What Does It Mean to be a Presbyterian?

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Who are Presbyterians?

Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: we adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.

To be "Reformed" means several things. Historically, it means that we trace our roots to the Reformation, when John Calvin and others led the movement to reform the Church according to Scripture. Theologically, it means belief in the absolute sovereignty of God and that the highest good is God's glory. We affirm the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. This historical and theological heritage is often expressed in the "solas" of the Reformation: God's grace alone is the only way to be reconciled to God. Faith alone is the only means of receiving God's grace. Christ alone is the means of God's saving grace. Scripture alone is the only infallible authority for belief. And, God's glory alone is the ultimate purpose for the lives of women and men.

To be Presbyterian is to be governed according to the pattern of elders seen in the Old and New Testaments. We are ruled neither by bishops in a hierarchical model nor by members in a congregational model. Biblically qualified elders are chosen by the people and, together with ministers, exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large.

The body of Elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a Session. They are elected by the congregation. Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained. Through ordination they are officially set apart for service. They retain their ordination beyond their term in office. Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the Session. The Session is the smallest, most local governing body. The other governing bodies are Presbyteries, which are composed of several churches; Synods, which are composed of several Presbyteries; and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination.

Being Presbyterian also means being connected in mutual accountability and responsibility. Just as individual Christians are connected to one another as members of the body of Christ, so also individual congregations are connected under Christ as the great Head of the Church. What this means is that we do everything we can to respect and follow the shepherding of church Elders. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.” (Heb. 13:17) We do everything we can not to bring sin and judgment into the body of Christ. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) We do everything we can to make the church a harmonious, happy, safe and secure fellowship of believers. We seek to be a blessing to one another.

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)