WELCOME TO A CONGREGATION OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
About Being Presbyterian
to this Presbyterian congregation! It
is one of the nearly 13,000 similar congregations spread across the United
States that, together, make up the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Presbyterianism in both Europe and America was often characterized by its
insistence on a kind of “doctrinal purity” in which all congregations
and all members adhered to identical beliefs and practices.
Today, however, Presbyterianism is a uniquely diverse denomination
in which it is difficult to characterize either a “typical”
congregation or an average Presbyterian.
Our congregations range from large metropolitan congregations of a
few thousand members to small country churches of 20 members, from
suburban middle-class congregations to inner-city store-front churches.
Our worship styles and theological emphasis vary from congregation
to congregation. We are
ethnically and socially diverse and well distributed across the United
this modern diversity sometimes gives us identity problems, it is also a
great strength of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Whatever your needs and interests, there is a Presbyterian
congregation for you. No
matter what our surface differences may be, we are all members of God’s
family. We are brothers and
sisters who love the same Creator and our differences genuinely allow us
to be responsive to God’s call. However,
around the world, Presbyterians share a common understanding that we are
all chosen by God to be disciples of Jesus Christ and this unifying force
is much stronger than the things that make us different from one another.
a means of further introduction to this congregation of the Presbyterian
Church (USA), the remainder of this document is divided into a
question-answer format focused on the things we think you might like to
know about the Christians who call themselves Presbyterians.
did the Presbyterian Church (USA) begin?
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is, uniquely, one of the
newest and one of the oldest denominations in America. We are one of the newest because on June 10, 1983, the two
largest Presbyterian groups in the United States reunited after 122 years
of separation and became the Presbyterian Church (USA).
We are one of the oldest denominations because our roots go back to
the very first settlers in America. Most
historians affirm that nearly three-fourths of all America held
theological beliefs common to Presbyterians at the time of the
most branches of Christianity in America, Presbyterians have suffered many
divisions and celebrated nearly as many reunions over the years.
However, no division has been as painful and lengthy as the
division caused by the Civil War. At
the “reunion” General Assembly in June, 1983, the Presbyterian Church
in the United States (the “southern” church) and the United
Presbyterian Church in the United States of American (the “northern”
church) became the third largest Protestant denomination in American and
the largest Presbyterian denomination in the world.
In a dramatic ceremony filled with emotional symbolism, the silver
crosses of the two former moderators were fused into a new one for the
single moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In much the same way, the people, congregations, and structures of
two long-separated denominations have been reunited into one Presbyterian
How did Presbyterianism begin?
the historical movement of which Presbyterianism is a part is more
properly called the “Reformed” movement because it is one of the
primary branches coming out of the Protestant Reformation.
The movement is also called “Calvinism” by some because John
Calvin articulated most of the key ideas of Presbyterianism in Geneva,
Switzerland in the Sixteenth Century.
John Calvin came into prominence as an important religious leader, the
Protestant Reformation was already well established under the leadership
of men like Martin Luther of Germany and Huldrich Zwingli of Switzerland.
He was born in Noyon, France in 1509.
A bright student, he entered the University of Paris and later
studied law, theology, and classical literature at the Universities of
Orleans and Bourges. By his
early 20’s, he was already established as a classical scholar and author
of one book.
1533 or 1534, Calvin became a convert to Protestantism.
He shared in the writing of an overly Protestant address delivered
by the newly elected rector of the University of Parish and had to flee
the city in fear of his life. At
age 26, in hiding from the French Catholic authorities, Calvin wrote and
published a small book entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion,
a systematic expression of his understanding of Protestant belief.
Because of this book, Calvin suddenly became a major leader of the
Protestant Reformation in Europe. The
institutes were edited, enlarged, and republished several times in
Calvin’s lifetime and it was eventually translated into hundreds of
languages as a primer of the Reformed movement.
eventually settled in the Protestant city of Geneva where he became the
pastor of St. Peters. Although
his career at Geneva had many ups and downs, he gradually became the
established political leader as well as the spiritual leader of one of
Europe’s most important cities. Under
Calvin’s leadership and for generations after, Geneva was the
acknowledged center of the Reformed movement.
It became a haven for Protestant exiles from Catholic countries and
the primary training center for Reformed clergy.
though John Calvin’s Geneva was the center of the reformed movement,
American Presbyterians are actually linked to the movement through another
John: the Scotsman John Knox. History
first noticed Knox, a young priest-turned-Protestant, as the bodyguard for
George Wishart, a leading Protestant scholar.
In 1546, Wishart was arrested, convicted, and burned at the stake
for heresy under orders from Cardinal David Beaton.
In reaction to this, the growing body of Protestants in eastern
Scotland revolted, murdered Cardinal Beaton and barricaded themselves
inside St. Andrew’s Castle. Inside
the castle, John Knox was chosen to be the spiritual leader of the
rebellious Protestants. Soon,
the Scottish Catholics aided by French soldiers battered their way into
the castle and the Protestants—including Knox—became slaves on French
a year and a half of slavery, Knox was freed by English Protestants and he
became one of the court preachers of Edward VI in England.
After Edward’s death, Knox joined the flow of Protestant exiles
to Geneva where he studies under Calvin, further sharpened his commitment
to the Reformed cause, and served as pastor to the English-speaking
Knox returned to his beloved Scotland in 1559 when the nation was ripe for
revolution. The Scottish
Church had become decadent. Poverty
and misery were everywhere. War
after war had depleted the population.
And, the government was a shaky coalition of feudal leaders under
the French Queen Regent, Mary of Guise.
After Knox preached his first sermon at Perth, riots broke out and
revolution spread rapidly across the nation.
Under Knox’s leadership, the revolution was not only rapidly
successful but also largely bloodless.
By the summer of 1560, all foreign troops were gone, Mary of Guise
was dead, power was in the hands of the Scottish parliament, and the
Church of Scotland was reshaped along Presbyterian lines.
Even though the Reformation was later challenged by Catholic Mary,
Queen of Scots, and endangered by both internal and external strife,
Scotland has become thoroughly Presbyterian under the almost single-handed
leadership of John Knox.
impact has Presbyterianism had on America?
earliest settlers in the American Colonies were primarily Reformed
Protestant exiles from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the
European Continent. Many of
these were ardent Presbyterians. The largest group of Presbyterians was the Scotch-Irish
immigrants from Northern Ireland who settled primarily in Pennsylvania,
Virginia, and Carolinas. The
first Presbyterian churches were formed in America in the late Seventeenth
Century, and the first Presbytery was formed about 1706 by Francis Makemie,
the “Father of American Presbyterianism.”
landed in Maryland in 1683 as a missionary from Northern Ireland.
He immediately began traveling up and down the eastern seaboard
establishing new Presbyterian churches, five of which are still in
existence. He traveled to
Great Britain and brought back new preachers and, around 1706, he formed a
handful of Presbyterian clergy into our first U.S. Presbytery.
This Presbytery is widely recognized as the first organized
denomination in the United States and the beginning of American
were so much a part of the Revolutionary War that some English leaders
called it “the Presbyterian Rebellion!”
The Presbyterians’ belief in democracy and freedom put them
solidly on the side of the patriots and most historians agree that the
Presbyterian understanding of church government strongly influenced the
shaping of the Constitution of the United States.
Indeed, the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of
Independence was John Witherspoon, the Presbyterian president of
the southern colonies, the young Presbyterian clergyman, Samuel Davies,
combined solid patriotism with evangelical fervor and preached the cause
of independence as well as the love of Christ.
Before he died at age 38, he had established several churches,
influenced Patrick Henry, formed the first southern Presbytery, and served
as a college president.
1789, shortly after the formation of the new United State of America,
several American Presbyteries and Synods came together for the first
General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
This is the point in time from which today’s Presbyterian Church
(USA) dates its existence as a national church.
do Presbyterians decide on what they believe?
believe that each person is called to work out his or her beliefs based on
two primary sources of authority—first, the Scriptures and second, the
historic creeds and confessions of the church.
the very earliest times, Presbyterians have affirmed that the Holy Bible
is the most authoritative source for faith and practice and a source of
the creative and redemptive power of God.
We believe the Bible was written by persons who were inspired by
God for the purpose of revealing God’s love and truth.
The Scriptures contain the remarkable and mysterious story of
God’s love for humankind and of God’s divine revelation in the person
of Jesus Christ. Because of this, it is truly God’s Word for Presbyterians.
Presbyterian Church (USA) is a confessional church.
This means that our basic beliefs are embodied in a series of
creeds, doctrinal statements, and confessions produced by great councils
of the church. In the process of writing confessional statements,
Presbyterians have always affirmed that all declarations of belief must
reflect the truths found in the Bible.
Two of our creeds—the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene
Creed—are also affirmed by most other Christians.
However, a few of our most important confessions are authoritative
only for other Presbyterian bodies. A
few of the most important confessions that we affirm are:
The Scots Confession was written by John Knox and five other
Scottish Reformers immediately after the 1560 revolution in Scotland.
The Westminster Confession was written by a congress of
Puritan clergymen of the Church of England that met periodically for nine
years in the mid-seventeenth century.
Even though it had little impact on England, the Westminster
Confession has been the most influential of all creeds in Scotland and the
The Confession of 1967 was written by a Special Committee of
the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (“northern” Presbyterians),
modified through a lengthy legislative process, and adopted by the General
Assembly as one of the confessions of the church.
confessions—along with a few others—make up the basic doctrinal
heritage of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
In addition, contemporary statements such as A Declaration of Faith
(PCUS) of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States
(“southern” Presbyterians) are widely used in worship and Christian
education even though they have not been constitutionally adopted as
have always emphasized education and personal study and every member is
encouraged to study the Scriptures, examine our confessions and creeds,
and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in identifying his or her own
beliefs. American Presbyterians have historically emphasized the need
for tolerance. While we
believe in the truth of our own doctrines, we affirm persons and
denominations with different beliefs as full members of Christ’s Body.
beliefs do Presbyterians share with most other Christians?
the majority of beliefs held by Christians are the same from one
denomination to another. Presbyterian
beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Grace, Justification by
Faith, the Priesthood of All Believers, and a variety of other doctrines
are very similar to those held by other Protestants.
historic Westminster Confession states that, “There is but one only
living true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure
spirit . . .immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most
wise, most holy, most free, most absolute . . .most loving, gracious,
merciful, long suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving
iniquity, transgression and sin. . . .
In the unity of the Godhead, there be three persons: . . . God the
Father, God the Son, and the God the Holy Ghost.”
is a reality that defies precise definition.
To communicate God is to communicate the incommunicable, and the
many writings about God ultimately list only attributes not definitions.
In the final analysis, if we could define God, we would necessarily
limit God and he would no longer be God.
God can be the subject of academic reflection but can only be fully
known through experiencing the fullness of God’s mystery.
God of total love and forgiveness is a difficult if not impossible concept
for us to understand. Therefore,
the great mystery we call God revealed himself to us in the form of a man,
Jesus of Nazareth. Both the
words and the actions of Jesus, as recorded in the Scriptures, help us to
better understand the loving nature of God.
his ultimate act of obedience—giving up his life—is a means of
illustrating the extent of God’s desire to reconcile all persons to God.
Finally, God raised Christ from the dead and the ultimate power of
God was illustrated for all time. Jesus
Christ is the Lord of all life, the redeemer of persons, and the head of
continues to reveal himself to us today in many different ways, most of
which are identified through experience rather than knowledge.
Both the experienced presence of God in our lives and the assumed
activity of God in history are identified as the Holy Spirit.
The absolute and constant guiding force of God in our lives is a
mystery, which we identify as the activity of the Holy Spirit.
loves every person and continually seeks to forgive our failure to be
obedient. This constant love
and forgiveness is given freely. There
is nothing we can do either to deserve or to earn it.
This activity of God—God’s constant loving and forgiving of
every person—is God’s grace.
sense of Chapter XI of the Westminster Confession is that “We are
justified, or pardoned, not by good works but by faith in our Lord and
Savior Jesus Christ.” This
means that when we fully have faith that Christ’s death opened the way
to wholeness and love, we are justified, or pardoned, not by good works
but by faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
This means that when we fully have faith that Christ’s death
opened the way to wholeness and love, we are justified.
Justification is being brought into a proper relationship with God
and neighbor, fully understanding God’s purpose for us, being freed from
our obsession with self-interest, released from guilt for our inability to
be obedient to God, and rescued from our anxiety about meaninglessness and
Priesthood of all Believers
the Presbyterian service of Holy Communion, the participants usually pass
the bread and wine from person to person—a unique symbol of each person
serving as a priest (servant) to each other person.
We believe that each Christian has direct access to God through
worship, prayer, personal confession, and the study of Scripture.
beliefs are uniquely Presbyterian?
virtually all of the doctrines held by Presbyterians, there are subtleties
that set us apart. Most of
these are minor and largely indistinguishable in the midst of modern
diversity. However, two doctrines—the Sovereignty of God and
Predestination—have been most often identified as unique contributions
of Reformed theology to the whole of Christian belief. And, most of the other minor differences in Reformed belief
flow out of these two concepts.
Sovereignty of God
focus of Presbyterian belief is certainly “ God-centered.”
And, even though this could be said of virtually all Christians,
the sovereignty, power, and mystery of God are emphasize much more by
Presbyterians. For us, God is
always one being who relates to us personally in three awe-inspiring ways:
God the Creator, the unfathomable beginning of all things; God in Jesus
Christ, the loving redeemer of persons; and God the Holy Spirit, the
sanctifier who is active in the world and in persons.
The focus of faith for a Presbyterian is the absolute trust that
our totally loving God is the absolute ruler and protector of everything.
The true purpose of every human being, then, is to love and trust
God and to love and protect what God has created.
emphasis on the power and majesty of God has led to the more controversial
doctrine of Predestination—the belief that God in wisdom
“predestines” some to heaven and some to hell.
Three things have historically led Presbyterians to this
conclusion. First many
persons who come into a relationship with God genuinely sense that they
have been “chosen” or “elected” by God because they did nothing
whatsoever to merit or earn his love.
Second, it is obvious that some persons come into a relationship
with God very easily while others seem to be unable to hear God’s call.
And, finally, the New Testament affirms that God knows in advance
who is going to turn to God and who is going to turn away. “We know that all things work together for good for those
who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. For those whom God foreknew were predestined to be
conformed to the image of God’s Son…And those whom God predestined
were called; and those God called God also justified; and those whom God
justified God also glorified. (Romans 8:28-33)
classic understanding of the doctrine of Predestination, even by
well-meaning believers, sometimes led to arrogance and self-righteousness.
Some scorned others while believing they were the chosen ones. Others emphasized God’s action, while relieving themselves
of any responsibility. If we
understand predestination and free will as linked together, the emphasis
is on God’s activity of salvation to which believers respond in faith.
“God our Savior…wants everyone to be saved and to come to know
the truth” (I Timothy 2) Far from being exclusive and judgmental, we
respond in humility to the power of God’s love and grace.
sacraments do Presbyterians recognize?
celebrate two Sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion, and we attach a
significant degree of liturgical and mystical importance to them.
However, we also experience God’s grace in a variety of other
activities such as confirmation, ordination, marriage, teaching,
preaching, and social service.
and when do Presbyterians Baptize?
concert with the mainstream of Christians around the world, we baptize
infants (as well as older youth and adults) and require their parents to
take vows to raise their children so that the example of their lives will
help lead their children to choose Jesus Christ.
The parents and the congregation pledge to raise the children under
the ministry and guidance of the Church until they accept the gift of
salvation for themselves and become full and responsible Church members at
which usually takes place in the early teen years, brings young people
into active Church membership. The
young people ratify the vows made by their parents at their baptism and
are initiated into Church membership.
The baptism, embraced in faith by their parents, is completed in
faith by the children when they make their public professions of faith.
Presbyterian Baptisms are by “sprinkling” with the three-part blessing
“in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
and when do Presbyterians celebrate Holy Communion?
use three terms interchangeably for the sacrament of Holy Communion: Communion, Lord’s Supper, and Eucharist.
The pattern varies all the way from quarterly Communion to weekly
Communion in different congregations.
Presbyterians encourage variety in celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the
most common pattern is using a stated liturgy that reflects patterns and
practices which have been followed with some consistency since the First
Century. The liturgy of the
bread and juice is to be done by an ordained minister standing behind a
table rather than facing an altar. The elements—bread and grape juice—are then distributed
by the elders of the congregation and usually passed from person to
do not believe Christ’s body and blood are physically present in the
elements of Holy Communion, but we do affirm that Christ is spiritually
present and that the sacrament is one of the means by which his grace and
love are available to persons of faith.
Important to us is the belief that Christ’s table is open to
everyone who is willing to repent of their sins, to live in love and
charity with their neighbors, and to follow the commandments of God.
We do not restrict the Lord’s Supper only to members or even only
to Presbyterians. Everyone is
invited to Christ’s table.
Presbyterians take stands on specific social and justice issues?
Presbyterian Church has a long history of concern for social justice and
its members and courts have often taken forthright positions on
controversial issues involving Christian principles.
Early Presbyterians opposed slavery, liquor traffic, gambling,
industrial exploitation, war, and the cruel treatment of prisoners.
In addition to making pronouncements, Presbyterians have always
involved themselves directly in caring for persons and in changing those
forces and institutions in society that keep people from fulfilling their
potential for full, free, and productive lives.
the Presbyterian Church (USA) takes affirmative stands on specific moral
and social issues and encourages its members to study and to act on issues
out of Christian conscience. Both
of the recent confessional statements of the former denominations making
up the Presbyterian Church (USA) have strong statements with regard to a
Presbyterian’s responsibility for the elimination of injustice, racism,
oppression, war, violence, sexism, poverty, hatred, and the decline of
basic moral values. “Christ
teaches us to go beyond legal requirements in serving and helping our
neighbor, to treat our neighbors’ needs as our own, to care passionately
for the others’ good, to share what we have.” (PCUS) “ God’s
redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of human life:
social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and
technological, individual and corporate….It is the will of God that his
purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all
evil be banished from his creation.” (UPCUSA)
Presbyterians cooperate with other Christians?
have always been leaders in Christian cooperative ventures and ecumenical
organizations such as national cooperative evangelism activities, the
National Council of Churches, the Consultation on Church Union, the
American Bible Society, the World Council of Churches, and the World
Alliance of Reformed Churches. In
fact, it is common to find Presbyterians on the staffs of many
non-denominational and inter-denominational organizations.
In the last three decades, Presbyterians have been particularly
active in supporting the kinds of ministries in which the mission of
Christ is best served through inter-denominational efforts.
do Presbyterians feel about education?
of the historic traits of Presbyterians around the world has been their
emphasis on education. Both
Calvin and Knox were responsible for the development of extensive
educational systems and the Presbyterians in the American Colonies were
the leading pioneers in both higher education and public education.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) maintains stringent education
requirements for clergy and encourages church support of education at all
levels. In addition, the
Presbyterian Church (USA) is historically related to many colleges and
universities across the nation.
does “Presbyterian” mean?
are called Presbyterian because we adhere to a Presbyterian form of church
government in which all authority is placed in the hands of assemblies
made up of equal numbers of lay and clergy representations.
In our regional and national assemblies, the elected
representatives are called presbyters, from the Greek word presbuteros.
Presbuteros is normally translated “elder” in the Bible.
The elected members of the Session—which governs our local
congregation—are called elders.
principles of the Reformed tradition which are important in our
understanding of church government are that:
-church structure should be based on Scripture,
-everything should be done in an orderly manner and
-government should be in the hands of representative assemblies, not individuals.
is the Presbyterian Church (USA) governed?
denomination is organized in a system of governing bodies composed of
presbyters, both elders and ministers.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) maintains two offices that are
mentioned in the New Testament—presbyters (elders and ministers of the
word) and deacons—and these offices are open to both men and women.
Session is the governing body of each local or “particular” church.
The Session is moderated by the minister, who serves with elders
elected by the congregation. The
Session is responsible for the mission and government of the particular
Presbytery is a corporate expression of the church consisting of all the
churches and ministers of the word in a geographic area.
Presbyteries are considered the primary governing bodies of the
Presbyterian Church (USA). They
have the authority to install ministers in particular churches, ordain
ministers, organize and dissolve congregations, and discipline both clergy
and congregations. Most
presbyteries hire some full-time staff for the ongoing work of the church
in their geographic area.
Synod is made up of an equal number of lay and clergy delegates from the
presbyteries in a larger geographic area.
Most synods have only limited authority but are organized to
encourage and facilitate regional ministries.
General Assembly is the national ruling body of the Presbyterian Church
(USA). It meets every other
year and is made up of an equal number of lay and clergy commissioners
elected by the presbyteries. The General Assembly oversees the work of the many national
agencies of the church, acts on “overtures” or petitions from
presbyteries, establishes special task forces and commissions, and
proposes constitutional and doctrinal changes which must be ratified by
the presbyteries. It elects a
new Moderator and Vice Moderator each year who serves as chairperson for
the duration of the Assembly, and as an ambassador of the church
throughout the subsequent two years.
Every five years, the Assembly elects the Stated Clerk, the ongoing
executive officer of the General Assembly responsible for administering
its decisions between meetings.
you have missionaries and missions?
in the world that Christian missionaries are needed and allowed,
Presbyterians are there. Primary
emphasis is on serving the needs of people in the under-developed nations
of Africa, Asia, and Latin America with food, education, medical care,
agriculture, and spiritual aid. This
twin emphasis on meeting both spiritual and physical needs has resulted in
thousands of native churches, schools, hospitals, community centers, etc.
around the world. Today, there are native Presbyterian denominations active in
dozens of countries and missionary activities in many, many more.
addition to the world mission, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is involved
in thousands of missional activities, projects, and institutions in the
United States including hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, universities,
seminaries, high schools, primary schools, kindergartens, community
centers, etc. The same
creative diversity that is a primary strength of Presbyterian
congregations is also true of our institutions. Diversity, excellence, and commitment to Christ’s mission
are the hallmarks of Presbyterian institutions from the smallest local
churches to the largest hospitals and universities.
hope this brief summary of the history, beliefs, and structure of the
Presbyterian Church (USA) has been helpful.
you want to know more, check out these and other books in Westminster’s
Hearts: conversations with Presbyterians. Interviews by Vic Jameson.
[talks with 36 Presbyterians, including Katherine Paterson, John Fife]
Unites Presbyterians: common ground for troubled times.
Kirkpatrick & William H. Hopper, Jr.
Brief History of the Presbyterians. James H. Smylie.
beliefs: a brief introduction. Donald K. McKim. 2003.
way of discipleship: the meaning of membership in the United Presbyterian
Church. (not the PCUSA). 1959.
to spell Presbyterian. James W. Angell, with a foreword by Clifton
Kirkpatrick. 2002. (PCUSA) Information on key ideas, commitment, witness,
order, discipline and covenant along with a glossary on “commonly used
Their history and beliefs. Walter L. Lingle and John W. Kuykendall. 1978.