Out of Many, One: A Motto for Orthodox Presbyterians

Stephen D. Doe

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the thirteen colonies struggled to trust one another and work together. In order to defeat the British, they had to see themselves as one. Ben Franklin warned the other leaders of the Continental Congress that they all had to hang together in the struggle for independence, or else they would hang separately as traitors.

In 1776, the Great Seal Committee of the Continental Congress chose the Latin phrase e pluribus unum—"Out of many, one"—for the motto of the fledgling United States of America. They recognized that the thirteen colonies would have to stand together or lose their battle. That Latin phrase can still be found on our coins and on the one dollar bill.

Many times of testing have come in America's history. The pluribus seems at times more apparent than the unum, but both remain fundamentally true. Maybe the Orthodox Presbyterian Church can learn something from this part of American history.

A Presbyterian History Lesson

Do we in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church think of ourselves more often as three hundred separate colonies or congregations than as a single denomination, a unum? We can be so involved in our own congregational life, that the unum gets lost in the pluribus! We have to see more of how God uses the many parts to serve the whole in furthering Christ's great goal for his church (Matt. 28:18-20).

Presbyterians believe that Christ governs his church on earth through several levels of elected elders (sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies). The various levels of church government are not separate, but interconnected, sometimes spoken of as "a series of graded courts." Presbyterianism seeks to realize the unity of Christ's body concretely in church government, bringing unity out of many individuals and congregations.

The famous passage in Acts 15 shows the church in Antioch looking beyond itself to the larger body, the church in Jerusalem, represented by the apostles and elders (Acts 15:2, 4, 6). The decision made in Jerusalem became the final answer to the problems which the church in Antioch faced (Acts 15:22-29; 16:4). The elders in Jerusalem who ruled alongside the apostles had been chosen by the members of the church. Luke describes the selection of elders using the Greek word cheirotoneo, from the word for "hand" (cheir) (Acts 14:23). It seems to carry the meaning "to select by show of hands" or "hold an election."

Presbyterianism has been around for a long time. Some people would say that presbyterians have been around since the time of Moses! When God sent Moses back to Egypt from the land of Midian, Moses was to meet with the elders of Israel (Ex. 3:16). In the history of God's Old Testament people, the elders of Israel were both covenant representatives of the whole nation before God (cf. Ex. 24:1-11; 2 Sam. 5:3) and covenant rulers over the nation (cf. Deut. 19:12; 27:1, etc.) representing God to his people.

Those elders did not always lead the people of God in obedience. The Old Testament history is one of sad decline in the leadership by elders until the coming of Christ. Elders became associated with the synagogues and appear frequently in the New Testament. The Son of God suffered many things at the hands of the elders (Matt. 16:21; 26:3, 47-59) as they assented to his death. The elders of the old covenant church were also persecutors of the new covenant church (Acts 4:1-22; 6:8-14). Here the unum stood in opposition to the true oneness that the Redeemer brought.

Rule by "elders" (presbyteroi in Greek) was carried over into the early church. In the book of Revelation, the elders are still covenant representatives for all the people of God before his throne (Rev. 4:4,10, etc.). They are covenant rulers as well, appointed by the Holy Spirit to care for God's flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; cf. Heb. 13:17). Because the same men serve the local church (on sessions), the regional church (in presbyteries), and the whole church (at general assembly), the unity of Christ's rule is expressed as the church meets in its various courts. Presbyterians reject the idea of a single man ruling the church, as in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet we also reject the idea that the church exists only as separate congregations, as in Congregationalism.

"Out of many, one" should affect even how we think about the kingdom work of the church.

E Pluribus Unum and Worldwide Outreach

Did you know that when a minister of the gospel is ordained in the OPC, he is ordained to minister the gospel in the whole church, even though he is called to a specific charge, whether it is a particular congregation or a particular task? The ordination of ministers is one way we express our unity as a church. Regularly, I hope, each church in the OPC prays for home and foreign missionaries and the work of Christian education, and for the work of presbyteries and the General Assembly. In all those ways we are trying to show that we are one, unum.

And if Presbyterian church government is aimed at manifesting the unity of Christ's rule, we should be consistently showing that same unity in our giving. Before the church at Antioch appealed for guidance to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, they had already expressed their unity in Acts 11:27-30. Agabus, a prophet, showed by the Spirit of God that a famine was going to come upon the world. The Christians in Antioch no doubt prepared on the home front for that famine. But Luke records something different. The believers in Antioch thought first of sending aid to their brethren in Judea by the hands of Barnabus and Saul. They acted like Presbyterians! They were connected not just by doctrine, but by cords of love.

Paul used every opportunity presented to him to impress upon the churches that they could show their unity in their giving. Gentile churches far removed from Jerusalem saw themselves as bound together with the church in Jerusalem, rejoicing and weeping because they were all members of one body (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8:16-24; cf. Rom. 12:4-16; 1 Cor. 12:27).

The concept of Worldwide Outreach in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is nothing less than an attempt to be Presbyterian in giving to the work of the gospel on the denominational level. The gospel is being advanced on three fronts: (1) covenant training, through the work of the Committee on Christian Education, (2) evangelism around us, through the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, and (3) evangelism beyond us, through the Committee on Foreign Missions. These three committees are not in competition for the gifts of God's people any more than the believers in Antioch were in competition with the believers in Judea to have their needs for food met.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church wants to do the work of the gospel as a Presbyterian body, not individualistically. We must demonstrate the reality of Christ's rule over the portion of Christ's body called the OPC in every way possible. Giving to Worldwide Outreach allows us to more fully show that we understand what it means to be Presbyterian, interconnected with one head, caring for one another. Out of many, one, then—one in government, one in vision for the gospel reaching the world, one in service to Christ and his people ... e pluribus unum.

A Final American History Lesson

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry gave his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses. Even before e pluribus unum was suggested as the American motto, Henry tried to arouse his fellow Virginians to see themselves as Americans. He said, in part, "Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!"

"Our chains are forged!" Henry said, because he saw that the trials of the New Englanders were trials of all Americans. Although the thirteen colonies did not demonstrate perfect unity during the long years of the Revolutionary War, the unum eventually played a role in bringing the pluribus together. We have an even greater cause, the supreme cause, the rule of Jesus Christ over hearts and lives in this world. Do we, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, demonstrate the reality of "out of many, one" in our commitment to the unified work of Worldwide Outreach as we live under the rule of the king and head of the church? May it increasingly be so!

The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Va. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2006.

New Horizons: April 2006

Out of Many, One

Also in this issue

The Reality of the Resurrection

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 14: Conclusion: Without Illusions

Helps for Worship #7: The Salutation

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