Who We Are As Presbyterians
Solana Beach Presbyterian Church is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first and largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. As is true with historic mainline denominations, the PC(U.S.A.) is diverse and the 10,000 congregations differ from place to place in size, theology, mission, and ethos. Most immediately, we are part of the Presbytery of San Diego, which is a Christ-centered, relational and missional collaboration of Presbyterian churches in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Personally, I did not start out a Presbyterian but was drawn to the Presbyterian fold because of its solid Biblical foundation and because of the way Presbyterians run their ship. A peek at Presbyterian history will explain.
The Presbyterian expression of the Christian faith emerged at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's. The church of that era was split between the western church, controlled by Rome, and the eastern church headquartered in Constantinople. The Roman Catholic Church dominated the scene in western Europe. By the turn of the 16th century, the church had grown pretty corrupt. Many voices spoke out to reform the church. One was Martin Luther, a loyal theology professor at a Catholic seminary in Wittenberg, Germany. He was deeply distressed by the pope's scheme to raise money to build what is now St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The pope received funds by promising donors a shorter stay in purgatory (the fund-raising motto was "When a coin in the kettle rings, a soul from purgatory springs!"). Luther protested these indulgences by tacking up on the door of the Wittenberg Church, on October 31, 1517, ninety-five theses or reasons he thought this scheme was a bad idea. Luther wanted to initiate a spirited discussion. The pope was not amused and kicked Luther out of the church.
The more he searched his soul, the more Luther realized the church had drifted far from its Biblical moorings. He rediscovered the key truths that are the foundation of the Protestant movement worldwide:
- We are saved by grace alone, not grace plus our good works.
- We receive this grace by faith alone, not by faith plus our good works.
- Our source of truth is Scripture alone, not by the Bible AND church tradition.
- The church consists of a priesthood of all believers; all have a direct connect to God.
With many social, political and economic factors mixed in, these new thoughts ignited a spiritual revolution. It started in Germany and soon spread to Switzerland. The reformers in Geneva asked a young man studying law in Paris to come and be their teaching pastor. John Calvin agreed. A brilliant Bible teacher and organizer, Calvin's influence catalyzed the Presbyterian movement. His distinctive contributions to the Reformation include:
- The Academy - Calvin was determined that everyone should be educated so that everyone could read the Bible and hear God's voice for themselves. Geneva spawned the first public schools, and education is a key component wherever Calvin's influence is felt.
- The Presbytery -- The word "Presbyterian" comes from the New Testament Greek word, presbuteros, which simply means "elder." Calvin passionately believed that the church should be governed, not by a pope and his appointed hierarchy, but by the people and the leaders they elect. Calvin was obsessed with making sure there were checks and balances to power, so that the church would not be dominated by a few. So Presbyterian churches the world over are led by a Session - teaching elders (pastors) and ruling elders called and elected by the members of the congregation.
Sitting under Calvin's electric teaching was a young Scotsman, John Knox. He returned to Scotland in 1559 and persuaded his native land to join the Presbyterian revolution. In a generation, the Presbyterian emphasis on the education of all members and the leadership of elders transformed Scotland from being the most backward country in Europe to being the most enlightened! Waves of migration carried many of these Scottish and Irish Presbyterians to the new world, where their influence was considerable. The anti-hierarchical leanings of these Presbyterians added fuel to the revolutionary fires in the colonies. In fact King George called it the "Presbyterian Revolt." At least fourteen signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians! The model of government adopted by the framers of the Constitution was borrowed from the Presbyterian system of checks and balances and from our tradition of elected, representative leadership.