A few weeks ago, I entered into a conversation with a member of our congregation about what it means to be Presbyterian. Now, I have to state at the outset that a good portion of our congregation did not grow up Presbyterian, and even those who did would have a hard time explaining it. I remember my first meeting with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry when I started the ordination process. They came back at me and asked why I chose to be Presbyterian. The answer I wanted to give was “because my family was.” I did not give that answer, but that is another letter. An understanding of the Presbyterian Church is elusive at times.
Often times we hear a joke here or there about Presbyterians. In the ’70s television show M*A*S*H, at one time or another at least half of the main characters claimed to be Presbyterian. Other shows have alluded to it. One person claimed that the television show 7th Heaven supposedly featured a Presbyterian pastor. I don’t really know, I never saw the show. The point of this is that the Presbyterian Church is a fixture within the American culture and is an active participant in it, though what we believe and understand is elusive to many in our community and in our churches.
The funny thing about the Presbyterian Church is the fact that most Presbyterian churches are a mix of people from various ideologies and backgrounds. An observant person once pointed out to me that as Presbyterians, we all have the right answers; they’re just not always the correct ones. How can that be? It comes to a basic understanding of our relationship to God and to the world. First of all, we are not perfect; in fact, we believe that human nature will always compel us to make the wrong choice over the right one.
This is because sin pervades all areas of our life. Thus, we have to keep our actions in check. However, no action, good or bad, can offer or reject salvation. It is God’s choice to save someone based in the love and freedom of God. We believe that God sent his son to die so that those whom God has chosen to be his elect might be saved. Thus once God has chosen you, God’s grace is irresistible; and once that has happened, though you may fight it or try and run away, like in the story of the prodigal son, the love of God will ultimately win out.
This basis is called TULIP theology: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. These five Calvinistic theological points are from the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and they become very central in the later reformed theological dialogue. Though much of our theology has evolved from the basic TULIP theology, there is a simple truth, as we see in many of our basic theological understandings, that God is in control and we are not.
Within our greater society, we see people trying harder and harder to get “control,” whether political, social, economic, or otherwise. Unfortunately, as many people observe, the more we think we are in control, the more we realize that we are not. Maybe in the short term we can fool ourselves, but in the long term it becomes clear who really has control, and that is God. Thus, as an imperfect bunch, we rely on God’s work to transform us and reform us.
During my first Doctor of Ministry class, I made the crucial mistake of misquoting one of the central statements of the reformed tradition. I wrongly said, “As Presbyterians, we are reformed and always reforming.” Dr. Stroup, one of the two professors for the class, quickly corrected me stating, “No, we are reformed and always being reformed.” Granted, I knew as those words came out of my mouth they were wrong, but as I have thought about it, I realize how a different phraseology can make a world of difference.
It is God’s work within us that makes the difference. NO church can be THE church. And no church can have a faithful life with God unless we open our hearts and minds to the transformative nature of God. It is amazing what happens when you do that.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen