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 are led by representative elders (presbyters) of their congregations. Within the broad category, there are some which can be considered conservative or fundamental, and some which 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, while the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), with 2.3 million members in 10,000 congregations, is more liberal. Several smaller groups 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 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. He 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 the Church of England, Knox fled to Europe, 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 reformation, 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, which 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 in 1647.
In the early 1600s, King James I sent many Scotch 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 the education of their ministers. 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 theological issues.
Throughout the history of the Presbyterian Church, there have been splits and mergers based on theological and practical issues. In the colonial period, there was an “old side/new side” split over the acceptance of the revivalist preachers in the Great Awakening. In 1810, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which supported revivalist preachers, split from the main church. From 1837 to 1869, there was a split between “old school” and “new school” churches, with the “new school” teaching a modified understanding of sin and holiness. When the two groups merged again in 1869, it was with an increased tolerance for doctrinal diversity, which 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 in supporting the Bible Conference movement were C.I. Scofield (1843-1921), James Brookes (1830-1897), William 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 men like these saw the Presbyterian Church continue to tolerate doctrinal diversity, they led their churches to form new groups. In 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed. In 1938, the Bible Presbyterian Church was organized. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church of America came about. In 1981, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was formed.
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 teach that the Bible is verbally inspired of God, and therefore infallible, while others teach that it is man’s book and therefore subject to error. As with any other church, a person would be well advised to carefully examine not only the formal statements of doctrine, but also the practical implementation of those doctrines to determine whether a church is conforming to Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21).