyterian Church. Last study, Kat said that trying to understand the beliefs of the Baptists was a “maze of uncertainty”. The Baptists and Presbyterians both worship the Godhead, like other branches in Christianity, but each worship differently.
I promised two weeks ago I would study the book Churches of Today (by author L.G. Tomlinson) and update on what has changed since the book was written. Kat told me while fixing lunch, after having done research the modern way (online), that the book’s contents feel a bit outdated, but only in one real way: “Modern Christians have molded their words to counteract the image that other denominations stereotype them as.” In simpler words, churches have altered over time because of the arguments leaders have and the way culture has changed. The way the church is viewed by the members also has a great impact on what happens in the church to overturn (or not overturn) old traditions.
“…Calvin, however, never founded a distinct denomination, but he preached and put into practice the principles which underlie all Presbyterian Churches… The Westminster Association, which was in session from July 1, 1643, to February 22, 1649, framed the Westminster Confession of faith, which became the doctrinal foundation of English and American Presbyterianism. Francis Makemie, who is called the ‘Father of American Presbyterianism’, organized the Rehoboth Church in Maryland in 1684.” –Churches of Today
Not all Presbyterians strut their history on their church websites and informative sites. I doubt that every church to come across touts their Calvinistic views, or even knows who John Calvin is other than the fact their religion is based after his beliefs and they follow those beliefs to stay within their denomination. Many of the churches are much more focused on present day, as in their members, their outreach, and their good-standing ideals.
Sacrament: Lord’s Supper
Churches of Today says:
“…the Lord’s Supper does not need to be observed weekly.”
Now, the great thing about the Bible is it never changes whether it’s 1927 or 2018 or 2029. The Word of God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Let’s place the foundation of the Lord’s Supper by finding where it starts in the Bible, to see why it is a sacred practice:
The Old Testament “sacred bread” practice:
Leviticus 24:5-9 (CEV), “The Lord said, Use your finest flour to bake twelve loaves of bread about four pounds each, then take them into the sacred tent and lay them on the gold table in two rows of six loaves. Alongside each row put some pure incense that will be sent up by fire in place of the bread as an offering to me. Aaron must lay fresh loaves on the table each Sabbath, and priests in all generations must continue this practice as part of Israel’s agreement with me. This bread will always belong to Aaron and his family; it is very holy because it was offered to me, and it must be eaten in a holy place.”
The New Testament practice of the Lord’s Supper:
Acts 20:3-12 (CEV), ”Paul was about to sail to Syria. But some of the Jewish leaders plotted against him, so he decided to return by way of Macedonia. With him were Sopater, son of Pyrrhus from Berea, and Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica. Gaius from Derbe was also with him, and so were Timothy and the two Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. They went on ahead to Troas and waited for us there. After the Festival of Thin Bread*, we sailed from Philippi. Five days later we met them in Troas and stayed there for a week.
“On the first day of the week we met to break bread together. Paul spoke to the people until midnight because he was leaving the next morning. In the upstairs room where we were meeting, there were a lot of lamps...
”...After Paul had gone back upstairs, he broke bread, and ate with us. He then spoke until dawn and left...”
*NOTE: The Festival of Thin Bread was a holiday observed by the Jews near Sabbath time.
The Presbyterians are always stressing individual conscience; to each his own when leading the church. The Lord’s Supper is one of the two Sacraments they follow (the other one baptism). I saw many saying they practice communion on a once per month basis, but there are variations in divisions.
My findings were that Presbyterianism allows for a baptized believer of any denomination to come and partake in the blessings of their church, albeit that person was baptized in the name of God in three parts (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). They have infant baptism and adult baptism, either sprinkling or immersion, and have ordained leaders that take care of the ritual.
I wondered the question, “Does an infant who is baptized get re-baptized as an adult, or are they baptized once and that’s final? Does the church encourage believers who were baptized as infants another choice, or do they discourage any guilt that may happen?” I ask this question because I am a Christian who was baptized a second time; I did not feel secure in my original baptism at age 9. To this day, I do not know if I needed to be re-baptized to gain entrance into heaven. My family tells me I knew Jesus Christ the first time I was immersed in water, and I did not need a second baptism, but fear gripped my heart and once I was baptized again (after prayer and counsel) it hasn’t been an issue in my spiritual walk. If nothing else, it gave me assurance in my faith and for that I am thankful I did it. But this question for the sake of Presbyterians is on my mind: do Presbyterians feel assurance in their early baptism? My studies have uncovered the answer that one baptism is what the church believes is a good-standing ideal. Quoting Reverend Roy R. Bennett,
“Baptism was instituted by Christ as a perpetual ordinance until the end of the age. This sacrament signifies a person coming to faith and belonging to Christ and is to be administered only once. The sign used is water and is correctly administered by pouring or sprinkling. Salvation is not inseparably connected with baptism nor is the effectiveness of baptism tied to the time of its administration.”
Churches of Today argues against infant baptism:
“1. Without faith it is impossible to come to God (Heb. 11:6)
“2. Faith cometh by hearing (Rom. 10:17)
“3. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16)…
“4. There is not one mention of a child ever being baptized. The household converts were preached to, showing they were old enough to hear.”
Presbyterianism doesn’t really teach that infants are baptized because they are sinners, need salvation, and understand their need for repentance, in fact, infant baptism is almost more for the parents than for the child. It is a sign that the church and God approves of the baby, and they consider it a seal of God’s faithfulness and love, at least according to the rhetoric used on church websites.
However, it is true that infant baptism was a practice established after the apostles’ early church. It was not a practice started by Jesus Christ. Some argue that Jesus holding the children, accepting them, and saying not to turn the little ones away is validation to keep infant baptism in practice.
Predestination is a debate many religions hold, not only Christianity. Much of the debate in the Christian realm comes from the teachings of John Calvin, also known as Calvinism or Calvinistic views. The Westminster Statement of Faith (the teachings upheld by traditional Presbyterian church leaders) holds to the view that some persons are predestined to receive God’s grace, while others are predestined to damnation, God having not only foreseen it but also purposed it. These views come from the Bible — yet denominations that are anti-Calvinistic argue that it is perverting Scripture to say that we do not have a personal choice, and that God destined and made us either for glory or ruin.
A concern I have is whether Presbyterians believe that God predestined souls to come to him depending on the person. Many of their modern churches focus so much energy on individual conscience, diversity, and allowance of choice-making. Many of those churches hold liberal/progressive values (in the political sense) like pro-choice women’s rights, which marriage partner, school choices, etc. But if our choices are not a part of our destination (meaning our choices do not change God’s plan for our eternal life), then why make choices at all? If that were the case, we would simply wait for the Lord to tell us whether we were chosen, and if we were invested in the journey of winning God’s trust (if indeed it could happen), maybe we would try to live righteously to prove that we belong to him; but if the predestination statement means what I think it means, it could also be true that a righteous person who prays and follows God in every way would live their whole lives, never being heaven-bound; or is it more, they would never have felt the desire to pray in the first place, because they were destined for hell and never got the power of the Spirit within?
The paradigm of Calvinism is a bit confusing. Again, “a maze of uncertainty” as you try and understand the rhetoric of the church.
Romans 8:9-39 (bold-type added by me) tells the truth for us in detail:
“You are no longer ruled by your desires, but by God’s Spirit, who lives in you. People who don’t have the Spirit of Christ in them don’t belong to him. But Christ lives in you. So you are alive because God has accepted you, even though your bodies must die because of your sins. Yet God raised Jesus to life! God’s Spirit now lives in you, and he will raise you to life by his Spirit.
”My dear friends, we must not live to satisfy our desires. If you do, you will die. But you will live, if by the help of God’s Spirit you say ‘No’ to your desires. Only those people who are led by God’s Spirit are his children. God’s Spirit doesn’t make us slaves who are afraid of him. Instead, we become his children and call him our Father. God’s Spirit makes us sure that we are his children. His Spirit lets us know that together with Christ we will be given what God has promised. We will also share in the glory of Christ, because we have suffered with him.
“I am sure that what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that will be shown to us. In fact, all creation is eagerly waiting for God to show who his children are. Meanwhile, creation is confused, but not because it wants to be confused. God made it this way in the hope that creation would be set free from decay and would share in the glorious freedom of his children. We know that all creation is still groaning and is in pain, like a woman about to give birth.
”The Spirit makes us sure about what we will be in the future. But now we groan silently, while we wait for God to show that we are his children. This means that our bodies will also be set free. And this hope is what saves us. But if we already have what we hope for, there is no need to keep on hoping. However, we hope for something we have not yet seen, and we patiently wait for it.
”In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit prays for us in ways that cannot be put into words. All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God’s people. We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose, and he has always known who his chosen ones would be. He had decided to let them become like his own Son, so that his Son would be the first of many children. God then accepted the people he had already decided to choose, and he has shared his glory with them.
”What can we say about all this? If God is on our side, can anyone be against us? God did not keep back his own Son, but he gave him for us. If God did this, won’t he freely give us everything else? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone bring charges against them? Or can anyone condemn them? No indeed! Christ died and was raised to life, and now he is at God’s right side, speaking to him for us. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, suffering, and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger and death? It is exactly as the Scriptures say,
‘For you we face death
all day long.
We are like sheep
on their way
to be butchered.’
“In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
Westminster Statement of Faith
The main reason why Presbyterianism is different than other Christian faiths is for the Westminster Statement of Faith. This document (founded in 17th century England) was not meant to replace the Bible, neither does it hold the authority of the Bible in their view. Instead, it was a document made to accompany the Bible: maybe a little explaining, a lot directing, and a lot answering questions… also elaborating on the original sacred text, the Bible. Their statement of faith is not unlike “The Baptist Faith and Message” which is the guide of Baptist churches, but also each a very unique set of words. To have a summary on the basics, I found this document, A Summary of the Westminster Statement of Faith by Reverend Roy R. Bennett, to be very helpful as a reminder of what the long text had.
In a personal story, I had a close relationship with someone who had trouble with Christianity and the dogmatic principles they advocate. It stifled her love for God. She no longer believes. Her fall from faith was due to the division between Christians. Why did that have to be? She thought it was better to leave God instead of feel pain and misery. What could the churches do differently to help her understand? Give her the truth about Jesus Christ. Why did they not “snatch her from the fire” while she had the chance? They let her fall through the cracks. Did I personally do enough? These convictions still lay close to my heart.
A soul’s destiny is the hugest subject that the Christian faith is about. How we define sin, faith, salvation, baptism, and fellowship is everything, and how we reach others depends on everything we teach them. What I said and what I did that may have caused a rift in my friend’s salvation is everything, and for that I’m sorry. To her, I betrayed friendship, becoming another Christian bigot, hurting our love. My words taught Jesus, but my insistence that she was in sin taught her low self-esteem, when in reality, the first sin was in the church. That is why we should be careful what we teach.
After reading Roy R. Bennett’s summary of the Westminster, it concerns me again what Presbyterians believe about our destiny (“God’s Eternal Decree”). Take the book of Job for example. It takes a trained eye to read the whole text of Job with the full speeches of Job, his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), the mysterious man Elihu, and God himself, the Almighty, and understand the meaning. But the Lord is straightforward when he says to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God spoke personally to Job’s friend and confirmed their speeches were wrong and deserving of wrath, and yet if Job was willing to sacrifice for them, which in Job 42:9-10 it confirms Job prayed for them and the Lord accepted his prayer; Job was their mediator, standing before God on their behalf; they were forgiven because of their obedience to God. This proves that their action was capable of altering the outcome. Someone can argue, “God knew Eliphaz would obey, and so he was one of the ‘elect’ – that is why God says that he will not deal with him and the others according to their folly.”
However, take King Solomon as another example. In 1 Kings 11, verses 1 through 6, it says (eloquently in the VOICE, italics added by the VOICE):
“King Solomon loved countless women from other countries—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, Hittites—as well as Pharaoh’s daughter.
“All the countries of the king’s lovers were heathen countries that the Eternal One had warned the Israelites about: “Do not mingle with them, and do not allow them to mingle with you. They will corrupt you and lead you away from Me. They will seduce your hearts to follow their own gods.” But Solomon clung to these lovers. He had 700 royal wives, as well as 300 mistresses. And his wives and mistresses seduced his heart away from God.
“Solomon followed the Lord during youth and middle age, but when Solomon was an old man, these women seduced him into following other gods. His heart was led astray and no longer completely belonged to the Eternal One, his True God, as his father David’s heart did. Solomon pursued Ashtoreth (the Sidonian goddess) and Milcom (the abomination of the Ammonites). Solomon abandoned his lifelong integrity and committed evil in the eyes of the Eternal. He did not follow Him completely, as his father David had.”
I will say, in the Summary of the Westminster Statement of Faith, in section 4, it says regarding creation, Adam, and Eve, “God endowed this first couple with the ability to obey His command as well as the freedom of will to choose otherwise, making them capable of a fall.” It seems the Presbyterians do confirm free will, and they do acknowledge the need for obedience, and it may not be an issue to argue. Their doctrines do make the Bible appear contradictory at times, which other denominations do not experience with their faith journey. The Westminster Statement of Faith accentuates certain verses in ways that make the Bible enigmatic and hard to grasp.
What it says about Jesus Christ seems completely Biblical (meaning they accept Jesus as Lord, part of the Triune God, and Savior and Redeemer, and he was born to virgin Mary and was connected to the Father God during his walk on earth) and that is a truth worth celebrating.