Presbyterianism is probably one of the most popular names within the Protestant church. The Presbyterian Church today has a presence on five continents, and its influence throughout history is much deeper than meets the eye.

How Was Presbyterianism Born?

Presbyterian churches derive

The first thing we need to understand is what Presbyterian means. Presbyterian churches derive their name from the form of church government, in which the government of elders governs through representative assemblies. The word “presbyter” originates from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος ( presbyters ), which means ” elder ” and is a recurring word throughout the New Testament.

the system of church government

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that the system of church government used by him and his followers in Geneva, Strasbourg, Zurich, and elsewhere was based on the Bible. However, he never claimed that was the only acceptable way to govern the church. Calvin thought that the church’s government should be guided by the community or body, in which Christ alone is the head and all members, including pastors, are equal.

rejection of pyramidal government

This conclusion of Calvin’s was easy to understand. First, the heavy structure of the Church of Rome, and its strong emphasis on accumulating authority above the pope, had created a rejection of pyramidal government within the churches of the reformers. Second, reading the New Testament biblical texts clearly expresses a much more horizontal government for the church.

the system of church government

To talk about the birth of the Presbyterian church, we have to talk about John Knox (1514-1572). Knox, who was born in 1514, just three years before Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, was a Scottish Catholic priest who had had some contact with Reformed ideas and that, in the heat of the reform, he moved to Geneva, to learn directly from John Calvin.

the Protestant ideas and form of church government

In 1555, Knox returned to his country of Scotland, taking with him the Protestant ideas and form of church government, which he had learned under Calvin. As soon as he returned, he began to preach against the abuses of the Roman church, and before long, he had a large following.

Knox’s influence grew rapidly, and in 1560 the Parliament of Scotland adopted a Protestant confession of faith, known today as the Scottish Confession. By the end of that same year, the Presbyterian government had been established in the church throughout the country. The motto of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland was “For the crown of Christ and his covenant.” The covenantal aspect was the national pact signed by the Scots Presbyterians, who wanted a unified church with England. The crown aspect of the motto expressed a profound truth on which Presbyterians rested: Christ is king over his church. He has crown rights and is the highest authority as head and ruler over his people. No figure, whether pope, pastor or president, can usurp Christ’s place as king over the church.

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