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Presbyterianism is a form of church government, practiced by many (although not all) of those Protestant churches (known as Reformed churches), which historically subscribed to the teachings of John Calvin. Presbyterianism traces its institutional roots back to the Scottish Reformation, especially as led by John Knox. There are many separate Presbyterian Churches in different nations around the world. Besides national distinctions, Presbyterians also have divided from one another for doctrinal reasons, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment.


History of Presbyterianism

These denominations derive their name from the Greek word presbyteros, which means "elder." Presbyterian church governance is common to the Protestant churches that were most closely modelled after the Reformation in Switzerland. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Reformed churches that adopted a presbyterian instead of episcopalian government became known, naturally enough, as the Presbyterian Church.

In Scotland, John Knox (1505-1572), who had studied under Calvin in Geneva, returned to Scotland and led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation in 1560. The existing Church of Scotland was thus reformed along Presbyterian lines. In Ireland the Presbyterian Church was formed from the Church of Scotland and later became the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. In England, Presbyterianism was established in secret in 1572, toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1647, by an act of the Long Parliament under the control of Puritans, the Church of England embraced Presbyterianism. The re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 brought the return of episcopalian church government in England (and in Scotland for a short time); but the Presbyterian church in England continued in non-conformity, outside of the established church. In Ireland, Presbyterianism was introduced by Scottish immigrants and missionaries to Ulster. The Presbytery of Ulster was formed separately from the established church, in 1642. Presbyterians, along with Roman Catholics in Ulster and the rest of Ireland, suffered under the discriminatory Penal Laws until they were revoked in the early 19th century. All three, very diverse branches of Presbyterianism, as well as independents, and some Dutch, German, and French Reformed denominations, combined in America to form what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church USA (1706). The Presbyterian church in England is the United Reformed Church, whilst the tradition also influenced the Methodist church, established in 1736. In Wales Presbyterianism is represented by the Presbyterian Church of Wales.

Because of an emphasis on equal education for all people, Presbyterians have 'planted' and encouraged schools across the US as the country grew and the missionaries were sent out to the people.

Characteristics of Presbyterians

Main article: Presbyterian church governance

Presbyterians distinguish themselves from other denominations by both doctrine and institutional organization, or as they prefer to call it 'church order'. The origins of the Presbyterian churches were in Calvinism, which is no longer emphasized in some of the contemporary branches. Many of the branches of Presbyterianism are remnants of previous splits from larger groups. These splits have been caused by disagreement concerning the degree to which those ordained to church office should be required to agree with the Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith, which historically serves as the main constitutional document of Presbyterian churches. Those groups that adhere to the document most strictly are typified by baptism of the infant children of believers, the exclusive use of Psalms (modified for metrical singing), singing unaccompanied by instruments, a common communion cup, only men are eligible for ordination to any church office, and a fully Calvinist doctrine of salvation. Because of this diversity of belief, more conservative Presbyterians are likely to attend the smaller denominations that have chosen to split from a larger body. While these conservative Presbyterians are not in the majority, their numbers are significant.

Presbyterian government is based on Elders. Teaching and ruling elders are ordained and convene as a 'Kirk Session', (commonly refered to as simply 'session') responsible for the discipline, nurture and mission of the local congregation. Usually, especially in larger congregations, the practicalities of buildings, finance and temporal ministry to the needy in the congregation are delegated to a distinct group of officers (sometimes called deacons - and in some denominations ordained). This group may variously be known as a 'Board', 'Diaconate' or 'Deacons' Court'. Teaching elders (ministers) have responsibility for teaching, worship and performing sacraments. Ministers are called by individual congregations. A congregation issues a call for the minister's service, but this call must be ratified by the Presbytery.

Above the Kirk Sessions exist Presbyteries, which have area responsibilities. These are composed of ministers and elders from each of the constituent congregations. The Presbytery sends representatives to a broader regional assembly, generally known as the General Assembly, although an intermediate level of a synod sometimes exists. This congregation / presbytery / synod / general assembly schema is based on the historical structure of the larger Presbyterian churches, like the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA); some of the smaller bodies, like the Presbyterian Church in America or the Presbyterian Church in Ireland skip one of the steps between congregation and General Assembly, and usually the step skipped is the Synod. The Church of Scotland has now abolished the Synod.

Presbyterians place great importance upon education and continuous study of the scriptures, theological writings, and understanding and interpretation of church doctrine embodied in several statements of faith and catechisms formally adopted by various branches of the church. However, most Presbyterians generally exhibit their faith in action as well as words, including generosity, hospitality, and the constant pursuit of social justice and reform as well as proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

Varieties of Presbyterianism in North America

Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA.

Even before Presbyterianism spread abroad from Scotland there were divisions in the larger Presbyterian family, some of which later rejoined only to separate again. In rueful self-reproach some Presbyterians refer to the divided Presbyterian churches as the "Split P's".

In North America, because of past doctrinal differences, Presbyterian churches often overlap, with congregations of many different Presbyterian groups in any one city. The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States is the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA). Other Presbyterian bodies in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP Synod), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States (RPCUS). In Canada, the largest Presbyterian Denomination is the Presbyterian Church in Canada, about seventy percent of which merged in 1925 with the Methodist Church, Canada, and the Congregational Union of Canada to form the United Church of Canada.


Presbyterianism is historically a confessional tradition, which means that the doctrines taught in the church are compared to a doctrinal standard. However, there has arisen a spectrum of approaches to "confessionalism". The manner of subscription, or the degree to which the official standards establish the actual doctrine of the church, turns out to be a practical matter. That is, the decisions rendered in ordination and in the courts of the church largely determine what the church means, representing the whole, by its adherence to the doctrinal standard.

Some Presbyterian traditions adopt only the Westminster Confession of Faith, as the doctrinal standard to which ministers are required to subscribe, in contrast to the Larger and Shorter catechisms, which are approved for use in instruction. Many Presbyterian denominations, especially in North America, have adopted all of the Westminster Standards as their standard of doctrine "subordinate to the Bible". These documents are Calvinistic in their doctrinal orientation, although some versions of the Confession and the catechisms are more overtly Calvinist than some other, later American revisions. The PCUSA has adopted the Book of Confessions, which reflects an embrace of the wider Reformed tradition, and includes the Westminster documents.

In the PCUSA, the Confessing Movement works to coordinate congregations that seek to interpret the Book of Confessions in a more "conservative", Evangelical or even Calvinistic manner, in their doctrines and judicial decisions. The other end of the spectrum, which seeks to interpret the constitution of the church in a much more "progressive" and inclusive manner, is represented by the Covenant Network.

See also


Colleges and graduate schools


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