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Presbyterian Religion: Rich Faith on 5 Big Points and More

Presbyterian Religion: Rich Faith on 5 Big Points and More
Presbyterian Religion: Calvinism and more; church government by elders (presbyter) without priests, bishops or ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Presbyterian Religion: Rich Faith on 5 Big Points and More

Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. Jesus in John 15:16

Most of us think of Calvinism when we hear the word “Presbyterian,” and John Calvin is indeed a central and commanding figure in its history. Yet there is more to Presbyterianism than the church of the Protestant Reformation. We are going to look at it today in terms of its Biblical background, polity, reformation development, TULIP theology, subsequent history, and current condition.

Definition of Presbyterian


1 of 2 noun Pres·by·te·ri·an ˌprez-bə-ˈtir-ē-ən

ˌpres-: a member of a Presbyterian church


2 of 2


1: often not capitalized: characterized by a graded system of representative ecclesiastical bodies (such as presbyteries) exercising legislative and judicial powers

2: of, relating to, or constituting a Protestant Christian church that is presbyterian in government and traditionally Calvinistic in doctrine

We are going to look at each definition in this article, starting with the “often not capitalized” adjective 1: definition, i.e., a system of representative government because it preceded the Capitalized Presbyterian by 3,000 years and was established by God.

Biblical background

Old Testament

When Moses* led the children of Israel out of Egypt his job had just begun.

*Following a name means that person is one of the two hundred short biographies in Spiritual Lives.

He was responsible for governing the 2 million people in the wilderness. He had the LORD’s help but still made all important decisions himself until his father-in-law warned him that this would wear him out and advised him to appoint wise men of integrity to handle all but the most serious cases/situations. That will make it easier for you, as they share your burden. Exodus 18:20-22

Moses* acted on this advice and chose seventy men approved by the LORD in Exodus (in Exodus 24:1) to carry out this responsibility. The Bible tells us they are “princes of Israel,” but Jewish commentators added that

In regard to the Sanhedrin of 70 Elders to help Moses, years before in Egypt these men had been Hebrew officials under Egyptian taskmasters; they were beaten by the Egyptians when they refused to beat fellow Jews to finish building projects. As a reward they became the Sanhedrin of 70 Elders

This is the first time we see “Presbyterianism” without the name but in substance. In addition to their administrative role, these men were filled with the Holy Ghost: Numbers 11:25

How long this spirit rested on them we do not know, but it had clearly gone by the time of Ezekiel: when the LORD gave him a vision of seventy burning incense to idols. – Ezekiel 8:11-12

This is the last mention of this group of seventy in the Old Testament.

New Testament

The seventy-person Sanhedrin is mentioned twenty-two times in the New Testament, in the Gospels where its members were the opposition to Jesus, and in the Acts of the Apostles, where they persecuted the apostles despite the counsel of rabbi Gamaliel and instigated the stoning of Stephen.

Nevertheless, these presbyterian elders retained a holy position and Jesus told his followers that

The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. – Matthew 23:3

After this, the Sanhedrin vanishes but the root word of presbyterian does not. That word is presbyter, (from Greek presbyteros, “elder”), an officer or minister in the early Christian Church. Etymologically it is the original form of “priest.” It appears sixty-seven times in the King James Authorized version of the Bible.

The early apostolic church

The first churches were established through the missionary efforts of the Apostles who oversaw their doctrine and development, but the governing and operation of the local churches was in the hands of “elders” i.e., “presbyters.”

Luke tells us that they ordained elders in every church in Acts 14:23. His eyewitness account here is of Paul* and Barnabas but John* and Peter did the same thing, John calling himself an elder. These elders did double duty, managing the church's operational affairs and teaching its doctrine, and encouraging the members: (1 Timothy 5:17)

As the apostles’ ministry ended, they named successors to continue their work. Often these men were bishops (literally “overseers”), and this process of continuing in the faith has been named “apostolic succession” and has become a basic tenet of what became known as “Episcopal” polity.

This was first reported by Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. Peter and John*, who become bishop in 68 ad and died in 107. He was in the Eastern Church, but the polity was followed by the West as well, and when Constantine* became Emperor was made universal.

This continued in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to this day. The first departure from it came during the 16th century.

First Presbyterain church?

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was the first to describe Presbyterian government based on these five principles he saw in the New Testament:

  1. An overseer, i.e., Bishop, as the highest officer in the church

  2. Ministers of the Word and Sacraments in each congregation, “presbyters.”

  3. Others with “gifts of government” “ruling elders”

  4. Others with pastoral care, people from both 2 and 3 per 1 Corinthians 12:28: And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

  5. Priesthood of all believers, i.e., the congregation and a tenet of Protestantism.

This form of government was not implemented in the Lutheran or Anglican churches whose reforms were of the existing practices and liturgies. John Calvin* broke dramatically from the Roman Catholic Church and set up the Protestant church of Geneva according to these principles.

Geneva is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. In the late 14th century, it had been given a charter within the Holy Roman Empire that gave it a great deal of freedom and was ruled by a Grand Council of two hundred, a form of democratic legislature accommodating to the Presbyterian church government John Calvin* established.

John Knox was a close friend of Calvin's and a powerful advocate of Presbyterianism in Scotland where they fiercely opposed the Episcopal church. This same kind of principled opposition to Episcopalianism can be seen among the Huguenots in France and the Puritans in the Netherlands and England.

These Protestant groups subscribed to the systematic theology Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a theological and literary masterpiece (French). This seminal and brilliant work was the basis for the fundamental documents of the Presbyterian Church, the Westminster Confession.

Presbyterian theology of TULIP

The TULIP theology was based on the teaching of St. Augustine and includes these five points:

  • Total Depravity

  • Unconditional Election

  • Limited Atonement

  • Irresistible Grace

  • Perseverance of the saints.

Imported to the USA

The Puritans brought this Presbyterian doctrine to America, and it gained wide influence and popularity through the ministry of Jonathan Edwards* and George Whitefield. This doctrine sparked the first Great Awakening of 1735-1740.

The Presbyterian Church was nationally organized in Philadelphia in 1789. The first moderator for John Witherspoon, minister, president of Princeton University, and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

While Presbyterians observed the doctrines of T.U.L.I.P., this was not their distinguishing characteristic. That was the church government.

Presbyterian Church Government

Presbyterian church governance operates through the rule of assemblies of presbyters, or elders. Each local church has elected elders usually called the session, consistory, or church board.

Local churches are governed by a higher assembly of elders that grouped into a synod, and synods nationwide form a general assembly. Responsibility for conduct of church services is reserved to an ordained minister or pastor who functions as a teaching elder, or a minister of the word and sacrament.

19th century growth

The Presbyterian church grew in the 19th century to the point that some thought it might become the established American church. Presbyterians were a part of Christian revivals and the Second Great Awakening.

They also shaped voluntary societies that encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical, and reforming work. At the end of the century, they were the most influential Protestant group, theologically, educationally, and culturally as evidenced in Princeton University and Seminary.

As its influence grew, many non-Presbyterians feared that the PCUSA's informal influence over American life might effectively make it an established church.

20th century to the present

The church continued to grow in the 20th century, but there was a growing split between traditional Presbyterians who believed the Bible as the Word of God literally and historically as “inerrant,” and the modernists who believed that Christianity needed to be re-interpreted considering modern theories like Darwinism and higher criticism.

The modernist movement was led by Harry Emerson Fosdick,* backed by John D. Rockefeller, and others in the Presbyterian church who supported the ordination of ministers and missionaries who denied the Virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the vicarious atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, and Christ's miracles and resurrection.

Presbyterian minister J. Gresham Machen*, a former Princeton Theological Seminary New Testament professor was defrocked by the Presbyterian Church and then resigned from Princeton. He founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.

This division between orthodox and modernist Presbyterians remains to this day, exasperated in the 1990s over the issue of the ordination of homosexuals.

Presbyterian Churches today

There are almost two million Presbyterians in America today in its three largest churches. In the interest of fairness and integrity, I am giving here the definitions from evenhanded Wikipedia: The 2 largest Presbyterian Churches in America today are:

The Presbyterian Church (USA), abbreviated PC (USA), is a mainline Protestant denomination in the United States. It is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country, known for its liberal stance on doctrine and its ordaining of women and members of the LGBT community as elders and ministers. —

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the second-largest Presbyterian church body, behind the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the largest conservative Calvinist denomination in the United States. The PCA is Reformed in theology and presbyterian in government.

The 3rd Presbyterian church in America is:

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is a confessional Presbyterian denomination located primarily in the United States, with additional congregations in Canada, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. It was founded by conservative members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), who objected to the rise of Liberal and Modernist theology in the 1930s. The OPC is considered to have had an influence on evangelicalism far beyond its size.

Where do you fit into this array of churches? I hope an orthodox one, one that believes Jesus in the Son of God, that He shed His blood to wash away your sins, that He rose from the dead and is coming back to take us to be with Him forever. But orthodoxy is truth but not all there is to be saved. What did Jesus say:

Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. – John 3:3

Your belief is decisive and dispositive:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. – Mark 16:4

Always listen to Jesus, and always remember:
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.John 3:7

Let us pray we see many Presbyterians saved!

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