“How did you become a Presbyterian?” It’s a question I’m asked with some regularity, often with the assumption that I fall into one of two categories: I was born a Presbyterian, or I became a Presbyterian because they’re the only ones who ordain women. (P.S. We aren’t. There are Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Baptists who also ordain women… just to name a few!) To correct these misconceptions, I’ve come up with a witty reply: “I became a Presbyterian because John Calvin converted me.”
Needless to say, this raises a few eyebrows. For most of us, Calvin is an antiquated Father of the Reformation era – an unsophisticated time when Black Death kept popping up throughout Europe and the only way Christians could think to respond was to isolate, wear masks, and do what they could to help those suffering. For me however, Calvin is a wise friend with a deep knowledge of Scripture and an opinion worth hearing even if I don’t always fully agree. A man of deep insight and even (dare I suggest) progressive ideals, he bucked the trend by suggesting that women were not just capable of serving in what for the Western Church were traditionally male-only roles, but actively ordained them to them! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
At the age of 2, I was baptized in a United Methodist Church that my parents had selected largely on the basis of that having been the denomination my father attended as a child. From there, my family moved on to a series of congregations rooted in the Baptist tradition. One of the things I appreciate most about these communities of faith was their outward focus. Though few in our town had what one might consider to be “ample” resources, there was a constant attitude that no matter how little you had, there was always someone who had less. The mission of Jesus was to find that person, get to know their need, and extend a helping hand.
At the time, my impression of “mainline” denominations like the Presbyterians was that they were largely disinterested in these forms of outreach – particularly if one actually mentioned the name of Jesus while offering food to the hungry or water to the thirsty (Mt. 10:42). This, combined with what I would later discover were some substantial misunderstandings of what John Calvin taught allowed me to conveniently place Presbyterians and Presbyterianism in the category of near-heresy. Then 9/11 happened.
Awash in usually reliable Christian sources all arguing with one another over whether Islam was or wasn’t a peaceful religion, I decided to begin seeking answers for myself. I read the Quran cover-to-cover – twice. I sought out information about different Islamic sects (including those responsible for the attacks and others far less well-known). I read the work of various Imams and eventually even ended up with a few Muslim friends – none of whom, I discovered, were even marginally inclined towards acts of terrorism. And I found myself asking how many of the perceptions I’d formed in my childhood – especially those based on “reliable” sources – were accurate.
With this in mind, I began reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. My goal was to prove that at least my diagnosis of Presbyterianism was correct. It wasn’t. In fact, the man I’d once viewed as a hateful misogynist turned out to be gentle in his approach and well-reasoned in his arguments. So well-reasoned that even having committed massive portions of Scripture to memory, I couldn’t find good arguments against much of what he had to say. It turned out that I already was a Presbyterian – I just needed someone to show me!
I began exploring the Presbyterian tradition in greater depth, reading other authors and learning about various confessions. Shortly thereafter, I joined a PC(USA) congregation and several years later (finally convinced that it was biblically acceptable for a woman to hold a position of leadership) and, at the encouragement of others who had identified my gifts, began seeking ordination.
The result is that when I say I’m a Presbyterian, I’m not talking about having been born into a denomination or simply having chosen one out of a hat. Instead, I’m speaking about the culmination of a long process of growth and exploration – of openness to the ideas of others and to the possibility that I, myself, might be wrong. I’ve found a home in this denomination not because I perfectly agree with every doctrinal statement we embrace (our own confessions disagree with one another in places), but because overall, I find the Presbyterian understanding of Christ’s teachings to be in line with those teachings as presented in Scripture. And that includes our understanding of what it means to reach out to our neighbors.
During the Black Death, John Calvin led the other ministers of Geneva (elders and deacons) in the visitation of the afflicted. He was a stalwart supporter of immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution in other European countries. He set an example by taking personal risks in order to demonstrate Christ’s love to those most in need. And we should too. Though our modern plagues look a bit different (COVID, homelessness, etc.), an embrace of the Presbyterian tradition calls us to a deep compassion for those in need and begs us to follow in the steps of Christ who “while we were still sinners… died for us” (Ro. 5:8).