The short answer is, Presbyterians believe a lot of things. You will see a “common beliefs” section below, but you might notice that people often understand those beliefs differently.
Does this mean that Presbyterians are argumentative sorts?
No, not really. It’s simply that one of our core beliefs is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” which means that ministers or councils do not dictate to us what to believe.
What about scripture? Does scripture determine what we are to believe?
Yes, in a way. Presbyterians claim that the Bible is the word of God, but we also understand that it must be interpreted. Two people can read the same scripture and understand it differently because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Well, then, how do you keep from reading it however it suits you best?
Self-interested readings are a danger. That’s why Presbyterians always do two things when we interpret scripture. First, we pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we read. Second, we read scripture with other people who can help us see our blind spots. Sometimes those ‘other people’ are scholars who’ve written commentaries on the scripture we’re reading and sometimes they are people from other cultures and sometimes they are our Christian brothers and sisters who live radically different lives. For instance, reading about Jesus with a man who lives on the streets can provide amazing insight into a man who said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Above all, though, at Idlewild, we practice what is called a hermeneutic of love. Any interpretation of scripture must be loving. With the work of the Holy Spirit and in community, diversity of understanding strengthens and deepens our understanding of the love of Jesus Christ and how Christ’s love calls us to serve.
But Presbyterians do have some common beliefs, right?
Yes. First, we believe that God loves us. Each of us. This is the starting point of faith. Some of our brothers and sisters in the faith will acknowledge this central fact of Christianity but then speak words that sound like hate. That won’t do. God is a God of love. This makes sense of everything else. For instance, creation. God creates this world out of love. It is a good world. It is not a prison or a place to waste away a life waiting for heaven. It is our home—and the home of all God’s creatures. We are to have dominion over it the way God has dominion over us. That is, we are to love, and care for it, too.
Incarnation is the word we use to describe God becoming a human in Jesus. It means “in the flesh.” It’s an act of love. Whatever flavor of Christianity, we all agree that in some way Jesus was reconciling the world to God—because “God so loved the world.” We celebrate Christ’s incarnation in the season of Advent.
What do you mean by Jesus paying the debt of our sin?
Atonement describes Christ’s death on the cross. Yes, debt is one way scripture talks about it. That’s a legal/economic metaphor for what Jesus did when he died on the cross. There are others: overcoming the power of sin and death, paying a ransom, reconciling estranged parties, making sacrifice, restoring the fullness of humanity, and a host of others. Each way of speaking about it points us to remove whatever separates us from God. In Jesus, God has taken the initiative to end that separation. That’s love. That’s how we should always talk about God.
Why are we separated from God anyway?
That’s a question you could spend a lifetime answering. Some have looked at the story of the garden of Eden and come to the conclusion that humanity had a “fall,” that is we became a broken people through our disobedience. (God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?”) This is the interpretation Paul makes in one of his letters. In Christian history, the fall has been the most influential answer. Others look at the Bible and at their fellow humans and simply note that we live in a broken world without offering a reason why it happens. They are not very satisfactory answers. We can only acknowledge that the moment humans have had a chance to choose, we’ve often chosen to hurt each other. This action separates us from God and reveals our sin.
Well, can we talk about Adam and Eve? Because I’m not sure they’re real.
That’s okay here. Presbyterians acknowledge that the Bible is conditioned by the times in which it was written. Some stories—gasp!—might be legends. That doesn’t mean they don’t have great wisdom in them. You do not have to believe that the Bible is without scientific or historical error in order to be a Christian. The Bible, rather, is a revelation of God’s character.
It means that by reading scripture, particularly about Jesus, we can more fully know what God is like. If we look at Jesus, we discover that God cares about healing; we discover that God cares about the outcast; we discover that God cares about how we treat each other; we discover that God cares about us, God loves us.
But isn’t it easier to just believe everything exactly as written?
Scripture holds great vitality for those who have trouble believing it all. A great theologian named Karl Barth was traveling in the U.S. giving a lecture on Adam and Eve, when a student raised his hand and asked, “Dr. Barth, you’re an intelligent man. You couldn’t possibly believe that a serpent could talk to Eve, could you?” Dr. Barth replied, “I’m not interested in whether the serpent could talk. I’m interested in what it had to say.”
Do you believe in predestination?
Predestination is not the belief that everything we do in life has been pre-ordained. That’s predeterminism. Predestination is the belief that God has given us salvation even before we are born. There is nothing we can do to gain it or to lose it. Like our birth, it is simply a gift. So, yes, Presbyterians believe in predestination.
Why do you baptize babies?
We baptize our children because we believe God chooses them before they can ever make a choice for God. When they come to an age where they can make conscious choices about faith, we ask those children to confirm their baptism by making the same vows their parents made for them when they were young.
Do you have communion?
Yes. The Lord’s Supper, a sacrament that has as its backdrop the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, is celebrated each Sunday at 8:30 worship and the first Sunday of the month at 11:00 worship. The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who desire to follow Christ, remembering that access to the communion table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. Even one who has doubts or whose trust is wavering is invited to the table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus.
The church has two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Churches are so political these days. Are you one of those?
Idlewild is a big tent church where Democrats and Republicans, Independents and apoliticals sit next to each other on the pew. We do not espouse a particular political platform. (God alone is Lord of the conscience.) We do, however, believe that God is sovereign over every part of our life and that the demands of the gospel often cross over into areas where politics exist. We care for the poor and advocate for a kinder treatment from governmental programs. If that is political, then yes, we are a political church. We are called to serve Jesus Christ and that requires that we observe the world’s needs, study scripture, examine our bias, and discern our faithful witness at a particular time.