Presbyterian Precepts: An Explanation of Our Faith

Pastor Bill Daywalt

The character of Presbyterianism is that of righteous living to an end, so that God can be honored.   If Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz were Presbyterian, the first thing that she would have done when she landed in Oz would have been to establish a church, then start a school, a hospital and then a mission society.  All so that God could be honored.

We believe that God is the God of all life and that the church is the church of the world, not a world within itself.  We believe that God is a sovereign being and the conscience of each human.

The origins of the Presbyterian faith is based on that of the Reformers such as John Calvin and John Knox.  Theirs was a belief that God and scripture take precedence over all other loyalties.  Our belief is that faith is personal, not private and we want to be where things make a difference.  Witness is an occasion for discovery, putting ones self on the line, and a willingness to make hard decisions.  Most Presbyterian churches are self supporting, paying dues to the higher organizations with in the church.  We celebrate diversity, yet we realize the need for unity.

The beliefs and doctrine of the Presbyterian church are:

  1. The affirmation and teaching that in life and death we belong to God.
  2. God’s spirit was with those who wrote the Bible
  3. The Holy Spirit must be with us when we read the Bible.
  4. We have not chosen God, God has chosen us.
  5. God created the world and all that is good in it.
  6. God created people in his own image.
  7. God reached out to redeem creation
  8. The word is incarnate through Jesus Christ, now present through the Holy Spirit
  9. The church is the continuing body of Christ.

And to the great ends of the church it represents

  1. The proclamation of the gospel to human kind
  2. The shelter nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.
  3. Maintenance of a divine worship
  4. The presentation of truth
  5. the promotion of social righteousness
  6. The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.

The church can not believe for us, it can only help us to sort things out.

From the beginning, the Presbyterian church was one branch of the Christian family. Presbyterianism is the form of church government in which elders, both lay people and ministers, govern. The name derives from the Greek word presbuteros, or “elder.”

Approximately 50 million Protestants around the world practice Presbyterian church government. Substantial numbers of Presbyterians are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and its former colonies, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, France, South Africa, Indonesia, and Korea.

The largest Presbyterian body in the United States is the 2.8 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), formed in 1983 by the union of the United Presbyterian Church and the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States. A number of other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in America trace their origins to Europe or to secessions from the larger American bodies. (The older name REFORMED CHURCHES remains prevalent among groups of continental European origin; “Presbyterian” is generally used by churches of British origin.)

Presbyterianism emerged during the 16th-century REFORMATION as an effort by Protestant reformers to recapture the form as well as the message of the New Testament church.

Lutherans were content to adapt the Roman Catholic episcopacy and medieval connections between church and state to their Protestant needs. Other reformers in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and south Germany were more radical.

They noted that in the New Testament “elders” had been appointed to rule the early churches (Acts 14:23) and that the term elder had been used interchangeably with the word bishop, Greek episcopos (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7).

These reformers argued that although a hierarchy among elders could be observed in New Testament times (1 Tim. 5:17), it was not the sharp division between bishop and priest that characterized the Roman Catholic church. From his study of the Bible, John CALVIN, the Reformed leader in Geneva, concluded that Jesus Christ himself is the sole ruler of the church and that he exercises that rule through four kinds of officers: preachers (to exhort, admonish, and encourage), doctors or teachers (to instruct), deacons (to aid the poor), and lay elders (to guide and discipline the church). Calvin felt that church and state were parallel authorities, sovereign in their own spheres, which should aid each other. Today the Church of Scotland is the only Presbyterian body that retains even the vestige of a governmental connection.

When Calvin’s Genevan church order was carried to Scotland by John KNOX, it evolved into the Presbyterianism that, in essentials, is still practiced today. Individual local congregations elect their own elders, including the minister, who together govern the church as a session. The minister of the word and sacrament, who is called by the local church and who usually serves as moderator of the session, is, however, ordained and disciplined by the next level of church organization, the presbytery, which administers groups of churches in one area.

In North East Ohio, we are governed by the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, made up of churches in Cuyahoga, Lake, Geagua, Ashtabula, Lorain, and Medina counties. 

Presbyteries select delegates to regional synods, in our area The Synod of the Covenant in the state of Ohio and Michigan, and also to the General Assembly  a national body that is the final judiciary of the church. Traditionally, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies have consisted of equal numbers of ordained ministers and lay elders.

From the precedent set by the Scottish Barrier Act of 1697, Presbyterians make major changes only after approving them in two different general assemblies and in a majority of individual presbyteries. The Westminster Assembly, held in London at the behest of the English Parliament (1643-49), produced doctrinal and ecclesiastical standards that have been foundational for Presbyterians.

The Westminster Confession made CALVINISM teachable to the English. Even recent Presbyterians who have modified the theology of Westminster in many particulars continue to honor its doctrinal pronouncements. Westminster’s Form of Church Government and Directory for Public Worship set standards for ecclesiastical practice. Although the Westminster documents were never adopted in England itself, they became official standards in Scotland and have shaped Presbyterianism in America and other English-speaking areas of the world.

The history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America is long in tradition and history.  The first Presbyterians to cross the Atlantic were not missionaries, rather colonizers who believed that the new world was a God given opportunity for a holy commonwealth.  They were members of sophisticated nations and nomadic tribes.

In 1640 a Presbyterian Congregation was formed in Long Island.  At that time there were 40,000 people in British Colonies in North America.  1/10th were Presbyterian.  In 1650 a Dutch reformed congregation in New Castle Delaware became Presbyterian and is still one today.  In 1746 William Tennant formed the Log College in Pa. to train Presbyterian ministers.  This inspiration led to the formation of the College of New Jersey, later to become Princeton University. 

In 1798, John Witherspoon convened the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA in Philadelphia.  Today, the Presbyterian Church has a Witherspoon Society, a liberal faction of the church, working to support issues important to the church’s future. 

Many unions have taken place through out the years as well as divisions in the church.  The most recent was the joining, in 1983, of the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States becoming the Presbyterian Church USA.  

Ten historic confessions were adopted, and a brief statement of reformed faith was written.  This led to the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order which now makes up the constitution of the church.  In 1988, Louisville, KY became the home of the PCUSA.

Presbyterian worship is simple and orderly. It revolves around preaching from the Scriptures. Presbyterian hymnody is indebted to the Calvinistic tradition of singing paraphrased Psalms. Two sacraments are recognized. The Lord’s Supper, which is usually celebrated monthly or quarterly, may be celebrated in a variety of fashions.  This is up to the Elders to determine the way Communion is served. This is different than in the early church when communion was celebrated two times per year and the sacrament lasted three to five days. 

Baptism, which is often administered to the infant children of church members is done as a sign of God’s covenant of mercy.  The Baptism of a child proclaims the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the water representing Christ’s death and resurrection, making us his children.  Christ represents that which allows us to relate directly to God.  Baptism echoes the reality that life is a gift from God and through Baptism, you become a disciple of God.  Although we do not practice emersion, rather anointing, baptism is not a private event, rather a community event, looking to the members to be a supporting influence of the Christian development of the child. 

The discipline of the local church is not as rigorous as in Calvin’s Geneva.  The polity of the church is based on the fact that Christ stands at the head of the church and the authority of the scriptures.  We talk, pray, and vote to get things done.  Done in that order, it is a getting together of people to do God’s will.  It is the way we govern ourselves, an organized means to lead to a result.  The Presbyterian church believes that all authority comes from Jesus Christ, that no one person has the power, that groups of people come closer to doing what God intends.

In the local church we have the minister, chosen by a nominating committee and elected by the people during a congregational meeting, the Elders and Deacons, again chosen by a nominating committee and elected by the people in the same fashion. 

The Deacons are responsible for the care and spiritual well being of the congregation. 

The Elders are responsible for the governance of the church.  No business of the church occurs without the direction and approval of the Elders.  This includes the order of worship, which generally the minister presents and the elders approve.  Communion and Baptism are also approved by the Elders.  

The foundation of the polity is that there is a parity between the minister and the elders.  Elders can participate and vote as ministers and can serve any church office.  Although elected by the people, they do not vote representing the people, rather vote their own conscience, guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This leads to an expression of individuality. 

Beyond the local session, there is the Presbytery, the Synod, and the General Assembly.  For an item to be added or amended to the constitution of the PCUSA, it must first be made a motion in the General Assembly, then receive a majority vote of the Presbytery’s and then be approved and added to the constitution in the next years general assembly. Decisions from a lower body can be appealed to a higher body, first the Presbytery, then the synod and finally the General Assembly.

Other responsibilities of the Elders include receiving new members, leading the congregation in mission, providing for worship and Christian Education, providing for the growth of members, promoting diversity and eliminating discrimination, working with stewardship, the establishment of a budget, and the overseeing of all programs and property.   The congregation has the final say regarding all matters involving property..

The Presbytery is the overseer of the local church, creating relationships beyond the congregation.  They administer the mission and governance of that part of the country.

Our polity is important in shaping who we are and how we function.  Because the essence of Presbyterian Polity is one of being guided by Holy Spirit, it allows us freedom and expression, yet also can at times render us into points of contention, when issues become split down the middle.  So the essence is good and difficult at the same time. 

In short, we Presbyterians view ourselves as being reformed and yet always reforming.  God is not done with us yet.  Being Presbyterian is about struggle, issues, maintaining autonomy and yet being a part of a world wide church.  Most importantly, it is about serving the Lord, the highest gift you can give back.