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What's a Presbyterian?

· Presbyterian,Elders,Church

Sometimes, when a new acquaintance learns of my occupation, I am asked what it actually means to be a “Presbyterian.” This, of course, is a complicated question. Depending on the person who has asked, I might speak about the history of a certain church tradition or about the centrality of grace in our understanding of salvation. But when I can see that the person is looking for a technical answer, I speak about church politics.

The word “presbyterian” itself refers to one of three types of church governments, with the other two being episcopalian (a hierarchical structure involving bishops and archbishops) and congregational. It’s derived from the Greek word meaning “council of elders,” and this background really gets to the heart of it: presbyterian churches are elder-led. Rather than having a single “rector” over a congregation or being completely democratic (with all major decisions made by a congregational vote) a group of elders (both lay and clergy) collectively is tasked with the spiritual oversight of their congregation.

In addition to being elder-led, presbyterian churches are also elder-connected. We don’t have any bishops who oversee a network of churches, and yet at the same time we are committed to maintaining connections of accountability and support between churches. And the way we do this is by the elders of every individual church also taking on the responsibility to help support and supervise other like-minded churches. Every few months Brent, Michael, and I (and often at least one of our ruling elders) join together with elders of other PCA churches in the area to consider how we can work together (we call this a presbytery meeting).

This past week our denomination held its annual General Assembly, where elders from the entire congregation gathered together in one place to deal both with business matters and important questions facing the denomination. While no major bills (which we call “overtures”) were passed this year, there were important discussions about racial reconciliation and about how to promote the use of women's gifts and ministry in the church. (Discussion of the latter focused upon the carefully-written study committee report that you can find here).

As is our tradition, this summer we will tangibly experience the connectedness of presbyterianism by way of our annual “pulpit swap.” For the Hinsdale congregation, Geoff and Aaron Baker will be preaching at each other’s churches this Sunday, and then in July Michael will be swapping with Paul Vroom (of Missio Dei in New Lennox).

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