What does it mean to be Presbyterian?

Over the past few months, a number of people have asked me what is meant by the terms Presbyterian, Reformed, and Evangelical.   This question is coming up because RGAPC is having conversations about the possibility of being dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “to another Reformed body” for reasons of conscience. Some people have asked, “If RGAPC decides to move to another Reformed body, does that mean we won’t be Presbyterians anymore?” Others have asked what Evangelical means, since some of our neighboring presbyteries have dismissed churches to the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and to ECO (Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians).

So — what does it mean to be Presbyterian? Reformed? Evangelical?

Presbyterian primarily refers to the way a church is governed. The name comes from the Greek word presbuteros, meaning “elder.” In Presbyterian-style governance, each congregation elects elders to serve with the pastor(s) on the session. The session is responsible for overseeing the mission and ministry of the local congregation. Congregations may, if they choose, also elect deacons and trustees for particular work, but the session still has overall responsibility.

Each congregation also belongs to a “presbytery,” a regional body designed to help churches work together in accordance with the rules and norms of the denomination. The presbytery is made up of ministers and elders chosen by the session to represent them. Every two years, each presbytery elects ministers and elders to represent the presbytery at a “General Assembly,” a national gathering where denomination-wide policies are established or modified by vote. In simplest terms, Presbyterian churches function under a representative form of government with a network of connections to other churches.

Reformed refers to our theology – that is, our essential beliefs about who God is, our relationship to God, our understanding of the Bible and the way of salvation. Historically, Reformed theology is marked by five key elements defined in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

  • Sola Scriptura – “Scripture Alone” – teaches that the Bible is the authoritative written Word of God and is the only rule (standard) of faith and practice in the Christian life;
  • Sola Gratia – “Grace Alone” – teaches that salvation is a gift from God given to us purely through God’s loving-kindness and not through any human efforts or merit;
  • Sola Christus – “Christ Alone” – teaches that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ (“No one comes to the Father except through Me”);
  • Sola Fide – “Faith Alone” – teaches that we are saved only by faith in who Jesus Christ is and what he has done, and that even faith itself is a gift from God; and
  • Soli Deo Gloria – “to the Glory of God Alone” – teaches that Christians are to conduct their lives (and their churches) for the glory of God alone and not for human gain.

Now let’s consider the final question: What does “evangelical” mean?

This is difficult to answer briefly, for this term has been used in quite different ways by different groups of Christians. For some, it is a negative word suggesting narrow-minded religious fundamentalism. For many others, it is a positive word suggesting a faithful commitment to the Christian life with an emphasis on mission and outreach.

The word evangelical comes from the Greek euangelion meaning “good news” or “good message.” Euangelion appears 76 times in the New Testament. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther used the term evangelishce kirche to distinguish Protestant Christians from Roman Catholics of that time. For several centuries “evangelical” was understood as referring to a renewal of faith by returning to study of the Scriptures. In keeping with the message of the Bible, evangelical faith centers on the eternal purposes of God as most clearly revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Evangelical faith acknowledges that humans are in every way dependent upon God, that every aspect of our being is prone to sin, and that it is impossible to overcome sin by human effort, positive thinking, psychology, social policies, etc.   Evangelical faith embraces the good news that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).   Evangelical Christians also have a deep desire that all people would come to know and enjoy the grace of God and the new life made available through Jesus Christ.

In summary, we find that “Presbyterian” refers to a church structure with elected, representative governance and connection with other congregations in a regional area. “Reformed” refers to a particular set of theological convictions, and “evangelical” refers to a renewed and energetic faith flowing out of a biblically-grounded belief in who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what he calls us to do.

I hope and trust that these definitions will be useful as we continue to seek to know and to follow God’s will for us as a community of faith, living and working together in Jesus’ name.

With Love in Christ –             Pastor Sue


(Credit:   significant portions of this article based on website of Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura, California, with permission of the senior pastor Rev. Mark Patterson)