Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Church USA Logo 1.svg
Classification Protestant
Orientation Mainline Calvinist
Polity Presbyterian
Moderator Elder Cynthia Bolbach
Associations National Council of Churches; World Communion of Reformed Churches; World Council of Churches
Geographical areas United States
Headquarters Louisville, Kentucky
Origin June 10, 1983
Merge of The Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
Congregations 10,657
Members 2,016,091 communicant, 2,844,952 baptized
Official website

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PC(USA), is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. Part of the Reformed tradition, it is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. The PC(USA) was established by the 1983 merger of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were located in the Southern and border states, with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every state.

With 2,077,158 members and 13,462 ordained ministers in 10,657 congregations in 2009[1], the reunited denomination is the most visible and influential Presbyterian denomination in North America.[2] The denomination reported a loss of 61,047 members (-2.9%) in 2010 and had a membership of 2,016,091 at the end of 2010.[3] Denominational offices are located in Louisville, Kentucky. The PC(USA) is a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, and Christian Churches Together.




Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Presbyterian heritage, and much of what they believe, began with the Swiss/French theologian/lawyer John Calvin (1509–1564), whose writings solidified much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.

Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland (see Scottish Reformation). Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland.

The early Presbyterians in America came from Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was held in the same city in 1789. The Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. This was indicative of the active support of most Presbyterians for the American War of Independence.

The First Great Awakening had a major impact on the American Presbyterians. Inspired by the evangelical preaching of George Whitefield and others, Gilbert Tennent delivered a sermon in West Nottingham, Maryland in 1740 on "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry." In the sermon, he asserted some current Presbyterian church leaders might be academic "Pharisee-teachers" who did not have the same faith or enthusiasm as newly converted followers, a controversial view which divided the church. Together with his brother William Tennent, he led the Presbyterian part of the Great Awakening revivalist movement in America.

In the South the Presbyterians were evangelical dissenters, mostly Scots-Irish Americans who expanded into Virginia between 1740 and 1758. Spangler (2008) argues they were more energetic and held frequent services better atuned to the frontier conditions of the colony. Presbyterianism grew in frontier areas where the Anglicans had made little impress. Uneducated whites and blacks were attracted to the emotional worship of the denomination, its emphasis on biblical simplicity, and its psalm singing. Presbyterians were a cross-section of society; they were involved in slaveholding and in patriarchal ways of household management, while the Presbyterian Church government featured few democratic elements.[4] Some local Presbyterian churches, such as Briery in Prince Edward County, owned slaves. The Briery church purchased five slaves in 1766 and raised money for church expenses by hiring them out to local planters.[5]

19th century

Evolution of Presbyterianism in the United States. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the early years of the 19th century, the church carried on revivals and organized congregations, presbyteries, and synods wherever pastors and lay people went, emphasizing the connectional nature of the church. Presbyterians also helped to shape voluntary societies that encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical, and reforming work. As the church began to realize that these functions were corporate in nature and as the century proceeded, it formed its own boards and agencies to address these needs at home and abroad. Mission to Native Americans, African Americans, and populations all over the world became a hallmark of the church.

The 19th century was also characterized by disagreement and division over theology, governance, and reform - particularly slavery. In 1803, Barton W. Stone led a group of revivalist New Light Presbyterian ministers to form independent Springfield Presbytery which eventually became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1810, a number of Presbyterian congregations and ministers, ejected by Kentucky Synod for their pro-revival position and their relaxation of ordination requirements in a frontier setting, formed the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, although they never intended the split to be permanent. In 1837, the church was split by the Old School-New School Controversy. The century also saw the formation of the United Presbyterian Church of North America. When the country could not reconcile the issue of slavery and the federal union, the southern Presbyterians split from the original PCUSA, forming the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861, which became the Presbyterian Church in the United States after the American Civil War.

20th century to the present

Church of the Pilgrims (1928) in Washington, D.C.

The early part of the 20th century saw continued growth in both major sections of the church. It also saw the growth of Fundamentalist Christianity (a movement of those who believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the fundamental source of the religion) as distinguished from Modernist Christianity (a movement holding the belief that Christianity needed to be re-interpreted in light of modern scientific theories such as evolution or the rise of degraded social conditions brought on by industrialization and urbanization).

This controversy reached a head in 1924 after the General Assembly of the PCUSA adopted five "essential and necessary" pillars of Christian belief. This move toward aggressively anti-modernist fundamentalism caused a backlash in the form of the Auburn Affirmation — a document embracing modernism and "liberty of thought and teaching." Although the 1930s and 1940s and the ensuing neo-orthodox theological consensus mitigated much of the polemics during the mid-20th century, disputes erupted again beginning in the mid-1960s, over the extent of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the issue of ordination of women, and, especially since the 1990s, over the issue of ordination of gays and lesbians.


The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was joined by the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, mostly congregations in the border and Southern states, in 1906. In 1920, it absorbed the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church. The United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the PCUSA in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA).

This sparked a period of ecumenical activism which culminated in the UPCUSA's development of the Confession of 1967 which was the church's first new confession of faith in three centuries. The 170th General Assembly in 1958 authorized a committee to develop a brief contemporary statement of faith. The 177th General Assembly in 1965 considered and amended the draft confession and sent a revised version for general discussion within the church. The 178th General Assembly in 1966 accepted a revised draft and sent it to presbyteries throughout the church for final ratification. As the confession was ratified by more than 90% of all presbyteries, the 178th General Assembly finally adopted it in 1967.

An attempt to reunite the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the late 1950s failed when the latter church was unwilling to accept centralization. This reflected its support for local decision making and concern about central organizations having greater power, a historically Southern attitude about civil government as well as ecclesiastical. In the meantime, a conservative group broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1973, mainly over the issues of women's ordination and a perceived drift toward theological liberalism. This group formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Attempts at union between the churches (UPCUSA and PCUS) were renewed in the 1970s, culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. At the time of the merger, the churches had a combined membership of 3,121,238.[6] Many of the efforts were spearheaded by the financial and outspoken activism of retired businessman Thomas Clinton who died two years before the merger.[citation needed] A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the UPCUSA in New York City and the PCUS located in Atlanta, Georgia.

The merger essentially consolidated those moderate-to-liberal American Presbyterians into one body. Practically all other U.S. Presbyterian bodies (the Cumberland Presbyterians being a partial exception) profess some measure of doctrinal Calvinist propositionalism, literalist hermeneutics, and conservative politics.

For the most part, PC(USA) Presbyterians, not unlike similar mainline traditions such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, are fairly (in some instances, strongly) progressive (liberal) on matters such as doctrine, environmental issues, sexual morality, and economic issues. Like other mainline denominations, the PC(USA) has also seen a great deal of demographic aging, with fewer and fewer new members and a steadily declining membership total in every consecutive year since 1967.

A recent phenomenon is that of conservative-minded groups in the PC(USA) (such as the Confessing church movement) remaining in the main body, rather than leaving to form new, break-away groups, as those most theologically conservative usually did (e.g., the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Bible Presbyterian Church).


Since 1983 the Presbyterian Youth Triennium has been held every three years at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S. and is open to Presbyterian high school students throughout the world. The very first Youth Triennium was held in 1980 at Indiana University and the conference for teens is an effort of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the nation; Cumberland Presbyterian Church; and Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, the first African American denomination to embrace Presbyterianism in the reformed tradition. For information on this year's triennium, go to



The Constitution of PC(USA) is composed of two portions: Part I, the Book of Confessions and Part II, the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions outlines the beliefs of the PC(USA) by declaring the creeds by which the Church's leaders are instructed and led. Complementing that is the Book of Order which gives the rationale and description for the organization and function of the Church at all levels. The Book of Order is currently divided into three sections - 1) Form of Government, 2) The Directory For Worship, and 3) The Rules of Discipline.


The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has a representative form of government, known as presbyterian polity, with four levels of government and administration, as outlined in the Book of Order. The councils(governing bodies) are as follows:

  1. Session (of a Congregation)
  2. Presbytery
  3. Synod
  4. General Assembly


At the congregational level, the governing body is called the session, from the Latin word sessio, meaning "a sitting". The session is made up of the pastors of the church and all elders elected and installed to active service. Following a pattern set in the first congregation of Christians in Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the church is governed by presbyters (a term and category that includes elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, historically also referred to as "ruling or canon elders" because they measure the spiritual life and work of a congregation and ministers as "teaching elders").[7]

The elders are nominated by a nominating committee of the congregation; in addition, nominations from the floor are permissible. Elders are then elected by the congregation. All elders elected to serve on the congregation's session of elders are required to undergo a period of study and preparation for this order of ministry, after which the session examines the elders-elect as to their personal faith; knowledge of doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church, and the duties of the office of elder. If the examination is approved, the session appoints a day for the service of ordination and installation.[8] Session meetings are normally moderated by a called and installed pastor and minutes are recorded by a clerk, who is also an ordained presbyter. If the congregation does not have an installed pastor, the Presbytery appoints a minister member or elected member of the presbytery as moderator with the concurrence of the local church session.[9] The moderator presides over the session as primus inter pares and as moderator also serves a "liturgical" bishop over the ordination and installation of elders and deacons within a particular congregation.

The session takes care of the guidance and direction of the ministry of the local church, including almost all responsibilities of spiritual and fiduciary leadership. The congregation as a whole has only the responsibility to vote on: 1) the call of the pastor (subject to presbytery approval) and the terms of call (the church's provision for compensating and caring for the pastor); 2) the election of its own officers (elders & deacons); 3) buying, mortgaging, or selling real property. All other church matters such as the budget, personnel matters, and all programs for spiritual life and mission, are the responsibility of the session. In addition, the session serves as an ecclesiastical court to consider disciplinary charges brought against church officers or members.

The session also oversees the work of the deacons, a second body of leaders also tracing its origins to the Book of Acts. The deacons are a congregational-level group whose duty is "to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress both within and beyond the community of faith." In some churches, the responsibilities of the deacons are taken care of by the session, so there is no board of deacons in that church. In some states, churches are legally incorporated and members or elders of the church serve as trustees of the corporation. However, "the power and duties of such trustees shall not infringe upon the powers and duties of the Session or of the board of deacons." The deacons are a ministry board but not a governing body.


A presbytery is formed by all the congregations and the Ministers of Word and Sacrament in a geographic area together with elders selected (proportional to congregation size) from each of the congregations. Four PC(USA) synods (see below) have a non-geographical presbytery for Korean language Presbyterian congregations. One synod has a non-geographical presbytery for Native American congregations, the Dakota Presbytery. There are currently 173 presbyteries for the more than 11,000 congregations in the PC(USA). Note re. "non-geographical": The five presbyteries are "non-geographical" only in that they overlay other pre-existing English-speaking geographical presbyteries; they are in fact "geographical" in that they are geographically limited to the boundaries of a particular synod. It may be more accurate to refer to them as "trans-geographical" presbyteries.

Only the presbytery (not a congregation, session, synod, or General Assembly) has the responsibility and authority to ordain church members to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, to install Ministers of Word and Sacrament to (and/or remove them from) congregations, and to remove a minister from the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. A Minister of Word and Sacrament is a Presbyterian minister only by virtue of membership on a roll of a presbytery. The Office of the General Assembly maintains and publishes a national directory with the help of each presbytery's stated clerk.[10] A pastor cannot be a member of the congregation he or she serves as pastor because his or her primary ecclesiastical accountability lies with the presbytery. Members of the congregation generally choose their own pastor with the assistance and support of the presbytery. The presbytery must approve the choice and officially install the pastor at the congregation. Additionally, the presbytery must approve if either the congregation or the pastor wishes to dissolve that pastoral relationship.

The presbytery has authority over many affairs of its local congregations. Only the presbytery can approve the establishment, dissolution, or merger of congregations. The presbytery also maintains a Permanent Judicial Commission, which acts as a court of appeal from sessions, and which exercises original jurisdiction in disciplinary cases against minister members of the presbytery.[11]

A presbytery has two elected officers: a moderator and a stated clerk. The Moderator of the presbytery is elected annually and is either a minister member or an elder commissioner from one of the presbytery's congregations. The Moderator presides at all presbytery assemblies and is the chief overseer at the ordination and installation of ministers in that presbytery.[12] The stated clerk is the chief ecclesial officer and serves as the presbytery's executive secretary and parliamentarian in accordance with the church Constitution and Robert's Rules of Order. While the moderator of a presbytery normally serves one year, the stated clerk normally serves a designated number of years and may be re-elected indefinitely by the presbytery. Additionally, an Executive Presbyter (sometimes designated as General Presbyter, Pastor to Presbytery, Transitional Presbyter) is often elected as a staff person to care for the administrative duties of the presbytery, often with the additional role of a pastor to the pastors. Presbyteries may be creative in the designation and assignment of duties for their staff. A presbytery is required to elect a Moderator and a Clerk, but the practice of hiring staff is optional. Presbyteries must meet at least twice a year, but they have the discretion to meet more often and most do.

See "Map of Presbyteries and Synods"[13]


Presbyteries are organized within a geographical region to form a synod. Each synod contains at least three presbyteries, and its elected voting membership is to include both elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament in equal numbers. Synods have various duties depending on the needs of the presbyteries they serve. In general, their responsibilities (G-12.0102) might be summarized as: developing and implementing the mission of the church throughout the region, facilitating communication between presbyteries and the General Assembly, and mediating conflicts between the churches and presbyteries. Every synod elects a Permanent Judicial Commission, which has original jurisdiction in remedial cases brought against its constituent presbyteries, and which also serves as an ecclesiastical court of appeal for decisions rendered by its presbyteries' Permanent Judicial Commissions. Synods are required to meet at least biennially. Meetings are moderated by an elected synod Moderator with support of the synod's Stated Clerk. There are currently 16 synods in the PC(USA) and they vary widely in the scope and nature of their work. An ongoing current debate in the denomination is over the purpose, function, and need for synods.

General Assembly

The General Assembly is the highest governing body of the PC(USA). Until the 216th assembly met in Richmond, Virginia in 2004, the General Assembly met once a year; since 2004, the General Assembly has met biennially in even-numbered years. It consists of commissioners elected by presbyteries (not synods), and its voting membership is proportioned with parity between elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament. There are many important responsibilities of the General Assembly. Among them, The Book of Order lists these four:

  1. to set priorities for the work of the church in keeping with the church's mission under Christ
  2. to develop overall objectives for mission and a comprehensive strategy to guide the church at every level of its life
  3. to provide the essential program functions that are appropriate for overall balance and diversity within the mission of the church, and
  4. to establish and administer national and worldwide ministries of witness, service, growth, and development.

The General Assembly elects a moderator at each assembly who moderates the rest of the sessions of that assembly meeting and continues as moderator until the next assembly convenes (two years later) to elect a new moderator. The current Moderator of the 219th General Assembly is Elder Cynthia Bolbach. The moderator of the 218th General Assembly was the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow.

A Stated Clerk is elected to a four year term and is responsible for the Office of the General Assembly which conducts the ecclesiastical work of the church. The Office of the General Assembly carries out most of the ecumenical functions and all of the constitutional functions at the Assembly. The current Stated Clerk of the General Assembly is the Rev. Gradye Parsons.

The General Assembly also elects a General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). There are 48 elected members of the General Assembly Mission Council (40 voting members; 17 non-voting delegates), who represent synods, presbyteries, and the church at-large.[14] Members serve one six-year term, with the exception of the present Moderator of the General Assembly (one 2-year term), the past Moderator of the General Assembly (one 2-year term), the moderator of Presbyterian Women (one 3-year term), ecumenical advisory members (one 2-year term, eligible for two additional terms), and stewardship and audit committee at-large members (one 2-year term, eligible for two additional terms). Among the elected members’ major responsibilities is the coordination of the work of the program areas in light of General Assembly mission directions, objectives, goals and priorities. The GAMC meets three times a year. The General Assembly elects an Executive Director of the General Assembly Mission Council who is the top administrator overseeing the mission work of the PC(USA). The current Executive Director of the GAMC is Elder Linda Bryant Valentine.

Affiliated seminaries

The denomination maintains affiliations with ten seminaries in the United States. These are:

Two other seminaries are related to the PC(USA) by covenant agreement: Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, New York, and Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

There are numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States affiliated with PC(USA). For a complete list, see the article Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. For more information, see the article PC(USA) seminaries.


The PC(USA) maintains extensive statistics on its members.[15] Total "communicant" membership fell by 2.9% in 2009 to 2,077,138,[16] the largest loss since 1975. This continues a three decade-long decline in membership for PC(USA).[17][18] This is consistent with the trends of most mainline Protestant denominations in America since the late 1960s.

The average Presbyterian Church has 195 members (the mean in 2009).[19] About 25% of the total congregations report between 1 and 50 members. Another 23% report between 51 and 100 members. The average worship attendance as a percentage of membership is 51.7%. The largest congregation in the PC(USA) is Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, with a reported membership of 8,989 (2009).

Most PC(USA) members are white (92.9%). Other racial and ethnic members include African-Americans (3.1% of the total membership of the denomination), Asians (2.3%), Hispanics (1.2%), Native Americans (0.2%), and others (0.3%). Despite declines in the total membership of the PC(USA), the percentage of racial-ethnic minority members has stayed about the same since 1995. The ratio of female members (58%) to male members (42%) has also remained stable since the mid-1960s.[20]


The session of the local congregation has a great deal of freedom in the style and ordering of worship within the guidelines set forth in the Directory for Worship section of the Book of Order.[21] Worship varies from congregation to congregation. The order may be very traditional and highly liturgical, or it may be very simple and informal. This variance is not unlike that seen in the "High Church" and "Low Church" styles of the Anglican Church. The Book of Order suggests a worship service ordered around five themes: "gathering around the Word, proclaiming the Word, responding to the Word, the sealing of the Word, and bearing and following the Word into the world." Prayer is central to the service and may be silent, spoken, sung, or read in unison (including The Lord's Prayer). Music plays a large role in most PC(USA) worship services and ranges from chant to traditional Protestant hymns, to classical sacred music, to more modern music, depending on the preference of the individual church and is offered prayerfully and not "for entertainment or artistic display." Scripture is read and usually preached upon. An offering is usually taken.[22]

"The pastor has certain responsibilities which are not subject to the authority of the session. In a particular service of worship the pastor is responsible for:

  1. the selection of Scripture lessons to be read,
  2. the preparation and preaching of the sermon or exposition of the Bible,
  3. the prayers offered on behalf of the people and those prepared for the use of the people in worship,
  4. the music to be sung,
  5. the use of drama, dance, and other art forms.

The pastor may confer with a worship committee in planning particular services of worship." [W-1.4005]

The Directory for Worship in the Book of Order provides the directions for what must be, or may be included in worship. During the 20th century, Presbyterians were offered optional use of liturgical books:

For more information, see Liturgical book of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

In regard to vestments, the Directory for Worship leaves that decision up to the ministers. Thus, on a given Sunday moring service, a congregation may see the minister leading worship in street clothes, Geneva gown, or an alb. Among the Paleo-orthodoxy and emerging church Presbyterians, clergy are moving away from the traditional black Geneva gown and reclaiming not only the more ancient Eucharist vestments of alb and chasuble, but also cassock and surplice (typically a full length Old English style surplice which resembles the Celtic alb, an ungirdled liturgical tunic of the old Gallican Rite).


The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has, historically, been a leading United States denomination in mission work, and many hospitals, clinics, colleges and universities worldwide trace their origins to the pioneering work of Presbyterian missionaries who founded them more than a century ago. Currently, despite having more than 2 million members, the church supports less than 215 missionaries abroad annually. This may be represented more starkly by the fact that, as of the proposed missionary goals of 2009, missionaries as a function of total church membership represent less than %0.008.[23] A vital part of the world mission emphasis of the denomination is building and maintaining relationships with Presbyterian, Reformed and other churches around the world. The PC(USA) is a leader in disaster assistance relief and also participates in or relates to work in other countries through ecumenical relationships.

Ecumenical relationships and full communion partnerships

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) determines and approves ecumenical statements, agreements, and maintains correspondence with other Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, other Christians churches, alliances, councils, and consortia. Ecumenical statements and agreements are subject to the ratification of the presbyteries. The following are some of the major ecumenical agreements and partnerships.

The church is committed to "engage in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with other churches and traditions in order to remove barriers of misunderstanding and establish common affirmations."[24] At the present time it is in dialog with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It also participates in international dialogues through the World Council of Churches and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The most recent international dialogues include Pentecostal churches, Seventh-day Adventist, Orthodox Church in America, and others.

National and international ecumenical memberships

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in corresponding partnership with the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches. It is a member of Churches for Middle East Peace.

Formula of agreement

In 1997 four churches of Reformation heritage acted on an ecumenical proposal of historic importance. The timing reflected a doctrinal consensus which had been developing over the past thirty-two years coupled with an increasing urgency for the church to proclaim a gospel of unity in contemporary society. In light of identified doctrinal consensus, desiring to bear visible witness to the unity of the Church, and hearing the call to engage together in God’s mission, it was recommended:

That the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ declare on the basis of A Common Calling and their adoption of this A Formula of Agreement that they are in full communion with one another. Thus, each church is entering into or affirming full communion with three other churches.[25]

The term “full communion” is understood here to specifically mean that the four churches:

  • recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the Word of God;
  • withdraw any historic condemnation by one side or the other as inappropriate for the life and faith of our churches today;
  • continue to recognize each other’s Baptism and authorize and encourage the sharing of the Lord’s Supper among their members; recognize each others’ various ministries and make provision for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament;
  • establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches;

commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service;

  • pledge themselves to living together under the Gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow.

The agreement assumed the doctrinal consensus articulated in A Common Calling:The Witness of Our Reformation Churches in North America Today, and is to be viewed in concert with that document. The purpose of A Formula of Agreement is to elucidate the complementarity of affirmation and admonition as the basic principle of entering into full communion and the implications of that action as described in A Common Calling.

The 209th General Assembly (1997) approved A Formula of Agreement and in 1998 the 210th General Assembly declared full communion among these Protestant bodies.

National and international ecumenical memberships

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in corresponding partnership with the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, Christian Churches Together, and the World Council of Churches.

World Communion of Reformed Churches

In June 2010, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches will merge with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The result will be a form of full communion similar to that outline in the Formula of Agreement, including orderly exchange of ministers.

Churches Uniting in Christ

The PC (U.S.A.) is one of nine denominations that joined together to form the Consultation on Church Union, which initially sought a merger of the denominations. In 1998 the Seventh Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union approved a document "Churches in Covenant Communion: The Church of Christ Uniting" as a plan for the formation of a covenant communion of churches. In 2002 the nine denominations inaugurated the new relationship and became known as Churches Uniting in Christ. The partnership is considered incomplete until the partnering communions reconcile their understanding of Holy Orders and devise and orderly exchange of clergy.

Current controversies

Homosexual ordination

Rainbow flag above the entrance to a Presbyterian church

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is currently struggling with the issue of Biblical interpretation and faithfulness, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. Paragraph G-6.0106b of the Book of Order prohibits the ordination of those who are not faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness. This paragraph was added in 1997 and is commonly referred to by its pre-ratification designation, "Amendment B".[26] Several attempts have been made to remove this from the Book of Order, and in 2011, the Presbyteries of the PC(USA) passed the amendment 10-A permitting congregations to ordain elders and deacons and presbyteries to ordain ministers in same-sex partnerships and marriages if they feel called to do so.

Many Presbyterian scholars, pastors, and theologians have been heavily involved in the debate over homosexuality. In 2005, a female minister in Pennsylvania came under scrutiny after performing a marriage between a lesbian couple, including infusion of Buddhist rites in the ceremony. Her case is to be heard by the church's court. Officially, the church does not prohibit clergy-performed blessing ceremonies for same sex unions, as long as it clear that the blessing ritual is not a marriage ceremony.

Since 1980, the More Light Churches Network has served many congregations and individuals within American Presbyterianism who take positions on one side of this issue. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians was formed in 1997 to support repeal of "Amendment B", and to encourage networking amongst like-minded clergy and congregations.[27] Other organizations of Presbyterians, such as the Confessing Movement and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have also organized on the other side of the issue to support maintaining the current standards of ordination.

General Assembly 2006

The 2006 Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church,[28] in theory, attempted to find common ground. Some felt that the adoption of this report provided for a clear local option mentioned, while the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick went on record as saying, "Our standards have not changed. The rules of the Book of Order stay in force and all ordinations are still subject to review by higher governing bodies." The authors of the report stated that it is a compromise and return to the original Presbyterian culture of local controls. The recommendation for more control by local presbyteries and sessions is viewed by its opposition as a method for bypassing the constitutional restrictions currently in place concerning ordination and marriage, effectively making the constitutional "standard" entirely subjective.

In the General Assembly gathering of June 2006, Presbyterian voting Commissioners passed an "authoritative interpretation", recommended by the Theological Task Force, of the Book of Order (the church constitution). Some argued that this gave presbyteries the "local option" of ordaining or not ordaining anyone based on a particular presbytery's reading of the constitutional statute. Others argued that presbyteries have always had this responsibility and that this new ruling did not change but only clarified that responsibility. On June 20, 2006, the General Assembly voted 298 to 221 (or 57% to 43%) to approve such interpretation. In that same session on June 20, the General Assembly also voted 405 to 92 (with 4 abstentions) to uphold the constitutional standard for ordination requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. A clear understanding of the effect of what the General Assembly voted upon in 2006 may have to wait until the ecclesiastical courts make decisions on specific cases.

General Assembly 2008

The General Assembly of 2008 took several actions related to homosexuality. The first action was to adopt a different translation of the Heidelberg Catechism from 1962, removing the words "homosexual perversions" among other changes. This will require the approval of the 2010 and 2012 General Assemblies as well as the votes of the presbyteries after the 2010 Assembly.[dated info][29] The second action was to approve a new Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order allowing for the ordaining body to make decisions on whether or not a departure from the standards of belief of practice is sufficient to preclude ordination.[30] Some argue that this creates "local option" on ordaining homosexual persons. The third action was to replace the text of "Amendment B" with new text: "Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards."[31] This would have removed the "fidelity and chastity" clause. This third action failed to obtain the required approval of a majority of the presbyteries by June, 2009. Fourth, a resolution was adopted to affirm the definition of marriage from Scripture and the Confessions as being between a man and a woman.[32]

General Assembly 2010

On July 8, 2010, by a vote of 373 to 323, the General Assembly voted to propose to the presbyteries a constitutional amendment to remove the restriction against the ordination of partnered homosexuals. This action required ratification by a majority of the 173 presbyteries within 12 months for the proposed amendment to take effect.[33][34] The presbyteries voted to approve the constitutional change.[35]

At the General Assembly of 2004 an overture to consider adoption of the Belhar Confession was adopted. That confession was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in response to apartheid. The 2008 General Assembly voted to create a committee to study the confession and bring a recommendation to the 2010 General Assembly. This is the first step in the PC(USA) process of changing the Book of Confessions, a process that will require approval at General Assemblies in 2010 and 2012 and approval of the presbyteries after the 2010 Assembly.[dated info]

Property ownership

In the event of a congregational split, dissolution (closing), or disassociation from the PC(USA), the presbytery may assert a claim to the property. State law (which varies) determines the ownership of property despite the denomination's property clause in the Book of Order. This clause does not prevent particular churches from leaving the denomination, but if they do, they may not be entitled to any physical assets of that congregation unless by agreement with the presbytery. Recently this provision has been vigorously tested in courts of law.

Despite the historically connectional structure of Presbyterianism, this issue is, surprisingly, relatively new. Until recently the "connection" referred to doctrinal coherence and had no reference to physical property. In 1981, UPCUSA leaders persuaded the General Assembly to amend the Book of Order in order to add the "property trust" elements. The denomination did this in reaction to three developments over the previous decade:

1) A case involving a Pittsburgh ministerial candidate who opposed the ordination of women led several congregations in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to leave in favor of the new Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative body with origins in the Southern U.S., in the mid-1970s.

2) The Supreme Court case Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), allowed for church property cases to be adjudicated in civil courts in the U.S., giving churches hostile to national or regional bodies a possible platform to secede.

3) Some months prior to that General Assembly, a number of disaffected congregations formed a new conservative denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. UPCUSA loyalists interpreted that move as having been encouraged by the 1979 ruling.

The secessions in the first and third points were occasioned in part by factors including the UPCUSA's approval of abortion rights, its stands on world peace and concomitant suspicion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy (brought about by the trauma of the Vietnam War), and its support of controversial social justice causes such as a well-publicized General Assembly contribution to the defense fund of imprisoned activist Angela Davis. The first instance in particular reflected that candidate's and those churches' opposition to female leadership in the church and feminism in general. Later, in the 1980s, Presbyterian evangelicals added homosexuality to their list of grievances, although the UPCUSA decided in 1978 not to ordain non-celibate gays to the ministry or eldership, a decision that liberal groups have been trying to reverse for most of the first decade of the 21st century.

The PCUS, already deeply in preparation for the UPCUSA merger, followed suit in 1982, but managed to gain a concession for its conservative congregations in the form of a two-year grace period to take effect after the consummation of the merger, to enable dissenting churches to defect, by consent of presbytery, without suffering any loss of assets. The PCUS had to agree to this limit on eligibility as a condition of union, due to the so-called "Northern Presbyterians" being by far the majority numerically.

In ensuing years, disaffection has grown among PC(USA) conservatives (from both predecessor traditions) due to feelings that presbyteries have no right to congregational property, since national agencies and local pledges usually finance building programs, with little or no presbytery fiduciary interest. In fact, prior to World War II, more often than not, new churches started from the initiative of larger congregations (e.g., Sunday School missions), not presbyteries, as became the case increasingly from the 1950s onward, due to suburban mission planning and ecumenical concerns. Several cases in California seem to have halted the practice in that state—the courts have allowed individual churches to leave the PC(USA) and keep their own assets, as well as parishes of the United Methodist and Episcopal denominations. In most other states, however, courts have generally deferred to the provisions in the Book of Order, permitting presbytery takeovers and/or dissolutions of some dissenting churches.

Divestment from corporations operating in Israel

In June 2004, the General Assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the church's committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." The resolution also said "the occupation . . . has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict." [36] The church statement at the time noted that "divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and 80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa."

A second resolution, calling for an end to the construction of a wall by the state of Israel, passed.[37] The resolution opposed to the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier, regardless of its location, and opposed the United States government making monetary contribution to the construction. The General Assembly also adopted policies rejecting Christian Zionism and allowing the continued funding of conversionary activities aimed at Jews. Together, the resolutions caused tremendous dissent within the church and a sharp disconnect with the Jewish community. Leaders of several American Jewish groups communicated to the church their concerns about the use of economic leverages that apply specifically to companies operating in Israel.[38] Some critics of the divestment policy accused church leaders of anti-Semitism.[39][40][41][42]

In June 2006, after the General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama changed policy (details), both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups praised the resolution. Pro-Israel groups, who had written General Assembly commissioners to express their concerns about a corporate engagement/divestment strategy focused on Israel,[43] praised the new resolution, saying that it reflected the church stepping back from a policy that singled out companies working in Israel.[44] Pro-Palestinian groups said that the church maintained the opportunity to engage and potentially divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation, because such support would be considered inappropriate according to the customary MRTI process.

Ahead of its scheduled July 2012 General Assembly meeting, there is talk that this issue will be raised again. According to an article in the Jewish Week, "several observers said, however, that they believe the church laity will similarly reject this proposal."[45] In addition, the group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace has issued a statement against the divestment vote as well, saying, "We are not surprised by the MRTI recommendation because there is a small group of activists within the PCUSA that has relentlessly sought to punish Israel. Wanting to find one party at fault in a conflict where all parties have engaged in positive and negative actions, this small group believes that Israel is solely to blame for the current conflict."[46]

In August 2011, the American National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus (NMEPC) endorsed the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.[47]

Revision of Interfaith Relations resource on church anti-Jewish bias in materials related to Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In May 2008,[48] the denomination's Office of Interfaith Relations issued a statement titled "Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias." This statement reported that "strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read" regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.[49] The Church revised and expanded this document in June, removing acknowledgment of such sentiment as a matter of current church practice, instead declaring that the church's current stands are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish - in part because they reflect criticisms of Israel meted by Jews and Israelis. The revisions resulted in a rebuke from the major Jewish denominations in a June 13, 2008 letter to the head of the PCUSA [50] and a similar condemnation in the form of a statement from the denominations and ten other organizations.[51]

See also


  1. ^ "PC(USA) Research, Go Figure, 12/2010". 
  2. ^ "FAQ / Interesting Facts". 
  3. ^ [1] The Presbyterian Layman, June 30, 2010.
  4. ^ Jewel L. Spangler, Virginians Reborn: Anglican Monopoly, Evangelical Dissent, and the Rise of the Baptists in the Late Eighteenth Century (University Press of Virginia, 2008) ISBN 978-0-8139-2679-7
  5. ^ Jennifer Oast, "'The Worst Kind of Slavery': Slave-Owning Presbyterian Churches in Prince Edward County, Virginia," Journal of Southern History, Nov 2010, Vol. 76 Issue 4, pp 867-900
  6. ^ Kibler, Craig M. PCUSA projects largest membership loss ever in 2007. Presbyterian Layman, February 19, 2008.
  7. ^ See article "Undivided Plural Ministries"
  8. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Book of Order (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2009), G-14.0240.
  9. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Book of Order (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2009), G-9.0202b.
  10. ^ Accessed Nov 28, 2009. Bound versions are published bi-annually with the minutes of the General Assembly.
  11. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Book of Order (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2009), The Rules of Discipline.
  12. ^ Ibid. W-4.4003.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), General Assembly Mission Council Manual of Operations 2009. Accessed Dec 2, 2009.
  15. ^ "Comparative Statistics". 2005. 
  16. ^ Summary of Statistics: 2008-2009.
  17. ^ Jack Marcum (2008). "Go Figure: The Shrinking Church" (PDF). 
  18. ^ Clifton Kirkpatrick. "A Wake-Up Call to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)". The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). 
  19. ^ "PC(USA) Congregations and Membership — 1996-2006" (PDF). 2006. 
  20. ^ "PC(USA) membership declines, financial giving up". Presbyterian News Service. 
  21. ^ 2007–2009 Book of Order
  22. ^ PC(USA) - Presbyterian 101 - Presbyterian Worship
  23. ^ Riley, Jennifer. 2008. PC(USA) Poised to Grow World Mission Christian Post.
  24. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Office of the General Assembly, Department of Ecumenical and Agency Relationships. Accessed Dec 12, 2009.
  25. ^ Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order (2009/2011). C-1.
  26. ^ Presbyterian 101: Social Issues: Homosexuality
  27. ^ About the Covenant Network
  28. ^ A Season of Discernment: The Final Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2006, retrieved 2008-05-14
  29. ^ General Assembly PC-Biz system, 218th General Assembly, item 13-06
  30. ^ General Assembly PC-Biz system, 218th General Assembly, item 05-12
  31. ^ General Assembly PC-Biz system, 218th General Assembly, item 05-09
  32. ^ PC(USA) - 218th General Assembly (2008)
  33. ^
  34. ^ Advocate:Presbyterians approve gay clergy
  35. ^ Presbyterians Approve Ordination of Gay People
  36. ^ "Urging Israel and Palestine to Implement the Accord". Presbyterian Church (USA). 2004-06-26. Retrieved 2007-02-09. 
  37. ^ "General Assembly Action on the Israeli Wall". Presbyterian Church (USA). 2004-06-26. Retrieved 2007-02-09. 
  38. ^ David Elcott, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Ethan Felson, Mark Waldman, Mark Pelavin (November 29, 2004). "Letter Regarding Divestment sent to Mainline Protestant Denominations From Leaders of Five Major Jewish Organizations" (PDF). American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. 
  39. ^ Appelbaum, Diana (June 3, 2006). "Presbyterians Bearing False Witness". The American Thinker. Retrieved June 4, 2006. 
  40. ^ Prager, Dennis (July 20, 2004). "Presbyterian Church defames Christianity". Jewish World Review. Retrieved June 4, 2006. 
  41. ^ Hecht, Shea (September 2005). "The Presbyterian Church Boycotts Israel". The Jewish Magazine. Retrieved June 4, 2006. 
  42. ^ A Recovering Presbyterian: A Curious Silence
  43. ^ Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Dr. David Elcott, Ethan Felson, Lewis Grafman, Shelley Klein, Dr. Eugene Korn, Avram Lyons, David Michaels, Sammie Moshenberg, Mark Pelavin, Dr. Carl Sheingold, Robert Zweiman (June 4, 2004). "Letter from 12 National Jewish Agencies to Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly Commissioners Regarding Upcoming Decision on Phased Selective Divestment Related to Israel". 
  44. ^ Ethan Felson (June 4, 2004). "Statement from 15 National Agencies Welcoming Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly Return to "Customary Corporate Engagement Process"". 
  45. ^ Presbyterians To Again Debate Divestment From Israel
  46. ^ Presbyterians Reject Call for Divestment
  47. ^ National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus Supports and Endorses the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign Against the Israeli Occupation of Palestine
  48. ^ Council on Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations text of PCUSA-OIR Statement
  49. ^ Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias, Office of Interfaith Relations, Presbyterian Church (USA), retrieved 2008-05-11
  50. ^ Letter from Jewish Denomination Leaders to Stated Clerk Kirkpatrick, June 13, 2008
  51. ^ Jewish Agency Statement on PCUSA Revisions to anti-Jewish bias document, June 13, 2008

Further reading

  • Alvis, Joel L., Jr. Religion and Race: Southern Presbyterians, 1946-1983. (1994). 197 pp.
  • Balmer, Randall, and Fitzmier, John R. The Presbyterians (1993). 274 pp. excellent survey by scholars; good place to start
  • Banker, Mark T. Presbyterian Missions and Cultural Interaction in the Far Southwest, 1850-1950. (1993). 225 pp.
  • Bender, Norman J. Winning the West for Christ: Sheldon Jackson and Presbyterianism on the Rocky Mountain Frontier, 1869-1880. (1996). 265 pp.
  • Boyd, Lois A. and Brackenridge, R. Douglas. Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status. (1983) 308 pp.
  • Fraser, Brian J. The Social Uplifters: Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915. (1988) 212pp.
  • Hirrel, Leo P. Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform. (1998). 248 pp.
  • Klempa, William, ed. The Burning Bush and a Few Acres of Snow: The Presbyterian Contribution to Canadian Life and Culture. (1994). 290 pp.
  • LeBeau, Bryan F. Jonathan Dickinson and the Formative Years of American Presbyterianism. (1997). 252 pp.
  • Loetscher, Lefferts A. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. (1983). 224 pp. good overview
  • Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. (1991). 333 pp.
  • Lucas, Sean Michael. On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories (2006) excerpt and text search
  • McKim, Donald K. Presbyterian Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Moir, John S. Enduring Witness: A History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. (1975). 311 pp.
  • Noll, Mark; D. G. Hart, and Marilyn J. Westerkamp. "What Has Been Distinctly American about American Presbyterians?" Journal of Presbyterian History 2006 84(1): 6-22.
  • Parker, Harold M., Jr. The United Synod of the South: The Southern New School Presbyterian Church. (1988). 347 pp.
  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions: Study Edition. Louisville. Kentucky.: Geneva Press, c1999. ISBN 0664500129
  • "Presbyterian Presence: The Twentieth-Century Experience"
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Pluralistic Vision: Presbyterians and Mainstream Protestant Education and Leadership. (1992). 417 pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Organizational Revolution: Presbyterians and the American Denominationalism. (1992). 391pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Confessional Mosaic: Presbyterians and Twentieth-Century Theology. (1990). 333pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Mainstream Protestant "Decline": The Presbyterian Pattern. (1990). 263pp.
    • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Presbyterian Predicament: Six Perspectives. (1990) 179pp
  • Smith, Frank Joseph. The History of the Presbyterian Church in America (1985). 607 pp.
  • Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South. Vol. 1, 1607-1861. (1963). 629 pp.
  • Wellman, James K., Jr. The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism. (1999). 241 pp. on Chicago's elite Fourth Presbyterian Church
  • Weston, William J. Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House. (1997). 192 pp.
  • Yohn, Susan M. A Contest of Faiths: Missionary Women and Pluralism in the American Southwest. (1995). 266 pp.

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