What Are Presbyterians?

Photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. The Alliance links 75 million Christians in 218 different denominations in 107 countries. The churches in this Alliance follow both Presbyterian and congregational forms of government. Membership in the Alliance is open to:

"Any church which accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, holds the word of God given in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme authority in matters of faith and life; acknowledges the need for the continuing reformation of the church catholic; whose position in faith and evangelism is in general agreement with that of the historic Reformed confessions, recognizing that the Reformed tradition is a biblical, evangelical and doctrinal ethos, rather than any narrow and exclusive definition of faith and order . . . ."

Article II of the Constitution of the WARC

What Is Different about Presbyterians?

Although the title of this section may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, it is a very common question. Although, we prefer to spend our time concentrating on what we have in common with other Christians, it is occasionally useful to stop and remember what it is that we bring as a denomination to the larger Church's understanding of God and of the ministry congregations can have.

There are two areas which distinguish Presbyterians from other denominations.

  • We follow the system of beliefs that is known as Reformed theology which is usually associated with John Calvin. This theological system is known for
    1. its belief in the centrality of Scripture,
    2. its belief in salvation completely through God's grace and not by human effort, and
    3. its belief in the depravity of human nature that makes all human actions suspect of unworthy motives and hidden agendas.
  • We follow a system of church government that encourages the participation of clergy and lay members in representative bodies. It is central to our theology that the more authority and responsibility is shared and balanced, the less chance there is for any one person or group to abuse power. This form of government is a direct response to our belief in the depravity of human nature.

What Presbyterians Believe

First and foremost, Presbyterians hold the Bible in a unique and authoritative place above all other writings. We interpret the Bible using the theological lenses of historic creeds. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the following creeds. You may notice that they fall into three categories.

  • Those in the early church that helped define Christianity,
  • Those in the Reformation period (early 1500s to mid 1600s) which define what we now call Reformed Theology, and
  • Those more recent statements that are helping us understand what the church means in our world today.

We believe that God continues to teach us truths that may not have been understood or accepted by earlier generations. We believe these creeds are important landmarks of what certain people of faith believed at one particular period in history.

The Nicene Creed, c325-381

Teaches how Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit relate to God
It was developed in the first two councils and officially adopted at the fourth council in 451.

The Apostles' Creed, c180-750

Teaches the doctrine of the trinity
It was developed to be used at baptisms.

The Scots Confession, 1560 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

Teaches how we are saved and why we have a church
It was developed to distinguish Protestants in Scotland from Roman Catholics.
Written at the end of the Scottish Civil War by John Knox.

The Heidelberg Catechism, 1563 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

Teaches what we believe about the Lord's Table
It was developed to distinguish Reformed Christians from Lutherans.

The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

Teaches what we believe about baptism and the covenant
It was developed to distinguish Reformed Christians from Baptists and to begin to reconcile with Lutherans.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

Teaches the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture
It was developed to distinguish reformed Christians from high church Anglicans.
Written at the end of the English Civil War by the Westminster Assembly.

The Shorter Catechism, 1647 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

The Larger Catechism, 1649 This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 1934

Teaches the lordship of Jesus Christ and the limits of external authority
It was developed to help Christians understand the limits of governmental authority.
Written in Nazi Germany just before the beginning of the Second World War.

The Confession of 1967

Teaches the need for reconciliation and inclusion in the church
It was developed in response to the general questioning of the 1960s.

A Brief Statement of Faith, 1991

Teaches a summary of faith
It was developed as part of the reunion of the Northern and Southern streams of the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. (They had split in stages during the mid 1800s over whether Christians should own slaves.)

For Further Study

Presbyterian 101
The Book of Confessions This is an Adobe Acrobat pdf document.
Catholic Encyclopedia article on Creeds
Creeds of Christendom