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The term derives from the word “presbyter.”* Its reference is primarily to a church which is governed by presbyters, usually elected by the people of a congregation or of a group of congregations. Traditionally it is the general title given to the English-speaking Reformed or Calvinistic churches coming out of the Reformation and their daughter churches in many different lands.

Presbyterians trace their concept of church government back to the OT synagogue which was governed and directed by a group of “elders.” Calvin held that since the NT church used the same form of organization, this is the structural pattern that the contemporary church too should follow in order to be as close to the NT as possible. This was in accord with his idea that the NT church provided the permanent example not only of the succeeding generations' beliefs but also of their ecclesiastical organization. Calvin did recognize, however, that other forms might be adopted, although he believed that the presbyterial was that closest to NT example.

According to Calvin, the NT church had four different offices: pastor, doctor or teacher, deacon, and presbyter or elder. The pastor was the preacher and the counselor of the Christians; the doctor taught in a more formal way than the pastor and might also hold the position of a theological professor. The deacon was primarily responsible for the material needs of the church and of the members, while the elders were those who had the oversight of the spiritual needs and the lives of the congregation. The pastors and doctors were usually elected and approved by the pastors and elders of other congregations, while the deacons and elders were elected by individual congregations on the advice of the existing consistory or session, made up of elders and sometimes deacons.

During the Middle Ages the NT organization had been radically changed with the establishment of a hierarchical organization consisting of priests, bishops, and pope, with many intermediate officials. While the Lutherans for convenience in administration had retained bishops or superintendents, the Genevan Reformer brought in a new and different pattern in seeking to reinstitute what he considered to be the proper NT form of church organization. Although he did not establish a completely presbyterial system as it came to exist later, he laid the foundation. The fact that his original structure dealt only with the four churches in Geneva meant that it would be different from the French and Scottish plans to devise an organization for a national church, covering a much larger area and a greater number of people.

The beginnings of an English-speaking church organized on the presbyterial basis took place in Geneva in the congregation of Marian exiles (1555-58) under the Scottish preacher, John Knox.* Unwilling to accept the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or the direction of the exiled bishops, they found it necessary to leave the congregation established in Frankfurt and move to Geneva where they could worship in accordance with their conscientious beliefs. In Geneva they set up a congregation ruled by elders and led by two elected pastors: John Knox and Christopher Goodman. They also adopted a confession of faith, an order of worship, and a form of discipline which followed the teachings of Calvin.

With the accession of Elizabeth* to the throne of England, the English Protestant exiles returned home, but Knox because of his earlier attack upon the idea of a woman's ruling a country was not permitted to go to England. Consequently he returned directly to Scotland, where the Reformation was beginning to come out into the open. Under his leadership the Protestant forces succeeded in having Parliament adopt a Reformed Confession (see Scots Confession) in August 1560, but it did not accept the Book of Discipline submitted to it somewhat later, which would have established a Reformed structure of church order. The Reformed church, however, which was now established at least doctrinally, organized itself along lines that under Andrew Melville* in the latter part of the century became fully presbyterian with a hierarchy of courts extending from the local session through presbytery and synod to the national general assembly.

In England the failure of the Genevan refugees to establish a presbyterial system was due largely to Queen Elizabeth and her advisers, who disliked the popular aspects of the presbyterian form of government, favoring instead an episcopal organization that left the ultimate authority over the church in the hands of the civil authorities. Although Thomas Cartwright,* trained in Geneva under Calvin's successor Theodore Beza,* led a strong campaign to bring about a more radical reform of the Church of England, he was unsuccessful. The same was true in the seventeenth century when the Presbyterians in Parliament attempted to set up a uniform presbyterian system throughout the British Isles. The Independents* under Oliver Cromwell* and then the Anglicans under Charles II* prevented this. Only in Scotland did Presbyterianism gain the day, and only after much suffering, particularly during the Anglican persecution of the Covenanters* (1665-88). Not until 1692 was Presbyterianism finally established, although after the Union of the Parliaments of 1707 various modifications were made in the establishment by the British Parliament. These in turn led to a number of divisions within the Church of Scotland.*

With the colonial expansion of Britain during the eighteenth century, Scots and Scotch-Irish from Ulster carried with them their presbyterian form of government, doctrine, and worship to the empire, resulting in the establishment of large Presbyterian churches overseas. Consequently one finds churches of presbyterian structure and belief scattered across the globe. Although some may have in some ways modified their doctrinal views and even their form of government, fundamental presbyterian characteristics still remain.

The primary presupposition of Presbyterianism is that the risen Christ is the only head of the church. He rules His people by His Word and Spirit, directing believers as a whole. Thus there is no idea of a special elite group which has received through direct revelation or by the laying on of hands extraordinary powers or authority. Those who govern the church are chosen by all the church members, who recognize that God has given them gifts and abilities to teach and to direct the church in its life upon earth. The foundation of the church's structure is the session of the local congregation, which is elected by all communicant members and is led by the minister or “teaching elder,” also known as the “moderator.” The minister is chosen and called by the congregation, but is inducted into his charge by the presbytery, which is composed of the minister and the “representative” elder of each congregation within the presbytery's geographical bounds. This body has the oversight with extensive powers over all the congregations under its jurisdiction. It in turn is responsible to the synod, which is made up of representatives either appointed by a number of presbyteries or directly by the various sessions. With increased ease of communication in many churches, synods are increasingly recognized as being of no real importance, particularly since presbyteries now usually deal directly with the general assembly, which is made up of equal numbers of ministers and elders who are presbyterial representatives. The assembly, the highest court in any Presbyterian church, has final authority in all matters legislative or judicial, but in most cases a change in doctrine, government, or worship must be referred back to presbyteries under a Barrier Act* for ratification by a majority of those courts. In this way every major change must be considered and approved at the most general level of the church.

Although each Presbyterian church has its own particular standards of faith, government, and worship, the first complete statement of the Presbyterian position came from the Westminster Assembly* of Divines (1643-49), which prepared a Confession of Faith, two catechisms, a Directory of Worship, and a Form of Government, on the instructions of the English Parliament. This English body later rejected the Westminster symbols, but they were adopted by the Scottish Parliament and Church, and have since been accepted as the base upon which all other Presbyterian structures have been erected.

A.H. Drysdale, History of the Presbyterians in England (1889); W.T. Latimer, History of the Irish Presbyterians (1902); W.M. Macphail, The Presbyterian Church (1908); J.N. Ogilvie, The Presbyterian Churches of Christendom (1925); J. Moffatt, The Presbyterian Church (1928); J.L. Ainslie, Doctrines of Ministerial Order in the Reformed Churches of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1940); J.T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (1954); R.S. Louden, The True Face of the Kirk (1963); J.T. Cox (ed.), Practice and Procedure in the Church of Scotland (5th ed., 1964).