What is a Presbyterian?
Suppose four people came walking down the street, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. Question: How could you tell which person was the Presbyterian? Answer: You couldn't. Presbyterians look pretty much like everyone else. We are a church of much diversity in background, race, age, and culture. Traditionally, however, Presbyterians have exhibited certain characteristics.
A European monarch once said, "I'd rather face ten thousand bowmen armed with spear and arrow than one Presbyterian armed with predestination and providence." Predestination has nothing to do with fatalism, but refers to the assurance that God's mercy and forgiveness are gracious gifts. Our salvation depends on God's grace, not on our works, and thus cannot be lost. Providence refers to the assurance that we and all creation are under God's watchful care.
The net result of holding these assurances has often been to make Presbyterians literally fearless. We do not fear death (we are in God's hands). We do not fear life (God watches over us). We do not fear the powers of evil and oppression (God is with us). Thus freed from anxiety about salvation, Presbyterians are freed for living life in the world before God, honoring God in all things, combating evil and oppression with confidence and hope.
The motive for a Presbyterian's worship and action in the world is not the effort to win salvation; that is God's gift. The motivation for worship and action is gratitude for God's grace shown in Jesus Christ. Presbyterians confess Christ as Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead. They view Christ as the true Word of God and delight in the Bible as the holy witness to that Word.
Presbyterians have a strong need for God. They have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but also have an abiding sense of being the community of God's covenant people. God comes close to us in Jesus Christ, but Presbyterians never lose sight of the fact that God is GOD!, the awesome, powerful, holy Creator of the universe, worthy of our worship, devotion, and obedience.
In times past when Presbyterians arrived in a new place, they would usually build a church, a school, and a hospital, in that order. The right worship of God is paramount; education is necessary so that we may serve the world in God's name; as Jesus came healing, so do we bind up the wounds of the world.
The European monarch mentioned above had nothing to fear from the Presbyterians as long as he ruled justly and did not oppress the poor. If he did violate God's intention for justice and care, then he had much to fear. Presbyterians believe that God's care extends to every corner of creation. We are stewards of that care; we are ambassadors for Christ, preaching good news, yes, but also opposing injustice, oppression, and evil wherever we find it. A Presbyterian can be very active in the world in God's name. This is what Presbyterians mean by "mission." Because God cares about all parts of society and every nation and people in the world, so do we. Mission is local, national, and worldwide, but it is the same mission: bringing the good news to all creation.
A Presbyterian thinks about his or her faith, wants to understand worship; reads the newspaper and reflects upon the meaning of God for the world. From time to time, Presbyterians write down what they believe in a formal statement called a "confession." This does not replace Scripture; it is meant to interpret Scripture for a particular time. Scripture always remains primary.
One other thing about Presbyterians: When they have a policy or an action to consider, they pray, talk, talk, talk, and then they vote. Presbyterians probably take more votes than any other religious group. Lay and clergy votes count just the same. The Holy Spirit lives in individuals but works through the community. Presbyterians do not think alike and may disagree on any given issue. Sometimes being a Presbyterian may come down to this: thinking hard on a certain issue; advocating a certain policy or action; losing the vote yet continuing faithful support and life in the church.
(c) 1998 Witherspoon Press