Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Labels and the Presbyterian brand: Telling the Reformed story in a multicultural and postmodern world.

John Roxborogh

One of the things we often do with new clothing in our household is not only remove the price tag (and sometimes also the washing instructions), we also cut off the brand label. At our age, labels round the neck irritate. We may want to say who we are by the clothes we choose to wear, but the actual labels make us uncomfortable.

It’s a bit this way with the Presbyterian label – and possibly with the washing instructions as well! They come with the church we as likely as not belong to for quite different reasons from those in earlier generations for whom it was primarily a matter of geography or theology - Presbyterian meant the church of the place they came from or of the form of Christian faith they believed in against others. Today we mostly join congregations not denominations. When we find we have bought into a heritage that is complex, conflicted and convoluted some would sooner cut off the label than find out what their heritage might mean for sustaining Christian faith. Of course it is a personal decision, yet if we aspire to leadership we cannot get very far without understanding something of the Presbyterian story and what makes it work the way it does.

Our feelings about how much or how little of who we are is defined by our denominational label may also reflect our taste and generation. For many brand is important - important enough for the acquisition of the fake Versace, Cartier or Rolex when you cannot afford the real thing. Whether an article is authentic or not, words on shirts and handbags identify styles we want to signal as being us. Jeans that were once a symbol of freedom are now available in sizes to enable them to be signs of nostalgia if not hope that youth has not yet entirely escaped us.

We may not like branding, and any reality which sustains faith over the long haul has to have substance, but we cannot ignore that as Christians and as Presbyterians we are associated with labels which function as brands. They may irritate us; yet they also provide a message to ourselves and others about what we stand for. But brands are not just what we make of them - they also shape us. It is confusing when people are not clear what things our brand allows diversity about and what it does not, but that is the case with most markers of identity. We may want to take away the label and take refuge in individuality, but sooner or later we need to say something coherent about who we are together.

The Presbyterian brand shows in our character and action and may or may not be accurately reflected by what our leaders say on our behalf. To own our collective identity, we need to know our story and the story of the wider church as well as understand the contexts which colour how that story is interpreted by ourselves and by others. We cannot answer the “what kind of Christian are you?” question without telling both a personal story and something of the story of the church we happen to be part of.

A sense of identity, like our ability to share with others what it means to be a Christian, requires us to find ways of telling our personal story of faith, of understanding other people, and of being familiar in some measure with our heritage. In Jesus, the Word of God became flesh. In the Reformation the word of God in Scripture was translated into the language of ordinary people. That process continues in telling our story in the languages of today even when those languages do not understand one another.

Our personal Christian story connects to other groups besides church. For many our faith has gained commitment and depth through belonging to movements and groups which cut across denomination and culture to support causes and values we care passionately about. Living in different parts of New Zealand also affects us, as does belonging to families and cultures from different parts of the world.

One of my particular concerns is helping elders and ministers and those interested in being more familiar with the story of our heritage so that we give due weight to formative periods in our identity. There are a number of convictions from the Reformation era which include the bible in the language of the people, an educated ministry, a participative church government, and belief that society should be ordered to the glory of God. 

I do not favour a return to Presbyterianism for Presbyterianism's sake, and there are things to leave behind. I believe it is possible to avoid seeing the winning of stereotypical battles between the good and the faithless as the paradigm of what it is to be Presbyterian. We have milestones of achievement which reflect the faith of struggle to know the will of God in confusing circumstances which echo more accurately the processes most of us are familiar with in life. More specifically and formally it can be said that:

1) We are Reformed Christians because we are historically in the heritage from Knox, Calvin, and Zwingli and we continue to seek to align our life and the life of society to an informed understanding of the Scriptures.

2) We are Presbyterian because we believe in governance by representatives of the whole people of God - elders and ministers - and because congregations are responsible to one another through regional and national assemblies.

Our identity is linked to other parts of the Christian family. We have not ceased to belong to the Western Catholic tradition that our founders sought to reform. The Congregational and Baptist traditions in particular have linkages to Presbyterian that are historical as well as contemporary. Some defining issues in the 17th century were debated not only with the crown and with bishops but also with Congregationalists during the writing of the Westminster Confession and related documents. Despite these debates and the differences over baptism, Congregationalists Baptists and Presbyterians in Britain became closely related theologically, in governance and in mission. Since this is a feature of New Zealand Presbyterianism it is something we need to be aware of. In Britain both Congregationalists and Baptists accepted the theological content of the Westminster Confession. The London Missionary Society (now the Council of World Mission with which we enjoy a hugely important connection) of 1795 was inspired by the Baptist Missionary Society and involved Presbyterians. For Congregationalists and for British and American Baptists, quasi Presbyterian governance developed out of the need to work together in mission.

One key difference in theological instinct with Congregationalists related to the relationship of church and state. In Switzerland and Scotland the Reformed churches were state churches which expected to influence society as a whole and make it Christian - even if they existed in tension with the government of the day. In England Congregationalists and Baptists were always dissenters who were until 1829 excluded by law from national and local government.  Socially in Britain there is still a sense of being on the outer. It is still quite real even if the “non-Conformist conscience” has at times been a significant political force.

This Congregationalist heritage is important to our New Zealand Presbyterian identity. We have congregations and individuals with a Congregationalist background who need to celebrate and be affirmed in that heritage. The phrase “We are not Congregational we are Presbyterian” should never be heard in any court of our church – the concern needs to be expressed in a way that is not offensive even if the offence is unintentional. Our common theological heritage runs deep. The sense of being in a minority, and not in a position of power is important for mission. Living in a post Christendom era may mean that Congregational instincts about identity and mission may be more relevant to our future than Presbyterian ones where we believed, except when Anglicans beat us to it, that we had some divine right of access to the corridors of political power. There is a parallel story to this in the influence on Reformed churches of the Mennonites in Britain and the United States

Over time differences in governance have become more in degree than kind. Presbyterians have recently sought to place more emphasis on the needs of congregations. Congregationalists became more Presbyterian than they intended, particularly when they have worked together in mission. However we do need a theology of how and why we do things together in presbytery where we make ministers, provide for worship, coordinate and inspire mission, trouble shoot and try not to make things any worse when they go wrong - as they do.

In this a holy pragmatism is needed as well as a willingness to think theologically that sometimes escapes us. It is actually more Calvinist and Presbyterian than we realise to be both pragmatic and principled. Pragmatism means neither indifference to truth, nor the belief that God is only honoured by success. The eldership was designed around what would work in Calvin’s Geneva and later in Scotland. The expansion of Congregationalist and Presbyterian missions in the 19th century and the place of migration in mission and salvation were both explicitly concerned about what was practical and was concerned about ideas that could not work. They knew there would be learning on the job.

It is not always appreciated how often our problems with reorganisation have not been that we have been too pragmatic and insufficiently theological, but that we have been insufficiently pragmatic. We may appear to ignore theology at times, but we also do not always pay attention to what it is actually possible to do with the resources and administrative and governance infrastructures available to us in our time. Presbyterianism is a deeply pragmatic faith.

A commitment to both theology and pragmatism can help Presbyterians navigate the enormous world-view shift we have been working through in the past half century. In the courses I teach on Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity and in my thinking about how elders can be empowered in our church I wrestle with the modern to post-modern shift and its challenges. The Reformed tradition is heavily modernist. The world today is postmodern and multicultural. Identity requires understanding context as well as heritage.

What do we do with this? The issues can to an extent be seen in the similarities and differences between the approach I am taking today and the standard text, John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, originally published in 1977. 

Both John Leith and myself seek to introduce Reformed and Presbyterian Christianity as a living community of faith whose story is also reflected in its origins, formal statements, theology and organisation. We want to avoid being narrowly partisan, and we try to put the polemics that have marked our history into a perspective of understanding. We write from inside the tradition while respecting how it appears to others. Neither of us are neutral on issues that have divided the tradition, but seek to be fair to major schools of thought. We both write with conviction. This is believing history. We each provide a summary of what Reformed and Presbyterian churches look like as denominations and communities, an overview of their history globally, and discussion of controversies and issues which have helped shape their identity.

There are some contrasts. I think it is important to trace the Celtic and Medieval background in Scotland. John Leith spends more time on what Reformed churches and communities look like. His geographical focus is on the United States of America rather than New Zealand and Southeast Asia which are areas of special relevance for me, and Leith gives more space than I am able to integrated treatments of ethos, theology, polity, liturgy, and culture.

Leith was of a generation of post-war teachers who strove to achieve a solid historical and theological basis for their scholarship and to provide training for professional ministry leadership which was widely informed and deeply committed. It was a competitive environment, but one where authority mattered, clergy had status, and the canons of science and the Enlightenment applied to history, the church and even theology as the unquestioned standards for establishing truth. People wanted to know what the truth was. There was one truth and they expected their theological teachers and church leaders to be able to say what it was. Leith was a parish minister before he was a seminary professor. He engaged in the debates of the day and sought to make the profound understandable.

I am also committed to congregation and seminary and to seeking to connect the story of the church's past to its present needs. Like Leith I value critical loyalty and believe in facilitating a dynamic interchange between the past and the present as people seek to be faithful in their own time and context. I share Leith's understanding that "tradition" is a good word whatever its associations. I agree with his quote from Niebuhr (p.27) that "where community is to be formed, common memory must be created" and this valuing of the storyteller and historian in helping meet the need for shared memory with the ancestors of faith points to a mark of the people of God. I believe that that if we lose our way to the archives we lose our way to the future and today our memory must include the memories of the global church in all its cultures. I see the post-modern era as one which presents wonderful opportunities as well as challenges to Reformed Christians who much more than they realised adjusted their apologetics and their understanding to the canons of the Enlightenment and were slow to recognise how much the Gospel had become captive to the cultural forces, technologies and world-views which had for centuries been a successful vehicle for its liberation and spread.

It is probably connected with this that whereas John Leith is critical of theologies from below (p.29f.) and sees the rise of irrational spirituality "even on college campuses" (p.8) as a sign of what happens when people ignore the guidance available from a religious tradition with historical depth, I see all theologising as fundamentally from below (yet with vitally important commonalities which connect us to the revelation "from above" however much shaped by the particularity of human experience). I see the rebirth of spirituality - however open to the weird and the pagan - as the crumbling of a worldview that said that the Resurrection could not happen, prayers could not be answered, and God was a construct of our needs and values.

For Leith the challenge to the Reformed tradition in the late modern era was how a rational and deep understanding of history could preserve the church as a faithful and orthodox body in a pluralistic secular environment where religious freedom creates both space and risk for Christianity.

A few decades later I see the challenge to a multicultural Reformed tradition in the post-modern era of globalisation and cultural diversity as about how we can reduce our reliance on an historic and still important if ambiguous dependency on Enlightenment world views and organisational paradigms. We must now engage with those for whom a spiritual world view is not a problem. We also need to carefully adapt Presbyterian polity to contemporary cultures.

Identity is an issue for every generation. Growing up is always about discovering who you are. Interest in one’s whakapapa usually comes later in life, but it does usually come and when it does it empowers one generation not only to keep going, but also to let go and empower those who come after them.

One of the paradoxes of a renewed understanding of being Presbyterian and being Christian is that by discovering our story we are also set free from ithe past to help renew it for the future.

See also


Originally published in Candour. Revised 24 November 2009.