Presbyterian churches are found in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The designation “Presbyterian” draws attention to leadership by ministers and elders, and is generally associated with theological seriousness, liturgical restraint, a proclivity for education, and a high ethical commitment.
Although Presbyterian and Reformed remain almost interchangeable descriptors for churches in the same ecclesiastical tradition, churches named Presbyterian are often associated with mission or migration from Britain and the Commonwealth or the United States and Canada. Reformed churches are also strong in America, and tend to be found in or originate from continental Europe — particularly the Netherlands, as well as Switzerland, France, Germany, and Hungary. Presbyterian churches are significant in South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, and Brazil. In Canada, Australia, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines, Presbyterians have formed union churches with other Protestants. In 1972 in England, and later in Scotland, the Presbyterian Church joined with Congregationalists to create the United Reformed Church.
Most of the characteristics of Presbyterian churches, including their Calvinist instincts, theological culture, and commitment to the “Christian good” of society are common to the Reformed tradition generally, although Reformed churches are likely to be more conservative theologically and liturgically. Presbyterian churches have been more open to the influence of revivalism and the ecumenical and Charismatic movements.
Church government involving the sharing of ecclesiastical power between ministers and elders originated in Calvin's Genevan ecclesiastical ordinances of 1541. The involvement of church elders in ecclesiastical discipline was part of his struggle to make the moral and religious correction of citizens a responsibility of the church rather than of the state. The characteristic Presbyterian system of a series of church courts from the local to the regional, provincial, and national (in Scotland session, presbytery, synod, and general assembly) was specified by the Second Book of Discipline (1578) but the first presbyteries as regional courts did not meet until 1581. International councils were also envisaged but were not realized until the inaugural meeting of the World Presbyterian Alliance in Edinburgh in July 1877.
Presbyteries were intended to do away with the need for bishops thought to be influenced by the crown, yet Presbyterian courts have their own temptations. Although leadership by annually elected moderators charged with the orderly facilitation of the voice of the people and discernment of the will of God has potential for the ownership of decisions reflected on practically, legally, and spiritually, the ideal is not always realized. The element of democracy in Presbyterian systems also allows church courts to empower those who adopt political techniques of power broking, character denigration, and populist decision making. Respect for minority views can be rare when a majority believes itself to be expressing the mind of God.
As Christians in the Reformed tradition, Presbyterians are linked to the Swiss reformers, particularly Zwingli and Calvin, and also in a complex way to Roman Catholicism as the faith they came to reject. Presbyterians also defined themselves over against Anglicans, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. Believing that it was dangerous and unnecessary to worship God in ways not prescribed by scripture, they demanded consistency with biblical command and precedent.
Reformed and Presbyterian theology, marked by the authority of the Bible over the church and the priority of the preached Word of God over the sacraments, is also found in Congregational, Baptist, and evangelical Anglican churches, particularly in Britain. Presbyterian polity has parallels in common corporate business structures and may also be found in some Pentecostal denominations and among Mormons.
In the 20th century, ecumenical involvement and theological scholarship brought a better appreciation of Catholic and Anabaptist traditions. This can be seen in a willingness to appropriate common liturgical texts and the post-Vatican II Catholic lectionary and to learn from Mennonite sensibilities about the impact of western cultures on Christian understanding. Traditional antipathies are more likely to persist where Catholics and Presbyterians are in political and economic conflict, or the clarity and energy of 16th century polemics empowers those marginalized by the wider tradition.
Despite their reluctance to give authority to courts higher than the local congregation, Congregational churches are also related to the Presbyterian Reformed tradition and church union has often brought the traditions together, if usually on Presbyterian terms. In England both Presbyterians and Congregationalists were nonconformist dissenters, and unlike in Scotland there is still a shared sense of being outside the establishment. The Savoy Declaration (1658) was adapted by English Congregationalists from the Westminster Confession (1647) — still the dominant confession of Presbyterian churches. English Baptists drew on both documents in the formulation of their own confession in 1689.
Presbyterians with a Scottish background tend to be more comfortable than Congregationalists in relating to governments and in taking responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of the entire population of a territorial parish whatever people's religion or lack of it. Congregationalists may be community facing in their mission but historically they formed gathered churches who sought to draw the community in, provided they met standards of faith, conversion, and discipleship. Nevertheless the similarities in actual congregational life, theological instincts, and cultural impact are considerable. In Victorian Britain the “nonconformist conscience” was a political force, and the legacy of its social idealism can be seen in the liberal and labour parties in Britain and the Commonwealth today.
In missions to Gaelic Highlanders and North American Indians the 18th century Church of Scotland developed a practice and philosophy of mission based on Bibles, teachers, and the use of English which was to carry into the missionary movement of the 19th century. Debates over the priority of civilization or evangelism in mission were usually seen as indicative of the lack of spirituality on one side of the church and its presence in the other, but can also be understood as a characteristically 18th century Reformed approach to the issue of mission — how was it to be done, what did it actually mean, and what results might be expected?
The London Missionary Society (1795) was supported by Congregationalists and English and Scottish Presbyterians, but became a Congregationalist mission for much of its history. Since 1977 as the Council for World Mission, it has developed as a sharing instrument among global partners relating to Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches around the world.
Presbyterian missionaries in the 19th century went to Africa, India, the Caribbean, and after 1842 China, as teachers, doctors, and evangelists, and occasionally as explorers, engineers, and founders of universities. They were also found among merchants, civil servants, and soldiers whose Christian commitment led them to support churches, Bible translation, and schools. With sufficient numbers presbyteries could be formed, sometimes with local converts deemed to have sufficient education to be considered for ordination. Presbyterian missionaries and teachers who found that an Enlightenment apologetic was inadequate thought through a variety of theologies of religion ranging from Christianity as a fulfillment of the ideals of other faiths, to a respect for the other and a sense of radical discontinuity between God's revelation through Jesus Christ and the myths of other faiths. In Korea the schema of self-directed evangelism drawn up by the China Presbyterian missionary John Nevius (1829-1893) became a significant ingredient in the growth of the Korean church under Japanese occupation and persecution.
Presbyterianism has been notable for the development of a culture marked by a strong sense of the sovereignty and providence of God and a desire for rational order in understanding God and his will for church, people, and society. The tensions inherent in situations where some suffer and others are blessed have helped fuel theological reflection on predestination, and an appreciation of the grace of God underlying all human experience.
To a remarkable degree it proved possible to translate its theology into a recognizable set of Christian values and an enduring structural framework. This is combined with a particular vision of the nature of God and of Christ as Lord over all things, a commitment to biblical literacy and biblical theology, a sense of the boundaries of acceptable worship, and a wide view of the political and social scope of Christian ethics.
This vision of a Christian faith stripped of unbiblical superstitions leading to an ordered Christian theology and an ordered Christian society has proved robust. The vision was to be realized by an educated ministry and a socially significant eldership sharing authority in church courts free of government interference. At home in the worlds of business, politics, and science, if frequently more middle class than upper or lower in ethos and membership, Presbyterians saw education and ministerial collegial responsibility as the safest routes to theological orthodoxy and certainty, godly social control and amelioration, and the transmission of the faith across generations and cultures. Like John Calvin who was all three, numbers of Presbyterians are teachers, philosophers, and lawyers.
Classic Presbyterianism used its affinity with science, business, and education to confront the challenges of modernity and the challenge of other faiths, with some success. A major question in a postmodern, multicultural, globalized interdependent world is whether the tradition can adjust with integrity to a situation where rationality is no longer the source of highest authority and multiple worldviews relativize monocultural theological systems, however profound they may be in their own context.
Presbyterianism as a system of church polity was an ingredient in enabling the Reformed theological vision to be embodied not only in churches of that tradition, but to be influential in whole societies, particularly Scotland, the Netherlands, and the United States of America. Some research has explored how experience in the administration of the affairs of the church equipped elders for success in business. In Asia, Presbyterianism and rule by elders has connected with the values of Confucianism. The congruence of Presbyterian governance and models of corporate decision making may have contributed to the success of Reformed Christianity, particularly in the 16th and 19th centuries.
Like the Reformed tradition as a whole, Presbyterians have developed systems of Christian education and discipline for nurturing distinctive personal and social lifestyles. The story of the Reformation in Scotland can be read as a clash of civilizations in which the naming and catechizing of children, the architecture of churches, the seriousness of sermons and the singing of psalms, the dress of the clergy, the availability of vernacular scriptures, and the pastoral visits of the eldership created a new model of what it was to be a Christian society. By the end of the 16th century it was not just the worship and theology that had changed, but the way of life. Enforced by the moral control of the elders, Presbyterian structures enabled Reformed theology to take root.
It is not necessary to accept the details or totality of Max Weber's 1905 thesis (published in English in 1930 as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) to see some connection between Calvinism and the growth of capitalism among Puritan and Presbyterian communities. In particular it is not disproved by the late development of the Scottish economy two centuries after the Reformation. Calvinists are critics and advocates of capitalism, and as some have noted, also its victims and beneficiaries. Perhaps the key point is Weber's observation that religious values have social and economic outcomes. Despite criticism, it remains in contention that Presbyterians are part of a theological tradition that is related to the dominant economic model of our age.
That the textbook of capitalism, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), is a product of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment is perhaps no surprise. It was an age when the leadership of the Church of Scotland supported developments in science and philosophy and the growth of empiricism. The Scottish Evangelical Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) wrote and taught political economy, used economic theory to advocate theories of church extension and poor relief, and sought to influence social policy. His system of parish visitation by elders and deacons developed through the “St. John's Experiment” in 1819 became part of the history of social casework in Britain. Until after the Disruption of 1843, the Church of Scotland controlled education and poor relief. Presbyterian campaigns in support of government legislation to reinforce sabbatarianism carried the assumption that Britain was a Christian country modeled on the people of Israel.
Influence on the political systems of post-Revolution America is not difficult to trace, including through John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, was a minister and theologian whose Calvinist convictions informed his reforms of colonial and domestic policy.
From 1707 to 2000, between the union with England and the devolution of a Scottish parliament, the Scottish General Assembly meeting annually in Edinburgh was the only significant representative forum in Scotland where issues of the day could be debated. Although 18th century parties in the Church of Scotland varied in their emphases, both were committed to the social role of the church in education and poor relief and never questioned that concern for society was a Christian responsibility. Although it has been noted that Chalmers' St. John's Experiment and social initiatives like parish savings banks and model housing were the vision of enthusiastic individuals more than of the church as a whole, yet it was the church and its teachings which gave ministers and people the ideas and the constituency that made their realization possible.
Church and nation debates in the reunited Church of Scotland after 1929 have been seen as highlights of serious analysis of Christian social responsibility. Despite secularization, General Assembly debates are still considered of interest to the Scottish media. Over time, however, there has been an important difference. At the Reformation Calvin and Knox restated a vision of a Christian society and preached and worked to realize it. Until late in the 20th century it was believed possible for a church to speak with one voice and present a Christian viewpoint. Today views are contested within the church as well as outside it, and there is nothing to compel the engagement of society with what the church has to say. That the church itself is a pluralist constituency is perhaps a result of the very education Presbyterianism so long sought to foster. The very success of its mission now requires a different approach.
Recently the development of “public theology” has drawn interest from Reformed scholars sensing a way by which it may be possible to earn the privilege of participation in policy formation and the exploration of the serious social and ethical issues of our time. Placing the task of public theology in the university rather than the church means that the commitment of the constituency of the church is to the identification of the issues and the values and principles to be brought to the task. The outcomes may be various. If the aim is no longer to tell the community what it ought to think and do, it is not unimportant that it realizes that its strategic contribution is now simply to have a voice in the ethical conversations of the day.
Whether its claims to be able to contribute to the whole of life in society are credible or not, Presbyterianism is still perceived and experienced as a way of life as well as a complex of beliefs and a system of organization. The Presbyterian project has not been without its difficulties. Rationality has compromised faith as well as clarified it. Committed Presbyterianism has led to Unitarianism as well as to a renewed Trinitarianism. The mysteries of faith and religious experience seldom admit to tidy theologizing. Education does not necessarily lead to faith, and there are spiritual needs which the tradition does not easily meet. However, the importance of Presbyterianism to the survival of Reformed Christianity may lie as much in its ability to contextualize its polity in a postmodern multicultural era, as it does in its ability to restate its theology.
SEE ALSO: Calvin, John; Christian Leadership; Separation of Church and State; Congregational Churches; Great Awakening; Knox, John; Kuyper, Abraham; Paton, John; Presbyteries; Reformed Churches; Scottish Christianity; Westminster Confession
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