What We Believe As Presbyterians

Presbyterians are part of the Reformed theological tradition, rooted in the 16th-century Reformation. We look to reformers such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others as having provided helpful theological ways to understand God’s revelation in Scripture. The Reformed tradition is a living and vital tradition. The PC (USA) has a Book of Confessions that gives us guidance for belief. The confessions of faith are important guides for understanding Scripture.

At the core of Presbyterian beliefs are the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, justification by grace through faith, and the priesthood of all believers. Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus. Our salvation (justification) through Jesus Christ is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments. It is everyone’s job — ministers and lay people alike — to share this Good News with the whole world.

One of our common beliefs with other Christians is our belief in the Trinity. We believe in “one God,” whom we know as “three persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Presbyterians, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two sacraments of the church. They unite church members with each other, and they unite us all in the church.

Presbyterians believe that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Good works are an expression of faith but do not contribute to salvation. We believe that salvation is the gift of God’s grace alone. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we receive the gift of faith, through which we love and trust Jesus Christ for salvation. We acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

The church is the fellowship of faith, the people of God, where we are in relationship with other Christian believers. The church is the means God uses to carry out God’s purposes in this world. The Presbyterian Church (USA) identifies six elements that it calls the “great ends of the church.” They are found in the opening chapter of the Book of Order and describe the great purposes for which the church exists and does what it does. These great Ends of the Church are: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

PC(USA) has doctrines and beliefs set forth in our constitution and the Book of Confessions. They start with the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, then move to the reformation ones and on through modern ones, Barmen (WWII confessing church in Germany opposing Nazis), the Confession of 1967 (addressing anti-war, anti-nuclear, civil rights, racism, and women’s rights) and the Belhar Confession (South African Apartheid). The modern confessions are our statements of faith with regard to those social justice issues. These statements reflect our understanding of God and what God expects of us at different times in history, but all are faithful to the fundamental beliefs described above. Even though we share these common beliefs, Presbyterians understand that God alone is lord of the conscience, and it is up to each individual to understand what these principles mean in his or her life.

Our most recent faith statement from 1983 affirms that “The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.

How Presbyterians Are Governed

The Book of Order says that “the Presbyterian Church (USA) shall be governed by representative bodies composed of presbyters, both elders and ministers of the Word. These governing bodies shall be called: session, presbytery, synod and the General Assembly.” Presbyterian church government emphasizes that the leadership of the church is shared between those called to be ministers and church members called to be elders within the congregation — we use the terms Teaching Elder to refer to ministers and Ruling Elder to refer to church members called to be elders. The word Presbyterian comes from the Greek word for elder, “presbuterous.” This strong emphasis on Presbyterian church government is our heritage from Scottish Presbyterians.

Unlike some other Protestant denominations which have a hierarchical structure of church government with bishops playing a central role, the Presbyterian church follows a representational form of government. Each member of a Presbyterian Church has two inalienable rights, the right to elect their own minister and the right to elect elders to govern them. Elders and ordained ministers of the Word and Sacrament have equal roles in church government.

Under the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a congregation refers to a formally organized community chartered and recognized by a presbytery. Each congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) shall be governed by this Constitution. The members of a congregation put themselves under the leadership of the session and the higher councils: presbytery, synod, and General Assembly. Carmel is part of the Presbytery of Philadelphia and the Synod of the Trinity, which includes Pennsylvania and a portion of West Virginia. The General Assembly represents the entire denomination.

The Book of Order says: “Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibility for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large.” (G 6.0302) Both ministers of the Word and elders are ordained – that is officially admitted to the exercise of their office.

In one sense, all of the new and continuing programs of Carmel are under Session leadership and approval. The Session, which is the official body of the church, must make all major decisions in the life of the church. Session must approve actions and plans of all other church groups and boards, and this group of dedicated men and women must take the ultimate responsibility for all church programs and property.

Much of the work of Session is carried out by committees which include elders, persons from other boards, and members of the congregation at large. These committees are concerned with issues such as Christian Education, Congregational Life, Outreach, Church Officer Nominating, Memorials, Personnel, Property, Stewardship, Finance, and Worship. Each committee plans appropriate activities and events, proposes a budget to cover these plans, and submits plans and budget to Session for action.

For additional information about Carmel’s boards, Session, Deacons, and Shepherds, see the Staff and Leadership section.