What’s a Presbyterian?

First and foremost, Presbyterians are Christians.  We believe that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the scriptures.

We also emphasize the sovereignty of God.  The spirit of that statement is something called “the Halverson Benediction”:  “You go no where by accident – wherever you go, God is sending you.  Wherever you are, God has a purpose for you being there.  Christ who lives in you by the power of the Holy Spirit has something he wants to do in you and through you wherever you are. Believe this and go in God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s power.  Amen.”

We believe that the Scriptures have authority.  While we appreciate, learn from, and respect what the church has confessed down through the ages (i.e. the Apostles Creed), we believe the scriptures are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s unique and authoritative revelation of Jesus Christ and God’s Word.

There is not one regimented worship style for the Presbyterian Church overall. Rather, the emphasis is placed on glorifying God, the preaching of God’s Word, and responding with our lives.  We enjoy singing psalms, hymns, and anthems of worship in many different styles.  At Geneva we feature a service that celebrates many expressions and styles of  music. If you are from a different kind of church (Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational), you are likely to find aspects of our worship service that feel familiar.   Many times, couples with different denominational backgrounds find that being a Presbyterian is a good compromise.

We also affirm education and encourage people to study on their own, as one Presbyterian theologian put it, in faith seeking understanding. We believe that learning and examining faith against our lives enables us to put faith into practice.  We believe this is the best route for spiritual growth and living in a way that glorifies God.  That makes our church a good place for asking and living with questions and testing our faith to understand it.    We are centered on Jesus and trust God through Jesus Christ.  Beyond that, we don’t insist on uniformity of beliefs and interpretations.

And we also emphasize community.  We understand our faith better was we live it out with other people.  At Geneva Presbyterian Church, we have a saying –

The Christian Faith Is Not A Solo Sport!

The word “Presbyterian” refers to governance by elders.  (The Greek word for elder  is presbuteros).   Pastors are “teaching elders” and are responsible for teaching the scriptures and the faith of the church.  “Ruling elders” are elected from within the congregation and are called to measure the progress of the church against the measure (or rule) of faith called for in scripture and expressed in our confessions.  The primary task of elders is to lead the congregation in the way of Jesus Christ.


There are many Presbyterian denominations.   While all of them have roots to the theology of Calvin and his immediate successors, there is a range of theological views within contemporary Presbyterianism.   Our denomination, the PC(USA) is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S., and is the most diverse.  We emphasize that God is the Lord of the consciences and value education.  While we encourage faith and reason, we see questions and doubts as an important pathway to discovering the depths of truth.

A Partial List of a Few Famous American Presbyterians:  Peter and Kathryn Marshall, Ruth Bell Graham (wife of Billy Graham), John Ortberg, Lloyd Oglevie, Tim Keller, Henrietta Meers, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, Ann LaMotte, Roy Rogers, Arnold Palmer, John Wayne, John Witherspoon, Sam Walton, Jimmy Stewart, Ann Coulter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jim Carrey, Dick Van Dyke, Christine Todd Whitman.  As you can tell, Presbyterians are quite a diverse bunch.


Martin Luther

Presbyterianism has its roots in the European Reformation but found its distinction through the Scottish Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a theological movement intended to reform the Church. As the Catholic Church resisted the reformers, the Church split and different theological movements bore different denominations.  In 1517, the noted German monk and professor Martin Luther took issue, as did many, with the way the Roman Catholic churches of the times were interpreting the Bible and trying to run lives both secular and sacred. He famously posted his grievances on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and it is this moment that is said to have marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Ulricht Zwingli

Emboldened by Luther, in 1522, Ulricht Zwingli began to lead a protest in Zurich, Switzerland.  His reforms emphasized simplicity and intelligibility in worship.  He objected to the lenten fast, developed a communion liturgy that was in everyday language, and encouraged the reading and hearing of scripture.   In 1529, he and Luther met in Marburg to see if they could combine their efforts- but the two could not come to agreement regarding the presence of Christ in communion.  Zwingli was killed in 1531 in a battle between Catholic and Protestant cantons in Switzerland.   But his ideas greatly influenced other reformers, especially a young French law student named John Calvin.

John Calvin

In 1536, persuaded by his friend William Farrel, Calvin began his first ministry in the town of Geneva, Switzerland.  Calvin would be forced out of Geneva but would later be invited back.  In addition to preaching and teaching, Calvin was a prolific scholar, writing catechisms,  translating scriptures, and producing a commentary on every book of the Bible except Revelation.  Over his lifetime wrote and rewrote one of the most significant works of theology ever published: the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which still serves as the foundation for Reformed (Presbyterian) theology.  Presbyterianism applies Reformed principles to church government.  John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva brought his teachings back to Scotland. In August of 1560 the Scottish Parliament adopted the Protestant Confession of Faith as the creed of the Scottish Kingdom.

John Knox

John Knox

In December of that year, the First Book of Discipline was published, outlining important doctrinal issues but also establishing regulations for church government, including the creation of ten ecclesiastical districts with pointed superintendents which later became known as presbyteries.