Presbyterians 101

Understanding the Basics of PC(USA)

Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Our 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.

What is distinctive about Presbyterian Church? 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. Learn more

A little Presbyterian history. Portions of the Presbyterian church in the United States have separated from the main body, and some parts have reunited, several times. The greatest division occurred in 1861 during the American Civil War. The two branches created by that division were reunited in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), currently the largest Presbyterian group in this country. Learn more

Presbyterian theological beliefs. Some of the principles articulated by John Calvin remain at the core of Presbyterian beliefs. Among these are the sovereignty of God, the authority of the scripture, justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers. What they 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. Learn more

Our position on social issues. In the 1958 Statement of the PCUS, p. 537: The General Assembly:

Affirms its conviction that neither the Church as the body of Christ, nor Christians as individuals, can be neutral or indifferent toward evil in the world;
Affirms its responsibility to speak on social and moral issues for the encouragement and instruction of the Church and its members, seeking earnestly both to know the mind of Christ and to speak always in humility and love;
Reminds the churches that their duty is not only to encourage and train their members in daily obedience to God’s will, but corporately to reveal God’s grace in places of suffering and need, to resist the forces that tyrannize, and to support the forces that restore the dignity of all men as the children of God, for only so is the gospel most fully proclaimed. Learn more

Who are we Presbyterians? As far back as 1837 the General Assembly declared that the church, by its very nature, is a missionary society whose purpose is to share the love of God in Jesus Christ in word and deed and with all the world. Witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world, Presbyterians engage in mission activities, seek to alleviate hunger, foster self-development, respond to disasters, support mission works, preach the gospel, heal the sick and educate new generations for the future. In partnership with more than 150 churches and Christian organizations around the world, the missionary efforts of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) involve approximately 1,000 volunteers and compensated personnel. Learn more

Church Heritage, Theology, and Polity

The link below is to the Presbyterian Mission Agency website. The information provided is a general guide to facts about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Some of the things you will explore include Presbyterian history, theological beliefs, and social issues.


I. Scripture: Reformed and always reforming according to scripture
Every practice and belief of the church should be grounded in scripture. Nothing that cannot be demonstrated to be grounded in scripture can be regarded as binding upon the believer. This is summarized in the phase sola scriptura, “by scripture alone.”

II. Sovereignty of God: Who is in charge here?
“To speak of God’s sovereignty is to confess unequivocally that, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, God is in charge. . . . (It is) the doctrine that God unceasingly cares for the world, that all things are in God’s hands, and that God is leading the world to its appointed goal . . . (It) opposes the idea that all things happen by chance.” Faith Seeking Understanding

III. Election: When were you saved?
The key element of the Reformed Tradition is the focus on God’s saving action rather than human action. Salvation is not something we do at all. It is God who acts: it is God who saves through Jesus Christ.
This is a continual lifelong process, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “We are converted to God little-by-little, and by stages.” – John Calvin

IV. Priesthood of All Believers: We all have a calling

“The ‘priesthood of all believers’ … all Christians can act in ‘priestly’ ways-by praying to God directly, and not having to go through a church’s ‘priest’-and that all believers may teach the Christian faith to others on the basis of their own reading of the Scriptures. . . . Presbyterian theology recognized the truth of Luther’s perspectives. We go on, however, to see also that the church itself as the covenant community of God is a ‘chosen race, a royal priesthood.’ Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers

As ‘priests’ we are called to:
offer Jesus Christ to the world
offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’
pray for others
carry out the mission and ministries of the church


Presbyterians are not do-it-yourselfers. We believe that groups make better decisions than individuals. We make decisions as a community. We listen to each other, believing that God speaks in the community of the church.

“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Those things “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” are clear. (Westminster Confession) However, “in all controversies of religion” the church needs to use scholarly study to help us sort out our differences. That requires us all to be patient with each other and do our homework until we reach some consensus.

Diversity is good
Presbyterians believe that the best decisions are made when the broadest possible representation of our diversity participates. We believe in the equality of all people before God, and therefore our system represents a parity, an equality, of persons. There are always both elders and ministers qualified to vote in every governing body. We seek to have women as well as men represented. We encourage people of every race and ethnicity to participate.

Decently and in order
When it is time to make a decision, Presbyterians do not let the loudest voice win. Our system of government enables an orderly process of discerning the will of God in which everyone participates. [Robert’s Rules of Order]

Government by the book
The Bible
The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Book of Confessions (11 documents, dating from the 4th century to the late 20th century, that give us the main theological themes our ancestors in the faith found central in Scripture.)
The Book of Order (guidance for ordering our life as a community according to Scripture and the confessions. It sets out democratic principles of representative government and applies them to life in the church).

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