Presbyterian--What in the world does that word mean? 

  • What is Presbyterian?  or
  • What is Presbyterianism? or  
  • What is a Presbyterian?  

These are commonly asked questions by those who are simply unfamiliar with the historic roots of this form of church government.  

  • What do these people believe that's different? 
  • How come they don't mind being called by a name that doesn't even sound English?  
  • Where in the world did that name come from?

These are all commonly asked questions of those who visit any Presbyterian church.  In this article, we will attempt to answer them in a straightforward manner.  



                - the term itself has a Biblical root from the word used for "elder" or "shepherd."  In Greek, that word is frequently the word "presbuteros."  So, in its simplest sense then, the term presbyterian is telling you something about the leadership style of the local church.  The people in that building or denomination are stating that a leadership core of shepherds or elders is leading the church.  Presbyterian means that the people in that church elect men who are spiritually mature to oversee the functions of the church.  It is not the pastor who is responsible for the running of the church, and it is not the average person in the seats.  It is the elders who are given the responsibility.  Presbyterians believe that this is the biblical pattern that was established by Paul, the Apostle when he went around and appointed elders in the churches.  He listed many qualifications for these men, and they are still in effect today.  All elders in a presbyterian church must meet the biblical qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 before they can ever be nominated for the position.  Simply put, when you read "presbyterian" on a church sign, you know how the government of that church functions inside the building.


Church Polity

This word "polity" means the form of government that a church employs.  There are essentially only three distinct forms of church government or polity:  (a) Episcopal - which comes from the Greek word "episkopos" which means "bishop."  In this form of government, an individual in authority, outside of the local church (usually called a bishop) often makes decisions that affect the local church.  An example of this form of government might be a Methodist Church where the minister is sometimes asked to move from one congregation to another by the local bishop.  The Roman Catholic Church operates with this polity, as does, of course the Episcopal Church.  (b) Congregational - which states that each member of the local body has an equal say in all of the functions of the church.  A church operating with a true congregational polity might call a business meeting to discuss hirings, firings and even purchases, renovations and salary increases all down to the smallest details.  True congregational polity would have all members possessing equal weight in all church decisions.  Many Baptist denominations, the Congregational denomination, the Evangelical Free Church denomination and many others all state that they are operating with a congregational form of government.  (It should be noted that only in rare instances do churches actually operate as purely congregational.)  Most of these churches elect leaders who are given some form of delegated congregational authority.  So even though they may call themselves congregational in their form of government, they may actually be functioning in a modified form of Presbyterianism without knowing it!   (c) Presbyterian - the third form of church polity whereby leaders are granted delegated authority by the membership in order to make certain necessary decisions.  These leaders are typically called elders.  It should be pointed out that even though some churches list that they are congregational, - they do have elders in leadership positions and they do invest added responsibility in those people.  Perhaps it might be best to say that they were "Presby-gational!"  Bottom line:  When you see the word "Presbyterian" you have discovered the form of church government that is used in that church or denomination.  In our denomination, The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), the congregation is always involved in the most important decisions that effect the church.  For instance the purchasing or sale of property, and the calling or dismissal of a Senior or Associate Pastor all require congregational meetings and votes.  Direction-setting and leadership issues within the local church, however, are delegated to the most spiritually mature men in the congregation who have been nominated and elected by the congregation.



According to the Bible in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 there are to be certain qualifications for those who assume positions of leadership in a local church.  Those in the highest positions are known as elders.  They, like shepherds, are given oversight of God's local flock.  When the membership of a church elects elders, they should have assessed those individuals according to God's expectations for elders in the Bible.  Therefore, an elected elder should be someone with special gifts and qualifications for the task of elder that he will be asked to perform.  In the ARP the regular gathering or meeting of elders is called the Session.  The Session (the elder meeting) will typically meet at least once per month in order to oversee the spiritual operations and general direction of the church.  


Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP)

Most people in Texas assume that ARP is some kind of retirement group!  Actually, though, the ARP is now over 200 years old and is headquartered in GreenvilleSC.  Our denomination is regarded as conservative and biblical.  We teach the ancient truths from God's Word and make them relevant to our lives today.  The ARP has been primarily a denomination reaching rural areas and only recently have they come to Texas

Presbyterian denominations are not all alike.  Since the 1970's the major Presbyterian denomination in our country (PCUSA) has been suffering annual losses.  This has primarily been because of their openness to less conservative interpretations of Scripture.  Generally, when you read in the newspapers about battles within a Presbyterian denomination, this is the one being addressed.  The ARP is significantly smaller, kinder, gentler and more closely tied to Scripture.

The head person within the ARP is known as the Coordinator for the ARP.  That individual is Dr. Wilf Bellamy.  Each year a Moderator is nominated and elected for our annual gathering of ministers and elders known as the General Synod.  In addition, there is a denominational administrator and a support staff n Greenville at our home base for the support of our nationwide and worldwide ministry arms.  Through these ministry arms we seek (a) to educate the people within our denomination (This branch is called Covenant Discipleship); (b) to bring the Good News to those within our borders (This is called ONA - Outreach to North America); (c) to bring the Good News to those beyond our borders (This is known as World Witness); (d) to minister trans-generationally in printed form (This is known as The ARP Magazine); (e) to minister to the poor, elderly, disenfranchised and needy through our Orphanage and Elder Care Ministries; (f) to educate our college age children (This is known as Erskine College); (g) to train people for ministry (This is known as Erskine Seminary);   (h) to assist in the medical and financial needs of our ministers (This is a division known as Administrative Services and the ARP Retirement Plan); (i) to offer a retreat area as well as a Conference Grounds for all the people in our denomination (This is accomplished through Bonclarken Conference Center in No. Carolina).  Each one of the above is a functioning subdivision within the denomination.  As the local churches annually contribute to the denomination, funds are disbursed to these various ministry arms. 


God & the Bible

What do people in the ARP believe about God and the Bible?  In order to join an ARP church as a member, one must be a Biblically-based follower of Jesus Christ.  Those within the ARP believe the Bible to be the Word of God without error.  We further hold that the chief end of man is to worship God and to enjoy Him forever.  Subordinate to the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Catechism are held as proper explanations of the doctrines of the faith.  Additionally, we use a common Form of Government book which gives guidance to local churches in the area of church government, rules for discipline, worship, and the administration of the sacraments.  Churches within the denomination have great freedom in their expressions of worship and in their methods of doing ministry.  Theological convictions, however, are always grounded in Scripture.  Where the Bible is clear, we must be clear also.  All ARP churches do believe and profess similar doctrines about God, the Bible, Christ, Christ's death, God the Holy Spirit, man, sin, Satan, angels and the church.  Their ministers are examined in all of these subjects and more prior to ever being allowed to lead any ARP congregation.  Most ministers in the ARP are required to be seminary graduates.  The ministers and churches within the ARP regard themselves as being part of a ‘connectional' denomination.  By that we mean that we agree to teach our people Biblical truth.  We will teach them the inter-relatedness of each one of the members with the local church.  We will seek to focus our attention on helping individuals within the church to learn about and develop their spiritual gifts that are to be used within the local church body.  We strongly believe that each member is a minister, and we do our utmost to assist each person to develop to his or her fullest potential.


Jan Paul Sattem