What We Believe
Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Our heritage, and much of what we believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him. Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles.
Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland, and were particularly influenced by the preaching and teaching of John Knox. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was held in the same city in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Some of the principles articulated by John Calvin remain at the core of Presbyterian beliefs. Among these are the sovereignty of God, the authority of the scripture, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. What they mean is that God is the supreme authority throughout the universe. Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ. Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments. It is everyone’s job — ministers and lay people alike — to share this Good News with the whole world. That is also why the Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.
At the core of Presbyterian identity is a secure hope in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, a hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers us to lives lives of gratitude: “In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope, and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.” (Book of Order F-1.0204)
This strong emphasis on the grace of God in Jesus Christ is our heritage from the founder of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin.
Presbyterians confess their beliefs through statements that have been adopted over the years and are contained in The Book of Confessions. These historical statements reflect our understanding of God and what God expects of us at different times in history, but all are faithful to the fundamental beliefs described above. Our Confessions allow us to be “in conversation” with the “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us in the faith and to learn from their wisdom on living lives of discipleship in everyday life. Our Confessions say what we believe and we take them seriously, but we do not put them on an equal level with Scripture; they are, as we say, “subordinate standards.” Even though we share these common beliefs, Presbyterians understand that God alone is lord of the conscience, and it is up to each individual to understand what these principles mean in his or her life.
The Six Great Ends of the Church
Presbyterians believe that there are six “great ends” towards which the church should always be striving. They are: 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.
What Does Presbyterian Even Mean?
The name Presbyterian comes from the Greek term in the Bible for elder, presbuteros, a term used 72 times in the New Testament. The Presbyterian movement grew out of a time of discussion among Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries on the appropriate form of church government. Some thought the church should be governed by bishops (Greek: episkopos) and were the Episcopalian party, some by elders and were the Presbyterian party, and some directly by the congregation, the Congregationalist party.
Presbyterian church government emphasizes that the leadership of the church is shared between those called to be ministers and church members called to be elders within the congregation. Elders are chosen by the people.
The body of elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a session. They are elected by the congregation and in one sense are representatives of the other members of the congregation. On the other hand, their primary charge is to seek to discover and represent the will of Christ as they govern. Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained. Through ordination they are officially set apart for service. They retain their ordination beyond their term in office. Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the session. The session is the smallest, most local governing body. The other governing bodies are presbyteries, which are composed of several churches, synods, which are composed of several presbyteries, and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination. Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters.
We use the terms Teaching Elder to refer to ministers and Ruling Elder to refer to church members called to be elders. This strong emphasis on Presbyterian church government is our heritage from Scottish Presbyterians.
In North America the first presbytery was organized in 1706, the first synod in 1717; the first General Assembly was held in 1789. Today’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was created by the 1983 reunion of the two main branches of Presbyterians in America separated since the Civil War — the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. The latter had been created by the union of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1958.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is distinctly a confessional and a connectional church, distinguished by the representation of elders in its government. The church has a membership of 1.7 million in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with nearly 10 thousand congregations and worshiping communities.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is Reformed in its theology and Presbyterian in its church government.
What are human beings created to do? Reformed theology says that human beings are to “know God and enjoy [God] forever.” Theology is a way of thinking about God and God’s relation to the world. Reformed theology evolved during the 16th century religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation.
In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Related to this central affirmation of God’s sovereignty are other great themes of the Reformed tradition:
• The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation.
• Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God.
• A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation.
• The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God. (Book of Order, G-2.0500)
A major contributor to Reformed theology was John Calvin, who converted from Roman Catholicism after training for the priesthood and in the law.
Worship in a Presbyterian congregation, its shape and content, is determined by the pastor and the session, the church’s governing body. It generally includes prayer, music, Bible reading and a sermon based upon scripture. The Sacraments, a time of personal response/offering and a sharing of community concerns are also parts of worship.
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suggests that worship be ordered in terms of four major actions centered in the word of God: Gathering, the Word, Giving Thanks, and Sending.
Prayer. “Prayer is at the heart of worship. In prayer, through the Holy Spirit, people seek after and are found by the one true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. They listen and wait upon God, call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer themselves to God. Prayer may be spoken, sung, offered in silence, or enacted. Prayer grows out of the center of a person’s life in response to the Spirit. Prayer is shaped by the Word of God in Scripture and by the life of the community of faith. Prayer issues in commitment to join God’s work in the world” (Book of Order, W-2.1001).
Music. “Song is a response which engages the whole self in prayer. Song unites the faithful in common prayer wherever they gather for worship whether in church, home, or other special place … through the ages and from varied cultures, the church has developed additional musical forms for congregational prayer. Congregations are encouraged to use these diverse musical forms for prayer as well as those which arise out of the musical life of their own cultures. To lead the congregation in the singing of prayer is a primary role of the choir and other musicians. They also may pray on behalf of the congregation with introits, responses, and other musical forms. Instrumental music may be a form of prayer since words are not essential to prayer. In worship music is not to be for entertainment or artistic display. Care should be taken that it not be used merely as a cover for silence” (Book of Order, W-2.1003 – W-2.1004).
Scripture. “The church confesses the Scriptures to be the Word of God written, witnessing to God’s self-revelation. Where that Word is read and proclaimed, Jesus Christ the Living Word is present by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. For this reason the reading, hearing, preaching, and confessing of the Word are central to Christian worship. The session shall ensure that in public worship the Scripture is read and proclaimed regularly in the common language(s) of the particular church” (Book of Order, W-2.2001).
“The Teaching Elder is responsible for the selection of Scripture to be read in all services of public worship and should exercise care so that over a period of time the people will hear the full message of Scripture. It is appropriate that in the Service for the Lord’s Day there be readings from the Old Testament and the Epistles and Gospels of the New Testament. The full range of the psalms should be also used in worship. Selections for reading in public worship should be guided by the seasons of the church year, pastoral concerns for a local congregation, events and conditions in the world, and specific program emphases of the church. Lectionaries offered by the church ensure a broad range of readings as well as consistency and connection with the universal Church” (Book of Order, W-2.002 – W-2.003).
Preaching. “The preached Word or sermon is to be based upon the written Word. It is a proclamation of Scripture in the conviction that through the Holy Spirit Jesus Christ is present to the gathered people, offering grace and calling for obedience … the sermon should present the gospel with simplicity and clarity, in language which can be understood by the people … the preaching of the Word shall ordinarily be done by a minister of Word and Sacrament” (Book of Order, W-2.2007).
“The Word is also proclaimed through song in anthems and solos based on scriptural texts, in cantatas and oratorios which tell the biblical story, in psalms and canticles, and in hymns, spirituals, and spiritual songs which present the truth of the biblical faith. Song in worship may also express the response of the people to the Word read, sung, enacted, or proclaimed. Drama and dance, poetry and pageant, indeed, most other human art forms are also expressions through which the people of God have proclaimed and responded to the Word.” (Book of Order, W-2.2008).
Offering. “The Christian life is an offering of one’s self to God. In worship the people are presented with the costly self-offering of Jesus Christ, are claimed and set free by him, and are led to respond by offering to him their lives, their particular gifts and abilities, and their material goods. Worship should always offer opportunities to respond to Christ’s call to become disciples by professing faith, by uniting with the church, and by taking up the mission of the people of God, as well as opportunities for disciples to renew the commitment of their lives to Jesus Christ and his mission in the world” (Book of Order, W-2.5001 – W-2.50).
Community concerns. “Worship is an activity of the common life of the people of God in which the care of the members for each other and for the quality of their life and ministry together expresses the reality of God’s power to create and sustain community in the midst of a sinful world. As God is concerned for the events in daily life, so members of the community in worship appropriately express concern for one another and for their ministry in the world” (Book of Order, W-2.6001).
Sacraments. Denominations often differ over what they recognize as sacraments. Some recognize as many as seven sacraments, others have no sacraments in the life of the church. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be Sacraments, instituted by God and commended by Christ. Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action. Through the Sacraments, God seals believers in redemption, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service” (Book of Order, W-1.3033.2).
“The early Church, following Jesus, took three primary material elements of life — water, bread, and wine — to become basic symbols of offering life to God as Jesus had offered his life. Being washed with the water of Baptism, Christians received new life in Christ and presented their bodies to be living sacrifices to God. Eating bread and drinking wine they received the sustaining presence of Christ, remembered God’s covenant promise, and pledged their obedience anew” (Book of Order, W-1.3033.1).
Baptism. “In Baptism, the Holy Spirit binds the Church in covenant to its Creator and Lord. The water of Baptism symbolizes the waters of creation, of the flood, and of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, the water of Baptism links us to the goodness of God’s creation and to the grace of God’s covenants with Noah and Israel. Prophets of Israel, amidst the failure of their own generation to honor God’s covenant, called for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:24) They envisioned a fresh expression of God’s grace and of creation’s goodness — a new covenant accompanied by the sprinkling of cleansing water. In his ministry, Jesus offered the gift of living water. So, Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s grace and covenant in Christ” (Book of Order, W-2.3003).
“Baptism enacts and seals what the Word proclaims: God’s redeeming grace offered to all people. Baptism is God’s gift of grace and also God’s summons to respond to that grace. Baptism calls to repentance, to faithfulness, and to discipleship. Baptism gives the church its identity and commissions the church for ministry to the world” (Book of Order, W-2.3006).
“The water used for Baptism should be common to the location, and shall be applied to the person by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. By whatever mode, the water should be applied visibly and generously” (Book of Order, W-3.3605).
“Baptism is received only once. There are many times in worship, however, when believers acknowledge the grace of God continually at work. As they participate in the celebration of another’s Baptism, as they experience the sustaining nurture of the Lord’s Supper, and as they reaffirm the commitments made at Baptism, they confess their ongoing need of God’s grace and pledge anew their obedience to God’s covenant in Christ” (Book of Order, W-2.3009).
“As there is one body, there is one Baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6). The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes all Baptisms with water in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit administered by other Christian churches” (Book of Order, W-2.3010).
Baptism distinguishes children of those who believe in God’s redemptive power from children of nonbelievers. The water that is used symbolizes three accounts from the Bible’s Old Testament: the waters of creation, the flood described in the story of Noah, and the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. All three stories link humanity to God’s goodness through water.
Unlike some denominations, Presbyterians do not require a person to be entirely immersed in water during baptism. Baptism is received only once. Its effect is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for it signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) believes that persons of other denominations are part of one body of Christian believers; therefore, it recognizes and accepts baptisms by other Christian churches.
Baptism is almost always administered as part of a worship service. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), baptism must be authorized by the session of a particular congregation and performed by a minister.
Infant Baptism. The Bible declares that God claimed humanity as God’s own “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) Presbyterians baptize infants as a sign that God’s grace is available to us, even before we can conceive of or understand it.
“Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love. Children of believers are to be baptized without undue delay, but without undue haste. Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament. The Baptism of children witnesses to the truth that God’s love claims people before they are able to respond in faith” (Book of Order, W-2.3008).
When baptism occurs with an infant, parents bring their baby to church, where they publicly declare their desire that he or she be baptized. When an infant or child is baptized the church commits itself to nurture the child in faith. When adults are baptized they make a public profession of faith.
Lord’s Supper. “The Lord’s Supper is the sign and seal of eating and drinking in communion with the crucified and risen Lord. During his earthly ministry Jesus shared meals with his followers as a sign of community and acceptance and as an occasion for his own ministry” (Book of Order, W-2.4001a).
“Around the Table of the Lord, God’s people are in communion with Christ and with all who belong to Christ. Reconciliation with Christ compels reconciliation with one another. All the baptized faithful are to be welcomed to the Table, and none shall be excluded because of race, sex, age, economic status, social class, handicapping condition, difference of culture or language, or any barrier created by human injustice. Coming to the Lord’s Table the faithful are actively to seek reconciliation in every instance of conflict or division between them and their neighbors” (Book of Order, W-2.4006).
“The Lord’s Supper is to be observed on the Lord’s Day, in the regular place of worship, and in a manner suitable to the particular occasion and local congregation. It is appropriate to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as often as each Lord’s Day. It is to be celebrated regularly and frequently enough to be recognized as integral to the Service for the Lord’s Day” (Book of Order, W-2.4009).
“The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. In preparing to receive Christ in this Sacrament, the believer is to confess sin and brokenness, to seek reconciliation with God and neighbor, and to trust in Jesus Christ for cleansing and renewal. Even one who doubts or whose trust is wavering may come to the Table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Christ Jesus” (Book of Order, W-2.4011a).
Presbyterians believe that faith is seen not just in what we believe with our minds, but what we do with our lives. Presbyterians are, and have always been, active in the world, working towards realizing God’s mission of reconciliation, peace, and justice.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) “Affirms its conviction that neither the Church as the body of Christ, nor Christians as individuals, can be neutral or indifferent toward evil in the world; Affirms its responsibility to speak on social and moral issues for the encouragement and instruction of the Church and its members, seeking earnestly both to know the mind of Christ and to speak always in humility and love; Reminds the churches that their duty is not only to encourage and train their members in daily obedience to God’s will, but corporately to reveal God’s grace in places of suffering and need, to resist the forces that tyrannize, and to support the forces that restore the dignity of all [people] as the children of God, for only so is the gospel most fully proclaimed; …”
—1958 Statement – PC(USA), p. 537
“In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’” —From “A Brief Statement of Faith”
Women in the church
One of the places where the church has had the opportunity to live up to its proclamations for the equality of all persons is in the status that it gives women in its own life and work.
Although women were first ordained as elders in one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1930, it was not until 1956 that presbyteries were permitted to ordain women to the ministry.
In a different predecessor denomination, the 1956 General Assembly approved changes in the church’s constitution to allow the election of women as deacons and ruling elders. Those changes were defeated by the presbyteries, but the 1957 General Assembly responded to the defeat by urging that women be included in all church committees including those on finances and budget. The first ordination of women as elders in this denomination actually occurred in 1962. As ministers, women were ordained beginning 1965.
In 1971, the General Assembly sent overtures to its presbyteries providing for election to church offices in all governing bodies, “giving attention to a fair representation of both the male and female constituency.” (Minutes of the 183rd General Assembly (1971), United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., pp. 305-306)
—Adapted from the Compilation of PC(USA) Social Witness Policies.