What’s a Presbyterian?

And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. –Acts 14:23

The term Presbyterian derives from the Biblical Greek word presbuteros, “elder.”       Following the apostolic pattern that is described for us in the Book of Acts, our congregations and our denomination are governed by elders. While we trace this form of church government back to Scripture, we also trace the re-emergence or renewed emphasis upon this presbyterian model to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
19th-century representation of the reformerOur theological heritage, and much of what we believe about the Church of Jesus Christ, may be found in the writings of John Calvin (1509-1564), who crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.  Calvin, who looked to such early Church Fathers as St. Augustine (354-430 AD), did not believe he was innovating so much as calling the Church to embrace once more the vitality and focus of its apostolic roots.

Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. FrJohn Knox, after Unknown artist, after 1572 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, Londonom there, the Reformed movement within Christianity spread to other parts of Europe, including the British Isles. John Knox (1514-1572) came from Scotland to learn from and work with Calvin.  In 1560, Knox and five other clergymen wrote the Scots Confession, which is part of our denomination’s constitution.

 Most of the early Presbyterians in America came from northern Ireland, Scotland, and England. The first American Presbytery (a body of elders drawn from local congregations that oversees those congregations) was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly (a regular meeting of representatives from the presbyteries, who oversee the denomination) was held in the same city in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon (1723-1794), President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence (and an ancestor of the actress Reese Witherspoon!).

Principles articulated by Calvin’s close, lifelong study of Scripture continue to distinguish Presbyterian beliefs and practices. Among these principles are (1) the sovereignty of God, (2) the authority of Scripture, (3) justification by grace through faith, and (4) the priesthood of all believers.

What these mean is that (1) God–not any person or group of persons–is the supreme authority over our lives and our faith.  (2) Our knowledge of God, what God requires of us, and God’s purpose for humanity come reliably from the Bible, especially through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus makes it possible for us to be restored to a life-giving relationship with God (justification).  (3) Jesus Christ, the way, and the truth, and the life, is God’s generous, free (gracious) gift to us.  We cannot save ourselves; we cannot “earn” our way to God: being “good” isn’t enough. We receive God’s gracious gift through faith, and faith is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit.  (4) Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls all believers, not merely ordained ministers, to share with everyone the Good News of restored relationship with God. In the spirit of this last principle, the Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, “teaching” elders and “ruling” elders.

Scripture is the first and final authority for Presbyterians. We confess our beliefs through statements that the Church and our branch of it have adopted over the centuriesseal-2color, and these confessions are contained in our Book of Confessions. These statements from different times and situations in our history reflect our understanding of God and what God expects of us. Presbyterians share these beliefs in common. At the same time, we Presbyterians believe that God alone is lord of the conscience: no human being can command another human being what to believe and what not to believe.  It is up to each individual, as that one worships, prays, studies, enjoys sacred friendship, serves, and proclaims the Word with sisters and brothers in faith, to understand what these principles mean, both for the life of Christians together and in his or her particular life.

By God’s grace, we strive to fulfill the Great Ends of the Church, as set forth in our Book of Order (the second part of our constitution): “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

Presbyterians have social and political beliefs as well as theological beliefs, and you’ll find the whole spectrum represented in Presbyterian congregations.
Respecting our differences is an ongoing challenge for us, yet we believe that we will find God’s blessings in showing each other this respect, this tolerance. We hope and have faith that it is possible to have unity without enforcing uniformity. We believe in cultivating the Christian virtues of charity, patience, gentleness, and humility. We believe it is possible for Christians to disagree with one another in good conscience on many matters and still worship God together.

If you would like to learn more about the Presbyterian Church, Reformed Theology, or our  congregation, please contact us.