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What is "Presbyterian"?
January 7, 2013

What is "Presbyterian"?

The Presbyterian Church traces its ancestry back to Scotland and John Knox.  Knox studied under John Calvin in Geneva (which is why we are reformed) but he returned to Scotland and started the Presbyterianism.

“Presbyterian” has a Biblical root from the word used for “elder” or “shepherd” (“presbuteros”).  So in its simplest sense, the term Presbyterian describes the leadership structure of the church or its form of government. Christian churches follow one of three basic forms of church government:

  • Hierarchical (e.g. Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist)
  • Congregational/Independent (e.g. Baptists)
  • Presbyterian (e.g. Presbyterian/Christian Reformed)

Hierarchical churches are ruled by a hierarchy of bishops. For example, in Catholicism the pope is the Bishop of Rome and they feel that there is historical precedent for him to be the head of the church.  Authority flows down from him.  In Congregational churches the members of a local congregation is the final decision making body or court of appeal.  For example, in a Baptist church the entire congregation must gather and vote on various matters.

In Presbyterianism the congregation is represented by the leaders it chooses to govern/shepherd them. They are called Elders. (Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17,28Philippians 1:11 Tim. 4:141 Tim. 5:17Titus 1:51 Peter 5:1,2James 5:14). The congregation then submits, in the Lord, to those they have chosen (Hebrews 13:17). Those whom the congregation chooses to shepherd them are accountable to a system of higher courts (Presbytery and General Assembly; see Acts 15). Notice that two key principles of Presbyterianism are representation and accountability - much like the American system of government.

In our denomination (Presbyterian Church in America, PCA), only men can serve as elders (1 Timothy 2:9-3:7). Every congregation is composed of a plurality of elders and these elders form a leadership team, called a Session.


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