What is a Presbyterian?

John P. Galbraith

What does it mean to be a Presbyterian? Why am I—and why are you—a Presbyterian? Does it matter whether or not we are Presbyterians rather than something else? There is confusion these days on such questions, and it is to try to clarify them that we have been asked to write this little article. Because it is "little" and the subject is big, there will be two problems: much of importance must be left unsaid and, as in all summaries, there will be ambiguities. Yet there is such blessing in what Presbyterians might be that we must try to share it.

To begin, then, let us think about "religion" for a few moments. And let us think of it as a store. Or, should you not like the sales implications of a religion store, then a giveaway center. In any case, there are shelves, and they display a variety of products. Their large labels show such names as Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Buddhist, Hare Krishna, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Ukranian Catholic, Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and the shelves and labels go on and on. Because of the labels it is sometimes difficult to see from the distance of the counter what is in the bottles, so the shopkeeper asks if you would like to see any more closely.

At this point we must begin our transition from metaphor to reality. In our limited space we shall not examine all the containers and their contents, for our assignment is to examine only one: Presbyterian. So you ask the shopkeeper if you may see that one, and he brings it to the counter. As you take it into your hands for a closer look, you are immediately struck by the obvious diversity of the contents—many, many different shapes, shades, textures and flavors. "My!" you exclaim, and then inquire, "Are there that many kinds of Presbyterians?" "There are, these days", he replies, with a sad tone in his voice. "Things are no longer the way they should be; and some of them do not really fit the label." That immediately arouses your interest, and you say, "Please tell me what they ought to be."

It seems that all the objects in the bottles were candies, for almost everyone has a sweet tooth. But tastes differ as to flavors, and the purpose of the variety was to try to satisfy as many "customers" as possible. The shopkeeper said that there were reasons for putting all those flavors together. There were such reasons as, "My parents were Presbyterians but I didn't like the original flavor so I diluted it with some other flavors (also I had to reduce the ingredients of the original), but kept the original name so as not to offend my parents."

There were other complaints against the original: too hard to chew, tastes change, some of my best friends thought that the flavor was awful, and others thought it silly to like that old flavor, or even that it costs too much. Of course some of the new flavors were not good for one's health—some were even downright poisonous—but that seemed to make no difference.

Well, then, what should be back of that Presbyterian label? There is a detailed statement of the faith of Presbyterians called the Westminster Confession of Faith (from Westminster Abbey in London where it was drawn up, not from a seminary of that name). Supplementing the Confession, and to be used primarily as teaching aids, are the Larger Catechism and Shorter Catechism. The Shorter Catechism lends itself to easy memorization and the acquiring of a short course in Christian theology and ethics. Additionally, Presbyterian churches have a statement of rules of Presbyterian government, as well as a statement of guidelines for our public worship of God.

The confusion that exists today is due to the fact that not only individuals but also whole denominations have substituted other standards—or allowed the Westminster standards to be ignored, while retaining the label. If modern laws of commerce were applied to churches, some would be prosecuted for misrepresentation of the product! It was, in fact, that misrepresentation by the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., as it is now called, that caused the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.

We wish to make three points to describe what Presbyterians are supposed to be, what is intended to be behind that "Presbyterian" label: its faith and life; its order (who rules it, and how); and the fruit of its faith, life and rule. The reader should be aware that this article does not seek to prove that Presbyterianism is biblical (other articles could do that); here we are simply stating what Presbyterianism is. Maybe you will want to make a little test of this to see how you line up, and then search the Scriptures.

Presbyterian faith and life.

We must limit ourselves to five subjects: Scripture, God, sin, grace, and law.


The very beginning of the Confession of Faith sets the tone for everything that follows in it as well as for all the other parts of the standards: the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, given by his inspiration, and are "the rule of faith and life." Inspired by God, who is incapable of error, the Scriptures, as given by him, are without error.

The first chapter of the Confession, entitled "Of Holy Scripture," is a tremendously helpful expression of the basis of the whole Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. Our personal lives, the life and structure of the church, and the very fabric of society are to be rooted in Scripture. It sets the standard for every sphere of life. There is one truth, and it is the measure of true faith and righteousness for all mankind in all nations. One can hardly comprehend the implications of such a view of Scripture, for it means that Scripture is the supreme authority for man's life on earth, for his preparation for the future, and for God's final judgment on every person's beliefs and actions.


It is from the Scriptures that mankind is to obtain his knowledge even of God—who he is and what he has done—for the world's greatest thinkers and philosophers could never know the true God truly by their own wisdom. God is very different from man. He is triune—three and yet one. He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in all that he is: his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

Out of this comes the great presbyterian emphasis on God's sovereignty—out of nothing he created the universe and everything in it, and he upholds and governs every part of that creation from the greatest to the least. From the elect believing in Christ unto salvation, to the providing of the food that feeds us, to a hair falling from our head. All that he does is done for his own glory; what he does for mankind—such as feeding him, choosing some to salvation before the world was even in existence, redeeming the chosen—he does not primarily for their benefit but to glorify himself in them. So then his people are his vice-regents: they are to bring into subjection to him every sphere of life that has been committed to their care. He is the sovereign of all spheres.


This mankind of whom we have spoken was created good by God. But the first man, Adam, fell out of that high estate into sin and became sinful. He served himself, not God. His descendants (with one exception) have shared that sinful nature, and unless God freely and solely out of grace gives a new heart to a person, that person is unable to know either God or himself truly, nor will he either see his need of salvation or be able to believe in Christ unto salvation. Mankind is sunk in sin, and God alone can pull him out of it.


God did not have to save anyone from sin, but he determined to do so. By his grace he established a covenant through which he sent Jesus Christ, his own Son, very God himself, to redeem those whom he had elected, whom he would save through faith who could not save themselves. He was that sole exception to the sinfulness of Adam's descendants, for he was not an ordinary descendant but was born of a virgin, conceived by God instead of man.

There is no other path to heaven, no other way to God. All others who claim to be a way are false Christs. Jesus alone is the Savior of sinners. He bore their sins, paid the penalty for them and put his own complete righteousness to their account. He atones for their sins by substituting his life for theirs. He did not leave it to them to conjure up their own faith—which they could not do because of their sinfulness—but gave them new hearts to believe.

That is salvation by grace: based solely on the work of Christ, transmitted through a faith that is not itself a work but the gift of God. He has also chosen to work his grace in families—to Abraham and his family, to us and our children. Redemption goes beyond families also; through them their world is affected, and one day God will even make a new heaven and new earth.


However, though "good" deeds are neither the ground nor the channel of salvation, they will follow salvation as night follows day. The believer is a new person, for he has been given a new heart. He now recognizes the truth, he loves the truth, he wants to do the truth, and he is able to do the truth (though not perfectly in this life). If we are redeemed, it is our duty to serve our Redeemer.

The measure of our service, the rule of our duty, the standard of morality and ethics, is summarized in the Ten Commandments and is expounded and explained throughout the rest of Scripture. Presbyterians are not antinomian (against law); this law of God, which is nothing less than an expression of his own holy nature, is what he commands us to obey.

And glory be to his name, he has put that law into the hearts of believers so that it becomes their delight! To them it is not a burden, it is not the way to life; it is the grateful, joyous expression of a life already given. Though it is our duty, we see it as a privilege that those do not have who do not have the life that is in Jesus. Nevertheless, the Christian never reaches perfection in this life; daily he sins, and daily he must recognize his sin and repent. Daily he must remind himself that God's covenant with him is a covenant of grace.

Presbyterian order

Who rules a Presbyterian church?

Who but the King of kings and Lord of lords, who is at the same time the Shepherd of his sheep—Jesus Christ himself—should rule the church that he purchased with his own blood? Who, but he! Is not that, after all, what "King," "Lord," "Shepherd" connote? King Jesus told his disciples that he would go away, but promised that he would not desert them. He would send his Holy Spirit. He would also appoint men to represent him. And so he did. At first there were disciples, then apostles. Then there were others whom the New Testament calls rulers or elders.

In the New Testament none of these elders had authority above other elders, and such authority today in the hierarchical churches such as Episcopal and Catholic is a later development for "practical" reasons. And of course the New Testament knows nothing of a "pope" which simply takes the bishop concept another step or two higher.

It is normal today, as in the New Testament, for there to be a group of elders in a Presbyterian congregation, and they are the rulers. Policy decisions are made by the elders, not by the congregation. They are men who should have been judged to be outstanding in spiritual gifts, understanding of Scripture and of proven leadership ability.

There are two kinds of elders: teaching elders (ministers), who are ordained to both teach and to rule, and ruling elders who are called and ordained to rule. (The other officers in the church are deacons, but theirs is not a "ruling" office.) In the New Testament as well as in the Old, only men were elders.

How a Presbyterian church is ruled

There are two aspects of the way in which the church is ruled. The first is that it is ruled by God's Word and Spirit. That is simply to say that the Word of God is both the constitution and bylaws of the church, and that the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus promised would lead us into all truth—enables us to understand and apply that truth to the church's life. We then come back to our beginning: the Scriptures are the only infallible rule for faith and life. The decisions of the church—its statements of faith and practice, its policies, its activities—must be subject to the rule of that Word. What has come to be called the "regulative principle" is that the church's rules must be either specifically prescribed in Scripture or derived from it.

The other aspect of how the church is ruled is the means by which the rule of the Word is applied: the elders (ruling and teaching elders together) make decisions, based on the Word, on three levels: congregation, presbytery and general assembly. In some larger denominations a "synod" is added between presbytery and general assembly. Such different levels were used in the New Testament for the purpose of wider counsel and higher authority. They also give expression to the oneness and unity of the church, and to the fact that the members of the Body of Christ are interdependent, not independent.

This rule of Christ by his Word and Spirit through undershepherds (as we may call the elders) not only avoids the excesses and evils of one-man arbitrary rule. It also provides the very positive benefit that a goodly number of men—an increasing number as you go from the congregation's session to presbytery and then to the general assembly—who have special gifts, experience and training may confer and pray together in the making of decisions. These are benefits not available in a congregation, and they help shape the foundations for the fruits that may be seen in the rising church as it matures and grows.

Fruits of "Presbyterianism"

Before going further we must repeat that for us "Presbyterianism" is not some man-made construction, another human "ism." For us it is only a convenient way, using the New Testament word for elder (presbuteras), to describe the form that Christ's church takes when the Scriptures are taken to be the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

Care of the flock

Jesus' touching analogy of his relationship to his people as sheep, to the church as his flock, lends itself to application to the relationship of elders to the congregation. Are you sick? There are men of prayer to visit you. Do the pressures of life confuse you? Elders can lead you into God's enlightening Word. What words should you hear from the pulpit? They can protect you from false teachings, and provide what is true and needful for the whole flock. Have you strayed from truth or right? The elders are your shepherds to correct you and turn you back to the path to the sheepfold. Are young inexperienced parents uncertain about the nurture of their little children in the ways of the Lord? Elders, whose children are grown, can help you. Elders are God's instruments to help the church be healthy and strong.

Reaching out

Can your congregation support a home missionary and finance a building program for it? Probably not. But probably your presbytery, and certainly the general assembly, can. Can your presbytery finance the large logistics of a foreign missionary? Probably not, but the general assembly is handling a number of them. Or how about finding writers in your congregation or presbytery, or even in a whole denomination, for the great variety of materials we ought to be studying and distributing? And how can you determine the qualifications of your emissaries and be sure that they proclaim the Word of God? You can't. But elders working together on the various levels, as required, can, and they do. Together, we do what we could not do alone.

Wider fellowship

Our children need a widening circle of friends who can help and encourage each other in their faith and service; youth programs in the presbytery provide what a single congregation can not. Adults need wider fellowship too; we are not the only Christians on earth, nor the only denomination that wants to be truly Presbyterian. The oneness of Christ's Body gives us the opportunity to seek local, national and international fellowship with others of like faith—to learn from one another and to lift our spiritual horizons. Our 300-years-ago forefathers recognized that they owed something to the whole Christian world, and that the Christian world owed something to them. None of us can or should stand alone. By being Presbyterians, not independents, we are saying that we won't even try to. We are saying that Christ purchased a worldwide church and that by his grace we shall express our oneness with it to the farthest limits that his Word allows.

We conclude with the hope on the one hand that some of our readers may have a new appreciation of the breadth and scope of a Presbyterian church, And on the other hand we hope that by raising questions in the minds of some, they will be moved to search the Scriptures. That is where the answers lie, and that is where our church wants to be.


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