The quirks of Presbyterianism
in relation to my Anabaptist roots
My wife and I are religious schizophrenics—we are deeply rooted in both the Presbyterian and Anabaptist traditions. These traditions seem to be polar opposites, though in many ways, the opposite is true. I would like to briefly explore my thoughts on their similarities and differences.
My wife and I grew up in the Apostolic Christian Church (ACCA [Apostolic Christian Church in America] and ACCN [Apostolic Christian Church Nazarean]), which are actually two denominations of the Amish-Mennonite Anabaptist tradition that split in the early twentieth century. It is a denomination, in spite of their quirks, that is still dearly loved by me. I consider myself as having a world view shaped by their teaching, notably that of fervor for God’s word, of intense love for the Brethren (which is a non-sexist word and includes females), and anti-militarism. For various pragmatic reasons, our family attended Moody Church while we were living in Chicago, Illinois when I was in surgery residency, a church we also dearly loved, especially with the preaching of pastor Irwin Lutzer. We attended a Baptist church while I was in the Air Force in Biloxi, MS, and really did not like it at all. There was a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church in town, but did not attend there because we felt the Presbyterians were heretics and totally off base. It was during my time in Biloxi that I started reading intensely on Dispensationalism versus Reformed theology, and became convinced that Reformed theology (Calvinism, if you wish), had a more consistent approach to Scripture in its entirety than either Dispensational or Anabaptist theology. I also realized that the description of “Calvinism” by Anabaptists and Dispensationalists was entirely in error. On moving to Puyallup, WA, we attended a generic Christian church for a little over a year. I absolutely hated it for its irreverent worship style and weak theology. On recommendation of a close colleague at the hospital, our family broke down and started attending Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America denomination. The pastor was the son of the first president of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and well acquainted with Francis Schaeffer. He was a large drawing point for us. We have been there ever since, with no plans of leaving. We had never formally left the Apostolic Christian Church, and have no idea whether they still consider us to be “members”. Our departure was more by incidence of our life’s journey, rather than a formal choice to leave the ACCN. Thus, my wife and I still consider ourselves to be a part of both worlds.
Comparisons of Anabaptist/Reformed theology
Theology was the driving force for leaving the generic church and going to a church that has Reformed doctrine. Contrary to many thinkers, Calvinism is everything but “once saved, always saved”. This is especially true of the covenantal manifestations of Calvinism. In fact, what is portrayed as Calvinism and what is the true meaning of Reformed doctrine are unrecognizable. I’ll offer several examples. Perseverance of the saints as a doctrine means that the saints will persevere in holiness. It never was intended to mean that a person could never “lose” their salvation, except for that if one is truly saved, they will persist in holiness. The discussable issue on this topic for both Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers relates to assurance of salvation, even though arguments for assurance will follow different lines of thought. Both Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers share the necessity for godly living. A second topic of contention is that of limited atonement, which is a terrible phase that means particular redemption. Most Reformed thinkers advocate a universal calling, and bona fide offer of the gospel for all. The only realm of contention regarding particular redemption is that the Reformed thinkers will say that Christ’s death was EFFICACIOUS only for the saved, something that even Anabaptists would ultimately agree with, unless they hold to the doctrine of ultimate universal salvation for all. The doctrine of total depravity would be an area of contention between Anabaptists and Reformed thinkers that would not be resolvable. Oddly, this is not an issue commonly fought over. Nobody wishes to consider themselves to be Pelagian, so one will usually default to a semi-Pelagian position regarding total depravity, which in my thinking is a most confused approach to depravity. As GK Chesterton has noted, total depravity is the one and only doctrine which is easily verifiable in real life.
The baptism of infants is a point of contention with Anabaptists which is usually terribly misunderstood. Baptism is considered neither a confirmation of salvation nor a witness to the world of salvation. Rather, it, like circumcision, is a representation of a covenant with God. This covenant has both promises as well as obligations. Much of the obligation is on the parents to raise their children as Christians, and duly expect them to make a profession of faith throughout their life. Many non-Reformed churches have a dedication ceremony which is neither Scriptural or meaningful, save for trying to imitate the ceremony of infant baptism. In terms of when a person actually becomes a Christian, the Reformed doctrine refuses to define a precise method. In fact, virtually every New Testament conversion that is discussed is different. Some children of believers may be converted in utero, others in childhood, others after a period of sinful life, and others never. The point is that the Christian will always need to persist in their profession of faith until death.
Some of the ramifications of the doctrine of predestination may be troubling to the Anabaptist until they give worthy pause to what is actually being said. Predestination most certainly is NOT fatalism, i.e., that the course of history has been set in motion in which nothing will change. I would refer the reader to J.I. Packers’ “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” to grasp this issue. It is certain that we are both totally determined yet totally free in our decisions and actions. The explanation for this remains in the divine wisdom of God which cannot be explained. Finally, I wish to note that when one looks at both the Anabaptists and Reformed churches, there are multiple splits numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Most of these splits are related to some subtle doctrinal issue which presents itself as irreconcilable to the church leaders. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen a number of splits in churches (both Apostolic Christian and PCA) that are inexplainable save for our persisting depravity.
Both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions are quite intense about their theology and hold it of great importance. The Reformed thinkers have approached theology in a more systematic fashion, and win out in terms of have a more consistent and organized theological base. Unfortunately, the Reformed church knows this, and it tends to breed a very strong sense of arrogance on their part for having “the best” doctrine. The Reformed folk also manifest a sense of divisiveness in their theology, discussed kindly in a recent internet article by John Frame (http://frame-poythress.org/machens-warrior-children/). This article discusses 21 topics that are highly divisive in the PCA church—I think that he is kind, and under-estimates divisive issues, and I mean divisive enough that various groups would hold charges of heresy against contrary thinking. I have seen Presbyterians approach theology with such opinionated aggressive as to wonder if they were not terminally constipated. A recent move in the PCA condemning the theology of federal vision had a vitriol of extreme proportions, yet one had a challenge even defining what one meant by federal vision!
Anabaptists also excel in divisiveness, and there are countless sub-factions of Amish, Mennonites and the like. This Anabaptist divisiveness can either be theological (like a recent ACCA split debating whether or not a Christian could/does sin) or practical (like whether it is permissible to grow beards or have lightning rods on your house). In the Anabaptist circle that I grew up in, theology was a constant discussion. Our discussions as kids were quite crude and seriously misinformed, but we took theology quite seriously and it was a typical subject of discussion when we would get together. I don’t see that fervor in the Reformed church youth—after all, since they hold the “correct” theology, by bother discussing it?
While this may sound strange, both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions tend toward the Presbyterian model of polity, in contrast to the Congregational or Episcopalian models. Anabaptists do not generally have a paid clergy, though there are exceptions to this rule. Yet, there are central Anabaptist structures, and national meetings of the elders that are akin to the annual presbytery/synod meetings that occur in Reformed circles. The interest of both traditions is to maintain commonalities in theology and worship that define the denomination. To the surprise of Anabaptists, the conservative Reformed denominations (such as the PCA) take church discipline very seriously, and do exercise member expulsion for various sins or absence of repentance. The terms of expulsion or other forms of church discipline differ, but yet there is a very strong sense of the necessity of the church to exercise discipline of its members, and preach the value of a godly lifestyle in all things.
The similarities between Anabaptist and Reformed worship is greater than their differences. Both hold a very high estimation of worship and formality in their church meetings. This is true, even though the Anabaptists do everything possible to remove distinctive display elements to their worship, including the display of crosses in church, the wearing of special garments by the ministry, or other outward displays. Oddly, Anabaptist members usually are required to have special garments, such as specially defined head coverings for females, and distinct dress for men. The Anabaptists would never call their service a “high-church” style, yet it has a formality and regulation that is uniform and consistent between churches and enduring through the years. Both Anabaptist and Reformed thinkers have an equal problem with the current contemporary worship service, which consists of worship as entertainment.
The Reformed churches would love to think that they have the great advantage in music. In this regard, they are sorely wrong. As a matter of fact, Presbyterians simply cannot sing. It is true that many Reformed members go on to become professional musicians and that musical instrumentation in the church is of high value. Many Anabaptist churches, including the ACCA denomination which my parents came out of, never even used a keyboard in their services. Yet, I would estimate that most Anabaptist members had home musical training, and greater than 90% were able to sing in 4 part harmony during worship services. They would stay on tune, even singing a cappella. If you examine closely their hymnody, the Anabaptists mostly drew on the German Lutheran/Bach choral tradition, with far more complex harmonies and melodies than could ever be found in a Reformed/Presbyterian congregational hymnal. In addition, the Anabaptists would sing those songs quite well. Playing or singing the ACC hymnal (Zion’s Harp) is far more challenging than playing or singing the PCA Trinity Hymnal. The Presbyterians are slightly more cautious regarding good theology in their songs, but even there, the ACC hymnal has much better tunes for praise, consecration of one’s life, the afterlife, suffering, and general worship than any Reformed Hymnal. The British and Scots just were not as artful in music as the Germans!
In the Anabaptist family, one feels like family. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world. If you encounter another “AC”, you might as well consider yourself a real brother or sister. You are always welcome in their home, as you would welcome them into your home. Much of your free time would be spent at church or with fellow AC’s. The Presbyterians also maintain a sense of community, but no where near the intensity that is found in traditional AC circles. It is common in Anabaptist communities to see them going out of their way to care for each other. An example are the nursing homes that the ACC’s have developed in conjunction with their churches. These serve several uses. First, they care for the debilitated elderly while keeping them out of the ward of the state. Secondly, they allow elderly in the nursing homes to be useful and active, rather than simply shuttering them in. It is a shame that Reformed churches cannot develop such a modality—I presume that they are in fear of “offending” the state or its ordinances.
The fellowship among Anabaptists extends in other ways. Most of the brethren of the AC church could be assumed to be “trustable”. By that, I mean that if there were business contracts or other dealings that transpired among two brothers in the AC denomination, even if the agreement was verbal and not in print, one could assume that the agreement would be faithfully adhered to. It is not the case in the Presbyterian world, and though members all consider themselves as Christian and adhering to the laws of God, your probability of integrity among the “faithful” in the Presbyterian church isn’t much higher than you’d find from somebody randomly picked from the telephone directory or pulled off the street. Indeed it is a sad state of affairs when professing Christians are no different than the world.
Influence in the world/Politics
The Anabaptists tend to stay out of politics. Yet, a number of its sons do go into politics, such as one of the long-standing senators from Illinois who grew up in an ACCA home. The first Presbyterian politician of great acclaim also shamefully happened to be among our worst presidents—Woodrow Wilson. America would have been better off without Presbyterians in government. Presbyterians have served as a positive influence in society, the best example being that of Francis Schaeffer, though often his actions were at odds with those of the Presbyterian church, explaining why he tended to act independent of any Presbyterian mission board. To this date, Presbyterian actions in politics frighten me. While I appreciate their willingness to act as salt and light in the world, and influence the political structure for good, many of the actions of devout Presbyterians have been more detrimental than good on society. I wait pensively for how Donald Trump proves to be as president since he states that he is Presbyterian—his saving grace might be that he is despised by many prominent Presbyterians of both the conservative and liberal stripes. Contrariwise, the action of Anabaptists have also been a touch problematic in that they have not been willing to confront society in the public square and speak truth. Their policy of “letting the world go to hell as we will maintain our private devotion to God” might absolve them from taking a stand for truth and righteousness in the public square, but their failure to speak out will be ruled against them at the last judgement. In my final analysis, I will act like a Presbyterian in the public square, but will shy away from getting political advice from the Presbyterians and vote like a traditional Apostolic Christian.
My wife and I are caught between two worlds. We love our Anabaptist heritage, and we love our current Presbyterian situation. We see both the best and the worst of both worlds, and see neither as distinctly superior to the other. I could not have had a better time growing up in the ACCN denomination in Portland, Oregon. It nurtured me well in the faith. Yet, we remain most happy in my current situation in the PCA church. We have a beloved and wonderful pastor, our faith has grown steadily under his preaching, and doctrinally we’ve been challenged and grown in ways which never could have happened in nearly other setting. Thus, we feel doubly blessed.
In a previously quoted article, John Frame speaks at length about ceasing quibbling about petty doctrinal and behavior issues in the church. It is a plea for Christian charity and humility among other Christians. I saw this in action when I took a class in systematic theology from JI Packer, experiencing graciousness of abounding proportions when angrily challenged and confronted on touchy topics in class. I wish that I could manifest the spirit of Dr. Packer! Francis Schaeffer also wrote much about Christians fighting among each other, and his book “The Mark of a Christian” emphasized that as important as doctrine and behavior may be, love for each other needs to shine out strongest.
We will remain Presbyterian for now, but our hearts (and hopefully our behavior) are Anabaptist. Without a doubt, in heaven, these issues will all work out, and we will not have to take sides as Catholic, Anabaptist, Generic Protestant, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, or Orthodox. Christ isn’t divided, and I pray that the church would seek more the spirit of unity in Christ than of obscure technical differences.