The name “Reformed Church” has its origin in the reformation. “Originally, all of the Reformation churches used this name (or the name Evangelical) to distinguish themselves from the “unreformed” or unchanged, Roman Catholic Church. After the great controversy among these churches over the Lord’s Supper (after 1529) the followers of Martin Luther began to use the name Lutheran as a specific name, and the name Reformed became associated with the Calvinistic Churches (and also for a time with the Church of England)” (Reformed Church, britannica.com). Today, Reformed Church refers to a Calvinistic church. It is used in a broad sense to include: Presbyterian Church; Congregational Church; French Huguenot Church; Reformed Church, and others. Frank Mead and Samuel Hill write, “They were called Reformed in Switzerland, Holland, and Germany; Presbyterian in England and Scotland; Huguenot, in France; national names, for others in Bohemia and Hungary” (Mead/Hill, Handbook of Denominations, p. 210).
The name “Presbyterian Church” refers to its governmental structure. The Greek Presbuteros means “elder.” New Standard Encyclopedia says, “The powers of governmental are vested in the body of believers and are exercised through their chosen representatives who are called ‘elders.’ It denies the claim of one man or a special class of men who rule the church by virtue of divine right” (Vol. 8, © 1938). Britannica says, “All who hold office do so by election of the people whose representatives they are. The church is to be governed and directed by assemblies of office holders, pastors, and elders chosen to provide just representation for the church as a whole” (Presbyterian Church Government, britannica.com). They reject a king or single bishop over the church.
1. The Bible
The PCA says, the Bible is, “the only infallible rule of faith and practice” (Westminster Confession of Faith, pcaac.org). The Bible consists of 66 books, Genesis – Revelation, which were given by the inspiration of God (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1547, Chapter 1.2). The Apocrypha is not canonical, nor is it inspired (Westminster, Chapter 1.3).
2. Confessions and Catechisms
The PCA says, “When the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formed in 1788, it adopted (with minor revisions) the Westminster Confession of Faith, larger and shorter catechisms (1647), as its secondary standards (the Bible itself being the only infallible rule of faith and practice). Officers in the Presbyterian Church in America take a vow to ‘sincerely receive and adopt these documents as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures’” (Westminster Confession of Faith, pcaac.org).
The PCUSA also has confessions. The Book of Confessions published by the Office of General Assembly in 2004 contains (1) The Nicene Creed; (2) The Apostles’ Creed; (3) The Scots Creed; (4) The Heidelberg Catechism; (5) The Second Helvetic Confession of Faith; (7) The Shorter Catechism; (8) The Larger Catechism; (9) The Theological Declaration of Barmen; (10) The Confession of 1967; (11) A Brief Statement of Faith.
Beliefs and Practices
Nearly all Presbyterians hold to the five points of Calvinism (T.U.L.I.P). John Calvin taught, “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 3, Chapter 21, biblestudytools.com). Daniel Denhem has written, “Some Calvinist, like (Edwin) Palmer, will be so bold as to affirm that God ‘has foreordained everything’ to such an extent that it includes, ‘…the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist – even sins’” (ed. David Brown, Calvinism, Houston College of Bible Lectureship, p. 92). The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was started in Tennessee in 1810. They reject the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith. They reject the doctrine of double predestination. They reject limited atonement. They reject irresistible grace. They say concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, “While it is possible for all to be saved with it, none can be saved without it. Whoever will therefore, may be saved, but not apart from the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit” (Confession of Faith 1984, Cumberland.org). They believe in Perseverance of the Saints, or “once saved, always saved” doctrine (What We Believe, cookevillecpchurch.org).
2. The Sacraments
They believe in two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 27). “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (ibid). These sacraments may only be dispensed “by a minister of the word lawfully ordained” (ibid).
It is “a sacrament of the New Testament… for the solemn admission of the party into the visible church” (Westminster, Chapter 28). It may be administered by dipping, pouring, or sprinkling (ibid). It is “not only for those that do profess faith… but also for infants of one or both believing parents” (ibid). “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered” (ibid).
4. The Lord’s Supper
“In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; nor any real sacrifice made… but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself” (Westminster, Chapter 29). They do not believe that the elements are literally changed into body and blood (ibid).
They believe that man is saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone which is given to the elect. “We do not need to worry or speculate about our salvation. We need simply to ask, ‘Do I believe in Jesus Christ?’ If we do, we recognize that we do so by the power of the Holy Spirit and that our salvation is secure in God’s electing purpose” (Donald K. McKim, What Do Presbyterians Believe? firstpresbyterian.org).
Presbyterians have been using women in church leadership for a long time. The PCUSA says, “You’ll meet Presbyterian women who are teaching elders (pastors), ruling elders (church leaders), session members (a committee of elders who govern a church), church educators, voting delegates to the General Assembly, or chairs or members of church committees” (presbyterianwomen.org).
“In recent centuries, Reformed theologians have staked their claims in a variety of camps… Historically, most Reformed theologians have tended to adopt either the amillennialist or postmillennialist position” (Robert Bohler Jr., What Presbyterians Believe About the Future, Part 1, pres-outlook.org).
“In the Presbyterian Church USA, the church voted in 2015 to allow gay and lesbian weddings within the church. In 2014, the church had voted to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings” (Presbyterians: 10 Things to Know, Amanda Casanova, Christianity.com).
In PCUSA a local church is governed by a session. It is composed of elected pastors and elders. “Beyond the local congregation, several sessions constitute a Presbytery, several Presbyteries form a Synod, and the General Assembly encompasses the entire denomination” (Presbyterian Organization, religionfacts.com; cf. Presbyterian: 10 Things, Christianity.com; New Standard Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, © 1938).
Types of Presbyterians
1. The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) is the largest branch. It is based in Louisville, Kentucky.
2. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is the second largest branch. It is based in Lawrenceville, Georgia. It is more conservative. It does not ordain women. It teaches that homosexuality is sinful. It teaches that abortion is sinful. It does not teach no fault divorce (Joe Carter, How to Tell the Difference Between PCA and PCUSA, thegospelcoalition.org).
3. There are many other groups. A simple internet search mentions: Orthodox Presbyterian Church; Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church; Cumberland Presbyterian Church; Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America; Upper Cumberland Presbyterian Church; Bible Presbyterian Church; Covenant Presbyterian Church; Reformed Presbyterian Church (US); Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Presbyterian Church in America; Presbyterian Church (USA).