Presbyterian refers to several Protestant denominations in the United States of America. All of these denominations trace their history back to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Two distinctions of Presbyterians are (1) they follow a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and (2) their form of polity, or church government, stresses representational leadership of both ministers and church members. Much of what Presbyterians believe is based on the writings of the French lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564), who trained as a priest in the Catholic Church. After leaving the Catholic Church, Calvin served as a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, in exile. His writings crystallized much of the Reformed thinking that preceded him. From Geneva, 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 Presbytery in America was organized in Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was also held in Philadelphia in 1789. That Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
DIFFERENT PRESBYTERIAN DENOMINATIONS
The Presbyterian Church in the United States has changed several times. Parts of the church have split and parts have reunited over the years. The largest division occurred in 1861 during the Civil War. The two branches established by that division were reunited in 1983 to create the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), currently the largest Presbyterian group in the country with national offices in Louisville, Kentucky. Other Presbyterian churches in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
Reformed theology emphasizes God's supremacy over everything and that humanity's main purpose in life is to bring glory to and enjoy God forever. Central to this tradition is the recognition of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Along with recognizing the sovereignty of God, Presbyterians also emphasize the authority of the Bible, justification by grace through faith, and the priesthood of all believers. This means that God is the supreme authority throughout the universe.
Humankind's knowledge of God and God's purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is taught in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ. Salvation (justification) through Jesus is God's generous gift to humankind and not the result of humanity's accomplishments. The priesthood of believers refers to the belief that all people, ministers and lay people alike, are to share God's love with the whole world. That is also why the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is governed at all levels by a combination of clergy and laity, men and women alike.
Calvin developed the Presbyterian pattern of church government, which puts governing authority primarily in elected laypersons known as elders. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder. Elders are elected by the people to lead and serve the congregation. Together with ministers, they exercise leadership government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of their congregation as well as the church at large (Book of Order, G-10.0102). When elected, commissioners to higher governing bodies, or elders, participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office (Book of Order G-6.0302).
The body of elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a session. Elders are elected by the members of a congregation and serve to represent the other members of the congregation. Their primary role is to seek to discover and represent the will of Christ as they govern. Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained. Through ordination they are officially set apart for service. Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the session. Session is the smallest, most local governing body. The other governing bodies are presbyteries, which are composed of several churches in a geographic region; synods, which are composed of several presbyteries; and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination. Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters.
PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.)
As far back as 1837 the Presbyterian Church declared that it was a missionary society whose purpose is to share the love of God in Jesus Christ in word and deed and with the entire world. Still, to this day, the church aims to be a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world, engage in mission activities, seek to alleviate hunger, foster selfdevelopment, respond to disasters, preach the gospel, heal the sick, and educate new generations for the future. In partnership with more than 150 other 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. The church has a membership of more than 2.5 million in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Currently there are 11,260 congregations, 20,940 ordained ministers, 1,255 candidates for ministry, and 108,532 elders.
Young people are an important part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Youth usually are confirmed into the church during their 8th or 9th grades when they become members of their congregation. Sunday school is offered to children and adolescents to provide young people the opportunity to learn Bible stories and Christian traditions in an age-appropriate manner. Most Presbyterian churches have youth ministry programs that focus on nurturing the spiritual lives of junior and senior high school students. These programs usually meet one evening a week and offer teaching, discipleship, worship, and social activities. Youth ministry programs also offer periodic retreats, camping, service, and mission opportunities.
Presbyterian Youth Connection is a national Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) initiative that seeks to provide young people (ages 12 to 18) with an identity as believers in Jesus Christ, a sense of belonging in the church, and skills as leaders. The Presbyterian Youth Connection offers resources and events for youth and youth leaders at the local level. The goals of the initiative are to nurture young people to be disciples of Jesus Christ; to respond to the needs and the interests of young people; to work together, youth and adults, in partnership; to connect youth with the whole church, community, and the world; and to include all young people, reaching out and inviting them to belong to the community of faith.