Sometimes the name “Presbyterian” is used in a way that doesn’t clearly identify what its beliefs and practices are. Simply hearing the term without any further description can raise more questions than it answers.
Presbyterianism is a Christian denomination. The Presbyterian tradition, which is comprised of denominations, churches, and people, holds to the core teachings of Christianity, like the Trinity. Presbyterianism was established in 16th century Europe as part of the Protestant Reformation.
Who started the Presbyterian church? What does it believe about Jesus and other theological issues? What are the largest denominations in the tradition and what’s the difference between them? Keep reading to learn more.
What is Presbyterianism?
Presbyterianism is a Protestant Christian denomination. As a “Christian” denomination, it is distinct in belief and practice than non-Christian world religions. (Also see What Bible Translation Do Presbyterians Use?)
As a “Protestant” tradition, it’s distinct from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Presbyterianism has similarities with other Protestant denominations like Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Assemblies of God, but it has unique beliefs and practices as well. (Also see Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic: What’s the Difference?)
- When was Presbyterianism founded? Presbyterianism’s roots begin in 16th-century Europe. It’s theological convictions are articulated in the teachings of French pastor and theologian John Calvin (1509-1564). Protestant Scotsman John Knox (1514-1572) was instrumental in the establishing the denomination.
- What is Calvin known for? Calvin is known for his theological teaching, called “Calvinism.” One of his most well-known teachings is on the doctrine of predestination, which holds that God elected some people to salvation but not others. His teachings also emphasis God’s providence, God’s holiness, and God’s glory. Calvin’s book The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is modified, edited, and revised his whole life, describes his theology and its implications for Christian living. (See the full article Are Presbyterians Calvinists?)
- What does “Presbyterianism” mean? The name “Presbyterianism” comes from the New Testament Greek word presbyteros (presbyteroi in plural), which means “elder.” In the Bible, an “elder” doesn’t necessarily refer to an older man (though it can), but an office in a church, regardless of a person’s physical age. So-called “elders” lead (i.e. govern) Presbyterian churches, so the name “Presbyterian” refers to a form of church government.
What do Presbyterians believe?
Presbyterians are Protestant Christians who believe that Scripture alone is authoritative over and above church tradition. Protestants, in contrast to Roman Catholics, don’t recognize the authority of the Pope, pray to saints who are no longer living on the Earth (including Mary), or believe that the bread and cup at the Lord’s Supper literally turn into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
Presbyterianism today, like other mainline Protestant denominations, has experienced debate and division over social issues, which has led to denomination and church splits. Sometimes these debates are categorized as “mainline” vs “evangelical” or “liberal-progressive vs conservative.”
Topics like the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, and gender identity are the most controversial in Presbyterian denominations. (See the full article Are Presbyterians Liberal?)
The convictions described below reflect the 500-year-old teachings of the Presbyterian tradition. Liberal-progressive Presbyterian denominations and churches challenge many of these doctrines in the 21st century:
- What do Presbyterians believe about the Bible? Presbyterianism has historically taught that the Bible alone is authoritative. All teachings of the church must align with Scripture and no teacher may add to it. Tradition is subservient to Scripture, not on par with it. Presbyterians believe that God inspired the writing of Scripture. Many believe that the Bible contains no errors.
- Who is Christ to Presbyterians? Presbyterians believe that Christ is the eternal, uncreated, second person of the Trinity who took on human flesh at the incarnation. He was born to his virgin mother Mary in Bethlehem, and then after a sojourn to Egypt, was raised in Nazareth. Presbyterians believe Christ is fully God and fully man. He lived a sinless life, loved people, performed miracles, and taught people about the Kingdom of God. (Also see Do Presbyterians Believe In the Trinity?)
- What did Christ do for people? Presbyterians believe that Christ’s death on the cross was an atonement for sin, which means it made amends to the relational rupture sin caused. Christ died in people’s place and paid the price for their sin. In turn sinners may receive Christ’s righteousness, which they appropriate by grace through faith.
- What do Presbyterians believe about sin? Presbyterians believe that all people are born sinners, which is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden. Presbyterians also teach the doctrine of “total depravity,” which states that sin impacts all aspects of a person (e.g. intellect, will, emotions, etc.) Neither good deeds nor good character can overcome the disastrous consequences of sin, which is death.
- What do Presbyterians believe about salvation? Presbyterians believe that people are (1) justified by grace, meaning God declares people righteous apart from their good works and based on the work of Christ; (2) through faith, meaning people must believe in Christ and put their trust in him; and (3) in Christ alone, meaning that the cross is the only way people can be saved. No other religion, teaching, process or method is sufficient to save.
- What do Presbyterian believe about sanctification? Sanctification is the process of maturity and spiritual growth that a believer experiences after justification. Justification is a work of God alone, but sanctification is cooperative, meaning that people’s choices, through the power of the Holy Spirit, aid their sanctification. Presbyterians don’t believe sanctification can be perfected in this lifetime.
- What do Presbyterians believe about the Holy Spirit? Presbyterians believe the Holy Spirit is the eternal, uncreated, 3rd member of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit is has personhood. He isn’t a force. The Spirit indwells believers, and empowers and equips them to do good works. Presbyterians believe certain spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, were only operational for the establishment of the church in the first century.
- What do Presbyterians believe about Baptism? Presbyterians practice infant baptism, which signifies the child’s inclusion into the Covenant community. Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation, but it’s critically important to an individual, their family, and their church. Presbyterians baptize adults as well. (Also see Presbyterian vs Baptist: What’s the Difference?)
- What do Presbyterians disagree about? Presbyterians, like other Protestants, don’t always believe the same about peripheral matters. For example, some Presbyterians today read the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, while others read the New King James Version (NKJV), and still others read the English Standard Version (ESV) or the New International Version (NIV).
- An historical example of internal disagreement is so-called “double predestination.” “Predestination” is the belief that God elects some people to salvation but not others. “Double predestination” is the belief that God elects some for salvation and elects others to damnation.
What are the largest Presbyterian denominations?
Technically, the name “Presbyterian” doesn’t describe a single denomination, but several. Presbyterian denominations have many similarities, including a shared history, but division has occurred because of irreconcilable matters, such as same-sex marriage. (Also see PCUSA vs PCA: What’s the Difference?)
|Presbyterian Church (USA)||1.7 million|
|Presbyterian Church in America||370,000|
|Evangelical Presbyterian Church||150,000|
|ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians||100,000|
|Cumberland Presbyterian Church||71,000|
|Korean American Presbyterian Church||55,000|
The Roman Catholic and Presbyterian branches of the Christian faith trace their origins to Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles, as well as their writings that comprise most of the New Testament. There...