Presbyterian Church (USA)
Presbyterians are distinctive in two major ways: they adhere to a pattern of religious thought known as Reformed theology (see below) and a form of government that stresses the active, representational leadership of both ministers and church members.
Theology is a way of thinking about God and God's relation to the world. Reformed theology evolved during the 16th century religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation. It emphasizes God's supremacy over everything and humanity's chief purpose as glorifying and enjoying God forever. In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (USA) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.
John Calvin was the major contributor to Reformed theology. He left the Roman Catholic Church of the day because of serious disagreements over theology, after training for the priesthood and in the law. In exile in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed the presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected laypersons known as elders. The word presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.
Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large. The Scot, John Knox, added to Calvin's theology the Presbyterian form of government that ties churches together into a denomination. Although structured into layers, Presbyteries, Synods, and a General Assembly, the idea of party between Elders and ministers remains. When Elders are elected commissioners to higher governing bodies, they participate and vote with the same authority as ministers.
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. Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters.
The Reformed Tradition
In western Europe, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church remained largely unquestioned until the Renaissance in the 15th century. The invention of the printing press in Germany around 1440 made it possible for common people to have access to printed materials including the Bible. This, in turn, enabled many to discover religious thinkers who had begun to question the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. One such figure, Martin Luther, a German priest and professor, started the movement known as the Protestant Reformation when he posted a list of 95 grievances against the Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. Some 20 years later, a French/Swiss theologian, John Calvin, further refined the reformers' new way of thinking about the nature of God and God's relationship with humanity in what came to be known as Reformed theology. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland, and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland and England.
Elements of Reformed Worship
PRAISE: As God's people gather for worship, we focus our attention on God and away from ourselves through Scripture or song.
CONFESSION:Worshipers today, like the prophet Isaiah, cannot come into the presence of our holy God without realizing our own sinfulness. When we confess, we do so for ourselves and for the church as a whole.
ASSURANCE: Scripture calls us to confession; Scripture also assures us of God's inestimable love.
ILLUMINATION: Before attempting to listen for the Word of God, we pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit to open our ears to hear and our hearts to receive what God is saying to us through Scripture and interpretation.
WORD: The Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, comes from the pages of Scripture. Interpretation of God's Word comes through Spirit-inspired speech, drama, music, dance, or other forms of communication.
PRAYER: Part of our response to the living Word is prayer, possible in many varied forms and formats.
THANKSGIVING: Our greatest rejoicing can come only around the table of the Lord as we share in communion with Christ and with God's people. When that is not possible, the offering of ourselves and our tangible gifts can be a beginning response to the Word.
TRUE WORSHIP: When the liturgy of the church is concluded, our true worship begins. Everything we know about God teaches us that true worship is an intentional living of each day in prayer and mission, in our home, our work, our study, our recreation: glorifying and enjoying God forever. The entire world is sacred, not just a sanctuary.