What Does Presbyterian Mean?


The Presbyterian Church was an offspring of a religious movement called the Reformation, which occurred in the 1500s. Two of the leading reformers of the time, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) had no intention of forming a new church; at least not initially. Their desire was to reform their present-day Catholic Church, to make corrections, and to set it more in line with the traditions and teachings of Scripture and the early church. The Reformers became known as Protestants because their requests for change sounded like protests.

The Presbyterian church is one of several churches that trace its origins to the Reformation. While the Lutherans were greatly influenced by the teachings of Luther, Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition were greatly influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. Presbyterians get their name from the Greek word presbuteros, which means elder. The term refers to the system we see in the New Testament of choosing leaders from among the wisest members of the church. A prominent doctrine of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Reformed churches organized themselves in ways that gave more power to the congregation. They designed a system of representative government that greatly influenced the writers of the United States Constitution as they instituted the representative system of our national government.

In our church today are teaching elders (the pastors) and ruling elders (those from the congregation who serve on the Session, or governing board). Pastors, therefore, are teaching elders but not ruling elders. Elders are ordained for life. They serve Communion and help govern the church. They will serve one or more three-year terms on the Session.

The French organized the first congregation in 1555, and the French Huguenots were some of the first Presbyterians to reach America, followed closely by the English, Dutch, German, Irish and Scots. In 1706 the first American presbytery was formed in Philadelphia.

In the United States, just as the country did, the church knew westward expansion. Sadly, the church was divided during the Civil War into a northern and a southern group. This split was repaired in the 1980s when the northern and southern churches reunited forming The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).