The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book A Presbyterian Primer for Curious Christians. It is an early draft and subject to change.
Denominations differ from each other because of beliefs they hold very strongly. If they did not, there would be no need for separate churches or denominations. Presbyterians do not begrudge other churches the right to interpret the Scriptures according to their own consciences, but that does not mean that Presbyterians believe all denominations are correct. Similarly, other denominations think that Presbyterians are wrong.
The Church was at one time more united in its beliefs under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. But this led the Church far away from the teachings of the Bible. The Protestant Reformation restored the Bible to the hands of the individual Christians. After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church no longer dictated to every Christian what they should believe. Instead, individuals began interpreting the Bible in different ways. This was a wonderful for Christianity, because it purified the Church and restored very important doctrines that had been missing or corrupted for centuries. But it also came with a price—people frequently disagreed with each other and established different denominations of like-minded people. So this freedom was a mixed blessing--it resulted in less unity across the Church, but the only alternative was to conform to the teachings of a central church authority. Having different denominations is a small price to pay for the freedom to study and interpret God’s Word as individual Christians.
There are a couple of advantages to having different denominations. The first is counterintuitive—they can actually bring unity to the church. After all, if there was only one church or denomination, and everyone within that one church disagreed with everyone else, the church would constantly suffer from chaos and division. So even though different churches may disagree on many things, they have the freedom to teach, preach, and worship in the unity of their own denominations. Additionally, many churches recognize that even though they disagree with other churches on many things, they still agree that the Bible is God’s Word and that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. In love and humility, they often cross their denominational boundaries to join with other churches for the sake of ministry to the larger world. The fact of different denominations does not have to mean disunity in the Church. Presbyterians are Christians first, Reformed second, and Presbyterian third. This means that on certain levels, they can cooperate in unity with other churches and denominations while still retaining and teaching their Presbyterian distinctives.
Another advantage to having different denominations is a little more theoretical. Nothing happens by accident. In God’s providence, there are many different denominations with many different teachings. Because Christians are sinful and have a limited ability to understand everything God has revealed, it is unlikely that the whole truth and the most perfect practice is found in only one church or denomination. It may very well be that God has allowed this diversity to occur in order to gift different parts of Christ’s Body with different emphases that together make a whole. Some churches may have gotten some things right that others got wrong. If this is true, then the church as a whole holds itself in check by means of interacting with and challenging the other parts. This sort of activity happens all the time, and has ever since the start of the Church in the first century.
Together, the denominations make up the different parts of Christ’s Body, and as a whole, they accomplish the work of the ministry throughout the world. Such a theory relies heavily upon belief in God’s providence and in the essential unity of the Church Universal. We don’t know exactly why God allows so much diversity in the Church, because none of us are privy to the secret plans of God. But at the least, we are each responsible to interpret, believe, and obey the Bible the best we know how.
No one should be so bold as to think they are always right, but Presbyterians are still captive to their consciences and the Word of God. Because we believe the Bible teaches Reformed theology, we teach it with great conviction. But because we recognize that we are fallible humans, prone to making mistakes, we hopefully teach it with love and humility. One famous Latin phrase that came out of the Reformation was Semper Reformanda, which means, “Always Reforming.” In other words, Presbyterian churches must always be willing to bring their beliefs into line with the Word of God, even if that means confessing that they were wrong.
Having said that, Presbyterian beliefs are not some new invention recently foisted upon the Church. We have the support of a huge portion of the Church both from its earliest years and from the centuries following the Reformation. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the most prominent statement of faith that came out of the Reformation, has over 400 years of widespread acceptance in Presbyterianism and other denominations. Presbyterians have believed and taught the same things for centuries. Even some non-Presbyterian churches have shared similar Reformed beliefs until this very day.
The bottom line is that we teach Presbyterian distinctives without apology within our churches because we believe they are what the Bible teaches. Any other church or denomination with a similar respect for the Bible also teaches its own beliefs within its own sphere of influence. Any church that does this sometimes finds it necessary to teach why they believe other denominations have misinterpreted the Bible. This is not arrogance. It is simply what is to be expected of any church that believes its teachings are based upon the Word of God.
While we believe that every church or denomination has the right to believe and teach its own interpretation of the Bible, we do not believe that all interpretations are equally valid. All interpretations cannot be correct because the Bible cannot teach two opposing things. For instance, it cannot teach that we should baptize babies on the one hand while teaching that baptizing babies is wrong on the other. One of the two interpretations has to be wrong. We understand, however, that many people disagree with us. Often their reasons are very understandable; that is to say, we understand why they believe the way they do.
Sometimes, however, people can believe certain things for very poor reasons. The study of the Scriptures can be complex, and if approached wrongly, can easily lead to wrong conclusions. Sometimes these conclusions can be damaging to the church as a whole. Prime examples of this are Roman Catholicism, liberalism, legalistic fundamentalism, Free Will Theology, an undue fascination with end-times events, and the beliefs of various cults, among many others.
How does one know the difference between a correct interpretation of Scripture and a wrong one? First, an interpretation must be the product of those who truly believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Non-Christians do not have the Holy Spirit to guide their study. The Bible says that a person without the Spirit cannot accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. This means that they cannot be relied upon to interpret the Bible correctly. Secondly, the interpreter must believe that the Bible is truly the Word of God, inspired by God and without error. Those who do not believe this will inevitably come to wrong conclusions concerning the Bible’s teachings. They do not possess the ability to understand the Bible without dismissing parts and pieces according to their own faithless whims. Thirdly, an interpretation must be the product of learned Bible study. The Bible contains many simple teachings, but it is also a very complex book. Many things are easy to understand, which explains why so many different churches agree on some of the most basic ideas in the Bible. But other things cannot be understood without adequate preparation for Bible study. God has gifted the church with Pastors and teachers whose responsibility it is to study and preach the Bible. These preachers should be prepared either through a quality education or through years of diligent Bible study. Fourthly, correct interpretations take into account different interpretations before settling on any one interpretation. This means that the serious Bible teacher must use a wide variety of resources—like commentaries, theology books, history books, and the original languages—before settling on a firm conclusion. Those who simply repeat what they have been taught without considering what others teach are locked into only one possibility with no guarantees that they are correct. Fifthly, serious interpretations always take into account what the Church has believed throughout history. Older interpretations are not always better, but we cannot act as if we are the first to ever study the Bible. The fact is that good men have been studying the Bible for millennia. We have no right to ignore the product of their studies. If an interpretation is new, or unique, or does not fit with how the majority of godly scholars have interpreted the Bible throughout the ages, one must question whether one’s interpretation is really better than what so many others have believed. The best interpretations are the product of rigorous Bible study by godly scholars confirmed by centuries of historical consensus.
Based upon these criteria, I believe that Reformed church members can trust Reformed interpretations of the Bible. Reformed theology has a very long history in the Church. It is not a flash in the pan, unique, or a new interpretation. It has centuries of support from believing, Spirit-led preachers and teachers who have been well-prepared to dive deep into the Bible’s teachings. Many times they have been better prepared than most preachers are today. Non-Reformed interpretations are much newer, have been held by a minority of Bible preachers, or have even been condemned in whole or part by church bodies over the centuries.
In the end, if we are asked if we believe we are right and someone else is wrong, I believe we would do what most churches do—be honest and firm about our convictions. But, I also hope that we would be humble, recognizing that many fine brothers and sisters disagree for very understandable reasons, and I hope that all of us would always be willing to reform our beliefs as the Holy Spirit convicts our consciences through God’s Word.