Am I a Presbyterian?

I am having an argument with a Christian friend.  He asserts that I am a Presbyterian.  I assert that I am not.  He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree).  His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian.  My argument is somewhat more complex.

It would be a red herring to play the card of identity politics, i.e. that I am not because I say I am not, and I am the one who determines whether I am or not.  While common today, such an approach quickly leads to absurdities, for the simple reason that it is entirely possible to be something without knowing it.  Just think how many people are chordates without knowing it.  One might rephrase the claim of identity politics as, “I am (or am not) X, because I define X to include (or exclude) me.”  But for language to succeed in communicating, most words cannot be allowed such idiosyncratic definitions.  Labels like Presbyterian mean something, and the question is whether that meaning applies to me, not whether I wish the meaning to apply to me.

Instead, my argument relies on the multiple meanings of the word “Presbyterian.”  It seems to me that “Presbyterian” can mean a range of different things when describing an individual Christian:

  1. Someone who believes that churches ought to be governed by elders organized in regional assemblies called “presbyteries” (Presbyterian polity).
  2. Someone who believes in the doctrine contained in certain statements of Christian faith, such as Calvin’s Institutes or the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian doctrine).
  3. A member of a church which practices Presbyterian polity and holds to Presbyterian doctrine, or which has historically done so (Presbyterian membership).
  4. Someone who grew up in a church, a family, or a culture which claimed continuity or inheritance from people described in groups 1-3 above, yet who does not participate in such a church now (Presbyterian heritage, or culture).

There may be other meanings of the term “Presbyterian” when applied to an individual, but this is sufficient to make my case.  This is an ordered list, in the sense that someone described by #1 is “more Presbyterian” than someone described by #4.  Donald Trump has claimed to be Presbyterian (mostly in the context of describing Ben Carson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, as “weird”), yet I presume he could not accurately be described by #1 or #2, and I would be surprised if #3 were true of him as well.  I am probably more Presbyterian than Donald Trump.

So which of these apply to me?  My friend’s argument is that #3 applies, and therefore I am a Presbyterian.  But #1, #2, and #4 do not apply to me.  I have nothing against Presbyterian polity, but I do not regard it as the best form of church organization.  I agree with most of Calvin’s Institutes and most of the Westminster Confession, but I tend to part company with them around where they part company with, say, Thomas Aquinas or John of Damascus.  And I certainly did not grow up in a Presbyterian church, family, or culture; in many ways the assumptions, expectations, and distinctive language of Presbyterianism are unfamiliar to me.

But is #3 enough?  We can subdivide it further.  Some members of Presbyterian churches are members of that church because it is Presbyterian.  Some might be members despite the fact that it is Presbyterian.  In other words, some members place value (whether positive or negative) on the Presbyterian-ness of a church.  I don’t.  I’m a member of my church because I am a member first of the universal Church, the body of Christ, and having found other members of Christ’s church in this local congregation, I have bound myself to them in membership, agreeing to serve with them and to submit to their leadership.  I have never before been a member of a Presbyterian church, and if I one day leave here, I may never be again.  The Presbyterian-ness of the local congregation is irrelevant to me.

In arguments to my friend, I said that I am a member of this local congregation, because I am a member of the universal Church of Christ, but the fact that the local congregation is part of a Presbyterian denomination does not make me a member of a Presbyterian denomination.  Nothing in my membership vows required me to say that I am a Presbyterian, only that I would submit to these Presbyterians.  If the congregation decided to leave the denomination, I would not thereby cease being Presbyterian, because I had never been one to begin with.

I have noticed, however, that various online dictionaries agree with my friend in defining a Presbyterian as a member of a Presbyterian church.  If I would be so contrarian as to reject their authority, I should give an additional reason for asserting that #3 is not enough to label me Presbyterian.  And I appeal to the notion that labels communicate, and they communicate more than a disjunctive assertion (“one of these four things is true”).  Labeling me a Presbyterian almost inevitably gives the wrong impression.  It would suggest to many people either that I identify culturally with Scotland (the common case for Presbyterian culture or heritage).  I have no objection to Scotland, but I am aware that it is not my land.  To many other people it would convey the idea that I agree with the Westminster Confession entirely, or that I have a problem with bishops.  Both are false.  This leaves me with the option of saying either, “Yes, I’m Presbyterian, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means,” or simply, “No, I’m not a Presbyterian, but I worship with them.”  I think the latter is not only shorter, but also clearer.

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2 comments

  1. While I agree that it is immeasurably more significant that one is a member of the true church, I do not find such labels offensive, neither do most faithful Christians I know. These denominational distinctive are significant and should be understood and not disdained as trivial. Faithfulness apart from truth honoring is not faithful at all. My dear theophiletos, me thinks you protest too much.

    1. There are denominational distinctives that are significant, and I agree that we should understand differences among Christians and not just paper over them. Indeed, it is because I regard Presbyterian denominational distinctives as significant that I must insist that I do not hold them! I think not holding those distinctively Presbyterian views is what excludes me from the category.

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