When the Congregation Speaks
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God….” – 1 Peter 2:9
In about 30 days, we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31st, 1517, when a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his historic “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, protesting many aspects of the Medieval Church. The four watchwords of the Reformation are “Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture Alone, and Christ Alone.” The Reformers rediscovered the core message of the Christian gospel; that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who alone is Lord and Savior of life. Much as Copernicus discovered that it was the sun and not the earth that was at the center of the solar system; Luther rediscovered that it is only the saving work of God’s Son, and not our works that can redeem us (Ephesians 2: 8-10). Our good works are an important response to the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ; but they are not the means by which we earn that salvation.
In 1533, a French scholar and law student by the name of John Calvin was converted to the Reformation movement; but Calvin was forced to flee Paris, and establish his pastoral and teaching ministry in Geneva. Through Calvin’s influence there, John Knox brought the Reformation to Scotland and established the Church of Scotland. These Scotch “Presbyterians” were among the first colonists to immigrate to New England.
The word “Presbyterian” refers to the way decisions are made. We are a church governed by presbyters, a word meaning, “elder.” In the Reformed tradition, elders are prayerfully chosen by the congregation to provide spiritual leadership. Our form of representative government contrasts with the episcopal form where a church is ruled by bishops or “overseers” as in the Methodist and Episcopalian churches; and the papal form that invests authority in Peter’s successors - the Roman Catholic tradition.
With their participatory form of church government, Presbyterians were closely associated with the Revolutionary War and, in fact, Lord Dartmouth declared, “When the war is over, it will become apparent that Presbyterianism is really at the bottom of the whole conspiracy.” Presbyterians had a major impact on the formation of the United States government since many of the participants at the Constitutional Convention were Presbyterians, including the only clergymen to sign the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon.
Here is the key to understanding Presbyterian polity: In the Presbyterian Church, final decisions are made not by individuals but by groups of people, a gathering of clergy and laypersons. This is a biblical form of decision making that can be traced back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the original disciples, including the women (Acts 1: 14), gathered to select someone to replace Judas after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1: 15-26); and the very first Jerusalem Council in AD 46 which affirmed Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (Acts 11: 1-18).
When you vote as a member or serve as a church officer, when you attend this Sunday’s congregational meeting and let your voice be heard, you are engaging in a prayerful form of decision making that is more than two thousand years old; and that was revived at great cost five hundred years ago this October. But is this really different from another office, club, or PTA meeting? Yes, because when the congregation of St. John’s speaks it does so as the sacred assembly of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2: 9-10). It’s Revolutionary, it’s Presbyterian, it’s Biblical. So join us as we celebrate this past year of ministry, and share about future goals for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hope to see you soon…