In our culture, most people recognize the name “Presbyterian” as being a church denomination, but many of those same people do not know anything more than that. The following is an attempt to explain as simply as possible what Presbyterians are and what Presbyterians do.
First of all, the term “Presbyterian” is like “Christian” in that it can describe either whole church congregations (of a certain sort) or individual believers (again, of a certain sort).
A Presbyterian church is one led by elders. This is where the name “Presbyterian” comes from—the Greek word for “elder” (presbyteros). Some other Christian traditions also get their names from their leadership structures—the Congregational (led by the congregation) and Episcopal (led by the bishop, which, in Greek, is episkopos) denominations being good examples of this. Yet, in addition to being led by elders, Presbyterian churches are also part of a tradition that involves its own characteristic doctrine and its own characteristic worship.
The doctrine of the Presbyterian tradition comes from the Bible, which is God’s word revealed through prophets and apostles who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Throughout church history Christians have worked very hard to understand and faithfully articulate what it is that the Bible teaches. Presbyterian churches are in agreement with all Christian churches around the world in holding to the great ecumenical creeds of the early church (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Chalcedonian Creed), but they also hold to a much lengthier summary of biblical doctrine called the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).
If you were to go to a Presbyterian congregation, you should expect to hear preaching and teaching which is consistent with this historic Protestant confession. In that same visit, you may also notice that the worship service conforms to a certain tradition of practice as well by focusing on the faithful preaching of God’s word and the confirming signs of God’s grace in the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism) while a reverent but joyful “dialogue” takes place between God and his people. In a Presbyterian worship service, God’s speaks and then God’s people respond in praise and prayer—a pattern which begins with the Call to Worship and carries through to the Benediction, when God blesses his people. Therefore, Presbyterian churches are Christian and biblical, but their distinct beliefs and practices go far beyond these general terms which apply to many churches.
What, then, is a person who is “Presbyterian”? Quite simply, a Presbyterian person is a Christian who is a member of a Presbyterian church as described above. That person has publicly professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, and they become a vital part of a local church where they join regularly for worship, fellowship, and service. All Presbyterian church members are Christians who demonstrate sincere faith and place themselves under the accountability of church elders so that they can worship, grow, and serve in the local church.
There are Presbyterian churches and Presbyterian church members in every part of the inhabited world—from San Francisco to São Paulo (Brazil) to Shanghai (China) and everywhere in between. In recent years, more and more Presbyterian churches are being established in New England, which historically gave preference to Congregational churches over Presbyterian churches. If you are in southern New Hampshire, please consider paying a Sunday morning visit to one of the Presbyterian churches in such towns as Dover, Jaffrey, Manchester, Merrimack, Concord, Exeter, Laconia, or Nashua—all of which will warmly welcome you.