Why be a Presbyterian? (Or why I am, anyway)

I read the story about the Presbyterian pastor drought in Eternity (that I wrote a response to here) was released on the final day of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland’s state assembly. These normally happen in June, but Covid-19, and a few other circumstances, have bumped the schedule this year.

The Presbyterian Church of Queensland is at a bit of a crossroads; we’re putting together ‘think tanks’ and reviews to figure out the denomination’s future and look hard at its culture and structures, we have vacancies all over the the state, including in some of our biggest and most strategically important churches (in terms of pipelines in to ministry, at least).

A huge part of me, reading the Eternity article, while sitting in a room on the last day of Assembly, thought “this,” “this is why we have a pastor drought.” Assemblies aren’t my favourite things. Every year at the State Assembly, or every three years at the General Assembly of Australia feels like a contest to define what the word ‘Presbyterian’ means.

The wagon circling thing I described in the last post is a natural response by a conservative denomination, defined by not going into church union (the Uniting Church), facing a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. But it’s hard, if you’re the sort of person who likes the Protestant Reformation because of the Spirit of always challenging and reforming institutions and status quos because of the fundamental insights that humans are a limited, sinful, mess and the institutions we create often enshrine that limited, sinful, mess, and that the Bible is God’s word and our actual authority on how to live in God’s world. It’s hard if you want to keep bringing the insights of Biblical scholarship (the Biblical Studies departments in our colleges) into conversation with Historical theology (the doctrine and church history departments), to challenge long established thoughts, and patterns of exegesis, with good and robust scholarship. It’s hard if you want to make the case that whole swathes of previous consensus, both theological and pastoral, have been built on a particular interpretation of a contested passage of Scripture because our pragmatism and decision making processes don’t really make space to tease that out, while at the same time we’re under more pressure than ever to codify our positions on particular issues.

But denominations, and Presbyterianism in particular, are worth persisting with. They’re not for everybody. I’m thankful that the richness of God’s kingdom includes other denominations, and those who sit outside denominations as voices in the wilderness calling for reform and repentance and modelling that. There’s a parallel in what one might call ‘church politics’ and how politics in general operate; to take James Davison Hunter’s critique of modern politics, I don’t want to ‘politicise everything’ and so suggest that everyone should be a Presbyterian (or in an institution) because the guide to Christian faithfulness comes in the form of Presbyterianism or the institutional church, but I do think that institutions are a good thing, and there is wisdom and virtue in seeking to be a faithful presence in an institution for its good and yours. In a thing I once wrote on politics I talked about a paradigm of dirty hands, clean hands, and busy hands. The ongoing reform of our institutions will require people to sign up as members, to get their hands ‘dirty’ in the work of compromise and presence and reform, while it will also require some people not to sign up as members, who model and call for change, and others to do the work of building alternative institutions that might challenge all of us to look at how we’re operating (or to jump ship).

So here are some reasons one might consider signing up for the long process of becoming a party to the institution (or edifice) that is the Presbyterian Church of Australia (or Queensland). And while this might feel like a ‘male only’ enterprise, Queensland has its first candidate for ordination as a deaconess in a long, long, time working her way through Queensland Theological College. She was a student minister in our church, and I’d hate for this bold pioneering woman to have to wait another 30 years for others to join her in occupying an official status within the denomination.

And look, this isn’t actually an encouragement for everyone reading to go into paid full time church based ministry. Churches are a body, we have many parts, you have a part to play, a ‘calling,’ if you’re a Christian; that will express itself in the community of the church (the body) and its work; the work of the kingdom. There’s a very good chance you are not meant to be an ordained Presbyterian Minister. The work of the Gospel here in Australia is going to require a lot more work on things adjacent to Gospel proclamation; the sorts of things that build credibility for the message of the Gospel as we regain lost social capital, and challenge a shifting understanding of how the world works to help the categories at the heart of the Gospel to make sense to the hearts and minds of people counter-formed by the idolatries of our time and place. But that sort of work will, I think, also require churches operating as institutions, which could (and I think does) include denominations. Part of the answer to the pastor drought is, and will be, a rediscovery that the work of the church is not the work of a pastor, but the body.

  1. God is at the heart of Presbyterian theology, and the Gospel of Jesus is good news. Look, I recognise that many of my readers aren’t “Team Calvin” when it comes to the conception of God that animates Presbyterian theology, from Calvin, through the Westminster Confession, to us. God is big, and sovereign, and good. He reveals his bigness and goodness and transcendence to us through the Incarnation of Jesus, and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and makes us alive in him by his Spirit, and raises us into the heavenly realm, as the Spirit unites us to Jesus. Presbyterian theology makes much of God as creator and redeemer; and so makes much of Jesus (it could do more with that last bit about the vivifying work of the Spirit, not just that the Spirit moves us towards faith because we are chosen by God, rather than choosing God for ourselves). It could do better at organising revelation as a Christ centred narrative, rather than building artificial constructions around the Law as part of the whole counsel of God, but I could do more with being reminded that God is creator, not just redeemer, and so creation itself testifies to the divine nature and character of God, not just redemption (though they aren’t at odds, nature is oriented towards grace, just as humanity in Adam finds its fulfilment in humanity in Jesus).
  2. The Presbyterian Church of Australia isn’t just ‘confessional’ — its basis of union makes it primarily ‘Biblical’ — as in, the Bible is our supreme standard, and there is flexibility (provided by the Declaratory Statement, that says this), to be present in the Institution and to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the human conclusions drawn by the Reformers, and the Westminster council. It is a good Reformed, reforming, evangelical, and Christ Centred institution, where, if I’m one of the most progressive voices in the mix, we’re avoiding plenty of divisive issues threatening schism in other institutions. Lots of our internal debates are actually about how much weight we give each aspect of those descriptors; how much ‘Reformed’ we put in the mix as we do the integrative work of theology and practice, and how we navigate a fellowship where different exegetical conclusions, from a faithful theological centre, are brought into communion and community.
  3. The Gospel is good news that creates an institution, a “kingdom” even, a community, a church, a body of believers. There is a deep theological and spiritual unity between believers across time and space that institutions recognise; the move to be local and independent and time bound, in critique of past institutions, often jettisons these connections and the deep, encouraging, and formative truth that we belong to a body far bigger than our own.
  4. Institutions are part of the fabric of society; the collectives and communities of people that help us make meaning. They are, in their occupation of physical space and their traditions and practices, and their teachings about the good life, participants in ‘the commons’; they are plausibility structures that give weight, through community and practice, to ideas. They provide a basis for culture making. The widespread distrust in institutions isn’t a reason to walk away from institutions into a new world order of individual autonomy, it’s a chance to ask questions about, and reform, our institutions to be re-oriented towards a good. Institutions are uniquely equipped to both form and change people and communities. The sort of world that wants to get rid of institutions is a dystopian world imagined by the neo-capitalists on one hand, who want the very wealthy to get wealthy through corporations at the expense of all others, and want institutions to be subject to market forces, oriented to that end, or big government types who want ideologically driven government departments to be responsible for setting and dictating norms. Mediating institutions and communities protect us from both poles. They can, and should, be places that serve as a ‘commons’ — spaces where dialogue can happen in pursuit of good, true, and beautiful things and so people are formed. Institutions can and do, of course, become corrupt and corrupting (see Reformation, The). One way this happens is if institutions either change too rapidly, or don’t change at all. Presbyterianism has the capacity, the theology, and the heritage (both in the Reformation, and the situation around church union in Australia) to navigate those twin poles well. Denominations are well positioned in terms of ‘social capital’ and ‘actual capital’ to be beneficial to society as we articulate a particular vision of the good human life built on the truth and beauty of the Triune God and the Gospel. Non-denominational movements have to start the social capital (and physical capital) game from scratch, often defining themselves against institutions; post Royal Commission (and even post plebiscite) this might be a wise and good, even necessary, path of action. But my frustration with how established denominations have acted historically (and even presently) can either serve as an invitation to be faithfully present in, and seek the good of an institution, or to begin that hard work of institution building elsewhere.
  5. Accountability is a good thing; and the Presbyterian system balances local (congregational), regional/national (top down institutional), and historical (confessional) accountability in a way that seeks to be good and true and beautiful. This does make us slow and conservative, and change feel like turning the Titanic around, but it does stop us being caught up and swept around by every cultural change.
  6. The ‘process’ towards ordination is a good thing. Good things cost money. Ministry traineeships, whether you end up in full time paid vocational ministry or not, are a good in and of themselves. I’d like us to talk about them less as ‘means’ and more as ‘ends’ — you can take two years to be paid to do ministry in your church, as a missionary to Australia, and hopefully have that happen in relationship with a community and other fellow workers who will shape you. I didn’t do a traineeship, I don’t think they have to be norms, but I do think they are good. Theological Colleges and theological education could, (and perhaps) should be drastically overhauled (rote learning languages… puh-lease). But this work is happening. Lots of smart people are putting time and attention to it. The financial cost of study both in opportunity cost, and in dollars spent (or fee-helped), was worth it. I would do it again. Four years to interact deeply with centuries of thinking, and writing, with those further along in the journey, and a bunch of peers — that’s not a means to some professional gig, it’s just a good thing in and of itself. The pinch we feel when asked to give six years to a training process is the pinch of stepping out of a particular way of viewing life and success built on money and security. There are lots of ways we might balance this, or stretch it out so that there’s on the job training, or good opportunities to learn using online tools, etc, but theological education and the chance to be formed as a person who thinks, not just as a worker who is equipped for the task of ministry is invaluable; and too many of us are far too pragmatic coming out of college, which means the education and our vision of what education and formation is needs to be revisited. Assemblies are frustrating because they so often are business meetings about pragmatics, rather than asking questions about ‘what a church is’ or what the church could and should be doing. Our anti-intellectual, pro-vocational approach to education is coming home to roost. We Presbyterians now outsource our brains to committees to do our theology work for us, and then nod along (and vote with) the experts who’ve become impossible to challenge because they are the magisterium the experts (which is tricky if we keep tasking one arm of the theological enterprise, the Doctrine/historical theology department, with the task rather than tackling an integrative engagement with the world). If we keep making theological training a ‘means to an ends’ rather than theological formation an ends in itself we will perpetuate the problem, but that there is a costly pathway is not in itself a problem if the pathway is disciple making and inherently good. I am thankful for my education, and my educators. I’m also thankful for the process outside of theological education that goes alongside ordination; that a person in our denomination is not only internally ‘called’ but is ‘sent’ — capturing the two senses of the Greek word in question — that the checks and balances and relationships around ordination involve congregations, and elders, and other pastors, and theological gatekeepers is a good thing, even if it feels like it can be an inquisition rather than an encouragement.
  7. Our polity would be a good thing if we implemented it. Lots of the failures producing ‘pastor drought’ conditions, are, in my observation not so much a failure of Presbyterian polity (though I have some quibbles, like the ecclesiology that has the minister not be a member of their congregation, but of the Presbytery), but a failure to apply Presbyterian polity. We need to do better work to generate healthy local governance, and better culture and practice in the regional and national courts of the church. The priesthood of all believers is a great tradition of the Reformation, Elders and pastors as shepherd like overseers are a good, Biblical, principle. Elders who aren’t just business managers called on to make strategic decisions, but who largely sit disconnected from the nature of ministry because that has been outsourced to staff (whether a solo pastor, or team) aren’t what our polity imagines. Nor are elders, or pastors, who wield positional authority rather than relational authority (or influence) built from personal example (imitating Jesus) and love. We have a system that should protect and support both the shepherds, and the flock. We just don’t trust it, because at times the slowness of this system has been seen to be an impediment to the ‘mission’ (where the mission has been framed as bums on seats, rather than the long and slow work of discipleship).
  8. We do, or have, had a genuine diversity around a shared theological centre. There are those in our fellowship who believe the Declaratory Statement is a gateway to liberalism, and who’d like us to be more tightly Confessional. And those who have expressed a view that we need more ‘Reformed’ in the mix, particularly, to name names, in response to the ground won in and by (often growing) churches who are especially big on a Christ-centred Biblical theology (at the expense of a more covenantal framework); and so who are primarily on about Jesus, and position God as redeemer in a way that emphasises the Gospel, and salvation, with sometimes a thin doctrine of creation (and re-creation). Such churches have been broad and evangelical, and attracted members (and often elders and ministers) who are less ‘Reformed’ and more ‘Evangelical’ in their outlook and expression. Debates about giving communion to children are trickier to navigate in a congregational context where lots of members aren’t operating with a covenental frame, but have Baptistic backgrounds. How much we accommodate that diversity in our congregations, eldership, and even the assembly while maintaining some distinctive from other faithful churches, denominations, or institutions is a challenge. Divisions and ‘poles’ within the denomination nationally, and locally, coupled with our tightening/wagon circling in the face of a changed ministry context, can lead us to culture war type games against one another where we narrow what ‘Presbyterian’ means, rather than accommodate, but our denomination is richer for its diversity of expressions around a shared theological centre than it would be if we tightened the boundaries and saw participation in both our church communities and our courts as requiring full embrace of a particular theological vision. I don’t disciple my congregants using the Westminster Confession, but the Bible, and I do sometimes feel like the discussions in the courts of the church assume a univocality in what it means to be Presbyterian that simply isn’t there.

So. Sign your life away. It’ll be good for you, and others, if more of us do. A small part of the answer to the pastor drought might be sitting there in front of your computer screen, reading this piece.

For my next trick, though, I’m going to suggest that maybe the ‘pastor drought’ is overblown, and we’ve actually got a ‘church glut’ and an assumption that the model we have been using is the model we should be using.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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