Presbyterian Church (USA)

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It is part of the Reformed family of Protestantism, descending from the branch of the Protestant Reformation begun by John Calvin. It is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) was established by the 1983 merger of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States, a southern branch of American Presbyterianism, and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a northern branch. The unified body currently has approximately 2.4 million members, 11,100 congregations, and 14,000 ordained ministers.



Main article: Presbyterian church governance


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 giving the creeds to which the Church adheres. Complementing that is the Book of Order which describes the organization and functioning of the Church at all levels, including Form of Government and a Directory For Worship.

Governing Bodies

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a representative form of government with four levels of government and administration, as outlined in the Book of Order. The governing bodies (as they are referred to) are as follows:

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

At the congregational level, the governing body is called the session. The session is made up of the pastor of the church and all elders in active service (selected by the congregation through a nominating committee). Session meetings are moderated by the pastor, who is aided by an elected clerk. This body takes care of the basic administration of the local church. The session also oversees the work of the deacons, a congregational-level group whose duty is to "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 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 next level is the presbytery formed by all the ministers in a geographic area together with elders selected (proportional to congregation size) from each of the congregations. The PCUSA also has one non-geographic presbytery in each Synod (see below) for Korean Presbyterian Churches. The presbytery has responsibility for ordaining and installing ministers in congregations and also acts as a court of appeal from sessions in individual congregations. While the members of the congregation generally choose their own pastor, the presbytery must approve the choice and officially install the pastor in the position. Additionally, the presbytery must consent if the congregation wants to remove their pastor from office. The presbytery has authority over many affairs of its local congregations. The moderator of the presbytery, as well as a stated clerk, is elected annually. All pastors of congregations in a presbytery are members of the presbytery, not of their own congregation. Additionally, an executive presbyter is often appointed as an administrative staff member to care for the day-to-day duties of the presbytery. Presbyteries meet at least twice a year, but they have the discretion to meet more often.

Several presbyteries join together to form a synod. Each synod contains at least three presbyteries, and its membership includes both Ministers of the Word and Sacrament (that is, pastors) and elders. The synod is an intermediate level of government between the presbytery and General Assembly levels. Although the synod has many duties, they are primarily responsible for: 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. Synods are required to meet at least biennially, and meetings are moderated with the help of an elected Moderator and Stated Clerk.

The General Assembly is the highest governing body of the PC(USA). It consists of commissioners elected by presbyteries and is evenly divided between pastors and elders. 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.

Meeting at least once every two years, the General Assembly appoints a moderator at each assembly who chairs the rest of the sessions. A stated clerk is appointed to serve for a longer 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 General Assembly also elects a General Assembly Council (GAC) consisting of 72 ministers and elders responsible for advising the General Assembly on priorities, programs and strategies and implementing its decisions. The GAC meets three times a year.

PCUSA-affiliated Seminaries

The denomination maintains affiliations with 10 seminaries in the United States. These are:

Two other seminaries are related to the PCUSA by covenant agreement: Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, NY, and Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico in San Juan, PR.


  • Constitution ( The Book of Confessions, as well as the Book of Order
  • Governing Bodies
  • Seminaries ( and also a list of all PCUSA-affiliated colleges and universities

Church history

Early history to 1801

Presbyterians trace their history to the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformation. Presbyterian heritage, and much of what they believe, began with the French 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. Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland and England.

The early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706 . The first General Assembly 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 Presbyterians for the American War of Independence.

Church history 1801-1900

In the early years of the 1800s, the church carried on revivals and organized congregations, presbyteries, and synods wherever they 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 nineteenth century was also characterized by disagreement and division over theology, governance, and reform - particularly slavery. The century saw the formation of additional denominations, such as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and 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 PCUSA, forming the PCCSA in 1861, which became the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Church history 1901-today

The early part of the twentieth century saw continued growth in both major sections of the church. It also saw the growth of Fundamentalist Christianity who believed in the written word of the Bible as the fundamental source of the religion as opposed to Modernist Christianity who believed that Christianity needed to be re-interpreted in light of modern scientific theories such as evolution.

The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was joined by the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1906. In 1920, it absorbed the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church. The United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

This sparked a period of ecumenical activism similar to the Second Vatican Council. This culminated in the 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 authorised 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 centralisation. This reflected its support for local decision making and concern about central organisations having greater power. Ironically, these concerns were similar to those of the Puritans in earlier times.

Attempts at union between the churches were renewed in the 1970s, culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA in New York City and the Presbyterian Church in the United States located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Current discussions within the Church

The Presbyterian Church (USA) currently is struggling with a major division over Biblical interpretation, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. Current policy prohibits the ordination of "practising" lesbian and gay persons; the policy was upheld by a vote of presbyteries in 2002. Gay people remain welcome as members, although - at least officially - they can't serve as pastors or serve as elders on the church sessions. They are also prohibited from becoming deacons.

Several Presbyterian scholars, pastors, and theologians have been heavily involved in the debate over homosexuality, including several from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, such as Robert Gagnon, Susan Nelson, Charles Partee, and Andrew Purves. Mark Achtemeier has also been a vocal participant in the debate.

The Presbyterian Church USA is an organizational member of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates gun control.

In June of 2004, the General Assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and voted 413-62 to divest itself of companies doing business in or with Israel.

Recent controversies about the role of Christ in salvation

In 2000, the Reverand Dirk Ficca was invited by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to give the keynote address at the 2000 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference. In his speech, entitled "Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World" he asked "Okay, well if God is at work in our lives whether we're Christian or not, what's the big deal about Jesus?" The Full text of Ficca's address can be found here (, where it is obvious that he was asking a rhetorical question.

Following the controversy which ensued, the PC(USA) published a statement stating "...regardless, Rev. Ficca speaks for himself and not for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." Later, in 2003, the General Assembly declared that "there is salvation in none other than Christ."

Divestment from Israel

In March 2002, PC(USA) sent a letter to the Israeli government stating, "While we do not condone the acts of violence by certain Palestinian extremists, we are appalled that Israel, in response, has continued to punish the entire Palestinian population and its leaders who have been your government's partners in the peace process."

In June of 2004, the General Assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and voted 413-62 to divest itself of companies doing business in or with Israel. Rev. Nile Harper stated "The occupation by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza must end because it is oppressive and destructive for the Palestinian people" in explanation of this action. The church statement 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."

See also

External links


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