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What is unique about the Presbyterian Church?

Presbuteros, the Greek word meaning elder, is used 72 times in the New Testament.  It provided the name for the Presbyterian family of churches, which includes the Reformed churches of the world.  Both Presbyterian and Reformed are synonymous with churches of the Calvinist tradition.

In America, the first presbytery was organized in 1706, the first synod in 1717; the first General Assembly was held in 1789.  Today’s Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was created by the 1983 reunion of the two main branches of Presbyterians in America, separated since the Civil War: the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.  and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  The latter had been created by the union of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1958.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is distinctly a confessional and a connectional church, distinguished by the representation of elders—laymen and laywomen—in its government.  The church has a membership of around 2.4 million people in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.  Presently there are 11,260 congregations, 20,940 ordained ministers, 1,255 candidates for ministry, and 108,532 elders.

Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: they adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.

Reformed Theology
Theology is a way of thinking about God and God's relation to the world.  Reformed theology evolved during the 16th century religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation.  It emphasizes God's supremacy over everything and humanity's chief purpose as being to glorify and enjoy God forever.  In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition.  Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.

Related to this central affirmation of God's sovereignty are other great themes of the Reformed tradition:

The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;

Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of  God;

A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God's creation;

The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.  (Book of Order G-2.0500)

Church Government

A major contributor to Reformed theology was John Calvin, who converted from Roman Catholicism after training for the priesthood and in the law.  In exile in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed the presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected laypersons known as elders.  The word presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.  Elders are chosen by the people.

Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships.

They shall serve faithfully as members of the session.  (G-10.0102) When elected commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office.
(Book of Order G-6.0302)

The body of elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a SESSION.  They are elected by the congregation and in one sense are representatives of the other members of the congregation.  On the other hand, their primary charge is to seek to discover and represent the will of Christ as they govern.

Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained.

Through ordination they are officially set apart for service.  They retain their ordination beyond their term in office.  Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the session.  The session is the smallest, most local governing body.  The other governing bodies are presbyteries, which are composed of several churches; synods, which are composed of several presbyteries; and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination.  Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?

Presbyterians Are BELIEVERS and DOERS

WE BELIEVE — in the Great Ends of the Church, as set forth in our Book of Order: "the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world."

WE BELIEVE — in a theology of mission, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith. "Christ hath commissioned his Church to go into all the world and to make disciples of all nations.  All believers are therefore under obligation .  .  .  to contribute by their prayers, gifts, and personal efforts to the extension of the Kingdom of Christ throughout the whole earth."

WE DO — mission and its related functions in "good Presbyterian order" through the structures of our General Assembly, synods, presbyteries, and local churches, which provide accountability in a connectional system.  The chief agencies of the General Assembly are Office of the General Assembly; General Assembly Council, which coordinates and provides services for all of the agencies; Mission Support Services; Congregational Ministries Division; National Ministries Division; Worldwide Ministries Division; Board of Pensions; Presbyterian Foundation; Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program; and Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

WE DO — mission locally, nationally, globally by setting priorities for our available resources, guided by the emphases given by our General Assembly, the annual meeting of clergy and lay commissioners who represent the presbyteries of the church.  Through the General Assembly, all Presbyterians have a voice in setting directions for mission and, through their General Mission Giving, have a vital responsibility in carrying out what the General Assembly has mandated.