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The Presbyterian Church is part of the Reformed churches family of denominations of Christian Protestantism based on the teachings of John Calvin which traces its institutional roots to the Scottish Reformation, especially as led by John Knox. There are many separate institutional entities of the Presbyterian Church, in different nations around the world. Besides national distinctions, Presbyterians also have divided from one another for doctrinal reasons, especially in the wake of the Enlightenment.
History of Presbyterianism
These denominations derive their name from the Greek word presbyteros, which literally means "elder." Presbyterian government is common to the Protestant churches that were most closely modelled after the Reformation in Switzerland. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Reformed churches that adopted a presbyterian instead of episcopalian government, became known naturally enough, as the Presbyterian Church.
In Scotland, John Knox (1505-1572), who had studied under Calvin in Geneva, returned to Scotland and led the Parliament of Scotland to embrace the Reformation in 1560. The first Presbyterian church, the Church of Scotland, was founded as a result. In England, Presbyterianism was established in secret in 1572, toward the end of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1647, by an act of the Long Parliament under the control of Puritans, Presbyterianism was established for the Church of England. The re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 brought the re-establishment of episcopalian government in England (and in Scotland for a short time); but the Presbyterian church continued in non-conformity, outside of the established church. In Ireland, Presbyterianism was established by Scottish immigrants and missionaries to Ulster. The Presbytery of Ulster was formed separately from the established church, in 1642. All three, very diverse branches of Presbyterianism, as well as independents, and some Dutch, German, and French Reformed denominations, combined in America to form what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church USA (1705). The Presbyterian church in England and Wales is the Methodist church, established in 1736.
Characteristics of Presbyterians
Presbyterians distinguish themselves from other denominations by both doctrine and institutional organization, or as they prefer to call it 'church order'. The origins of the Presbyterian churches were in Calvinism, which is no longer actively taught by some of the contemporary branches. Many of the branches of Presbyterianism are remnants of previous splits from larger groups. These splits have been caused by disagreement concerning the degree to which those ordained to church office should be required to agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith, which historically serves as the main constitutional document of Presbyterian churches. Those groups that adhere to the document most strictly are typified by baptism of the infant children of members, the exclusive use of Psalms (modified for metrical singing), singing unaccompanied by instruments, a common communion cup, only men are eligible for ordination to any church office, and a fully Calvinist doctrine of salvation. In these terms, conservative Presbyterians world-wide are few in number.
Presbyterian church order is based on two congregationally elected bodies, the Elders and the Deacons. Elders are typically in charge of relations with the larger denomination, doctrine, membership in the particular congregation, and relations between the pastor and the congregation. Ministers or Pastors typically serve at the will of the Elders (though usually with confirmation by congregational referenda). Deacons are typically in charge of the financial affairs of the congregation. Each congregation elects representatives to a local assembly, often called a presbytery. A presbytery elects representatives to a broader regional synod, and the synods elect representatives to the 'General Assembly. This congregation/presbytery/synod/general assembly schema is based on the larger Presbyterian churches, like the Church of Scotland; some of the smaller bodies, like the Presbyterian Church in America skip one of the steps between congregation and General Assembly, and usually the step skipped is the Synod.
Presbyterians place great importance upon education and continuous study of the scriptures, theological writings, and understanding and interpretation of church doctrine embodied in several statements of faith and catechisms formally adopted by various branches of the church. References to the adoption of Calvin's theology of predestination and the typical member's predisposition to conduct themselves "decently and in order" have earned them the moniker of the "frozen chosen". However, most Presbyerians generally exhibit their faith in action more than words, including generosity, hospitality, and the constant persuit of social justice and reform.
Varieties of Presbyterians
Even before the Presbyterians left Scotland there were divisions in the larger Presbyterian family. In North America, because of past doctrinal differences, Presbyterian churches often overlap, with congregations of many different Presbyterian groups in any one city. The largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States is the Presbyterian Church (USA). Other Presbyterian bodies in the United States include the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In Canada, the largest Presbyterian Church is the Presbyterian Church in Canada, seventy percent of which merged with the Methodist Church, Canada, and the Congregational Union of Canada to form the United Church of Canada.
In Taiwan, Presbyterians have historically been active in promoting the use of the local vernacular Taiwanese in preference to Mandarin Chinese and as such have been somewhat associated with the Taiwan independence movement.