Distinctives of Presbyterianism
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2012
Presbyterians are Fundamentally Distinct in their Beliefs
When people hear that someone is a “Presbyterian” they get various ideas about what that means. Their impressions depend upon their experience with the various denominations that use that name. The beliefs and practices of those calling themselves “Presbyterian” have broadened and changed over the decades and centuries.
In time, the main Presbyterian denominations drifted away from the biblical standards upon which they were founded. They united into larger bodies since they have been willing to incorporate secular and humanistic beliefs into their system, ideas which appeal to the progressive ideas of a large segment of our culture. There have also been those Presbyterian denominations which have held tenaciously to those original foundations which were carefully drawn from the Bible alone.
This is a summary of the distinctives of the Historic Presbyterian Faith. It is not intended to present all the biblical support for each point. To study into the evidences behind this general description it would be wise to study a careful analysis of the Westminster Confession of Faith. In depth lessons are provided in our Syllabus on Reformed Theology which is posted on this website as a free web resource of the Geneven Institute for Reformed Studies.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses (questions for debate) on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. He proposed no new doctrines, but challenged believers to weed out errors that had crept in, and to return to the teachings of the Apostolic church based only upon what is taught in Scripture.
When any idea is added to our beliefs which does not come from God’s word, the interpretation of the rest of Scripture is effected. Luther was disturbed by the corruption and deception that had resulted when teachings contrary to Scripture became accepted by the church. He saw hurting people being taught things that were not true, and which would not bring God’s peace and joy into their lives. This is why he took a bold stand which God used to shake the foundations of a corrupt society.
In 1536 at Geneva, John Calvin extended the principle of Reformation a bit further. Instead of just looking for errors in what we believe and practice, he set out to begin all over again. What could not be clearly learned from the Bible alone was not to be accepted as truth. He wanted everything about our lives to be based upon the principles, promises, and authority of God’s written word alone. Calvin published his findings in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The Westminster Assembly
On July 1, 1643 an assembly of godly scholars assembled at the call of the English Parliament at Westminster Abbey to begin the process of subjecting every doctrine of the church to the test of Scripture. The assembly began its actual work on July 12, 1643. It continued its work until it adjourned on February 22, 1649 after five and a half years of careful and prayerful deliberations. The result was the Westminster Confession of Faith and its two catechisms. These documents lay out the basic beliefs and practices of Presbyterians. Hundreds of years later Dr. John Murray called those statements, “the finest creedal formulations of the Christian Faith that the church of Christ has yet produced.”
The Most Important Principle of the Reformation
God’s word is the only reliable authority to teach us what is true, what is our duty, and what are the promises of God.
Since the most basic Reformed belief is that God’s word is preserved for us in the Bible alone, its method of study and the results of its study are unique. We call the Theology this method produces “Reformed” because it always seeks to be reshaping its beliefs and practices around the one perfect standard, the Bible.
Since God chose human language to communicate his truth to us, we must study the Bible’s words and grammar carefully. Reformed scholars place great importance upon learning the original biblical languages and the history behind each biblical book so that their teachings will be solidly grounded in what God has made known.
The Bible makes it possible to learn with confidence what God has said. Unclear passages need to be understood by cautiously comparing them with other passages where God has spoken more directly on each topic.
There is an important warning for us to remember: We need to be careful not to allow ideas to be introduced into our thinking and world-view which do not come from the Scriptures, but are from our own feelings, assumptions, or imaginations.
This is how we as Reformed Christians approach what God says about himself, about us, about salvation, about what belongs in worship, about how our church operates and is governed. This is what makes us fundamentally different.
One of the consequences of this approach is a very different view of our human nature. There is nothing in all of Scripture to support the idea that we on our own can do anything morally good or honoring to God. Adam represented us all in Eden by the covenant appointment of the Creator. When he sinned all who would be born from him by natural generation bore his guilt, were separated from fellowship with God, and were wholly inclined to live for their own glory and comfort rather than for the glory of the one who made them.
There is nothing humans are able to do in that fallen estate that would remove their guilt, change their nature, or restore them to fellowship with the God they offend by their motives and misdirected interests. Paul quotes from the Psalms as he summarized this uncomfortable but undeniable fact in Romans 3:10-12, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Today’s Reformed and Presbyterian churches are heirs of that principle.
The work of reformation is a continuing one. We must always be on guard against introducing ideas and practices which are not biblical. Though appealing to our fallen nature and appearing to be helpful in reaching our materialistic goals, unbiblical teachings lead us away from God’s ways, into dangerous and forbidden territories.
The church of Christ must always guard, love, and obey what God has spoken in the Bible. The on-going work of reformation is not one of coming up with innovations. It is the constant vigilance of comparing what we believe and do with the form God has given us in Scripture.
The Sovereignty of God
God is presented in his word as one who is really Sovereign over all of creation. Nothing controls or limits him. He is not changed by the actions, desires, or rebellion of his creatures.
Psalm 115:3 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Our Sovereign Lord even uses the rebellion of his creatures to accomplish his purposes. This does not excuse sin. Wickedness flows from the corrupted hearts of created individuals. God is not in us producing evil. Yet he has determined to employ even the hatred of fallen hearts to display and to accomplish his eternal plan. Peter explained this to the people at Pentecost when he said of Jesus …
Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. “
In that statement Peter reminds us that the death of Jesus was planned from the beginning as the way of redeeming God’s people. At the same time the hands that performed that wicked act are held morally responsible for what they willingly did.
The fundamental principles of the Reformed faith demand that we should not invent ideas to explain human responsibility beyond what God has revealed in his word. For example, to imply that the Sovereign election of only some to life is unfair, is to assume a principle that comes from our own fallen understanding of the world not from any text of the Bible.
God is Sovereign over all things, our salvation too. It is his grace, not our own choice, that determines who will be saved from judgment by the work of Christ. Both our choice and faith in Christ are evidences of the transforming work of God’s grace in us. They are not the cause of grace. That would contradict what the Bible tells us about human moral inability and about God’s unchangeableness and kingship over everything.
The teaching of Scripture is clear.
2 Timothy 1:9 (it is God), “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”
Speaking of those who receive Jesus Christ John 1:13 says, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
God’s Sovereignty is also seen in the success of what Jesus came to do in his death for sin. If he came intending to save all fallen humans, then he failed. But if he came to save only those given to him by the Father (John 6:37,44; 17:9), then he fully succeeded and accomplished the eternal plan of an unchanging God.
The Reformed principle of using the Bible alone roots out the humanistic idea that claims power for individuals to force God to shape or to change his plans according to what they desire. Grace must remain grace. If our work, choice, or decision determines our salvation, then grace is no longer grace. It becomes an artifact of human merit. That is absolutely incompatible with what the Scriptures teach.
The Biblical Concept of the Church
Our study of Scripture leads us to speak of the church in two different but not completely distinct senses. Together they help us understand the covenant community God founded by grace. The members of that community are to represent Christ’s kingship to those around them.
There is a sense in which the church is Invisible. Only God knows who are the true Christians. The Westminster Confession (25.1) says, the invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof… .”
The New Testament also speaks of a Visible church. The Westminster Confession (25.2) says, the visible church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God …”
Those redeemed by God’s grace know they need to be accountable to one another as well as to their Eternal Lord. They know that God requires them to follow the organizational structure he established for them. They should become active members in a local congregation, part of the Visible Church.
In the early years after the death of the Savior, local churches were established in each community. They did not assume they could know who was truly regenerated by grace. The invisible church remains invisible to us. The church that is visible to us is made up of those who profess to trust in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer and Lord, and who submit to Baptism as a sign and seal of God’s work upon their hearts.
The covenant community includes the children of believers. While those converted to Christianity must show evidence of saving faith to receive Baptism, their children are to be baptized as well, just as the children of believing Israelites received the sign and seal of the Covenant prior to the resurrection of Christ. Adults however were always required to profess a credible faith before receiving the sign of the Covenant in both eras. Just as the Old Testament provided for believer’s circumcision of those converted to Judaism, the New Testament provides for believer’s baptism when the lost turn to the Savior from a prior life of unbelief. No where in the New Testament does it say that from that time on children of Christians were no longer to be considered a part of the Covenant community, or that they had to wait to come as pagans later in life by profession of faith. Such a change would have raised great concern and confusion for parents who grew up under God’s promises to their children before the coming of the Savior, yet such a reversal and exclusion does not appear in any of the Scriptures written after the coming of our Savior.
Baptism does not save anyone, nor does it mean that everyone baptized is truly saved. Israel was God’s covenant people in the past, but among those who were called by that name were many who proved to be only superficially Israelites. The same is true today of both adults and children in the church. Some of those who are part of the church on earth are truly forgiven by grace. Some are only outwardly identified with the followers of Christ. They are not so in the eyes of God.
If it becomes evident that a member does not submit to the teachings and grace revealed to us in Scripture, that person should be counseled to turn to the Savior in faith with a credible repentance. If they will not come to Christ in this way, they should be removed from the roll of the church both to show the rebellious their need for the Savior, and to preserve the integrity of the church before the watching world. Those removed are not to be shunned or shamed. The goal is to see them restored by a true turning to Christ.
It is there in the local congregations that we make our faith and our Savior’s lordship most visible. We join together as a Christian community to worship, to learn, to encourage godliness in one another, and to carry out the all that Christ commissions his church to do.
As a church we provide opportunities for service in the name of Christ. It is our duty to encourage one another in helpful fellowship. Hebrews 10:24 says, “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” 1 Corinthians 12 details the need for all to work together sharing and respecting one another’s gifts in our personal ministries for Christ.
We should gather for worship in the way prescribed in Scripture. Out of love for God we want to keep his Sabbath holy and keep our worship centered upon God and his glory. Regular Sunday worship was the common practice of the church from its beginning. Hebrews 10:25, “not neglecting to meet together …”, Acts 20:7,”On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, …”
The church is also there to manage the stewardship of believers over the things God has given them. 1 Corinthians 16:2 “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
Charities, missions, and special needs agencies regularly ask for contributions. Many of them might appear sound and worthy of support. It’s hard for an individual believer to investigate to make sure the claims are true, and that it would be promoting things that are really good and true. No one can support every good cause. To help us make these choices, the church should offer sound direction.
First, we ought to support the Lord’s work in the local church. Then by our offerings beyond that we should generously give to Christ-honoring ministries approved and recommended by the officers of the church. This is the method God gives us in Scripture for financing worship, and providing for the legitimate needs of the church family, the community, and the world at large.
Another responsibility of the church is to guard the Sacraments. They are to watch over how they are administered, and who is admitted to them. All who partake of the Lord’s Supper must have truly repented and come to Christ as their Redeemer. They must also rightly understand what the Sacrament represents and the purpose for which the church gathers for that Sacrament (1 Corinthians 11:27-34).
The officers, qualified and ordained according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, are the only ones with God given authority to admit someone to, or to bar them from the Sacraments. Jesus made this clear in Matthew 16 and 18. It is not to be a personal decision. It is the “Lord’s Table,” not ours to govern by our own rules and practices. It is necessary to keep disobedient and unbelieving members from the Sacraments if they refuse to repent in true sorrow for their sins, and to turn to Christ for forgiveness and deliverance. Likewise, it is the officer’s responsibility to add believers to, and to remove members from the role of the church.
Together and individually we are told to provide a witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is our duty to confess him before others (Romans 10:9-10). It is through our words and example that the message of God’s grace in Christ is spread to the world. As members of a local church family we can do so much more to make a public testimony to the Lordship of Christ than we can as individuals. Together we can display the love, support, and care our Lord provides in his church.
The church is to provide leadership by biblically ordained officers. The Bible has a great deal to say about how a church ought to be organized and managed. It is within this structure of the local church that order is preserved.
Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. “
Without some kind of defined membership, the local church would be without the leadership described in these verses, and no one could obey these commandments of our Lord.
Membership in a local congregation is a serious matter. To live outside the bounds of a local church is to abandon New Testament Christianity by replacing God’s way with our own ways.
Biblically, there are only two offices in the church.
Elders are to teach and rule in Christ’s church.
From the earliest days when God’s people first began to worship as a community of families they were to be led by Elders. All through the periods of Judges, Kings, Priests, and Prophets the local communities had a council of Elders to teach and govern them.
The New Testament church did not change this. The church is set up to provide care for God’s flock. When Paul met with the Elders in the region of Ephesus he charged them with the duty of being shepherds to the people in their churches. Acts 20:28-31 indicates that the Elders must be on guard for themselves and for their flock. The Holy Spirit made them overseers by God’s authority. As shepherds of the flock of God they are to watch over those purchased by the work of the Savior. They are to be on the alert for deceivers.
The biblical letters of Timothy, Titus and Peter explain the details of the Elder’s job.
Deacons are to administer the material needs of the church.
Due to the increasing work load, seven men were chosen to care for the administration of the material needs of the people of the church in Acts 6:1-6. The Apostles had to be freed to devote themselves to the Elders’ work of prayer and teaching. These Deacons were to carry out the daily administrations which were previously the work of the Priests. With the end of the Levitical Priesthood which was completed at the Cross, these daily acts of mercy had fallen upon the overworked Elders. The Diaconate was instituted by God to implement this care under ordained officers who were themselves directed and overseen by the Elders.
All ordained officers must confess the true biblical faith.
When officers are ordained they are obligated to understand and to adhere sincerely to the views adopted by the church ordaining them. For example, the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order (23.5.2) follows historic Presbyterian and Reformed policy requiring that all officers “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” If they find themselves at odds with anything in those standards it is their duty before God to inform the court in which they have membership (the local Session or the Presbytery).
A Presbyterian church is not Episcopal.
An Episcopal church is ruled by Bishops. They are a class of ordained officers above the Elders of the local church. The word “Bishop” in the 1611 King James translation of the Bible represents the Greek word “episkopos” (επισκοπος) which means “overseer.” Where the word is used in the Bible, it clearly does not describe a different office. In the context it is describing one of the duties of the Elders. They are to oversee the spiritual needs and instruction of the church. The Episcopal type churches include the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and the Roman churches which add to that its Cardinals and Pope. The Episcopal churches that follow the Reformed understanding of Scripture see their Bishops as another class of Elders rather than as a separate office.
A Presbyterian church is not Congregational.
A congregational church is ruled by its members. They vote as a congregation to regulate all matters of the church’s business. Though they may vote to delegate some decisions to officers, the congregation remains responsible as a whole body, and therefore they rule the church as a socialist democracy. Most Baptist and Independent congregations follow some form of Congregational church government. There are some Baptist and Independent churches which follow the Reformed teachings respecting the rule of Elders.
A congregational church draws a sharp distinction between the Elders of the New Testament church, and how the same term was used regarding the Elders God had previously established over his people in the ages before the death of Christ. To them this is a dispensational change, though it is not documented in the Bible.
Most congregational churches see no true connectivity between churches. They do not generally recognize God’s authority represented in the officers of another church of like faith.
The New Testament never represents a congregation voting to determine the course of its business. The presumption that a church is ruled to serve the desires of the governed is a secular political theory which is contrary to the biblical order. Biblically, only the qualified, ordained Elders are to rule the church so that it serves the desires of God toward his people as revealed in his word. The proper focus is always Creator-centered in contrast with being creature-centered (Romans 1:25).
The Work and Duties of the Congregation
The members of the congregation ought to recognize God’s calling upon its officers. It is the duty of the members to compare the gifts of individuals with those explained in Scripture so that they can prayerfully concur in recognizing God’s call upon their Elders (both Pastors and Ruling Elders) and Deacons.
Modern law also grants the congregation as a corporation control over its own property. As they vote to buy or sell property as a corporation under the laws of an individual state, the congregation must remember that the laws of man cannot give the members authority that God has already given to the officers of his church. Therefore in all the business legally assigned to it by the state, the congregation must heed the spiritual instruction and advice of its duly ordained and installed leaders.
All the members of the congregation are to strive to find ways to lend their individual skills, interests, knowledge and energies to the service of Christ’s Kingdom. They should work to minister to one another’s needs, to encourage one another, to help the church in her various ministries. Ultimately their service is a testimony to Christ as the true head of the church. He calls his people to serve him under the rule of his written word administered by the officers called by him.
Communicant members of a church ought to publicly and before the officers solemnly vow and covenant to support the church in its worship and work to the best of their ability, and to submit themselves to the government and discipline of the church, and promise to study its purity and peace.
The “Higher Courts” of the Church.
Acts 15 tells us about a Council that was held at Jerusalem. The Elders including the Apostles gathered to deal with broad problems that faced the church at that time. The leaders took the advice of that council to the churches so that the disputes could be set aside.
In our era, Presbyterian denominations bring their Elders together to settle disputes or differences in understanding God’s word. We call such councils “higher courts” not because they have greater authority than the same Elders have when they serve in their local churches, but because they represent more Elders from more churches. Jointly they share their biblical knowledge and wisdom to come to decisions based upon a broader base than a single church has at its disposal. Since the same authority is held by the Elders of all united churches, we must heed the warnings and advice of such courts when they gather to warn and advise us as our God-appointed teachers and shepherds.
Presbyterians speak of three basic levels of church courts.
The Session or Consistory is the sitting together of the Elders of a local church to carry out its business and to oversee its members and ministries. The Session consists of both Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders.
The Teaching Elders are those who have a seminary level education in the teachings of the Bible. They have been called to a specific ministry to which they have been ordained after examination by the Presbytery. The Teaching Elders may serve as Pastors. Together, with equal authority, the Teaching and Ruling Elders have immediate responsibility for all the members under their care. They hear any cases of complaint or discipline of members before issues can be taken to a higher court (Matthew 18:17-20).
Sessions may admonish, suspend from the Sacraments, suspend from office, or remove members permanently from the Sacraments and from office. Members can respectfully appeal the Session’s decisions to Presbytery, then to the General Assembly if they are dissatisfied with the judgments rendered by the lower courts.
Since the responsibility of the work of the church falls upon its officers, it is usually wise when practical to have an Elder serving as an ex-officio member of every committee or agency both to advise the people and to effect communication with the Session. Committees may recommend actions to the Session, or carry out duties specifically assigned to them. They do not have biblical authority to adopt policies and programs on their own.
The Presbytery is the gathering of the Ruling and Teaching Elders in a given region as a more broad assembly to oversee the work of its churches. Teaching Elders are examined and ordained by the other Teaching Elders of their Presbytery and therefore are members of Presbytery, not of the church in which they minister. When cases are brought against Ministers, they should be brought to the Presbytery. Cases of discipline that have been decided by Sessions may be appealed for review to the Presbytery if the parties or other members of the church believe that an improper or unbiblical decision was made.
The General Assembly is the broadest assembly of Ruling and Teaching Elders. All member churches meet to conduct the business Christ has entrusted to their care. The Assembly can hear appeals of judgments made by Presbyteries if there is a question concerning their decisions. The members of all higher courts have the same authority they have as officers in their own local churches, no more, no less. Since the courts are assemblies of duly examined, ordained and installed Elders, all members are obligated to show them respect and submission when the Assembly agrees on particular issues brought before it.
The higher courts may not change or install new officers in a local church. They may remove a congregation from its role if it does not submit to the authority Christ has entrusted to the officers. This is the highest censure a higher court can, after due process, impose upon a lower court. The higher courts may not usurp the authority of lower courts, nor may they take over in areas of local authority without either direct consent, or the process of a proper trial.
As Presbyterians we believe that Hebrews 13:17 demands that the advice and rulings of Elders must be respected and honored as long as they are made within the bounds of Christ’s authority over his church. We also recognize our responsibility to care for our sister churches to the best of our ability when they need our help and encouragement.
Back to the Basic Principle
The basic Reformed Principle is that Scripture alone is our foundation in all matters of faith and practice. When that principle is applied to each area of our lives, unique principles and beliefs will emerge. There are many distinctives of Presbyterianism. This study has summarized a few of the more outstanding differences that exist between the churches of the Reformed heritage, and others which build upon a different foundation. If God’s word is alone our standard it will effect how we manage our marriages and raise our children. It will effect how we expect our communities to be governed. It will effect how we view schooling, our occupations, and the way we manage our money and property. Life is complex. We of the Reformed Faith pray that God will direct us and enable us as his people to keep bringing all things into conformity with his word. Our hope is that in all things Christ might be glorified.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)