Presbyterianism 101, or Spelling Presbyterian the Long Way
Exactly what does “Presbyterian” mean, anyway?
by the Rev. Dr. Ian Doescher (with thanks and gratitude for permission to reproduce it here)
There is a churchy joke that asks, “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Let’s form a subcommittee to discuss the light bulb and find out.” You’ll understand that joke if you keep reading (though you still may find it more geeky than funny). This is a little guide to what the Presbyterian Church (USA) is, what we believe, and how we are structured.
So, without further ado, Presbyterians are:
P: People of Faith: Presbyterians are first and foremost are people who believe in the movement of the Creator God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ and remains with us through the ongoing inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our belief in the trinitarian God guides our communal life together as we worship and seek to discern God’s will for our lives. A beautiful statement of what Presbyterians believe is found in our Brief Statement of Faith, which you can find by clicking here.
R: Reformed. Presbyterians locate themselves in a theological tradition that began over half a millennium ago. Most particularly, we count ourselves as the primary heirs of the theological tradition of John Calvin.
E: Elders, deacons and ministers. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, and Presbyterian churches recognize various officers that lead individual churches. All members are ministers in and to the world. Deacons have a special ministry to the sick and a special call to proclaim the gospel. Elders form the governing body of each church (called the Session) and are called to be spiritual leaders within the congregation. Pastors are called Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and provide the spiritual and administrative leadership of the church.
S: Spiritually connected to scripture. The Bible is recognized as authoritative for our tradition, and our faithful interpretation of the Bible -- which includes studying it, preaching about it, and wrestling with all it has to offer -- is recognized as a privilege and a duty for Presbyterians.
B: Baptized and fed in Christ. Presbyterians recognize two “sacraments” (a word taken from a Latin word that originally meant “mystery”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is the practice of cleansing a person with water as they are welcomed into the church, and can be done at any time during a person’s life. The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is the sacrament instituted by Jesus when he sat around the table with his disciples and friends on the night before he died, broke bread and drank wine with them, and asked them to continue this practice “in memory of me.”
Y: Young, middle aged and old. Presbyterians embrace diversity in many forms, and when you walk into a Presbyterian Church you are likely to find people of many different ages, political affiliations, opinions, life experiences, and more. Part of our Book of Order (which explains the Presbyterian system of government) includes specific instruction to take diversity into account at all times.
T: Thinkers and prayers. There is a strong intellectual tradition in the Presbyterian Church, and we recognize that God gave us the ability to think for a reason. We also take worship seriously (not to be confused with stodgily), as we seek to praise God with joy, spirit, and reverence.
E: Evangelists. We seek to create disciples of Jesus Christ in the world. You won’t often find Presbyterians going door-to-door or standing on street corners preaching, but yes, we love our church and we think you probably would, too. We understand the call to evangelism as a call to share the good news of Jesus’ liberating, justice-proclaiming, love-filled, and world-changing message with the world.
R: Reaching out constantly in mission to others. Working for, promoting and creating justice is understood as a mandate from Christ, and a responsibility of all Christians. This is laid out most clearly in the church’s Confession of 1967, which stresses racial, economic and gender justice as particular calls of the church. Our understanding of justice is worked out in various local, national and international mission programs that seek to give reparation to those who are oppressed, food to those who are hungry, drink to those who are thirsty, shelter to those who are homeless, comfort to those who mourn, and aid to those who are poorest among us.
I: In communion with other churches, and yet different. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a distinctive denomination with differences from other Christian churches. For instance, we tend to have less formal liturgy than Catholic churches, and recognize fewer sacraments. We are not led by bishops, as Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches are. However, we are also organized nationally, unlike many evangelical Christian churches which are non-denominational and stand alone. The Presbyterian Church (USA) also has a special relationship with three other denominations -- the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church of America, and the United Church of Christ -- which allows us to share pastors and combine churches when necessary.
A: Arranged by an equitable form of government. One important mark of the Presbyterianism is a democratic form of government in which commissioners are chosen from all branches of the church (whether within local congregations or at the national level) to make decisions. All voices and votes are equal in church voting processes. Hence the joke about light bulb changes by committee -- Presbyterians do not have bishops who make unilateral decisions. Instead, we recognize that God’s will is often discerned by the diverse voices of the community.
N: Nationally organized. Each church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a member of a Presbytery (a local governing body made up of numerous individual churches). Several presbyteries make up a Synod (a regional body of several presbyteries). And all of the synods in the United States make up the General Assembly, which is the national office of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Members from every presbytery meet together every two years to make decisions for the body as a whole.
So, that’s at least one take on how you spell Presbyterian the long way. If you still have questions about the Presbyterian Church (USA), feel free to read the PCUSA national church’s section on what it means to be Presbyterian: