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What is a Presbyterian Church?

St. John's Sign
Presbyterianism in a nutshell:

Presbyterian Christians are one part of the historic Christian Church whose faith is summarized in God’s inspired word, the Holy Bible; and the ancient confessions of the Church, The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed.  In particular, Presbyterians trace their history to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s; and the Scottish Presbyterians who first immigrated to America.  Presbyterians take seriously the destructive reality of human sin, and the power of God’s redeeming grace, offered to us by faith alone in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  Presbyterians seek a balance between the mind, the heart, and the feet; between godly thinking, passionate believing, and Spirit-empowered living!

What does the word “Presbyterian” mean? 

The word “presbyterian” comes from the Bible, and has its roots in the Greek word “presbuteros,” meaning “elder.”  To put it simply, a Presbyterian Church is a Christian church that is governed or ruled by spiritual leaders called “elders.” 

Where does the history of the Presbyterian Church begin? 

The history of the Presbyterian Church is identical with the history of Western Christianity until the Protestant Reformation which began in the 1500’s.   In 1517, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his historic “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, protesting many aspects of the Medieval Church.  Among these was the practice of selling “indulgences” by which the Church gained enormous wealth in exchange for an alleged forgiveness or “indulgence” for sin; and the release of dead relatives from supposed spiritual limbo (purgatory).  It was promised that “once a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”  In response to these and other abuses, the watchwords of the Reformation were “Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture Alone, and Christ Alone.”  The Reformers rediscovered the core message of the Christian gospel: we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ who is alone Lord and Savior of life.  Let’s unpack these four phrases one by one:


Grace alone: Salvation is an act of God’s sovereign grace and mercy.  Human sin and evil has separated us from God and from each other, and it is only God who can restore us to a right relationship with Him.

Faith alone: We are saved by grace through faith alone, and not because of works. Good works can never earn God’s gift of salvation; they are a grateful response to it.

Christ alone: Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone (Christos is the Greek title for Israel’s Messiach/King), who by his life, death, and resurrection has reconciled sinful human beings to God, to each other and to the creation. Through Christ alone do we have the promise of victory over death, and abundant and eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Scripture alone: This message of salvation is proclaimed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the only inspired, infallible, Word of God written.  The Reformation was a “back to the Bible” movement that was responsible for placing the Scriptures in the hands of the people, in their own language, for the first time in history.

How did the Presbyterian Church begin in America? 

In 1533, a French scholar and law student by the name of John Calvin was converted to the Reformation movement.  The writer of one of the world’s greatest systematic theologies  (The Institutes of the Christian Religion), Calvin was forced to flee Paris, and establish his pastoral and teaching ministry in Geneva. Through his influence, John Knox brought the Reformation to Scotland and established the Protestant church there: The Church of Scotland.  These Scotch “Presbyterians” were among the first colonists to immigrate to New England.  Presbyterian ministers were very involved in The Great Awakening (peaking in 1740) a spiritual revival that predates the Revolutionary War; and a major force in welding together the colonies with a sense of national identity.  Presbyterian revivalist preachers like George Whitfield, William Tennent and Jonathan Edwards were household names a full three decades before Washington, Franklin, or Samuel Adams.  Presbyterians, with their democratic form of church government, were closely associated with the Revolutionary War and, in fact, Lord Dartmouth declared, “When the war is over, it will become apparent that Presbyterianism is really at the bottom of the whole conspiracy.” Likewise, Walpole of the English Parliament claimed that “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson.”  Presbyterians had a major impact on the formation of the United States government due to the fact that many of the participants at the Constitutional Convention were Presbyterians.  It should come as no surprise that several of the original signers of the constitution were Presbyterians, including the only clergymen to sign the document, John Witherspoon.


What is the history of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? 

The Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in America, was formed when the Presbyterian Church US, and the United Presbyterian Church (divided since the Civil War) reunited in 1983.


What is unique about the Presbyterian form of government?

Briefly, Presbyterian churches – as mentioned above – are governed by elders who are prayerfully elected by the congregation to provide leadership.  The Presbyterian form of government may be characterized as a representative democracy in contrast to a congregational or pure democracy where in theory, the entire congregation makes decisions; the episcopal form of government where a church is ruled by bishops or “overseers” as in the Methodist and Episcopalian churches; and the papal form of government based upon the belief that Christ invested authority in the Apostle Peter and his successors (e.g., the Roman Catholic tradition).  In the Presbyterian Church, decisions are prayerfully made by groups of people, instead of by one person – a form of decision making that can be traced back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the original disciples selected a disciple to replace Judas after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1: 15-26); and the very first Jerusalem Council in AD 46 (Acts 11:1-18). 

In March 2016 the Session of St. John's voted to affiliate with the Fellowship Community, an evangelical group within the Presbyterian Church USA.



Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981).

Harry S. Hassall, Presbyterianism’s Unique Gift (Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1999). 

John H. Leith, Intoduction to the Reformed Tradition (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981). 


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