“In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’” —From “A Brief Statement of Faith”
At the core of Presbyterian identity is a secure hope in the grace of God in Jesus Christ, a hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers us to lives lives of gratitude: “In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope, and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.” (Book of Order F-1.0204)
This strong emphasis on the grace of God in Jesus Christ is our heritage from the founder of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin.
The name Presbyterian comes from the Greek term in the New Testament for elder, presbuteros, a term used 72 times in the New Testament. The Presbyterian movement began among Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries and centered on what form of church government would be appropriate. Some thought the church should be governed by bishops (Greek: episkopos) and became the Episcopalian party, some by elders and became the Presbyterian party, and some directly by the congregation, which became the Congregationalist party.
Presbyterian church government emphasizes that the leadership of the church is shared between those called to be ministers and church members called to be elders within the congregation — we use the terms Teaching Elder to refer to ministers and Ruling Elder to refer to church members called to be elders. This strong emphasis on Presbyterian church government is our heritage from Scottish Presbyterians.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is Reformed in its theology and Presbyterian in its church government.
Presbyterian heritage, and much of what we believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), whose writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that came before him. Calvin did much of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe and the British Isles.
Many of the early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was held in the same city in 1789. The first Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
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 in its government. The church has a membership of 1.6 million in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with nearly 10 thousand congregations and worshiping communities.
Some of the principles articulated by John Calvin are still at the core of Presbyterian beliefs. Among these are the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. What these tenets mean is that God is the supreme authority throughout the universe. Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ. Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments. It is everyone’s job — ministers and lay people alike — to share this Good News with the whole world. That is also why the Presbyterian church is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.
It is this understanding of the church as the body of Christ that has led the Reformed tradition and the PC(USA) to develop some of its core values:
The lordship of Christ—Everything that we do is centered on Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Savior and the Head of the church.
Honoring diversity—Just as the body celebrates its diversity, we celebrate, affirm, and welcome the rich diversity of all of God’s people in our common life.
Shared leadership—There can be no authoritarian leadership in a Presbyterian church because all parts of the body have gifts that must be honored. That is the basis of the Reformed conviction that the spiritual leaders (deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders) are to be elected by the people of God.
Being one church—Just as there is only one body of Christ, there is only one church. Each of our congregations is an organic part of the broader PC(USA), and the PC(USA) is just one part of the church ecumenical. To be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical!
A holistic ministry—Our mission in the world—our ministry—is the ministry of Christ. Just as Christ was called “to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and . . . to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), so are we.
Discerning the mind of Christ—The purpose of our governance, which on the surface has many parallels to US political institutions, is not to balance political interests in the church, but to enable elected spiritual leaders, together in prayer, dialogue, and reflection on God’s Word, to best discern the mind of Christ.
For more information on the beliefs of our denomination, visit the PC (USA) website.