What Are Presbyterians?
The Early Church
Just before Jesus went to be with His Father in heaven, He commanded His disciples to go into all corners of the world to bring the knowledge of the love God has for His creations. This is referred to as the great commission and the followers of Jesus went out and did just that.
Now, keep in mind that the majority of Jesus' first followers were Jews who believed Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah. We are always respectful of the fact that Jesus was a Jew and that salvation comes from the Jews. There came a point in the first century when it was clear that the traditional Jewish leaders did not accept Jesus and therefore the Christian faith became a separate entity from the Jewish faith. Early Christians often found themselves in conflict with the established Jewish church.
The Roman Empire was also a problem for the early Christians who protested the cruel games and dubious entertainment offered by the coliseum in Rome. This and the fact that they refused to worship the emperor as divine led to their persecution and slaughter at the hands of the Romans. The life of a Christian in those early churches was not easy, but still they clung to their faith.
A church in those days was started when a follower of Christ went to a new city and started helping people and preaching the words of Jesus. After he explained as much of the teachings as he could, baptized the people who were moved to join, he would move on to the next city and start the process over again. Paul was one of the most prolific evangelists and took the gospel to all people, even non-Jews. He kept in contact to the new churches with letters that now make up most of the latter parts of the New Testament. These letters examine much of the theology of our faith, lay the groundwork for the growth of the early church, and still offer good advice to Christians today.
The Roman Catholic Church
In 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and with his conversion finally made Christianity a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Roman Empire. Because of the influence of the church in Rome and the fact that Rome was the center of roads and other infrastructure, the western churches began to centralize there. The churches in Greece and other eastern areas still preferred a loose confederation, as was created originally by Paul, rather than a centralized control that developed over time with Roman influence. In 1054 AD, this led to the first split in the ranks of Christianity and The Roman Catholic Church separated from the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
The spread of Christianity continued through the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the early 14th century, the Church in Rome had established its power in what eventually became the Europe we know today. There were forces at work in the world at that time and they began to exert pressure on the Roman Catholic Church. The beginning of the renaissance, the establishment of more stable governments, the dawning of the modern age of science and reason, and most importantly, the invention of the printing press, all took their toll on the traditions of the then tradition bound church.
Many Catholics have wanted to change their church's doctrines at different times. Starting in the 14th century some started questioning the assumptions regarding the church itself, salvation, and man's relationship to God. The Roman Catholic Church usually branded the questioner as a heretic, forced them out of the Church and very little actually got changed. By the 16th century, some reformers had given up trying to change the Roman Catholic Church from within. They left and started their own churches. In France, members of these churches were called "protesters" because the refused to accept the Roman Catholic Church as the only valid Christian church. This is how the Protestant churches got their name.
At that time the Roman Catholic Church held both scripture and tradition as the rule of faith. They controlled the tradition, and the scripture was only available in Latin Vulgate, a language not spoken by many people in that time outside of church officials and read by even fewer. It was also not allowed for the Bible to be read by anyone who was not a member of the clergy. This forced everyone who wanted to be a Christian to have to deal with the Roman Catholic Church for salvation. The sacraments, like baptism and communion, were only available to people the church allowed in. Protestant reformers had one goal: The scripture, as canonized in the Bible in the early 4th century, was to be the only rule of faith. They did not want to bend their knee to humans to kneel to God. And they wanted everyone to have access to the scripture.
In 1382, the first bible was translated to English. And the Roman Catholic Church condemned Wycliffe, a vicar and scholar who translated it, as a heretic. In 1517, Martin Luther, a German Catholic tired of trying to change the Catholic Church from within, hammered his "95 Theses" to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany and officially began the modern Reformer movement. He denounced the pretensions of authority of the Pope in Rome and promoted a person’s direct relationship with God without the need for Church intercession. And by 1525, Tyndale, an Oxford scholar translated the bible from Greek and Hebrew and began printing it in German exile.
By the 16th century the momentum of the various reformers and the widespread use of the printing press toppled the Roman Catholic Church's control. In 1534, the Anglican Church, or the Church of England as it is also known, broke with the Roman Catholic Church over papal jurisdiction and control. The Roman Catholic Church translated the bible in 1582 to English as a response to English protestants, but it was too little too late. In 1611, King James ordered the official Anglican English translation of the Bible. This King James Version of the Bible was the first widely available translation of the Bible and is still in use today as one of the most popular translations.
John Calvin, a contemporary of Martin Luther, converted to Protestantism in 1533. His biblical interpretation influenced many early protestant theologians and founded Presbyterianism. He focused on the canonized Bible as a revelation of God. He emphasized theology, worship, education, thrift, and ethical behavior. Most importantly, he favored a representational government for his followers' church organization. He wanted the lay person to have a legitimate role in the official functions of the church. The name Presbyterian comes from the Greek word "Presbuteros" which means elder and refers to the practice of electing elders to work with the clergy to guide the church.
One of his students, Scottish Protestant John Knox, went back to Scotland after his exile and in 1559 established the Presbyterian Church there. It found fertile soil, and between 1643 and 1649 the "Westminster Assembly" of 151 Presbyterians met in England to write the doctrinal guidelines that modern Presbyterians still use today.
The first Presbyterians in Canada were French Huguenots who settled in Newfoundland as fishermen and Quebec as fur-traders as early as 1541. These colonies did not survive. Presbyterian congregations were founded in Nova Scotia in the early part of the 18th century.
When America was being colonized many Protestants left Europe and England to escape persecution at the hands of more established Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. In 1706, the first Presbytery was established in Philadelphia. By the time of the revolution, there were so many Presbyterians in the colonies the British sometimes referred to the American Revolution as the "Presbyterian Revolt". Of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, 14 were Presbyterian, including the only clergyman to sign it, Reverend John Witherspoon. And it was the Presbyterian’s form of church government (Representative Democracy) that was used as a model for the American Constitution.
The basic form of Presbyterian Organization is a Representative Democracy. That is not to say that the church is a democracy, but that through the process of debate and democratic voting we seek to discern the mind of Christ. It has four basic levels above the congregation. The first is the Session. This is an elected group of Elders from the congregation of the church, plus the clergy (ministers of the Word). This group makes decisions for the congregation of a church and supervises the deacons and trustees. The next higher court is called the Presbytery and is a geographically organized group of churches. This might cover only a large city or a county or several counties. This group helps churches help each other, run programs too large for individual churches and helps coordinate inter-church activities. They also elect representatives to the next level called the Synod. Synods address the concerns of several Presbyteries' and elect people to represent their views to the General Assembly. The General Assembly makes policy decisions about the functioning of the whole denomination and is made up of equal numbers of clergy and lay people.
Presbyterians don't have a strict set of beliefs which unite Presbyterians or separates them from other followers of Christ. Presbyterians believe in:
- God the father, creator of the universe
- Jesus, the incarnation of God on the earth
- Holy Spirit, the presence of God in the world and in the believer
- The Church, a universal company of Christ's followers
- Forgiveness of Sins, made possible by the crucifixion of Christ
- Life Everlasting, shown by the resurrection of Jesus
- The Bible, as the inspired word of God.
The Bible as the inspired word of God is a hallmark of many Protestant religions. Presbyterians have always believed the Bible is the most authoritative source for faith, but it does not believe the authors of the bible were "pens of God" as many of the early Christians believed. We believe they were inspired by God to reveal his presence to all people, but they did so in their own words and in with the influence of their times.
One way this is illustrated is in the issue of female clergy. Many denominations believe that women should not hold positions as clergy based on the opinions in expressed in the Bible. Presbyterians embrace the contributions of women in our church both as elders (lay persons) and as ministers of the Word (clergy).
Some churches hand down doctrine and simply expect its members to accept it. Being a Presbyterian puts more emphases on personal freedom and responsibility. Every Presbyterian must find a personal set of beliefs through contemplation and worship. For example, in some denominations taking steps to prevent pregnancy is not allowed, but as a Presbyterian, we recognize there is nothing in the church's teachings which discourages intelligent, unselfish family planning. But at the same time, that opinion is not forced on our members either. We also believe that no Christian church has exclusive possession of the church government authorized by Christ. We therefore do not claim that being a Presbyterian is the only way to achieve salvation. Presbyterians also believe the Holy Spirit heightens truth, and thus admit different understandings of the Confession of Faith. Finally, we also believe that a church never reaches a "reformed" state. It is always in a state of reformation and needs to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit for change.
Presbyterians also follow a stated, though not strict liturgy in our church services. One feature of many Presbyterian Church services is reading together and aloud different creeds and confessions. These are statements of doctrine which express the beliefs of a church or congregation. The recitation involves the whole congregation in the act of worship and helps reinforce our common beliefs.
Presbyterians follow only two biblically based Sacraments. The Sacrament of Baptism unites us with Jesus and makes us members of God's family, the church. The particulars of the baptism, whether full immersion or a symbolic sprinkling, are not important. It is only important that it occurred under the guiding hand of a Christian Church. Baptism is not a guarantee to Heaven, nor do we believe its lack denies someone salvation. It is the initiation into a church community, a public confession of our sinful state and shows our willingness to make Jesus and His teachings a part of our lives.
The Sacrament of Communion, also called the Lord's supper or Eucharist, is a time to renew faith and focus on the responsibilities and gifts we have as Christians. The elements, the bread and wine, represent the sacrifice that Jesus willingly made for all sinners. Together, they represent the new covenant God has made with his children. Any member in good standing in any Christian church is welcome to participate in communion.
So, what does it mean to me to be a Presbyterian? It means I am a Christian in service to my church and my community. I willingly give my time and money to support my church. It means that I try to set an example in my actions that is worthy of Christ's sacrifice. And finally, it means that I have an obligation to help anyone I can, in any way I can when they are in need.