Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

 Describing Our Church

Being Presbyterian is about belonging to a church which seeks to be both contemporary and catholic, yet takes its beliefs, worship, organization and sense of what an ordinary Christian life looks like from the 16th century Reformation, especially in Geneva, Scotland and Holland. Our common traits have also developed and changed in different historical contexts. As Grace Presbytery in the USA put it:

  • Presbyterians are part of the Christian family that find themselves in the middle between independent Christian churches and Episcopal churches (ones with a single bishop).
  • Presbyterians have been around for 400 years, and were part of the Reformation movement that began in Germany, France, Switzerland, Ireland and Scotland.
  • We are a confessional church (we write statements of faith and compile them into a Book of Confessions). We are a constitutional church (we have a Book of Order with three sections: the Form of Government, the Directory for Worship, and the Rules of Discipline). We ordain ministers and lay people (called Elders or Deacons). And we are connected together in a national church that has several levels of governance.
  • Presbyterians emphasize the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of human beings that leads us to entrust governance to groups rather than individuals, the saving work of Jesus Christ and the active presence of the Holy Spirit in everyday life.

In terms of beliefs Presbyterians emphasize not only salvation by faith alone, but also the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ over the whole of life, and the authority of the Word of God in the Bible.

In terms of worship they value simplicity, congregational singing, and biblical preaching.

In terms of organisation, the government of the church is through elders and ministers and local, regional and national courts of the church where elders and ministers are of equal status.

The Christian life is about following God's call and accepting Christian discipline in family and society.

Being Presbyterian is also a very personal story about our own lives where we have come from, stories from foundational years and about key people in different times, places and circumstances, and the discovery of a shared history. There may be surprises when we find that experiences and reactions we thought were just us belong to others as well. We find we also need to think about who we are today and how the past continues to inform our present and future.

Presbyterians are also part of the catholic church in the sense of the church as a whole worldwide - Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Church of the East, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal and all the rest. There are questions we share with all Christians concerned for their identity. We also have differences arising from our own particular story.

Knowing who we are and how we do things around here is about understanding the present and planning for the future as well as about seeking guidance and inspiration from the past.

  • Who we are helps us know where we want to go.

  • How we do things around here helps us know how to work with difference and make decisions.

  • We need to address these things theologically as people who seek to know and follow Jesus Christ

  • We need to understand ourselves as people with a human history.

  • Our identity is social as well as personal.  Christianity is not only about "I believe therefore I am" but also about "I belong therefore I am."

How to describe a church tradition is not necessarily straightforward. For Presbyterians our Christian identity is about governance worship and discipline as well as about theology. Like anything else it is a matter of ideals and realities, and about differences in different contexts. It is frequently also about contested understandings of what it means to be Christian.

Knowing who we are and how we do things around here[1] is empowering - one reason why we can feel lost going into an unfamiliar church. For church leaders being able to describe Presbyterianism in a way people can recognise as fair is about understanding the present and planning for the future as well as about seeking guidance and inspiration from the past. Who we are helps us know where we want to go. How we do things around here helps us know how to work with difference and make decisions. We need to address these things theologically as people who seek to know and follow Jesus Christ; we also need to understand ourselves as people with a human history. Identity is social as well as personal.  Christianity is not only about "I believe therefore I am" but also about "I belong therefore I am."

Dimensions of our identity as a particular church within the wider Christian family include story, belief, spirituality and organisation. We can talk about these things in relation to our most obvious characteristics, in relation to things that are common to most Christians, but also by focus on our differences from others (for centuries the major agenda of theology and church history). We can talk about both our ideals, and our "warts and all" realities. When we compare ourselves to other parts of the Christian family we will avoid describing ourselves at our best with others at their worst. We need  straightforward ways of saying how things are normally, and to indicate the range of diversity that is fairly allowable within a particular tradition. We remember that the Bible describes as well as teaches and that the early church is a story of diversity as well as a story of things in common.[2]

Since we are a church we need to talk about our Worship, our Community Life (organisation, leadership) and our Mission. We will have our heroes and villains, though sometimes these change places. Since Presbyterianism is about leadership by elders as well as by ministers, we will want to try and do justice to lay leadership and the lives of "ordinary" Christians. Because all our histories have a male bias, we will want to recover the story of women in defining what Presbyterianism is about.

A lot depends on who we are talking to and what their questions and ideas are. It is often a good idea to start with personal experience of a particular congregation, and then put that in the context of churches regionally and nationally working together; to work from where things are now and where we are going, before talking about where we have come from.

  • The story relates to Presbyterians, Puritans and Congregationalists in Britain, the Commonwealth, and North America, and Reformed Churches in Europe, and churches which developed through migration and mission around the world particularly in Asia and Africa.
  • Common beliefs and assumptions derive from the Western and Reformation theological traditions. These have cultural as well as historical roots. Presbyterians have a lot in common with Lutherans and Anglicans, but some differences.
  • Distinctive beliefs, including emphases on the Word of God and the Sovereignty of God, are found in evangelical traditions in a range of denominations.
  • Presbyterianism is also defined by its organisation or "polity", its rule by lay as well as ordained, and by its culture, particularly its emphasis on the value of education.

Congregational Studies

Social history and cultural studies have not only influenced our understanding of church history they have also influenced how we we think about our congregations in the here and now and how we plan for change. They are also relevant in dealing with conflict and for understanding particular ministries.

A number of research projects focussing on congregational studies are based at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, USA. See their online research project,  Faith Communities Today. You may wish to ask how much the questions and material for North American churches apply to your situation, and try some of the surveys.

Nancy Ammerman's Studying Congregations, Abingdon, 1998, has chapters on Theology,  Ecology, Culture, Process  and Leadership as defining dimensions of a local church.

 

Carl Dudley and Nancy Ammerman, Congregations in Transition. A guide for analyzing, assessing and adapting in changing communities, Jossey-Bass, 2002, also talks about maps of place people and institution, and about buildings, leadership, resources, worship, and music. 

References and Links

Nancy T Ammerman, et al, eds., Studying Congregations. A new handbook, Abingdon, 1998.,

David Fergusson, "The Reformed Churches", in Paul Avis, ed. The Christian Church. An Introduction to the Major Traditions, SPCK, 2002, 18-48.

Dennis McEldowney, ed., Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840 -1990, Wellington: Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, 1990.

Mark Noll Presbyterianism, Presbyterian

Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand About Us

Presbyterian 101 (PCUSA)

Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order

John Roxborogh, Confessions in the Presbyterian Church


[1] Penny Edgell Becker, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 1-25.

[2] Arthur G Patzia, The Emergence of the Church. Context, Growth, Leadership and Worship, InterVarsity Press, 2001.