“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”
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.
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The name Presbyterian comes from the Greek term in the New Testament for elder, presbuteros, a term used 72 times in the New Testament. The Presbyterian movement began among Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries and centered on what form of church government would be appropriate. Some thought the church should be governed by bishops (Greek: episkopos) and became the Episcopalian party, some by elders and became the Presbyterian party, and some directly by the congregation, which became 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 — 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.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is Reformed in its theology and Presbyterian in its church government.
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 1.6 million in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with nearly 10 thousand congregations and worshiping communities.
What is unique about the Presbyterian Church?
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Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways. They adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.
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. In exile in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed the Presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected members known as elders. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.
Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. They shall serve faithfully as members of the session (Book of Order, G-10.0102). When elected as commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office (Book of Order, G-6.0302).
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. Presbyteries and synods are also collectively referred to as mid councils.
What’s Presbyterian worship like?
Worship in a Presbyterian congregation, in 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 minister of Word and Sacrament 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).
Sacraments. “The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are God’s acts of sealing the promises of faith within the community of faith as the congregation worships, and include the responses of the faithful to the Word proclaimed and enacted in the Sacraments” (Book of Order, W-3.3601).
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).
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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).
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).
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The Bible declares that God claimed humanity as God’s own “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).
“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).
Baptism, therefore, usually occurs during infancy, though a person may be baptized at any age. 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.
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.
- The faithfulness of God
- The washing away of sin
- Putting on the fresh garment of Christ
- Being sealed by God’s Spirit
- Adoption into the covenant family of the Church
- Resurrection and illumination in Christ
(Book of Order, W-2.3004).
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.
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Predestination is a teaching to which some Christians have adhered, including the Reformed theologian John Calvin. While the doctrine of predestination has sometimes been hotly disputed, it belongs within the larger context of John Calvin’s teachings about God’s grace.
Calvin argued from Scripture that God has “predestined” or “elected” some people to be saved in Jesus Christ and others not to be. He insisted, nonetheless, that we could be sure only of our own salvation; we were never in a position to judge whether or not another person was saved. As the Second Helvetic Confession says,“We must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate” (5.055).
For Calvin, the point of the doctrine of predestination was to remind us that God is free and gracious. There is nothing that we can do to earn God’s favor. Rather, our salvation comes from God alone. We are able to choose God because God first chose us.
Properly understood, the doctrine of predestination frees us from speculating about who is saved and who is not. God has already taken care of these matters in the mystery of God’s own being. We are called to hear God’s good news in Jesus Christ and to trust in God through Jesus Christ.
For the preaching of the Gospel is to be heard, and it is to be believed; and it is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected (Second Helvetic Confession, 5.059).
The doctrine of predestination is to be held in harmony with the doctrine of [God’s] love to all mankind … [and] with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all (Amendment to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.192).
Women in the church
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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).
Becoming a Presbyterian minister
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Presbyterians believe that all persons are called to ministry in their communities; however, particular forms of leadership are needed for the work of the church. Presbyterians understand a call to ministry to have three parts: 1) an inner sense of call through the leading of God’s Spirit, 2) a community that tests this sense of call and 3) a call from a community to serve in a particular place.
A person who feels called by God to be a Presbyterian minister, also known as a “teaching elder” or “minister of the Word and Sacrament,” begins by expressing that desire to a church’s session (governing board). The person must be a member of that church, and have been active in its worship life and ministry to its community for at least six months. If based on its experience of the person through this shared ministry the session agrees the individual may be called by God to a particular ministry, the request proceeds to a committee of the church’s presbytery (regional governing body) that works with people to deepen their understanding of God’s call and to develop their gifts for ministry. There follows an “inquiry” period, during which the person explores the implications of becoming a minister together with the session and the presbytery committee. Its purpose is to determine the person’s suitability for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
If the presbytery is satisfied regarding the individual’s suitability for ordination, it may advance the person to a second phase of preparation referred to as “candidacy.” During this phase, full and intensive preparation occurs under scrutiny of the session and the presbytery’s oversight committee.
Unless a presbytery decides to make accommodations for particular life experience, candidates are required have a college undergraduate degree (usually four years) and complete a seminary degree (usually three years). In addition, candidates must pass national exams that demonstrate their competence in the fields of theology, Bible (including content and the interpretation of Scripture utilizing a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew), church polity, and worship and sacraments.
A candidate may only begin seeking a place for ordained service once the presbytery concludes there is evidence that the individual is ready to begin ministry of the Word and Sacrament. If the candidate receives a validated call to ministry, that presbytery ordains him or her as a teaching elder. Only a presbytery may ordain a minister, not a congregation.