How to speak Presbyterian
What is all this Presbyterian lingo?
By P. J. Southam
It has been estimated that 58 percent of the members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not grow up in the denomination. For readers in that category, here is a short rundown of the lingo you are likely to hear in a Presbyterian church that you may not have heard in another church.
Communion table or Lord’s Table
This is the table at the front of the sanctuary that holds the bread and the wine for Communion. Sometimes other items are placed on this table, such as the Bible, a cross or candles.
The reason this is called a Lord’s Table rather than an altar is that on the night in which he was betrayed, when Jesus was eating the Passover meal with his disciples, they were sitting at a table (Luke 22:14).
An altar is a place for making sacrifices. In the Reformed tradition we believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient once for all. This sacrifice does not have to be repeated with a Mass or other Communion on an altar.
This is the meal we share from the Lord’s Table. Some churches call this meal Communion or the Eucharist.
Eucharist is from the Greek word for “thanksgiving,” which is what Jesus did before he gave the bread and wine to his disciples.
This is a house owned by a congregation that they let the minister live in. In some denominations this is called the “parsonage.” The word manse comes from the Latin word mansio which means “dwelling.”
This is the group of people, elected by the congregation, who make the decisions for the running of the local church. In some churches this group is called the “church council.”
The session is composed of elders. This doesn’t have to do with age so much as those who are considered competent and wise enough to make good decisions. There are two kinds of elders, “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.” The ruling elders come from the congregation and are elected to serve in three-year cycles. The teaching elder is the pastor. This person is called a teaching elder because a pastor has to go to a lot of school to get the education to preach and teach proper doctrine.
The pastor is often also called the minister or a “minister of the Word and Sacrament.”
The presbytery is made up of a group of churches usually in a certain geographical area.
The presbytery meeting includes “presbyters,” both ruling and teaching elders, who gather to make decisions affecting the presbytery. By having their representatives gather together as a group congregations both support each other and are held accountable to each other.
This is the person who runs a meeting of elders or deacons or a presbytery or committee meeting. In a club or other gathering he or she would be called the “chairperson” or perhaps “president.”
While the moderator of a board of deacons is usually a deacon, the moderator of a session is a teaching elder. The moderator of a presbytery may be either a teaching elder or a ruling elder.
Book of Order
This is the rule book for the Presbyterian Church. It contains the guidelines for church life, including structure, worship and collective action. It not only tells us how to do things but also explains why. It was developed and can be modified by the General Assembly, with the ratification of a majority of the presbyteries.
Every two years all the presbyteries in the country elect commissioners or representatives to a meeting of the General Assembly. The General Assembly makes decisions for the church as a whole. This is where Presbyterians become a national rather than a local church.
These are the folks, a proportionate number of ministers and elders, elected by the presbyteries to go to General Assembly.
Rather than being instructed in how to vote at the Assembly by their presbytery, the commissioners as a body seek to discern the will of the Holy Spirit.
No, this doesn't refer to how commissioners are selected to go to the General Assembly. It is a theological term that means God makes the first move in acting to redeem sinners. People within the covenant of faith are called “the elect.” Reformed (or Presbyterian) theology teaches that we are incapable of saving ourselves from our sins, and that God “elects” or “chooses” to save us.
This word, similar to election, often raises questions for people of other denominations. Basically predestination means that our election by God occurred not only before we were born, but so far back in time that it happened “before the creation of the world” (see Ephesians 1:4).
Debts and debtors
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we use the words debts (“forgive us our debts”) and debtors. Some Christians say “trespasses” or “sins.” This is because the Lord’s Prayer is found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and in the original Greek they used two different words that mean “to sin.” In Matthew’s version the word used means “to owe a debt,”" but a debt of sin, not money.
Calvin and Knox
In the Presbyterian Church you will hear “Calvin Church,” “Calvin this-and-that,” as well as “Knox Church,” etc. John Calvin was a French Reformer who followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther in the 1500s. He gave us the theological foundations for our church, so we have named a lot of things after him. John Knox was a Scottish preacher who brought the teachings of John Calvin to Scotland and got the Presbyterian Church going in that country, so we have named a lot of things after him too.
This is just a start to understanding Presbyterian lingo. If you hear a word that is new to you and want to know what it means, ask your teaching elder (pastor or minister) to explain it to you. And don’t let him or her off the hook until you have an answer!
P. J. Southam, formerly pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wolf Point, Mont, after an interim pastorate at Hysham, Mont., in early 2002 moved to Spencer Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.
Mr. Southam gives permission for this article to be reproduced for local use—with two stipulations:
- No payment be charged for the reprints.
- Copies of the reproduction be sent him at the following address:
Rev. P.J. Southam
Big Creek Presbyterian Church
49515 Big Creek Lane
Rensselaer, MO 63401
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I've been a church person for ... well ... all my life so this tickled me. I was born and raised UCC so most of these terms were familiar. I also worked for our judicatory for several years, so had been exposed to different vernacular. However, this list is just what I needed to have a fuller understanding / comparison. It also makes me smile because we do have our language. All good when it's all for God. ~~~c