Being Presbyterian (in a city or region)

Being Presbyterian (in a city or region)

To many, the idea of denominations seems irrelevant or even a bad idea. Often people speak against the ‘institutional church’ as if the moment that some formal structure is developed, that must be a bad thing. Of course, there have been many times that the ‘institutional church’ has done poor things or has been too slow to do good things! That doesn’t mean we should ignore all connections between churches. There are very good reasons for churches to be connected to one another rather than to be isolated from others.

Independent local churches have advantages. They are not answerable to anyone else, so they can do whatever they want with no questions asked. They can change their structures and even their theology with little interference from outside. But it’s not all positive. With no outside connections or help, what happens when something goes wrong? When a pastor or leadership team acts in an ungodly way or not in line with what the Bible teaches? Or when there is a dispute between the congregation members and the leadership? When problems come, there is no-one to help.

There is a Biblical precedent for churches working together for common goals. The obvious one is Acts 15, the council of Jerusalem. A theological issue arose in Antioch, and advice was sought from the wider church. There was debate, appeal to the Scriptures, and a resolution that brought unity to the network of churches. There are many times that collective wisdom is better than just that of an isolated leadership group in a local church. There also might be opportunities for supporting missionaries (such as Paul, sent from Antioch and supported by many churches) and giving to those in need (like the offering for the famine in Jerusalem mentioned in a number of Paul’s letters). There are positives in working together.

Presbyterian churches are connected to one another in special ways. The churches in a region meet together as a group called the Presbytery. This is a meeting of representative elders from all the churches in a region. In our denomination, the Presbytery meets five times a year as well as for examinations and ordination services. The Presbytery is responsible for maintaining the theology of the local churches, mainly through training, examining and supporting the elders. All pastors in the WPC are examined (very thoroughly, I might add!) in their understanding of the Bible, theology, history, original languages, and more. This gives confidence to those who attend a WPC church that the preacher they will hear has been examined and trained well. The Presbytery deals with issues that impact the wider church in the region, such as missionaries, supporting church planting and newer churches, and dealing with issues as they arise.

We must not see the Presbytery as some big, faceless external body that tells local churches what to do. No, the elders in a local church have full control over the ministries they run, the missions they support, and the property they own. The Presbytery is a wider assembly not a higher one; we are not a hierarchy. The Presbytery aims to support the local church, to have checks and balances over the teaching of the Word, and to deal with problems and disputes and practical issues as needed.

I have personally been encouraged by the work of Presbytery many times. Our local church has benefitted in the past by borrowing an elder from a sister church when we were in great need and didn’t have enough in leadership. We borrowed money from Presbytery to help purchase our church building. Our elders have been examined by Presbytery representatives. We have had preachers in our services and at our camps from sister churches. And it is an encouragement to meet with and know other brothers in Christ who are on the same page theologically and practically.

If a problem arises in the local church, such a dispute between the members and elders, or an issue with a pastor, the Presbytery can be called on to help. This has happened a number of times in recent history in our denomination. We want to be concerned for our sister churches when they are in need; being connected together should make us all stronger.

Being connected is more than just with the churches near us. There are churches elsewhere in the country too. How do we connect with them? That’s a question for the next blog post.