Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

It happened again yesterday. I lose track in the last nine years how often the question comes, but for some reason yesterday was a tipping point that sends me today to the keyboard and this blog.

Here’s the question (asked sometimes kindly and sometimes with less kindness, but always basically the same):

“Why are you still in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Don’t you know it is in decline because it is too liberal/too conservative, too traditional/too trendy, too political/not political enough, etc.?”

Well, here’s why.

1. I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints (since no one person or church or doctrine can capture all of God), and you will encourage your people to never stop learning. Which leads to…

2. Because God is big, we have a lot to learn. We have ten PCUSA seminaries in the United States. Count ’em. Ten. We have sixty-five PCUSA-related colleges and universities in this country. Which is not a typo. That’s a lot of higher education institutions for a denomination our size, and there are lots of conversations about closing some of them down. Whether they all make it or not, the fact that we value the education of clergy and laypeople enough to invest in these institutions is itself indicative of a very important denominational value: we believe because God is sovereign and we’ll never know all of God there is to know, our leaders should be life-long learners, exposed to the depths of the tradition, and given the tools to interpret not only scripture but the congregations we serve and the world in which we live. John Calvin said that Christians should never fear knowledge, no matter where it comes from, because any time we learn more of the truth about the world we are learning more about God. You will rarely find a Presbyterian dismissing science or running from an insight because it might challenge her or his faith, and you’ll rarely find a Presbyterian who doesn’t place a high value in thinking for him or her self. Which makes us a rather diverse and disputatious lot…

3. We fight a lot, but we fight fair. If God is sovereign and education is paramount, it follows that if you have ten Presbyterians in a room you’ll have at least twenty opinions. We spend a lot of time in groups talking about what it means to follow Christ, and sometimes those conversations get heated. But we spend a comparable amount of time making sure all voices are heard and all perspectives are honored. Decision-making is therefore messy and slow, and we all spend a fair amount of time complaining about it. But we’ll take messy and slow if it means honoring all the people of God in their rich diversity. And we realize diversity extends beyond the relatively small boundaries of our little denomination, which means…

4. We think it is important to play well with others. In any city in America, you will find Presbyterian (USA) folk partnering with other Presbyterian denominations, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists, and and many others in the work of the Spirit in the world. We welcome their members to take Communion at our tables and their ministers to preach from our pulpits. We see ourselves as a small part of a much larger family of faith, and we have much to learn from them. We do not believe that the Presbyterian way is the only way. Why? See #1 above. Lot’s of things follow from #1, including the last reason I am still Presbyterian (USA)…

5. The world needs our witness. Jonathan Sacks says in America we no longer broadcast, we narrow-cast. It is possible to  construct our world in such a way that we can go through our day never encountering an alternative point of view. Our politics seems irreparably polarized. Ideology trumps everything else. And when you look at religion, it is much the same. Denominations splinter into churches of the like-minded. People run from church to church looking for places that “fit” their own world view. Special interest groups dominate the conversations within denominations. The world and the universal church need to see a group of people who know how to stay together even when they do not always agree, a group of people who believe at the core of their faith that they will never know all of God there is to know and who therefore refuse to narrow-cast. The PCUSA does not do this perfectly, but it does try to be this kind of witness in a world that desperately needs it. It defies the easy categories our culture is so good at imposing (and my interlocutors are always asking me about) – liberal/conservative, traditional/contemporary, Democratic/Republican.

That’s why I’m PCUSA. Still. Because my primary identity is Child of God, a God so much bigger than the categories we seek to impose. The five reasons above will probably not satisfy the people who ask the question of me, but in the end I’m not trying to satisfy them. I’m just trying to be faithful to my call. And I’m so very grateful to be able to do so among these sisters and brothers in our little corner of Christ’s big Church.

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