The highly esteemed eighteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister John “Rabbi” Duncan once famously stated: “I am first a Christian, next a catholic (i.e., a member of the universal church), then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” Duncan was highlighting the fact that there is a basic order of priority regarding what value believers often place on a variety of biblical truths.
For most people, the word Presbyterian carries with it the idea of distinctive practices and teachings of churches that go by that name (e.g., Reformed theology, covenantal baptism, liturgical worship, a confession of faith, and a book of church order). Although these doctrinal matters certainly fit within the historical context of Presbyterianism, the biblical essence of Presbyterianism has little to nothing to do with any of these specifics. Rather, the essential concept of Presbyterianism has to do with the biblical form of church government. Presbyterianism is founded on the idea of a plurality of elders and the connectivity of local churches for governance, accountability, and ministerial collaboration.
Presbyterianism derives its name and idea from the Greek word presbyteros. This word is found in many places in the New Testament (Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2–6, Acts 22; Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1; James 5:14). Translators of English versions of the New Testament have translated the word presbyteros as “elder.” This word presbyteros is synonymous with the Greek word episkopos, which is translated “overseer” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). The word presbyteros captures with it the idea of the dignity of the office of an elder, whereas the word episkopos expresses the function of the office.
There is a need for a plurality of elders on a local church level, as well as on a regional and national level. Each local congregation in the Apostolic age was overseen by elders. This is evident from Paul’s appeal to the elders in the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17–38). It is also demonstrated by the way in which Paul charged Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). The collective nature of the elders of each congregation coming together to form a general assembly is founded on the teaching of Scripture about the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Luke tells us that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together” to deliberate on the threat of false teaching in the early church. Among the actions they took, Luke says, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:6, Acts 22).
It is common for Presbyterian ministers to speak of higher courts when referring to the local, regional, and national ministerial meetings. Accordingly, the local church, with its elders, constitutes the lowest court. The regional body of teaching and ruling elders forms the higher court. The national gathering (i.e., General Assembly) of teaching and ruling elders makes up the highest court. However, certain Presbyterian theologians have chosen to speak of these as wider rather than higher courts, since Presbyterianism principally avoids any movement toward hierarchical ecclesiology.
In church history, Presbyterianism found its rudimentary principles in the teaching of Reformers—most notably through the ministry of John Knox. Knox had gleaned the essential principles of Presbyterianism when he was in Geneva under the ministry of John Calvin. However, it was implemented in Scotland in the sixteenth century in reaction to the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church and its unbiblical, hierarchical, and authoritarian ecclesiology. In this sense, it can be said that the Reformation was a Reformation of biblical ecclesiology no less than it was a Reformation of biblical soteriology and worship.
Presbyterianism spread from Scotland to other parts of the Western world. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Francis Makemie planted the first Presbyterian church in North America. From those small origins burgeoned an extremely influential Presbyterianism in America. In 1727, the Scottish Presbyterian William Tennent started the Log College in Warminster, Pennsylvania. In turn, a number of Log College men became trustees of the College of New Jersey, which would become Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Throughout the nineteenth century, Princeton Theological Seminary was a bastion of Reformed and Presbyterian theological training. When the modernist movement infiltrated Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, leavening them with theological liberalism, J. Gresham Machen joined with other Presbyterian pastors and theologians to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. The Presbyterian Church in America followed suit with its formation in 1973.
In 1788, American Presbyterians adopted the Preliminary Principles of Presbyterianism. After their emendations and adoption by various Presbyterian bodies, there are eight preliminary principles of Presbyterianism in American Presbyterianism. The first preliminary principle is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matter of faith or worship.” Closely related to this is the seventh preliminary principle, “That all church-power . . . is only ministerial and declarative.” The ministerial and declarative nature of Presbyterianism is of the essence of biblical Presbyterianism.
Presently, there are upwards of forty Presbyterian denominations in the United States. The largest theologically conservative Presbyterian denomination in North America is the Presbyterian Church in America. There are nearly seventy-five million members in Presbyterian churches worldwide, with nearly six million in North American Presbyterian churches.