Lesson Content

Point of Origin

Important Point in History

Distinctive Beliefs

Distinctive Practices

Presbyterians Versus Scripture

Weak Points in the Presbyterian Faith

Review Questions




The Presbyterians

  Introduction: There are over 46 million people in the world with ties to Presbyterian and Reformed churches (Loetscher, 1987).  Reformed churches share essential beliefs with Presbyterians.  The major difference between the two is that Reformed churches typically have roots on the European continent, whereas Presbyterian churches have more of a Scottish-American flavor.  There are several different kinds of Presbyterian and Reformed churches; most have only minor differences between them.

  The unique form of church government Presbyterians use is responsible for their name.  "Presbyterian" is from the Greek word "presbuteros" which is translated "elder" in English versions of the New Testament.

  As A Handbook for Presbyterians states, "Presbyterians lay more stress on their Calvinism than do the people of any other church" (Adair et al., 1951, p. 38). Through Presbyterians, Calvin's thinking has had a mighty hand in the shaping of American life.  Some have even gone so far as to say that Calvin's ideas "provide the basic structure of American life" and that "John Calvin was the virtual founder of America" (Lingle, 1944, p. 28). From the early 1600's, Presbyterians have not only had an impact on religion in America, they have also directly influenced political and economic developments.  Can we, as Christians, afford not to understand this powerful spiritual and cultural force among us?


< Point of Origin >

   Any history of the Presbyterians must begin with John Calvin.  

   Calvin was born in Noyon, France, on July 10, 1509, a year after Martin Luther had been appointed as an instructor in the University in Wittenberg, Germany.  Calvin himself was well read and very highly educated, with university training in both formal logic and the law.  By 1533, he had studied the Bible in its original languages along with the early writings of Martin Luther and had joined the reformation movement.  Due to the threat of persecution, Calvin traveled under assumed names for several years.  In 1536, not yet thirty years old, he completed the first of several editions of a book that still defines Calvinism today, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. 

   Eventually, he settled in Geneva, Switzerland.  There, he created an organization that would become the pattern for Presbyterian and reformed churches all over the world.  It would also serve as a model for many democratic societies.  Calvin insisted there be four offices in the church in Geneva: elders, pastors, teachers and deacons.  "Each of these officers was to be chosen by the community to exercise authority over it in his particular area of responsibility" (Lingle, 1944, p. 25).  From the outset then, decisions in Presbyterian churches have been made by groups of elected representatives.  Calvin stressed that church government be allowed to operate independent from Geneva's civil government.  His form of church government included a commission called the Consistory to regulate personal conduct.  The Consistory was made up of elders and pastors.  It disciplined church members for all kinds of behavior deemed "un-Christian" (e. g. playing cards on Sunday, singing dirty songs, visiting taverns, etc.).

  At Geneva, Calvin also designed a public school system.  From primary schools to Universities, these church-run institutions emphasized Bible study.  Soon, Geneva became famous for the Protestant education available there.  Religious exiles came from all over to receive an education.  Many returned to their home countries to spread Presbyterian and Reformed thinking.  The most famous example of this is John Knox, who returned to Scotland in 1559 with the prayer, "Oh God, give me Scotland or I die!" (Lingle, 1944, p. 39).

  John Calvin died on May 27, 1564.  The views he expressed in The Institutes of the Christian Religion on the nature of the sovereignty of God and on church government, became the foundation points of the Presbyterian church.

 < Important Point in History >

  The Westminster Confession.  On July 1, 1643 an assembly of 121 ministers and 30 laymen was called together by the English Parliament at Westminster Abbey in London.   The goal of the assembly was to arrive at a scriptural statement of doctrine, church government, and worship for the church of England.  However, many of the members of the Westminster Assembly had strong Presbyterian leanings.  All of them were Calvinists.  The meetings continued for a number of years.  Several important documents were produced, the most important of which are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (Adair, et al., 1951, p. 33). These documents set forth the official doctrines of the Presbyterian church.  The Westminster Confession was modernized in 1967 at the 179th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church.

 < Distinctive Points of Presbyterian Belief >

1.  The Sovereignty of God.  Presbyterians emphasize God's controlling power over the world.  It is believed that God controls everything that happens.  The Westminster Confession states, "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass."

2.  Predestination. If God has predetermined everything that happens, He has already chosen who is going to be saved.  Some Presbyterians would also say (as the Westminster Confession does) that God has predetermined who will be lost.  Presbyterians agree that man appears to have a free will; they understand that this seems to contradict their idea of predestination.  But they say, "We are subjects of God's sovereign will whether we know it or not" (Lingle, 1944, p. 103).

3.  Total Depravity.  "All men are sinners, with every phase of life tainted by pride and selfishness, and consequently are utterly unable to save themselves" (Adair et al., 1951, p. 37).  Man's original sin "resulted in corruption of his nature that affected his whole being" so that, "by his own strength he is not able to convert himself" (Miller, 1956, pp. 60-61).

4. Unconditional Election. Unconditional election explains how predestination works. God does not choose whom He will save based on one's faith or good behavior.  He makes His choices according to His pleasure, before any one meets any conditions.

5.  Limited Atonement. The consequence of certain men being pre-selected for salvation is that Jesus' died only for those men.  The sacrifice of Christ effectively atones only for the sins of those whom God has already chosen.

6.  Irresistible Grace If God chooses a person to be saved, that person cannot refuse to accept his salvation.  God works, through the Holy Spirit, to bring that person to saving faith.

7.  Perseverance of the saints. This is simply "once saved, always saved."  Saints will "persevere" to the end and receive eternal salvation.  If God has unchangeably determined who will be saved, there is no power (not even God's) that can cause asaved one to be lost.

Note: To aid in remembering the preceding five beliefs, Presbyterians and non­Presbyterians alike have been taught the following acrostic on the word T-U-L-I-P:

8.  Composition of the church.  "The Church visible is composed of all those throughout the world who profess faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, together with their children" (Adair et al., 1951, p. 38).

9.  Baptism.  Baptism is not believed to be necessary for salvation.  It is merely a sign of regeneration.  Presbyterians believe that baptism may be administered by sprinkling or pouring, and that infants may be baptized.

<Unique Points of Presbyterian Practice>

 1. Church government. Presbyterian churches still follow a pattern of government similar to the one Calvin instituted in Geneva.  It is a representative form of church government which is on the middle ground between the bishop-rule of the Catholics and the one-man-one-vote system in most congregational denominations.  Each congregation has a minister or "teaching elder," ruling elders, and deacons.  The Minister and Elders together form the Session which is the governing body of the local church.  Churches join together to form regional Presbyteries of elected representatives, and each Presbytery then elects Commissioners to represent them in the Synod or General Assembly.  "The General Assembly performs for our Church functions similar to those which, in our national government, are performed by the Congress and the Supreme Court. The General Assembly considers and decides upon suggestions and recommendations made by the Presbyteries or by individual churches; it is the only body which may modify either the content or the statement of doctrine . . . it controls all the general activities of the church at large, such as missionary work . . ." (Adair et al., 1951, p. 29).

2.  Voting.  All church members are encouraged to vote for those they wish to represent them in the church government.  Regardless of age or sex, if one is a member of the church, voting is to be considered both a privilege and an obligation.

3.  Worship.  Although not followed strictly, the Directory of Worship which was formulated by the Westminster Assembly provides a basis for much of what Presbyterians do in their worship services.  In 1970, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopted a worship manual based upon the Directory of Worship entitled "The Worshipbook."  This manual is used on a voluntary basis. 

  Presbyterian ministers usually wear academic robes during the services.  Preaching, praying, giving and music (singing and playing) are included in most of the public services.  The two sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper) are offered as often as the Minister and Session deem wise.  At times, the congregation may participate together in reciting the "Lord's Prayer," the Creed, or some other common liturgy. 

4.  Sunday School.  Following Calvin's lead, religious education is emphasized in Presbyterian churches.  There is usually a Sunday School organization which is overseen by a Superintendent.  Development and adoption of curriculum materials is typically a high priority at all levels of church government.

5.  Community Involvement.  Presbyterian churches frequently have organizations within them which try to involve the membership in social or political activities.  Besides this, Presbyterians are also encouraged to join community civic organizations. 

   Listed below are a few examples of contradictions between statements of Presbyterian belief and statements of the Bible.  The Presbyterian selections are either quotes from Calvin or the Westminster documents, or paraphrases and elaborations of these by representative Presbyterian scholars themselves.

The Presbyterians

1.  Oath taking. "Oaths and vows are to be solemnly made and may properly be required by lawful authority and must be conscientiously taken..." (Miller, 1956, p. 63).

2.  Mode of Baptism.  "The outward element is water applied 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' The sacrament may be administered only by an  authorized minister of the gospel.  Immersion is not necessary, but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling of the water upon the person baptized."  (Miller, 1956, p. 67).

3.  Infant Baptism.  "Baptism is not limited to adults on the profession of their faith in Christ, but is to be given to infants one or both of whose parents are believers..." (Miller, 1956, p. 67).


4.  Necessity of Baptism. "Baptism is neither essential to salvation nor an evidence thereof, but the ordinance is not to be neglected" (Miller, 1956, p. 68).

5.  Frequency of the Lord's Supper. "The Lord's Supper, or the Communion, is to be celebrated as often as the minister and the session think wise, so as not to have so frequently that it loses its significance through familiarity, and yet often enough to provided the inspiration and spiritual growth which Christians need."  (Miller, 1956, p. 94).

6.  Universal foreordination.  "God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass" (Westminster Confession).



7.  God's election of the saved. "God has predestined and foreordained some men and angels out of his free grace and love without any foresight of faith in either of them, and others are foreordained to everlasting death and the number of either is so certain and definite that it cannot be increased or diminished" (Westminster Confession).

8.  Possibility of falling from grace. "Once saved, always saved" (Presbyterian Confession).  "The process of growth (toward perfection) which, once begun by God's grace, will not be undone, either by God or by any other power." (Lingle, 1944, p. 105).

The Bible

1.  Oath Taking. "But I say to you, do not swear at all..." "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your "No,' 'No.'  For whatever is more than these is of the evil one."  (Matthew 5:33a, 37).  "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29b).

2.  Mode of Baptism.  "Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there." (Jn. 3:23). "Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was  baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water..." (Mk. 1:9b-10a). "And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him" (Acts 8:38). "Buried with Him in baptism" (Col.2:12).

3.  Infant Baptism.  "And the eunuch said, 'See, here is water.  What hinders me from being baptized?'  Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart you may." (Acts 8:36b-37a).  "But when they believed...both men and women were baptized." (Acts 8:12).

4.  Necessity of baptism.   "He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16a).  "...baptism doth also now save us..." (I Peter 3:21). 

5.  Frequency of Lord's Supper.  "Now on the first day of the week when the disciples came together to break bread... (Acts 20:7). 



6.  Universal foreordination.  The Lord said of Judah, "They built the high places of Baal . . . to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire of Molech, which I did not command them, nor did it come into My mind that they should do this  abomination..." (Jeremiah 32:35) [Note: Not only did the Lord not foreordain this idolatrous practice, it never came into His mind that Judah would invent it!]

7.  God's election of the saved.  "...God shows no partiality.  But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him."  (Acts 10:34b-35).


8.  Possibility of falling from grace. "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace" (Gal. 5:4, cf. Hebrews 12:25; I Corinthians 9:27; 10:12).


 < Points of Weakness >

1.  Presbyterian church government isn't New Testament church government.  The Presbyterian Church takes its name and owes much of its uniqueness to a form of church government.  Unfortunately, many aspects of this government are not found in the Bible.  Where in the New Testament do we read about Synods, or General Assemblies composed of elected representatives whose aim it was to oversee the work of a vast number of local churches?  Even the special apostolic council of Acts 15 isn't a thirty-second cousin to such an arrangement.  Where is there a Session governing the local church?  Where does the Bible say to elect elders (they were always appointed, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5)?  A church that places such emphasis on having New Testament government, and then fails to have such a government, is self-condemned.

2.  Calvin is followed in all the wrong places.  Most Presbyterians are proud to be called Calvinists.  They share his thinking on many subjects that are not directly addressed in scripture, as well as on certain topics on which Calvin and the scriptures contradict one another (as was demonstrated in the Cross-points section above).
  However, in key places where Calvin had the truth, they refuse to follow him.  For instance, when Calvin organized the church worship service, "There was hearty congregational singing of Psalms, but no musical instruments, since they were thought to be reminiscent of the worldliness of medieval traditions" (Lingle, 1944, p. 24).  Today there is hearty piano playing and much else that Calvin would have thought to be reminiscent of medieval worldliness.  A religion that is proud that it follows a man's doctrine, and then refuses to follow it on certain points, is weak.


Review Questions on the Presbyterians

1. From where do the Presbyterians get their name?

2. What were the main views John Calvin held that served as foundation points for the development of the Presbyterian Church?

3. What is the Westminster Confession?

4. What does T-U-L-I-P stand for?

5. In your opinion, at what point does Presbyterian doctrine contradict the Scriptures most plainly?

6. What do you see as the biggest inner weakness of the Presbyterian system?

7. On what topic would you begin a Bible study with a Presbyterian?


References on the Presbyterians

Adair, E. G. et al.  (1951).  A handbook for Presbyterians.  Richmond, VA:  John Knox Press.

Busser, F.  (1987).  Calvin, John.  Collier's Encyclopedia, v 5.  NY:  Macmillan.

Jennings, A. (1973). Traditions of men versus the word of God.  Fort Worth, TX:  Star Bible Publications.

Lingle, W. L. & Kuykendall, J. W. (1944).  Presbyterians:  Their history and beliefs. Atlanta, GA:  John Knox Press.

Loetscher, L. A. (1987).  Presbyterians.  Collier's Encyclopedia, 19.  NY:  Macmillan.

Loetscher, L. A. (1978).  A brief history of the Presbyterians.  Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.

Mead, F. S. (1980).  Handbook of denominations in the United States.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Miller, P. H.  (1956).  Why I am a presbyterian.  NY:  Thomas Nelson & Sons.