Are Presbyterians are Liberals? Get the Facts


In 2009 the Presbyterian branch of Protestant Christianity celebrated it’s 500-year anniversary, when its origin is dated to the birth of French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). The Presbyterian church has experienced many changes in the last five centuries. Many people today wonder if Presbyterians are liberal or conservative.

Historically, Presbyterians are theologically and socially conservative, yet in the 19th and 20th centuries, certain denominations and churches in the tradition adopted liberal beliefs and practices. Divisive issues included freemasonry, Darwinian evolution, the ordination of women, and same-sex marriage.

How are conservatism and liberalism defined in the Presbyterian tradition? What issues divide the opposing worldviews? What Presbyterian denominations are conservative and which ones are liberal? How do the churches that have drifted apart from the historic teachings of Calvin think of their founder today? Keep reading to learn more.

Presbyterian church Kansas
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

Conservative and liberal views in the Presbyterian church

Conservatism and liberalism, in the context of a Christian denomination, can be discussed under two headings. The first one is common to any society. The second one is mostly found in the Church.

  • Social issues: Most of the time, when conservatism and liberalism is discussed in the world, the context is political. Examples of social issues are taxes, immigration, abortion, and racial equality. Protestant churches, like other Christian traditions, engage in social issues through discussion, ministry, and other avenues.
  • Theological issues: The terms “conservative” and “liberal” also apply to doctrine. Like discussions about social issues, liberals sometimes charge conservatives with outdated beliefs, and conservatives charge liberals with unethical progressivism. Conservative and liberal theological positions are often founded upon how people interpret and apply the Bible to life.

Divisive issues in the Presbyterian denomination

Conservative and liberal issues are sometimes relative to social and ecclesiastical context. This doesn’t mean the morality of each subject is relative, but that issues arise in various ways at different times. Here are two examples:

  • King James Version: At certain points in Protestant history, using an English translation other than the King James (KJV) would have been considered liberal. Today, many conservative Bible readers use non-KJV translations.
  • Electric instruments: Similarly, at certain points in Christian history, using drums and musical instruments that used electrical power would have been considered worldly. Today, many churches, no matter the denomination, use powered instruments.

Doctrine is different: The two examples above both relate to customs, not doctrines. Customs are often unique to a particular time and place, but they aren’t inflexible. Doctrine, however, isn’t inflexible, according to conservative Presbyterians, which makes many of the issues below especially controversial.

  • Freemasonry: In the 19th and 30th centuries, the Presbyterian tradition wrestled with church members participating in “secret societies,” especially the Freemasons. The conservative position is that such societies are unholy and worldly. The liberal view argued there is no harm in such societies. Dozens of Protestant denominations articulated formal statements about such groups, encouraging members to avoid them. Several Presbyterian denominations maintain statements about secret societies in their doctrine.
  • Darwinian evolution: How should Genesis 1-2 be interpreted? Should the Church adopt the consensus views of modern science? Presbyterians have wrestled with these questions since the latter half of the 19th century. The conservative view believes the creation account should be interpreted literally. The liberal (some would say moderate) view adopts Darwinian evolution.
  • The ordination of women: Should women be pastors? Can they be elders of any kind? Presbyterians have wrestled with this issue for decades. Generally, the conservative view is that women shouldn’t be ordained and the liberal view is that they can be. However, a few conservative Presbyterian denominations now allow individual churches to decide whether or not to call a woman to the office of elder.
  • Same-sex marriage: Like other Christian traditions, Presbyterianism has traditionally defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This centuries-long conviction began to erode in some Presbyterian denominations in the 21st century as the liberal viewpoint on the matter acquired significant momentum in society. This issue split Presbyterian denominations and churches and continues to have titanic impact on the tradition.
  • Gender identity: Another issue being heavily discussed in the 21st century is gender identity and transgender issues. The conservative view believes God created two genders, male and female. The liberal view believes that gender identity can evolve in the life of an individual. These discussions impact the ongoing debate about who can be ordained in the Presbyterian tradition and what marriages churches can perform and recognize.
Presbyterian church in Canada
“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Ephesians 1:22 (ESV)

What Presbyterian denominations are liberal or conservative?

The list below is a starting point for readers. It isn’t intended to be exhaustive. Readers are encouraged to explore the websites for each denomination to find out more information about their convictions.

Christian Reformed Church in North America
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womeneach presbytery can decide for themselves
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman; opposes same-sex marriage
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views of the creation account; boundaries of acceptable creationism doctrine has been discussed in recent years
Ordination of womenheterosexual men only
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman; opposes same-sex marriage
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womenone of the few conservative Presbyterian denominations that permit the ordination of women; split with PCUSA over LGBTQ ordination
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman; opposes same-sex marriage
Evangelical Association of Reformed and Congregational Churches
View of creationnot included in their statement of faith
Ordination of womenallows the ordination of women; each congregation can decide for itself
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman; split from the United Church of Christ over the issue
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womenallows; considers it a non-essential matter
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womenheterosexual men only
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
View of creationopen to non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2; well-known pastor Tim Keller participates in BioLogos, which espouses “evolutionary creation” [1] [2]
Ordination of womenheterosexual men only
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman
Presbyterian Church (USA)
View of creationopen to any position
Ordination of womenpractices women and gay and lesbian ordination
View of marriagesupports same-sex marriage
Protestant Reformed Churches in America
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womenheterosexual men only
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman
Reformed Churches in America
View of creationopen to any position
Ordination of womenallows
View of marriagesupports same-sex marriage
United Church of Christ
View of creationopen to any position
Ordination of womenallows
View of marriagesupports same-sex marriage
United Reformed Churches in North America
View of creationopen to non-Darwinian views that affirm that people are created in the image of God
Ordination of womenheterosexual men only; split with the Christian Reformed Church in North America over the issue
View of marriagebetween one man and one woman

What do liberal Presbyterians think of Calvin?

While the doctrines of the Christian faith that Calvin articulated can still be found in liberal Presbyterian churches, they aren’t taught or emphasized in the ministry of the church. Calvin himself, though an interesting historical figure, is considered outdated.

To many liberal thinkers, the tradition has evolved to become something better. Calvin is viewed like historical figures from America and Europe who played a role in the establishment of an institution, but their views are mostly irrelevant for today.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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