September 7, 2014
To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.
I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you:
Someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.
I had a conversation with a neighbor recently. She lives about a mile up the road, but I often see her as I walk my dog, and on this day she decided to walk with me. During our conversation she asked some questions about Calvin Church.
She told me that she went periodically to a large, nondenominational church in the area, but that she had mixed feelings about it. She then asked me if Presbyterian meant being part of a denomination. I told her it did, and she replied, “No offense, but what I like about going to a nondenominational church is that they aren’t part of a big institution that tells people what to think. She then asked me if I liked being a pastor in a denomination that had a lot of beliefs. Much of what I’ll tell you in this sermon is stuff that I told her, and that she responded in the end, “Wow, I didn’t know.”
I do I get a tad frustrated whenever I hear people say that they don’t like denominational churches because they want to be part of a church that doesn’t tell them what to think. I get frustrated because in truth the exact opposite of what they believe is true. Most non-denominational churches do tell you what to think. Most denominational churches do not tell you what to think.
In reality, Presbyterian churches don’t tell you what you have to think because the whole Presbyterian tradition is based on respecting the conscience of the individual to hear for himself or herself what God is teaching him or her. Meanwhile, because almost all non-denominational churches come from an evangelical tradition that has a particularly strong, common point of view about salvation, the nature of God and humanity, and political perspectives, they often do tell you what to think.
It’s actually because of these and other misperceptions, and because more than half of our members were originally in another tradition (or none at all), I thought it might be good to take some time to talk about what it means to be Presbyterian. The answers will surprise many of you because what you think about Presbyterians may not be true, and what you don’t think about them may be true. So over the next seven weeks we’ll be exploring important ideas about the Presbyterian tradition.
I do understand both the appeal and allure of most of these non-denominational churches. I also understand why people think that they are more freethinking than they really are, and why we are much more freethinking than people think we are. The truth is that most of these non-denominational churches are VERY creative in worship and structure, and their size means that they can offer many great programs. And all of them do a tremendous amount of good. They are very good at helping people whose lives are a mess put their lives back together. They also do a good job of making the Bible and religious thought more accessible. I admire what they do and accomplish, but I also recognize that people judge books by their covers, not their content. And what people see on the outside of these churches does not always reflect the beliefs and theology they have on the inside.
From the outside looking in these churches look like they are open to different perspectives, when generally they’re not. And they look at denominational churches as being rigid and closed, and they’re not. So why do we make those judgments? A lot of it has to do with false American beliefs about the evils of institutions. We are in a period where people distrust institutions, believing anything that isn’t institutional is good, and anything that is institutional is inherently bad. And since denominational churches like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are considered to be institutions, many people outside of us consider us to be bad,… without ever learning much about us.
I can offer lots of explanations for the misconceptions, but instead let me share the experience of one of our former members. A number of years ago, she moved away from here, and now lives in another part of Pittsburgh. She became very involved in a nondenominational church and loved it. She loved the music, the energy, the size, and all the opportunities it offered. So she decided to join the church. It was during the membership classes that she began to see another side of the church.
During one membership class, the participants were given church literature that listed all the board members of the church. She asked the teacher why the leaders were all men with no women? The teacher tried to answer, saying something about how women weren’t qualified to be leaders over men, but that just irritated her more (she had grown up in a Presbyterian tradition where men and women were seen as equals). As she asked more questions, she was told she had to talk to the pastor.
So she made an appointment to speak with him, and he answered her questions by pointing out passages in the Bible saying that women shouldn’t speak in church, that women should not be in leadership positions over men, and that women should be subservient to their husbands, which then extends to women being subservient to men in churches. She asked him what women were qualified to do. He told her that they were qualified to teach (as long as they were supervised by men), cook, serve, and other duties like that. Also, women could teach women.
This put our former member in a quandary. She was in a church that, on the outside, looked very open, creative, and progressive, but turned out to be more rigid than she had thought. She struggled. Does this mean that God was calling her to join the local Presbyterian Church, or to just keep her mouth shut and join this nondenominational church?
One day, while walking through the town, she was struggling and praying about it: “God, if you want me to join the Presbyterian Church and not this one, you have to make it clear and let me know.” As she was praying she saw a friend of hers up ahead talking to a man she didn’t know. She walked up to her friend and said “hi.” Her friend then said, “Let me introduce you to Steve. He’s the pastor of the Presbyterian Church up the street.” Our former member ended up joining the Presbyterian Church. I had a conversation with Steve a year ago. He said that she had become a leader in the church, and was a great addition. What you see on the surface may not necessarily reflect what you discover beneath the surface.
One of the things most of us don’t realize, which is a significant difference between most nondenominational churches and Presbyterian churches, is that many of their pastors have been trained in marketing and publicity. We Presbyterian pastors get no training in that, but we do get significantly more training in Bible, theology, and history. That may be why how we look like from the outside obscures what we are on the inside, but also why many nondenominational churches look like one thing on the outside, and are another on the inside.
The fact that we are in an institutional church makes it look like we are all the same, when in fact most Presbyterian churches are very different. Meanwhile, the fact that nondenominational churches aren’t part of institutions would give the impression that they are very different, but most of them are extremely similar because they follow the same models, whether they are the Willow Creek or Saddleback models (those are two huge churches that have written the book on creating a megachurch).
If you went to Orchard Hill, Northway, Grace (in Cranberry), or Victory churches, you would find churches that are really similar in worship and belief. Their styles are extremely similar because they are all following similar models. Meanwhile, if you went down the street to Park Presbyterian Church, which is part of our denomination, you would find a very different church, with very different worship and beliefs, from us. They are good church filled with good people, led by a very good pastor, Paul Merrill. Their worship and perspectives are different from us, being much more conservative, yet they are part of the same denomination. How can that be?
In fact, if you were to take a tour of Presbyterian churches in the region, you would find a tremendous amount of diversity of theology and worship. Go to Cranberry to Fountain Park Church, one of our churches, and you will find a church whose worship looks much like a coffee house. Go further down route 19 to Wexford Community Presbyterian Church, you will find a church that is much more contemporary like the nondenominational churches. Go further into Pittsburgh to Shadyside Presbyterian Church and you will find a huge, traditional, slightly conservative church filled with marble and columns, and with a massive organ that plays mostly classical music. Then, go about ½ mile away to East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where you’ll find a massive cathedral that holds very progressive beliefs, and that plays both classical and world-style music.
Despite our differences we are all part of the same denomination. How can that be? Should we all believe the same things and be the same way, especially if we are all part of a supposedly evil institution that binds our thinking?
What is it that really makes us Presbyterian if we are all so different? At its most basic level, it’s all in our name: “Presbyterian.” What makes us Presbyterian? It’s the fact that we are led by presbyters. You have to dig into our name to understand what I mean, although you already sort of understand it. For example, do you need reading glasses to read this sermon? If so, then you have presbyopia, which means “old eyes.” To be a Presbyterian doesn’t mean we are old, but it does mean that we are led by elders. The name, “Presbyterian,” refers simply to how we structure ourselves. We do not have bishops (those are “episcopal” churches, from the Greek word episkopos, or “bishop”). And we are not congregational. To be Presbyterian simply means that we raise up people of wisdom, whom we call “elders,” to lead us in seeking and doing God’s will. We aren’t necessarily bound by a rigid set of beliefs. We are bound by how we structure our churches. We raise up elders to lead us, and the word “elder” simply refers to people of wisdom.
We are rooted in our passage, as Paul tells Titus to raise up elders to lead the churches in Crete. The Presbyterian movement was an attempt, as part of the larger Reformed movement, to get the 16th Century church back to the structure of the early church. It was an attempt to move away from the Roman Catholic structure that lifted up priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes as the main leaders, and to get back to a structure where you had lay elders leading the church. Our tradition is one that does not invest all power in the pastor (or what we call “teaching elders”), but seeks a balance of pastors and elders (what we call “ruling elders”) so that together we can discern God’s will. The idea was to create a church that balances leadership between laity and clergy, between young and old, and now between male and female. It is a system both of checks and balances, of shared leadership, grounded in the wise attempt to seek what God is calling us to be and do.
This is different from how many of the nondenominational churches are structured. Let me give you an example of what I mean. We had a discussion on our session several weeks ago, and in the discussion one of our elders brought up a conversation she had had with a friend of hers. The friend was part of a smaller, non-denominational church that wanted to grow more quickly. They had engaged with Victory Family Church, a large, non-denominational church that is part of the semi-denominational Victory Association. Victory, according to this friend, has a mission where they will help four churches a year grow more numerically. But there are a number of stipulations. One of the main stipulations is that the church has to agree to dissolve it’s board immediately and change it’s structure to a more corporate one, with the senior pastor as equivalent to the CEO, and other staff as the equivalent to the presidents and vice-presidents.
The truth is that creates a much more efficient structure. If Calvin Presbyterian Church had that structure, we might even be much larger while I ruled by like the CEO of Calvin, Inc. The model for this structure is not the Bible, but American business. This model arises out the marketing and business fields. I don’t share this with you to criticize Victory. They do a lot of great things, and do a great job of reaching out to people whose lives are a mess. They help many people and families rebuild their lives. At the same time, we Presbyterians believe in shared lay/clergy leadership, where clergy are accountable to other elders, and elders are accountable to clergy. It is a biblical model.
I get the appeal of a business model for church. I had an opportunity to create a church much more like Victory before I came to Calvin Church. I worked for a while on creating a new church development in the North Hills, and walked away from it when too many Presbyterian pastors became worried that the new church would siphon members from their church. Before I walked away from it, I had a number of people suggest to me that I just walk away from the Presbyterian Church and start my own non-denominational church. It certainly would have made church easier, and I could have grown it much faster. But it would also be MY church, not Christ’s church. It would have been about numerical growth, not spiritual growth. And it would have been a temple for me, not God. I believe in elder leadership. I believe in the communal pursuit of God’s will with others of wisdom. I don’t believe in just creating a monument to me.
So,… ultimately to be a Presbyterian means simply to be part of a tradition that raises up people of wisdom (elders), who seek God’s will together and lead others to follow in that direction. We may not always do it well, or efficiently, but it is what binds us. It’s not about believing the right things, acting the right way, and worshiping the right way. It’s simply about seeking the wise way TOGETHER