Presbyterians are distinctive from other denominations 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.

Reformed theology

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. It emphasizes God's supremacy over everything and humanity’s chief purpose as being to glorify and enjoy God forever.

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)

Church government

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 laypersons 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 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.

Who are Presbyterians?

Presbyterians are SERVING PEOPLE

The church is a missionary society whose purpose is to share the love of God in Jesus Christ in word and deed and with all the world. Witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world, Presbyterians engage in mission activities, seek to alleviate hunger, foster self-development, respond to disasters, support mission works, preach the gospel, heal the sick and educate new generations for the future. In partnership with more than 165 churches and Christian organizations around the world, the missionary efforts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) involve nearly 300 volunteers and compensated personnel. A host of other dedicated workers includes mission specialists and contract associates, Presbyterian Church members working for overseas employers recognized as having strategic roles with missionary intent, binational servants who advocate the insights of one culture while living in another and overseas Christians enabled by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) funds and ecumenical planning to go in mission with congregations and presbyteries in the United States.

Presbyterians are CARING PEOPLE

Besides annual receipts from congregations and income from endowments, additional special funds are received each year that make particular ministries possible. These include funds received through special church-wide offerings: One Great Hour of Sharing which provides disaster assistance, feeds the hungry and helps people development; Christmas Joy Offering which supports racial ethnic schools and assistance programs of the Board of Pensions; Peacemaking Offering to support peace education and peacemaking efforts throughout the world; and Pentecost Offering to support ministries with youth and young adults and children at risk.

Presbyterians are LOOKING TOWARD the FUTURE

Presbyterians in the 21st century have a vision of ministry that is vibrant and inviting and reflects the love and justice of Jesus Christ. The denomination has set four mission priorities for the next phase of our life as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

  • Evangelism and Witness — We are called to invite all people to faith, repentance and the abundant life of God in Jesus Christ, to encourage congregations in joyfully sharing the gospel and through the power of the Holy Spirit to grow in membership and discipleship.
  • Justice and Compassion — We are called to address wrongs in every aspect of life and the whole of creation, intentionally working with and on behalf of poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people as did Jesus Christ, even at risk to our corporate and personal lives.
  • Spirituality and Discipleship — We are called to deeper discipleship through Scripture, worship, prayer, study, stewardship and service and to rely on the Holy Spirit to mold our lives more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
  • Leadership and Vocation — We are called to lead by Jesus Christ’s example, to identify spiritual gifts and to equip and support Christians of all ages for faithful and effective servant leadership in all parts of the body of Christ.

With the knowledge that in life and death we belong to God, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues the journey with hope and confidence as we move toward a third century of witness and service to a world in need of love.

What does all of the Presbyterian Lingo Mean?

Here is a short rundown of the lingo you are likely to hear in a Presbyterian 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.

Lord’s Supper
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 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 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.

General Assembly
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.