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What is unique about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?


Presbyterian Church (USA) is distinctive in few major ways. 


Reformed theology

What are human beings created to do? Reformed theology says that human beings are to “know God and enjoy [God] forever.” Theology is a way of thinking about God and God’s relation to the world. Reformed theology evolved during the 16th century religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation.


In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Related to this central affirmation of God’s sovereignty are other great themes of the Reformed tradition:


• The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation.

• Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God.

• A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation.

• The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of          society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God. (Book of Order, G-2.0500)


Church government

A major contributor to Reformed theology was John Calvin, who converted from Roman Catholicism after training for the priesthood and in the law. In exile in Geneva, Switzerland, Calvin developed the Presbyterian pattern of church government, which vests governing authority primarily in elected members known as elders. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder.


Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large, including ecumenical relationships. They shall serve faithfully as members of the session (Book of Order, G-10.0102). When elected as commissioners to higher governing bodies, elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office (Book of Order, G-6.0302).


The body of elders elected to govern a particular congregation is called a session. They are elected by the congregation and in one sense are representatives of the other members of the congregation. On the other hand, their primary charge is to seek to discover and represent the will of Christ as they govern. Presbyterian elders are both elected and ordained. Through ordination they are officially set apart for service. They retain their ordination beyond their term in office. Ministers who serve the congregation are also part of the session. The session is the smallest, most local governing body. The other governing bodies are presbyteries, which are composed of several churches; synods, which are composed of several presbyteries; and the General Assembly, which represents the entire denomination. Elders and ministers who serve on these governing bodies are also called presbyters. Presbyteries and synods are also collectively referred to as mid councils.

Women in the church

One of the places where the church has had the opportunity to live up to its proclamations for the equality of all persons is in the status that it gives women in its own life and work.


Although women were first ordained as elders in one of the predecessor denominations to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1930, it was not until 1956 that presbyteries were permitted to ordain women to the ministry.


In a different predecessor denomination, the 1956 General Assembly approved changes in the church’s constitution to allow the election of women as deacons and ruling elders. Those changes were defeated by the presbyteries, but the 1957 General Assembly responded to the defeat by urging that women be included in all church committees including those on finances and budget. The first ordination of women as elders in this denomination actually occurred in 1962. As ministers, women were ordained beginning 1965.


In 1971, the General Assembly sent overtures to its presbyteries providing for election to church offices in all governing bodies, “giving attention to a fair representation of both the male and female constituency” (Minutes of the 183rd General Assembly (1971), United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., pp. 305-306).


The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been engaged in discussion and debate about sexuality and faithful sexual relationships across the last several decades; much of this debate has been focused on the morality of same-gender relationships. Men and women of deep faith and honest intelligence can and do differ on how they understand Scripture and hear the vibrant voice of the Holy Spirit on this subject. Decisions made by the denomination have sought to find ways to make space for members of the PC(USA) together to live out those differing views with integrity.


At the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis in June 2018, the Presbyterian Church voted unanimously to pass three Overtures:

Overture 11-04, On Clarifying the Position of the PC(USA) Regarding Appropriate Boundaries of Religious Liberty: Acknowledges the misuse of the term “religious freedom” in denying basic human rights, and reaffirms that faith and religious liberty cannot be used to discriminate against anyone simply because of who they are. 


Overture 11-12, On Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities: Acknowledges the church’s past mistake in being unwelcoming to transgender and non-binary individuals, encourages the welcoming and acceptance of all gender identities, and affirms their right to live free from discrimination in any arena; this overture also specifically mentioned the rights of transgender students. 


Overture 11-13, On Celebrating the Gifts of People of Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities in the Life of the Church: Apologizes for the church’s previous unwelcoming stance on LGBTQ parishioners, celebrates LGBTQ church pioneers, and states the church will welcome, lift up, and fight for the human rights of all people created in the eyes of God. 

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