What makes a church Presbyterian?

John Calvin

Some Particulars Of Presbyterians

I was raised Presbyterian, yet I struggled with my ex-denomination’s direction (PCUSA). Still, my personal theology is reformed, so I am often comfortable with the creedal and general statements of a “generic” Presbyterian church. The Presbyterian Church’s main position has historically been Calvinism; these days it trends toward general evangelical views, but there are some hold-outs like the Orthodox Presbyterians have been hold outs.

I’m going to try and get this website descriptions of all the mainline churches eventually… this is just the easiest to start with.

Honestly, if I can toot my own horn I find reformed theology far superior to others as regards adherence to the text and tradition; yet I am very uncomfortable with the ecclesial trends that seem to be leading Presbyterian denominations down the road to moral insolvency by the chipping-away at the distinctness of Presbyterian polity. 

Still, I also do not suffer the illusion of some of my more extreme Reformed colleges who think there are not issues we need to redress. The system itself has some age on it.

What follows, then, is a brief exposition of four aspects of my beliefs regarding the nature of, the governance, the sacraments of, and the mission of the Church in light of my personal thoughts and those of other reformed thinkers.

General Nature of the Church

Reformed Christians agree with many other traditions that the church is constituted and filled by the Holy Spirit corporately and is a physical representation of the Body of Christ. The Presbyterian Church sees itself as Christ’s body metaphorically, in that it submits to Jesus’ leadership in unity. It also believes that it is the body of Christ metaphysically because the Church acts for Jesus amongst the world as an embodiment of his will and gospel. Reformed Christians specifically hold that the church you see, warts and all, is the visible body of Christ, while true Christians past and present constitute the invisible body of the elect. While the visible church is a “believer church” in that its members confess Christ, the invisible church is seen as part of the new creation to be fully revealed only at Christ’s second coming.[1]

We believe in the Holy Spirit enough to almost sound like Pentecostals

Zwingli statue
Statue of the early reformer Zwingli. Image has no known restrictions

Affirming that the Holy Spirit works inwardly to transform believers and make one’s confession “true” (1 Cor. 12:3), my tradition maintains grace even precedes curiosity in Jesus.[2] The assertion that the Holy Spirit and grace must work prior to conversion allows my tradition to avoid “charismatic” speculation. The Christian life begins with the powerful intercession, and it is maintained only by the continued intercession of the Spirit.[3] One can never overstress that for us, just being Christian is a miracle (Luke 11:28).

Therefore, we do not see any believer as having more or less of the Spirit. There is no extra grace bestowed through our actions, such as confirmation, or an added experience, such as Spirit baptism. Because we are already supernaturally grafted into the same covenant, God held with Israel and all the elect (Rom. 11). As children of God, every prayer we utter is sanctified by the Spirit (Rom. 8:26), and is already open to his movement. Thus, the only distinction given ordinations is by the church for the church. It is further qualified by adding that any special authority attached to it is to the office, not the person.[4]  Reflecting on this general view that there is a “priesthood of all believers,” Presbyterian governance was formulated in a very democratic manner so that the Spirit speaking to every member is given full voice.

Presbyterian Polity

The Presbyterian system was conceived by taking the term bishop (Konine: presbyteros) in the biblical sense as an overseer in a local congregation. Working alongside this head elder or pastor is a session of elders who lead the church. They are elected out of the general church membership. Alongside the elders are the deacons who minister to the needs of the congregation. This format would seem very similar to a Congregationalist church, but the Presbyterian Church has a regional hierarchy made up of pastors and elders called a presbytery[5] and a final national assembly called the general assembly or G.A. Unresolved is the final issue of governing the international church, because often there are creedal or regional differences that make co-operation difficult.[6]  Another issue internationally is that authority in the national system filters representation from the G.A. down to the churches.

A sort bit on the solas & life in the congregation

Martin Bucer
Portrait of Martin Bucer, No Known Restrictions

Scripture is ideally the sole authority for reformed doctrine, as the movement was reactionary against the Roman Catholic system of episcopal authority. Therefore, the Presbyterian system was set up so that at each level there are creedal checks and balances and no authority is absolute; the G.A. can override and edit the creed to make it more scriptural. In turn, a session can override the preacher and therefore prevent a pastor from abusing their office.

Weak central authority is the both a virtue and fault in the Presbyterian system. There is such a cap on a pastor’s authority that their ability to lead is more dependent on popular consent than scriptural fidelity.  Although guaranteed freedom in preaching, an unpopular sermon can cost a pastor their job. A presbytery can override the session to try and correct such abuses, but the presbyteries merely reflect other popularly elected sessions.  Because those presbyteries form the GA and even have final authority to edit creedal statements, some Presbyterians have felt it is popularity not scripture that has recently arbitrated Presbyterian creed.[7]

The international Presbyterian community is split simply because the popular ideas among the laity in one country may not match those in another, so Presbyterians internationally can even be hostile towards each other. The only systematic way to resolve such impasses would be to strengthen the episcopal authority of the ordained leaders, yet that seems like saying we will save the lay people from themselves.  This stance, however, recalls Roman accusations that the reformers needed papal authority lest they loosen “a flood gate of iniquity.” Our tradition has always been to reject the papal authoritarian strand. Since Luther and Calvin, we have concluded that outward unity in church governance has never been worth circumventing Christian liberty.

Church Praxis and Mission

I believe that the church first and foremost is to guide people in prayer and worship. This includes helping people with devotional needs, spiritual formation, personal worship, theological education, and many other aspects of the Christian religious life while simultaneously helping them avoid superstition. Because so much of this relates to doctrine, the Church needs to make careful theological discourse and scholarship among its top priorities. Yet the ends of all scholarly work should be proper prayer and worship.

While the idea of born again was of lasting influence in evangelical circles, Lynnette Bond in her thesis about Calvinist George Whitfield relates that:

“The necessity and power of prayer was another area where Whitefield refused to compromise. He discerned that he could do nothing apart from communication with God.”[8]

Further, because Paul sees that prayer is in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26), the proper beginning for charismatic experiences, any mission, or revival begins with the prayer of devout Christians (James 5:16). Adoration and supplication are the fonts from which the institution later flows.

Some feel we don’t preach to save enough

George Whitefield preaching
George Whitefield preaching, no Known Restrictions

Differing from “evangelical” churches, my Protestant heritage has more often been focused on music, poetry, and the literary expressions of Christianity. Some of this seems more for our own internal use than anything else; additionally, our church stresses predestination as a good part of the Gospel and tends to focus on personal education. I’ve written a bit about predestination here.

Some have criticized my church for not being active enough in mission due to its theology or lazy denominationalism.

Yet, I feel this is statistically undue criticism. Whitefield led Wesley in the Great Revival, and beyond that John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, John Patton and a host of other famous missionaries have at least ascribed to the general reformed theological view of salvation and the church.[9]


I think a major part of the criticisms arises from how the Arminian (Reformed lingo for non-predestinationist) Wesleyan, Baptist “altar calls,” and Pentecostal reject our view of predestination and election doctrines.

I personally think the Arminian position is far more politically powerful and commonplace in America, and there is a correlating trend to see the church “reconciling God to humanity not humanity to God.”[10]

This comes from the Arminian belief that we must personally say “yes” to God. In practice these churches are very emotional in saying yes. They also highlight replying to altar calls, believer baptism, or ecstatic experiences to mark “true” conversion in believers’ lives. They desire a concrete moment to which they can consciously point and say “I said, ‘yes.’” Like all disciples, they struggle for fidelity to our Christian confession.

And here is a big difference

Reformed/ Presbyterian converts instead start with the conviction, “we are Christian because God wanted us to be,” not because they said yes to God.[11]

God says yes to us.

And even without an “altar call” or similar rite of passage (assuming a person is already baptized), new believers in the reformed position can still experience salvation in a way that it is marked in their lives.

Presbyterians have always stressed education, partially because this allows converts to build regular personal relationships as they deal with the scriptures together. This also draws people into the shared metanarrative of the scripture by insuring they properly and safely wrestle with it among its natural communal context.  We also like persons other than just the pastor to talk on Sunday, so we can engage the congregation with mission reports from foreign ministries and outreach programs and also make the church something beyond just the leader’s personality.

The thrust of our vision is that we really want to stress that the person is actually invited and called into a community. By the time a person joins the church, we hope it reflects a relationship established in community just like baptism.

Sacrament of Communion

The Feeding of the Five Thousand; Jesus Walking on the Water, 1386
The Feeding of the Five Thousand; Jesus Walking on the Water, 1386, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

I would like to believe in real presence sometimes, but I cannot justify it. I am uncomfortable with a single “is” that is possibly a metaphorical claim. My understanding of Paul in the oft-cited Corinthians passage considering the contexts is that he was speaking more to unity then metaphysical mysteries.[12]

Ralph P Martin wrote regarding the Eucharist in his book, The Worship of God, and stressed that neither a plain reading of “in remembrance of me” as offered by Zwingli nor the metaphysical mystery of Catholicism correctly encapsulated the communion meal’s intent. I agree with this sentiment and his development of it

At the Table not on it

Martin instead took a Hebrew perspective and concluded the presence of Christ is at the table not on it. Maintaining that the elements are signs, Martin stressed that changing the substantial category of the element would change them from signs to thing signified. Martin continued to agree at this point with a founder of my community, John Knox, that, “the presence of Christ” is most real at the table as the elements thereupon direct our gaze not to themselves but to the one who came in “flesh and blood.”[13]

For Many Anglicans, Reformed, and Presbyterians traditions the mystery of the Eucharist was that Jesus is one substance with us.  As I struggle with dyadic or triadic views of a person, I naturally favor whatever parts of my tradition’s holistic spiritual emphasis on the incarnation and humanity of Christ.

For more info on this point, I put out an article on John Calvin’s beliefs about communion

Sacrament of Baptism

In my view of baptism, I am pretty literalist in exegesis.

I see we are sprinkled with Jesus’ blood and thus cleansed of our sins ritually (1 Peter 1:2). Yet as it is a sacrament (sign) I think that it is not the actual act of baptising that does so; since, that would confuse the sign with the thing signified.

I hold that as far as salvation goes in baptism we die to death and are raised with Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-5). Yet, I believe there can be salvation for those who are not baptized,[14] yet I do not think one can spurn baptism because it does, in some way, bring about and “seals” the promise it signifies per passages like 1 Peter 1 and Romans 6.

At the very least, it is a public confession of our belief in Christ.

Special topic “Infant Baptism”

Speaking of belief…

I would like to focus specifically on beliefs about infant baptism in my tradition.

My views stem from the same connections Calvin saw between circumcision and baptism. Calvin saw that Abraham did not decide to create circumcision, God commanded it as a sign (Gen. 17:10, 11). Secondly, we can say for certain that circumcision was performed to babies as a sign of the old covenant.

I can also say with certainty that the family covenantal model was not fully undone by the New Testament “for the promise is to you and your children” (Acts 2:39). Paul even claimed a single believing parent is enough to make mixed marriages children “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14).

If baptism signifies what already is, in that the infant is already included in the Lord’s people or holy as in belonging to God, and believer baptism is also supposed to signify a faith that already “is,” then the argument is just a moot point, especially when related to my views above.

Not enough to convince me otherwise

Saint John Baptizing in the River Jordan, about 1630s
Saint John Baptizing in the River Jordan, about 1630s, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Over and above this, there is a marked silence in the New Testament about who should be baptized. Calvin saw this and states:

Nor is there anything plausible in the objection, that we nowhere read of even one infant having been baptized by the hands of the apostles… yet as they are not expressly excluded when mention is made of any baptized family (Acts 16:15, 32), what man of sense will argue from this that they were not baptized? If such kinds of argument were good, it would be necessary, in like manner, to interdict women from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were ever admitted to it in the days of the apostles[15]

Citing the above section XVI 8, Karkkainen claimed “Calvin clung to the practice of infant baptism despite his inability to find a basis for it in scripture.”[16]  Karkkainen even attacked Calvin saying he cited an unknown patristic source,[17]  but in truth Calvin was really stating we have no record against pedobaptism in patristic writings:

“…there is no writer, however ancient, who does not trace [pedobaptism]’s origin to the days of the apostles.” Calvin was placing the burden of proof on the Anabaptist and believer baptism camp.

And the last bit everyone wants to know – Election

As stated, I’ve delt with some common issues on this in another post about predestination sticking points.

I do really believe Jesus loves the church in a special way that he does not love the rest of humanity. Per Romans 9, Jacob is loved and Esau is hated. This is the sticky situation that Michael Horton comments on in his book, Putting Amazing Back into Grace:

Only the elect were known and loved by God before creation (Rom. 8.29). God “sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5.45), but “bring[s] about justice for his elect” (Luke 18.7 NASB)… A father might care about all children of the world, but that care does not even compare with his concern and love for his own children.[18]

Jesus has no pity on those he “never knew” regardless of their life’s achievements in his name (Matt. 7:23).

A tough word still needs to be said

Horton continues,

 But doesn’t this limit God’s love? On the contrary! This view intensifies God’s Love, by limiting it to only those who believe. That sure beats the indiscriminate, general benevolence we seem to be hearing much about today.[19]

John Calvin
Portrait of John Calvin, no known restrictions

To many, this seems mean, etc.

I would counter the converse is no comfort. If there are billions of people God loves and died for the sins of, yet these still die and go to Hell, what good does the love of God do for a person? What hope is there in the blood of Christ?

The thing to remember is the issue of peculiarity is not in the Reformed system to use as an exclusive. And any such charge is obtuse. These say Reformed thinkers have no reason to preach because salvation is not really offered to all.

I counter that people wouldn’t say George Whitfield, preaching we must all “be Born again” was ineffective or dis-ingenuine. People still use his catch-phrase today. But I think the issue is deeper than something that kind of answer would satisfy.

It still doesn’t stop our preaching as many charge

Most people challenging the idea of Limited Atonement (as it is formally called) come from a position that promotes mission as primary. They want the nets cast far and wide, which is laudable. Yet, the issue remains what do you do after you have brought someone to Jesus.

Reformed thinkers and Presbyterians take holiness and the people of the Church as primary. This doctrine exists to tell people already in the church that God really loves THEM in particular. Think of when a teacher says, “Everyone is special.” Now contrast that to when a coach says, “You are the special.” These promote people to take God as seriously involved in their lives and promote the goal of sanctification.

I think Whitfield is proof of a baseline agreement though, because it was out of a life dedicated to God that he became a force for mission so powerful “Born Again” is a political position!

One Final Bit, the Westminster Confession

I forgot to mention:

The Presbyterian Church is a “creedal church,” meaning that in response to the Catholic church which historically did not put forth any official statements of faith this type of Church insist on a stated creed. For Presbyterians, this creed is always a version of the Westminster Creed. Personally, I find it a tad dated, and as I’ve written in the link following, I think the classic Westminster confession a betrays lasting scholastic influence by promoting immortality of the soul/ platonic views of humanity too strongly.  

The issue is, most conservatives have traditionally bemoaned that the liberal side of the church has injected manifold edits into the poor creed. So one might come across “subscription” groups that hold that only the original formulation is valid; moreover, one is only orthodox if they elevate the creed to a decider of doctrine. These traditionally represent the “Jerks” that give Calvinist a colorful reputation.

I just steer clear of interaction with such, even if I admire some of thier work from affar. Yet the base assumption is flawed.

In a way such a view violates “sola scriptora.” Not mincing words… it makes puritans’ views as much sacred tradition as medieval saints are for Rome. I have little time for such Romanticism. Still, It got me kicked of a few forums though, so my warning is steer clear of such “neo-Calvinist” that can’t contextualize their theology to account for 300 years of further study! 

Academic freedom is a reformed value… 


Most of my ecclesiology grows from the knowledge that if the church is unsure of itself, it cannot hope to get the logs out of its eye. And it then will not be of any help others.

My traditions sacramental views, polity, self-understanding, and even the conflicts of the Presbyterian Church stem from an honest attempt to honor the responsibilities that come from such a blessing.  What remains then, is for us to be true to our distinctive. We have a unique voice, and one that the world is slowly hearing fade out.

I do not think anyone truly “Born Again” would be better off for that.

Sources Citied

195th General Assembly (1983) Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government, url: http://www.pcusa.org/get/resources/resource/11133/ last accessed May 15, 2012

Bond, Lynnette. The Spiritual Discernment of George Whitefield, thesis,  Reformed Theological Seminary 2008

Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion Hatfield: London 1599 url: http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/books/institutes/  last accessed 5/17/2012

Gorman, Michael.Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 2004

Horton, Michael. Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the GospelBaker: Grand Rapids 1989

Kärkkäinen, V-M. An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives InterVarsity: Downers Groove 2002

Martin, Ralph. he Worship of God: Some Theological, Pastoral, and Practical Ref , Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 1982

Niesel, Wilhelm. The Theology Of Calvin – Scholar’s Choice Edition, translated by Harold Knight, Westminster: Philadelphia 1956

Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God Tyndale: Carol Stream 1986


[1] Class lectures

[2] R.C. Sproul Chosen By God (Tyndale: Carol Stream 1986) ch V.

[3] Ibid pp 87-9

[4] Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, translated by Harold Knight (Westminster: Philadelphia 1956) 202-3

[5] these can be further arranged into regional Synods

[6] 195th General Assembly (1983) Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government url: http://www.pcusa.org/get/resources/resource/11133/ last accessed May 15, 2012 – This entire section owes heavily to this work & my 1st hand experience

[7] Ibid

[8] Lynnette Bond The Spiritual Discernment of George Whitefield (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2008) pp. 33

[9] Michael Horton Putting amazing back in grace (Baker: Grand rapids 1989)

[10] Ibid. pp 68

[11] Ibid. pp 59

[12] Michael Gorman Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters(Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 2004) pp 268-9

[13] Ralph P. Martin The Worship of God: Some Theological, Pastoral, and Practical Ref (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids  1982) pp. 62

[14] I think of the thief on the cross and Luther points out Mark 16:16 only condemns unbelief explicitly

[15] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion (Hatfield: London 1599)  XVI, 8 url: http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/books/institutes/  last accessed 5/17/2012

[16]Veli-Mati Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (InterVarsity: Downers Groove 2002) pp. 55 Italics mine

[17] Ibid. pp 56 in the footnotes

[18]Michael Horton Putting amazing back in grace (Baker: Grand rapids 1989) pp 95-6

[19] Ibid.  pp96

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

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