Summary of Presbyterianism
Presbyterianism refers to a number of different Christian churches that adhere to the Calvinist theological tradition held in Protestantism. Presbyterian theology generally emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Bible and the necessity of grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Presbyterianism evolved in Scotland primarily before the Act of Union in 1707. Most of the few Presbyteries found in England can trace some type of Scottish connection. Although some adherents hold to the theology of Calvin and his successors, there is a large range of theological views within contemporary Presbyterianism.
Modern Presbyterianism traces its institutional roots clear back to the Scottish Reformation. Local congregations are governed by Sessions that are made up of representatives of the congregation, a conciliar approach which found at other levels of decision-making (Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly). Theoretically, there are no bishops in the Presbyterian Church; however, some groups in Eastern Europe, and in ecumenical groups, have bishops for their congregations. The office of elder is also distinctive mark of Presbyterianism: these are specially commissioned non-clergy taking part in local pastoral care and decision-making at all levels.
The roots of Presbyterianism lie in the European Reformation during the 16th century, with the example of John Calvin's Geneva in particular, being very influential. Most Reformed churches who trace their history to Scotland are either Presbyterian or Congregationalist in government.
In the twentieth century, Presbyterians have played an important role in the Ecumenical Movement, including the World Council of Churches. Many Presbyterian denominations have found different ways of working together with other Reformed denominations and Christians, especially in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Some Presbyterian churches have also entered into unions with other churches, such as Congregationalists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists.
Presbyterians distinguish themselves from other denominations by their doctrine, institutional organization (or "church order") and worship; often using a book of order, known as the 'Book of Forms' to regulate common practice and order. Origins of the Presbyterian churches are in Calvinism, which now is no longer emphasized in some contemporary branches. Many branches of Presbyterianism are the remnants of previous splits from larger groups. Some of the splits due to doctrinal controversy, while some have been caused by disagreement concerning the degree to which ordained members of the church office should be required to agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith, historically serving as an important confessional document - second only to the Bible, but directing particularities in the standardization and translation of the Bible in Presbyterian churches.
Presbyterians place great importance on education and life-long learning. Constant study of the scriptures, theological writings, and understanding and interpretation of church doctrine are embodied in several statements of faith and catechisms that are formally adopted by several different branches of the church [often referred to as 'subordinate standards'; see Doctrine (below)]. Generally, it is considered that the point of such learning is to enable one to put one's faith into practice; some Presbyterians will exhibit their faith in action as well as words, by generosity, hospitality, and the pursuit of social justice and reform, as well as proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
Presbyterian government is by the councils (known as courts) of elders. Teaching and ruling elders are all ordained and convene in the lowest councils known as sessions or consistories that are responsible for discipline, nurture, and mission of the local congregation. Teaching elders (pastors) have the responsibility of teaching, worship, and performing sacraments. Pastors are called by their individual congregations. A congregation issues a call for the pastor's service, but it must be ratified by the local presbytery.
Ruling elders are usually laymen (and laywomen in some denominations) that are elected by the congregation and ordained to serve with the elders, assuming responsibility for nurture and leadership of each congregation. Often times, especially in larger congregations, the elders will delegate the practicalities of buildings, finance, and temporal ministry to the needy within the congregation to a distinct group of officers (sometimes called deacons, which are ordained in some denominations). The group may variously be known as a 'Deacon Board', 'Board of Deacons' 'Diaconate', or 'Deacons' Court'.
Above the sessions exist presbyteries, holding area responsibilities. These are composed of teaching elders and ruling elders from each constituent congregation. The presbytery sends representatives to broader regional or national assemblies, generally known as the General Assembly, although intermediate levels of a synod sometimes exist. This congregation / presbytery / synod / general assembly schema is based on historical structure of the larger Presbyterian churches, such as the Church of Scotland or the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) ; some bodies, such as the Presbyterian Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, will skip one of the steps between congregation and their General Assembly, usually skipping the Synod. The Church of Scotland now has abolished the Synod.
Presbyterian governance is practiced by all Presbyterian denominations and also by many other Reformed churches.
Presbyterianism historically is a confessional tradition, meaning that the doctrines taught in the church are compared to a doctrinal standard. However, a spectrum of approaches to "confessionalism" has arised. The manner of subscription, or degree to which the official standards establish actual doctrine of the church, turns out to be a practical matter. That is, decisions rendered in ordination and in the courts of the church greatly determine what the church means, representing the whole, by its adherence to the doctrinal standard.
Some Presbyterian traditions will adopt only the Westminster Confession of Faith, as the doctrinal standard that teaching elders are required to subscribe, contrastin the Larger and Shorter catechisms, which are approved for use in instruction. Many Presbyterian denominations, especially in North America, have adopted all Westminster Standards as their standard of doctrine, being subordinate to the Bible. These documents are Calvinistic in their doctrinal orientation, though some versions of the Confession and the catechisms are more Calvinist than other, later American revisions. The Presbyterian Church in Canada retains the Westminster Confession of Faith in its original form, while admitting that the historical period in which it was written should be understood when it is read.
The Westminster Confession is 'The principal subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland' (Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland II), but 'with due regard to liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the Faith' (V). This formulation represents years of struggle over the extent that the confession reflects the Word of God and the struggle of conscience of those who came to believe it did not fully do so (e.g., William Robertson Smith). Some Presbyterian Churches, such as the Free Church of Scotland, do not have a 'conscience clause'.
The Presbyterian Church USA has adopted the Book of Confessions, reflecting the inclusion of other Reformed confessions in addition to the Westminster documents. The other documents include ancient creedal statements, (the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed), 16th century Reformed confessions (the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, all of which were written before Calvinism had developed as a particular strand of Reformed doctrine), and some 20th century documents (The Theological Declaration of Barmen and the Confession of 1967).
The Presbyterian Church in Canada developed the confessional document Living Faith  and also retains it as a subordinate standard of the denomination. It is confessional in format, yet draws attention back to the original text of the bible. Presbyterians in Ireland that rejected Calvinism and the Westminster Confessions decided to form the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
Presbyterian Denominations that trace their heritage to the British Isles will usually organize their church services inspired by the principles in the Directory of Public Worship, that were developed by the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s. This directory documented Reformed worship practices and theology adopted and developed over preceding centuries by British Puritans, initially guided by John Calvin and John Knox. It was enacted as a law by the Scottish Parliament, and then became one of the foundational documents of Presbyterian church legislation elsewhere.
Historically, the driving principle in development of standards in Presbyterian worship is the Regulative principle of worship, which specifies that (in worship), that which is not commanded is forbidden.
Presbyterians hold the Worship position that there are only two sacraments:
- Baptism, in which they hold to the paedo-baptist (i.e. infant baptism as well as baptising unbaptized adults) and the Aspersion (sprinkling) or Affusion (pouring) positions, rather than the Immersion position.
- The Lord's Supper (also known as Communion)
Over the centuries, many Presbyterian churches have modified these prescriptions by introducing non-biblical hymns, instrumental accompaniment and ceremonial vestments in worship. But still, there is not one fixed "Presbyterian" style of worship. Although there are set services for the "Lord's Day", one can find a service to be more evangelical and even revivalist in tone (especially in some conservative denominations), or strongly liturgical, approximating the practices of Lutheranism or Anglicanism (especially where Scottish tradition is esteemed), or semi-formal, allowing for a balance of the hymns, preaching, and congregational participation (favored by most American Presbyterians).
Presbyterians believe churches are buildings to support the worship of God. The decor in some instances may be austere in order not to detract from worship. In the 19th century, prosperous congregations built more imposing churches, such as St. Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh, Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian in New York City, Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and many others. Usually, Presbyterian churches will not have statues of saints, nor the ornate altar that are more typical of a Roman Catholic church. In a Presbyterian (Reformed Church) one will not generally find a Crucifix hanging behind the Chancel. However, one may find stained glass windows depicting the crucifixion, behind a chancel.