Why Presbyterianism?

It is usually objected by the congre- gationalists that Acts 15 doesn’t really prescribe a normative behavior. After all, if we are not to imitate the church in regard to having all things in common, then ought we to imitate them in regard to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15?

To answer this challenge, we must go back to the lower levels of church government. First of all, we realize that elders are called by the church to serve. In the local church, then, the pastor must not be alone. This was true not only of the church in Acts, but also in the following generations, wherein Paul does instruct Timothy and Titus about the continuation of the church. In those epistles it is simply assumed that there will be elders to carry on the work of the church. This continues the wisdom principle found in Proverbs 11:14. There can be no objection, therefore, to the local church having a Presbyterian form of government, since elders and deacons are prescribed by the NT for the church.

Presbyterians argue that it is good and necessary consequence that churches are connectional. There is, after all, one holy catholic and apostolic church. Therefore, the church is connectional by definition. Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 about the one body surely has this implication of connectedness. This is why the PCA, for instance, is part of NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches): we believe that we should unite as much as possible with other like-minded believers. There should be great evidence of the ultimate unity of the body.

Furthermore, there are the passages in which we see that we ought to hold one another accountable. This is surely true of local churches as well. Churches ought to hold one another accountable.

Finally, Acts 15 does lend support to the Presbyterian position, since there will always be issues that need to be addressed by the larger church. Who decides, for instance, who is going to be ordained? If it is a larger body than the local church, then you have Presbyterianism, if even in a smaller, more analogical form. I have seen this work in a Baptist setting. They have a larger body of pastors come together to examine a candidate for ministry. What is the real difference between that and what Presbyterians do? Furthermore, Presbyterianism allows for greater interchange of prayer for other local churches; it allows for greater inter-communication among pastors, and greater networking, such that churches can better exercise church discipline. At any rate, Presbyterianism cannot be called contrary to the Bible. It is in direct harmony with the principles laid out for the church in the NT.

There is also the root of Presbyterianism, which can be found in the OT, in Exodus 18. There, the entire OT church is divided into sections, with men in charge of certain groups. There is always a higher court of appeal, if necessary.

Now, certain objections must be answered. What about red tape? That is certainly a danger. However, the less centralized the power is, the better. Yes, there is a heiarchy of power. But the power never resides in just one person. You might object, “What about Moses?” Moses was a special case, since he was actually the mediator of the people, prefiguring Christ. We have our greater Moses even now, Jesus Christ, in whom is focused all wisdom and power. But, of course, in Jesus’ case, centralization of power is a wonderful thing. The only reason it doesn’t work so well here on earth, is because of Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is why power must be decentralized, and in the hands of more than one person. Our civil government is set up along the lines of Presbyterianism. It is only as it has gotten away from that, the Supreme Court taking too much power for itself, the president doing things without approval of Congress, that things have gone bad. The original form of government worked very well. It was set up by Presbyterians, in fact. The British even called this war (besides calling it the Rebellion) “that Presbyterian war.” In short, I would argue that Presbyterian Puritans are the people who have made our country great. They are the single greatest influence on our country’s foundation and independence.

It should be noted that Presbyterianism is a temporary arrangement. In heaven, as I hope all churches agree, the government there is a strict monarchy, the Monarch being Jesus Christ!

Watch Me!

Matthew 6:1-4
There are few things that a child needs or wants more than to be noticed by their parents. They want their parents’ attention almost more than food. Especially when they learn something new, they want to impress their parents. They will say, “Watch me, watch me!” This is a perfectly natural impulse on the part of children. The thing is that we never really lose that impulse. We always want our Heavenly Father to be watching when we learn something new, or when we help someone. The problem comes when we try to substitute other people for our Heavenly Father. We very often want our generosity to be noticed by other people. We want our alms to be noticed. We want our prayer to be noticed, and we want our fasting (if we even do that anymore!) to be noticed. It is important to realize that verse 1 here is a heading for the first 18 verses of chapter 6. There are three issues that should not be out in the open: our generosity, our prayers, and our fasting. They should be done in secret. If someone finds out, fine, but the point is not do it in order that people may see it and say, “Oh, what a good Christian you are!”

The first issue that Jesus talks about is alms-giving. Another word for it is charity. It is giving to the poor. Now, what often happened in those days was that there was a big horn-shaped opening to the treasure-box in the Temple. People would come in and put their money in that treasure-box. It was quite easy then to make it rattle all the way down so that other people would see that you put a lot of money in the box. The way we might do it today would be to somehow let is slip out to your really close friend that you don’t know whether you can make it financially or not, because you gave too much to the church this month or year. Or, you might make sure that your generous extra donation gets put in the bulletin so that everyone can see. We are not to do this sort of thing.

Now right away, we have to deal with a difficulty. Here Jesus says that we are not to do our righteousness in order to be seen by people. But in 5:16, we are told to let our light shine before men so that they may see your good works. Is there a contradiction here? No, there is not. The question is one of motivation. In 5:16, the all important qualifying clause is added, “and give glory to your Father who is in heave.” The glory is to go to God, not to us. Light by its very nature does not draw attention to itself, but to that upon which it shines. Furthermore, the particular actions that Jesus is talking about in chapter 6 are private acts of piety. They are not like sharing the Gospel, which obviously must be done in front of other people. Instead, Jesus is talking about those things that should be done privately.

We should not sound the trumpet before us when we give to someone. This is a rather vivid image. Imagine someone considering about giving some alms to people. He says to himself, “Where is my trumpeter today? I can’t go and give this money without someone knowing about it!” It is an utterly ridiculous picture that Jesus paints in our minds. And yet, how often is it that someone will give a gigantic sum of money to construct something, and then insist that the building be named after them. That is no different than what Jesus is talking about here.

Those who give alms in order to be seen by others are not actually giving anything away. They are actually purchasing something. And that something is a reputation, or an image. They buy an image of themselves as the perfect Christian, but that is all they have. It doesn’t buy them happiness, or salvation, or any reward in heaven. That is what Jesus says in verse 1: “If you do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them, then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Why? Because you have already received your reward. There is a great word in verse 2 that describes this reward: it is a receipt. They have received their reward. That word “received” is the word used in receipts in those days. It meant “paid in full.” They purchased image: image they have received. Great donors are honored by all men as being philanthropists. But when they come before the judgment seat of God, and expect to be paid again for their good works, Jesus will say to them: “Depart from Me, I never knew you. You tried to buy your way into heaven, when all you purchased by all your generosity was a good image there on earth.”
 Doing righteousness before others is just what most people in the world do, in fact. That is the connection between chapter 5 and chapter 6. We are asked to love more than the world does. Anyone in the world loves the one who loves them. But we are required to love those who do not love us. We need to have a greater righteousness. That is exactly true here as well. We need to do our righteousness so that it surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees. That is a tall order, since the Pharisees were known for being sticklers when it came to the law. However, the Pharisees often did their righteousness in order to be seen by others. The fringes on their garments were longer than other people’s fringes. They tithed even the herbs that grew in their garden. They must have hovered over the groun about two inches, since they were holier than anyone else. Jesus calls them hypocrites. Now, this is a very interesting word. It comes from ancient Greek theater. In theater, you often had to put on a mask in order to play your part, since you usually had to play more than one part. If you were one of those kinds of performers, then you were called a “hypocrite,” literally “one who wears a mask.” That is a very clear picture of what a hypocrite is. A hypocrite is someone who wears the mask of piety and holiness, while underneath is pure evil.

The church is always full of hypocrites. In fact, we are all hypocrites. There is no one in this room who is not a hypocrite. How many times have you given the impression to someone else that you are better than you really are? How many times have you given so that someone else may tell you that you are such a good Christian? Then you pat yourself on the back, and just go your way.

It’s like the man who sat through a church service and then on the way home he fussed about the sermon, he fussed about the traffic, he fussed about the heat, and he fussed about the lateness of the meal being served. Then he bowed and prayed. His son was watching him all the way through this post-church experience. Just as they were beginning to pass the food, he said, “Daddy, did God hear you when we left the church and you started fussin’ about the sermon and about the traffic and about the heat?” The father sort of blushed and said, “Well, yes, son, He heard me.” “Well, Daddy, did God hear you when you just prayed for this food right now?” And he said, “Well, yes son, He…He…He heard me.” “So, well, Daddy, which one did God believe?”

Or like this: There was a man who made free use of religious vocabulary. He talked about the blessing of the Almighty God and the Christian confessions that would be the supporting pillars of the new government. He assumed the earnestness of a man weighed down by historical rsponsibility. He handed out pious stories to the press, especially to the church papers. He showed his tattered Bible and declared that he drew his strength for his great work from it as scores of pious people welcomed him as a man sent from God. Indeed, Adolf Hitler had a great show of outward religiosity without any inward reality! Or, as Mark Twain puts it: “We are like the moon: we all have a dark side that we don’t want anyone else to see.” The actor Robert Redford was once approached by a woman who asked him, “Are you the real Robert Redford?” He answered, “Only when I am alone.”

As these illustrations show, hypocrisy takes many shapes and forms. And it can be extremely subtle. We could give something and not be very careful about letting it out into the open. Sometimes we even want someone to accidentally discover our generosity so that we can be praised for our saintly secrecy. It doesn’t get more subtle than that! How sinful our human heart is! How much we want the approbation of other people, when what we should really want is the approbation of God Himself. It is not wrong to want a reward. We are built that way. But God tells us that we should seek our reward from Him, and not from other people.

Jesus tells us that in order for us to receive our reward from God the Father, we are to be secretive that we are not to let one hand know what the other is doing. Normally we use our hands at the same time. We use both hands together rather a lot. So, when we are supposed to do it so secretly that one hand doesn’t even know about it, Jesus is using exaggeration to get the point across. We should not even try to remember our own generosity. Some scholars think that this metaphor has to do with not letting even our closest friends in on the secret. That is quite possible: not letting our closest friends know is certainly included in Jesus’ statement.

I hope that we have all realized that we are all hypocrites. There is no one among us who has not done hypocritical things to look better than we are. Isn’t there someone to whom you tell everything? Isn’t there someone with whom you can share the burdens that are on your heart? I know from experience that it is a great relief that someone knows of my struggles. And someone does. I don’t have to be a hypocrite if someone knows just how bad I am. Fortunately, god is in the business of saving hypocrites. Jesus wore the mask of death, that we might wear the mask of His righteousness, so that when God looks at us, instead of seeing our dirt and filth, He sees Christ’s righteousness. The difference between that truth and hypocrisy is that God is rewriting our lives to make the inside look like the outside. We must be clay in the hands of the Potter. How hard are you? Have you dried up in your life so that God cannot work with you anymore? Or are you fresh, young, clay, that God can mold to the image of the Son? May God the Holy Spirit mold us into the image of God the Son, by the direction of God the Father. Amen.