What is a “Presbyterian”?

Hansen Wendlandt, Nederland

You know more about your faith tradition than I do, but as I understand it, Buddhists look to Buddha or Buddha nature, Rastafarians look to Ras Tafari, and Judaism grew in Judah, a name for part of Israel. And yet not all religious groups have such clear descriptive names.

The “Catholic” church is named for an Ancient Greek contraction, kata-holos, which means “according to the whole” or “universal.” Non-denominational congregations get to have all sorts of fun names, like Calvary, Flatirons, or Chapel in the Hills. (No surprise that people around here think about mountains when they think about God….)
About 500 years ago in Europe a number of people began to “testify for” new understandings of God, which they used to formulate new church structures—hence the “Protestant Reformation.” Notice, that was less about “protesting” in the activist, sometimes quarrelsome sense we have today, and more about people declaring their own thoughts and moving forward however they could.

Out of that Protestant movement we got Lutherans, who look back on a pretty cool guy named Martin Luther; and the Mennonites, who first followed a guy named Menno Simons. We got the Baptists, who thought baptism was pretty important; and the Methodists, who thought a “methodical” spiritual practice was faithful; and the Puritans, who aimed for, you guessed it, moral purity.

We also got the Episcopal Church, which is organized with bishops, whose title in the Greek is epi-scopos or “over-seers,” though in the UK they are called, with classic British subtlety, the Church of England.

The other main folks to come from the Protestant Reformation were the Presbyterians, the tradition with which the Nederland Community Church relates. (If you mix up the letters in the word “Presbyterians,” you can write “britney spears,” though, by the grace of God, that says nothing about us….)

In the Biblical Greek, the word presbyter means simply “old wise dude,” although I’m proud to say that Presbyterians were one of the first American religious groups to open leadership to women, and many congregations today count teenagers among their spiritual leaders—shout out, Katie Haynes.

The point is, our name points to our sense that the Spirit works through regular people in community, not just through our founder, John Calvin, or pastors like me, or people who tend to do religion well. We like to think that God sanctifies the called, rather than calls the sanctified.

Presbyterianism is the tradition most associated with predestination, the idea that God saves whoever God wants, regardless of any effort or spiritual success we might make. If you think God is harsh and judgmental, predestination can feel helpless, unfair or anxious. But if you trust in a loving, grace-filled God, it can be Good News that our ultimate destiny is in God’s hands, rather than ours; or at least that’s Good News to me, since I know I make a lot of mistakes.

Today there are all kinds of Presbyterian groups. Some have splintered off into various acronyms (PCA, EPC, ECOPS, OPC, RPC, CRC, and more), often to emphasize their position on the Bible and controversial modern issues. The Presbyterian Church USA, the specific group with which your Ned church is affiliated, remains the largest. We try to follow the Spirit working through diverse wise folks, as we promote justice for oppressed folks, such as migrant workers and LGBTQ folks; serve and work with the poor all over the world, and try to live into the sort of Kingdom Jesus preached.

Denominations do not matter to American culture nearly as much as they did 50 years ago, and their institutional nature might spell their downfall in another 50 years. But for now, Presbyterians, like people of faith all over the globe, are trying to listen together to how God is moving afresh. My hope is that, even as we stumble over ourselves with hypocrisy and failed love, Presbyterians might become a church that “prays the best,” a phrase which, if you scramble the letters, spells “britney spears”….