The name “Presbyterian” applies to a diverse group of churches that adhere in some degree to the teachings of John Calvin and John Knox and practice a presbyterian form of church government led by representative elders (presbyters). The polity of Presbyterian churches calls for local congregations to elect a board called the session or consistory. Congregations also elect presbyters who form a presbytery to govern regional groups of local churches. Presbyteries are then overseen by synods, and all the synods together form the General Assembly.
Within the broad category of Presbyterianism, there are some churches that can be considered conservative or fundamental, and some that would be called liberal or progressive. On the conservative side is the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), with about 335,000 members in 1,700 congregations; on the liberal side is the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), with about 2 million members in 10,000 congregations. Several smaller groups of Presbyterians have formed over the years and cover the spectrum of beliefs and practices.
The Presbyterian Church was first organized in Scotland under the leadership of the Reformer John Knox. The Church of Scotland was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, even though it maintained an attitude of independence. John Knox was a priest in the Church of Scotland and was fed up with the abuses he saw in the Catholic leadership. Knox was exiled to England after his involvement in the murder of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. While in England, he was licensed to preach in the Church of England and was instrumental in reforming the Book of Common Prayer. When Mary Tudor ascended the English throne and started her bloody persecutions of Protestants, Knox fled to the Continent, where he met John Calvin and began to study Reformed theology. In 1559, Knox returned to Scotland and became a vocal proponent of Reformed theology and the concept of presbyterian leadership in the church. A number of Scottish lords had already been promoting religious reform, and they gladly supported John Knox’s teaching. Under Knox’s leadership, these “Lords of the Congregation” wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith in 1560. This confession ended papal rule in Scotland and outlawed the Mass. The Scottish Confession remained the primary doctrinal guide for the Church of Scotland until the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647.
In the early 1600s, King James I sent many Scottish Presbyterians to Northern Ireland in an effort to displace the Irish and establish British control there. By the early 1700s, these Scotsmen were ready to migrate to America because of the economic trials they faced in Ireland. The first presbytery in America was formed in 1706 in Philadelphia, and Presbyterianism spread rapidly in the Colonies. One distinctive of the Presbyterian Church has been their emphasis on education—Princeton University was founded as a Presbyterian school. In the Colonial period, the Presbyterian Church required advanced theological training for its ministers, whereas the Methodists and Baptists often allowed untrained men who were zealous for the gospel to carry on ministry. The result was fewer Presbyterian frontier preachers but more theologians and seminary teachers. Even today, more theologians come from Presbyterian or Reformed backgrounds than from other groups, and Presbyterian theologians have made significant contributions to issues concerning the church.
Throughout the history of the Presbyterian Church, there have been splits and mergers based on theological and practical issues. The Great Awakening, which began in Presbyterian churches during the Colonial period, prompted a disagreement between the “Old Side” Presbyterians and the “New Side” Presbyterians. The New Side supported the revivalists of the Great Awakening as instruments of the Holy Spirit, but the Old Side disdained their lack of traditional theological training and considered the whole revival to be simply a faddish movement. The split lasted from 1741 to 1758, when the two factions reached a formal agreement with each other and made peace. Later, latent Old Side-New Side differences led to the formation of a new denomination, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in 1810. In 1837, during the Second Great Awakening, the Presbyterians were split between “Old School” and “New School” churches. The New School taught a modified understanding of sin and holiness and downplayed the need for traditional presbyterian church polity. When the two groups merged again in 1869, it was with an increased tolerance for doctrinal diversity, and this led to greater changes in the early 20th century.
Until the 1930s, Presbyterians held a leading role in the various debates over doctrinal integrity. Some of the key men supporting the Bible Conference movement were C. I. Scofield (1843–1921), James Brookes (1830–1897), William J. Erdman (1834–1923), Billy Sunday (1863–1935), William Biederwolf (1867–1939), and J. Wilbur Chapman (1859–1918). With doctrinal liberalism creeping into their seminaries, Presbyterians such as Louis Talbot (1889–1976), Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), and William Anderson (1889–1935) helped start new Bible colleges. As Presbyterian conservatives saw the Presbyterian Church continue to tolerate doctrinal error, they led their churches to form new groups. In 1936, Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In 1938, Carl McIntire and others formed the Bible Presbyterian Church and ordained Francis Schaeffer as the denomination’s first minister. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) broke from what is now the Presbyterian Church (USA) over the liberalism of the latter. In 1981, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed as another conservative alternative for Presbyterians dismayed by the heretical leanings of the mainstream Presbyterian Church.
While most Presbyterian churches will agree on general themes such as the depravity of man, the holiness of God, and salvation by faith, there is wide divergence in how they define and apply those themes. Some churches treat sin as a disease and essentially erase any personal responsibility, while others hold a firm line that sin is a violation of God’s unchanging law. Some Presbyterian churches teach that the Bible is the verbally inspired, infallible Word of God, while others teach that it is a human book subject to error. Some Presbyterians believe Jesus is the virgin-born Son of God, and others deny His divine nature. When seeking out a church, a person would be well advised to carefully examine the church’s formal statements of doctrine and the practical implementation of that doctrine. Any church worthy of the label “church” must conform to Scripture as its ultimate authority (1 Thessalonians 5:21).