“Church order is probably one of the things Presbyterians are best known for. Each church in the PCA has to subscribe to the Book of Church Order, which basically tells each church how the they are to function. Now it is true that having such firm processes in place can be the cause of much bureaucracy, delays in making decisions, etc. However, I find the order and process of Presbyterians to have many advantages.”
For the past five or so years, I have attended non-denominational/baptistic churches. I am grateful for these churches and the way my faith was shaped and deepened in them. However, as I continued to grow in my faith I realized that a change would need to take place in order for me to continue worshiping and serving faithfully. In the fall of 2015, my wife and I decided to become Presbyterians (PCA). This change has prompted a lot of questions from many of our friends, ranging from pure curiosity to subtle animosity (“But infant baptism isn’t even in the Bible!!!”). For this reason, I thought it would be best to better explain the decision to switch to the PCA and begin pursuing my ordination there.
I want to note from the outset that these reasons are generalizations and are not always true of every church (whether I make statements about baptistic or Presbyterian churches). I am confident that there are excellent baptistic churches, and lackluster Presbyterian ones. No doubt the strengths I outline of Presbyterian churches below are somewhat utopian. I also want to suggest that these issues are not ones that should break communion between believers (ability to worship together, to participate in the Supper together, etc.), but inevitably will cause us to be a part of different local churches long term. It is unfortunate such choices must be made, but they are a reality in a world still marred by sin and brokenness.
- Order and Process
My wife recently told me a joke that goes something like this: When all the saints are finally with the Lord in glory and are gathered around the throne praising God together, the Pentecostals will be shouting out “Fire!”, the Baptists will be shouting “Water!”, and the Presbyterians will be shouting “Order!” (but what will the Lutherans be shouting? “Beer!”?).
Church order is probably one of the things Presbyterians are best known for. Each church in the PCA has to subscribe to the Book of Church Order, which basically tells each church how the they are to function. Now it is true that having such firm processes in place can be the cause of much bureaucracy, delays in making decisions, etc. However, I find the order and process of Presbyterians to have many advantages.
First, there is no need to reinvent the wheel in every new church. Many non-denominational churches/baptistic churches spend a lot of time, energy and money trying to figure out order and processes for themselves every time a new church starts. In addition, many mistakes are made and people are hurt by poor decisions and lack of process. Every church needs to have the same processes in place that the Book of Church Order has in order to function healthily. Presbyterians just put these things in place to make things easier and healthier for everyone. These processes help make the church more beautiful as we look forward to our wedding with our Groom.
My wife and I once visited a church from within our network in Southern California. This church was in a dangerous and disastrous place. Although it had been operative for many years, it had no conception of church membership, standards for elders in place, good financial structures, etc. They were basically on the brink of collapse – all because they had been operating with lack of good ministry order and process. I can’t imagine how many Christians were hurt by that church in recent years.
- Standards for Ministry and the Role of a Pastor
One of the hardest things for me as someone pursuing the pastorate was how different the standards of ministry could be across baptistic churches – even those that were within my denomination and network. I found that it was entirely possibly for me to speak with pastors from 12 different churches and find 12 different standards for what it would take to become a pastor/elder. Some churches required seminary, others did not. Some required a certain age, others did not. Some required that you needed to have robust theological knowledge, others just required that you be a Calvinist. Some required working knowledge of the original languages, others said there was no use for them (so dangerous!). Some required a certain amount of experience and hands on training, others did not.
At one point while I was serving at a fairly large non-denominational church, I was told by one pastor that I couldn’t stay at the church because I was a Calvinist. Another pastor told me that it was fine, so long as I continued to serve under him. Two pastors in the same church who didn’t even agree on how God’s grace operated or how to interpret the Bible – how could this be? How could we expect fruitful ministry among pastors who don’t even submit to the same standards within the same church?
In addition, many churches disagreed on what exactly the role of a pastor was. Many churches see the pastor as nothing more than an inspirational speaker and CEO. Few churches have a thorough understanding of what it means for a pastor to be a physician of the soul. Pastoral counseling was often absent (or sub-par at best). Church discipline was often ignored.
This naturally raised questions for me: How do I know which standard is correct? Does one church (often in the hands of a few men) have the power to do define the standard? If we fundamentally disagree on the role of a pastor, can we even serve together? Why are the standards for ministry often so low at the expense of the care for the people of the church? Many baptistic churches use the phrase “Strive to act like an elder, even without the title.” But how does that work, if none of them agree on what an elder is or his qualifications?
This is why I am grateful for the standards of ordination and the understanding of the office of pastor. All conservative Presbyterian churches (PCA, OPC, etc.) generally have the same standards and articulation of the role of a pastor, because they come from the same rich Reformed heritage. These standards for ministry have been held and used successfully for centuries. Am I frustrated that my ordination process and path to ministry has basically had to start from scratch? Absolutely. But my gratefulness for a solid process of examination outweighs the frustration.
A church that takes the Word of God seriously should have high standards for those who are allowed into the ministerial offices. How else can the character of an individual be truly assessed? How else can one’s understanding and handling of various Scriptural texts be examined? How can someone pastor people well if he hasn’t received robust training?
- Consistent, Confessional Catechesis
The leftover Baptist in me had to use alliteration! By catechesis here I simply mean the full breadth of teaching in a church. One of the struggles I had as a Baptist was whenever someone would ask me for church recommendations in other cities. It was very difficult for me to recommend another non-denominational or baptistic church – even from those within my network. The reason for this is because I had no idea what they taught. Even if I listened to a handful of sermons, I still wouldn’t know the broader scope of their teaching. Even as a Baptist, I tended to recommend Presbyterian churches to my friends.
Here’s the deal – brief 10-point belief summaries on a church website are not enough to tell anyone what you believe. The Gospel Coalition Confessional Statement is far too short to be the new confessional standard for churches (although that is the trend at this time). These statements don’t tell me how you read or interpret the Bible. They rarely tell me how a church understands sacraments, marriage, how God’s grace is understood, the place of good works in a believer’s life, whether a church is dispensational or covenantal, the view on the Lord’s Day, what historic synods and councils you affirm, etc. Such short statements don’t help me understand how you’re going to handle various texts of Scripture. These website summaries of belief are simply insufficient at best, and they tell an individual very little about what beliefs are actually held within a given church (I love a Baptist church that vocally affirms the 1689 LBC, though!).
Conservative Presbyterian churches must subscribe to the system of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and its catechisms. These documents contain a succinct overview of the Christian faith and the teachings of the Bible from a consistent Reformed perspective. This means that although some practical applications across Presbyterian churches of various doctrines may vary, by and large the teaching, interpretation and application of the Scriptures are going to be the same. I can have confidence that if I attend a PCA church in California I’m going to hear the Bible taught, preached and applied from the same perspective that I’m getting at my church in Northern Virginia.
- Covenant Theology
God’s covenants with man are what tie all of the Scriptures together. They teach us about God’s saving initiative toward his undeserving people, chiefly seen and offered to us in Jesus Christ. A robust understanding of covenant theology reminds us that we are not merely saved as individuals, but that we are saved into a corporate family – the church. Against the backdrop of 20th century individualism which is rampant in many evangelical churches, I find the covenantal backdrop of Presbyterian teaching refreshing and needed. If you want to know more about Covenant theology, see WCF chapter 7 (see how useful these confessional documents are?).
- Ministry Philosophy
The above points all have very practical implications for how a church perceives and develops a philosophy of ministry. Presbyterian churches – with their numerous processes – tend to develop long-term philosophies of ministry that focus on long-term goals. Decisions aren’t made without thoroughly looking at multiple sides of an issue. Many baptistic folks look at the long-term view as somehow being less missional or less evangelistic. I believe the opposite is true. Long-term ministry philosophy saves both ministers and members of a church from ministry burnout. Such long-term ministry philosophy also tends to be broader in scope, focusing on God’s redemptive work in all of creation (vocation, ministries of mercy, etc.).
The standards of ministry and confessional standards of Presbyterian churches also tend to create churches that invest in deeper discipleship of both potential ministerial candidates and church members alike. The role of the church in raising up mature Christians is taken very seriously. There are numerous impacts on the preaching and teaching ministries of the church and the role each Christian plays in it.
An emphasis on covenant theology – properly applied – leads to deeper understandings of the church as family. This often leads to a greater urgency for adoption, communal gatherings and fellowship, mutual edification, etc. Reconciliation among Christians is held in high regard. A solid grasp on covenant theology has beautiful ramifications for the body of Christ.
- Runner Up: Baptism
Many people have been surprised that infant baptism (I prefer the term covenant baptism) was not one of my main reasons for becoming Presbyterians. After all, this is one of the chief distinctions of the Presbyterian tradition. While I knew this would be something I would have to wrestle with, it was not difficult for me to accept and cherish the covenant baptism position. While I don’t have room to offer up a full defense of this position, I will summarize the most convincing arguments for me as follows:
- Covenantal Continuity – it is clear from the New Testament that baptism replaces the old sign of the covenant (circumcision). This is evident from places such as Colossians 2:11-12. Thus we would expect a certain continuity between how and to whom the sign of the covenant is applied both in the old and new. Further, the Bible places emphasis on the covenant being family-centered and not individual-centered (Gen 17:7-9, Galatians 3:9-14, Acts 2:39, etc.). We are inheriting the promises of a family covenant, just as saints of the old covenant did.
- Circumcision and Baptism Symbolize the Same Spiritual Blessings – Circumcision was to be a sign of a spiritual reality, circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16, 30:6, Ezek. 36:24-27). However, physical circumcision did not guarantee spiritual circumcision. It was a sign of righteousness that could only be received by faith (Rom. 4:11). It pointed to union with Christ and his sacrificial death (Colossians 2:11-12).
Baptism conveys these same spiritual blessings. It symbolizes spiritual regeneration of the heart (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 5:23), union with Christ and righteousness that is to be received by faith (Gal. 3:26-29, Romans 6:3, Colossians 2:11-12).
- Covenant Baptism Emphasizes God’s Initiative Toward Us – Baptism is not merely a symbol of our response in faith to God, it is primarily a symbol of his amazing grace extended toward a sinner (just look at God’s covenant with Abraham in Gen. 15!). Continuing to apply the new sign of the covenant to infants symbolizes God’s relentless grace. Raising children and teaching them that they were baptized because God has been coming after them even before they could comprehend his existence is incredibly powerful.
- The Expansion of the Covenant Blessings – New Testament texts commanding baptism are always more inclusive than the texts commanding circumcision. Under the old covenant, only males of Israel were circumcised. In the new covenant, women and gentile disciples are included in the sign of baptism. How strange would it be then to insist – based on the absence of texts suggesting so – that someone who used to receive the covenant sign would no longer receive it! Baptists insist that because there is absence of a command to baptize infants, we cannot do so. Presbyterians insist that it is precisely because the New Testament is relatively silent on the issue that we should continue to observe what was practiced in the Old.
- Children are Highly Regarded in the New Testament – The promise of the Holy Spirit is given to the children of those who are present at Pentecost (Acts 2:39). Jesus rebukes his disciples’ arrogance for the way they treat children (Luke 18:15-17). Paul talks to children in the church as if they are members of the church (Eph. 6:1-3, Col. 3:20).
For more information on covenant baptism, click here.
This article is printed with permission.