Ngugi Wa Thiong’o tells the story of how an eagle was convinced she was a chicken. Limited to the four walls of the hen house, she spends years living on ground-level. Eventually, after a long time, it takes a unique circumstance that forces her to take a leap of faith that she flutters and takes flight into the expansive sky. The story reinforces the importance of identifying our Africanness. However, our postmodern cultural location blurs the question of identity.
This blurriness extends to churches, where many identify themselves as non-denominational. Truth is, however, in every church, there is either an implicit or explicit theology and practice. And yet because churches are made up of forgiven sinners, no church is perfect in its theology and practice. Yet this does not nullify our identification with and service within certain churches. I have enjoyed worshipping in non-denominational and other Baptist contexts, experiences that lead me to say: Being Presbyterian is not the only way to live out our discipleship in Christ, but one among many. This already gets into the question of denominations, one I have tried to speak of elsewhere. So here goes a summary of some reasons.
A big theme of Presbyterian theology is the concept of covenant. God in his sovereign wisdom has made binding agreements with individuals, a nation, and people most eminently through Jesus Christ. Those who he chooses he promises to sustain to the very end, and as they co-partner with him, he brings the reality of his kingdom to all the nations. This is also why Presbyterians practise infant baptism (for believing parents although they also baptize believing adults) as per the historical and biblical foundation of the church. The basis is that just as Abraham was promised God’s covenant blessings prior to his circumcising the Israelites as per God’s directive, so baptism is a sign that affirms God’s free gift of grace to the children of believers even before they do anything (See Kevin DeYoung’s Brief Defense of Infant Baptism). God’s covenant is underlined by a high view of grace.
African Christianity although growing numerically is stunted in its roots. Globally with faith being ever so pragmatic, it fails to dig deep into its doctrinal roots. We may say that much of 21st-century church practice is theologically and historically stunted. Yet Presbyterians see the value of historical confessions and creeds because through them we can trace our lineage to the saints of old. We believe that the Holy Spirit has spoken to and through the Church in history and that we can learn from them, even through their errors (2 Timothy 3:14-17; Psalm 119:105). Despite the fact that sometimes some Presbyterian leaders overly emphasize tradition over people or ministry, our faith is historically aware and theologically founded. This can be seen in the theological training of clergy, catechism of new believers, lay training of members through Theological Education by Extension (TEE) – the basis of the modern day online education – and also in pioneering of Kenyan youth ministry as a contextual necessity in our times.
In many Presbyterian churches, a local church is led by a “session” of elders and decisions ratified by various church committees. Local churches form a parish and parishes form a presbytery, where they meet annually to make decisions for the larger church body. One of the challenges of this is that decisions may not apply equally in all contexts, but the outstanding benefit is that decisions are made by a consensus, therefore, protecting the church from the oversight of charismatic individuals. Of course, there are many outliers in this case and downsides, but the Presbyterian church is a church of consensus much like the early church of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the councils that defined the first seven centuries of the Early Church. Thus, there is a bridge between urban and rural realities that define much of Africa, without sidelining or favoring any of the two contextual ministries.
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever (Westminster, Shorter Catechism).
Pervading Presbyterian theology and practice is a high view of God. The Reformed theologian John Calvin rightly acknowledged that knowledge of God precedes a healthy knowledge of humanity and life. Thus God is seen as creator, sustainer, and redeemer. Believing with the scriptural witness that Jesus Christ reveals in the clearest way who God is, then the only way of salvation and eternal life is through God’s covenant of grace in Christ. And in Jesus Christ the far-reaching doctrines of grace rest: justification, regeneration, adoption, sanctification and glorification. We are made partakers of these truths through “the Spirit applying to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us and thereby uniting us to Christ” (Westminster, Shorter Catechism, Q. 30). Thus, eternal life rests on the triune-God: The Father planning our redemption, the Son accomplishing redemption and the Spirit applying it to our lives (Rom 10:17, Jn 15:5, 1 Cor 1:9, Eph 3:17).
Connected to the Body
The Presbyterian church is also catholic i.e. it is part of the universal church. We acknowledge other denominations and traditions that are centered on Christ and his Scriptures. This can be seen through opening the Lord’s table to other believers, fellowshipping with other traditions and recognizing other believers baptism, to name a few. Participation in ecumenical and inter-denominational fellowships affirm the same point.
But I don’t fuss about it
Much more can be said about being Presbyterian in addition to the lives that it has transformed in the Kenyan community at large. One notable contribution has been John Gatu’s advocacy in the Moratorium debate, which sort to give self-reliance to the African Church in the 1970’s even with continued foreign missionary support (Rev. Dr. John G. Gatu, Fan into Flame: An Autobiography, 128-145). And although the Presbyterian Church of East Africa came through Scottish Presbyterian Missions, the contemporary PCEA is not directly affiliated with or as liberal as some Presbyterian churches in Scottland or USA for instance. Partnerships are with individual churches rather than with entire ecclesial bodies. There is still much more to work on in terms of a more multi-ethnic church cognizant of the multi-cultural nature of urban African cities. Yet I think this is a factor of mission history and focus in Kenya (the same may be said of the Quakers/Friends Church, SDA and Methodists being predominantly of few ethnicities). Thankfully the youth ministries in these churches are showing a positive trend. Another area is how to make the structures work for the ministry of people, and not be an impediment, especially to gospel-centricity and clarity. This is what newer non-denominational and urban churches are tackling successfully, but their challenge will be how to maintain this focus in light of the passage of time and the necessity of structures.
The main reason I don’t fuss about it, however, is that I believe that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and that the Spirit may be doing a new thing and challenging pre-conceived notions and structures. And as we live out our discipleship in Christ, I suggest that we can best learn from each other’s Christian traditions and backgrounds, for more enriched and united Christian ministry in our time. Hence the reformed motto, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda “the Church reformed, always reforming”.