Today, there are over 1.3 million Presbyterians in 9,000 congregations in the United States. One of our main founders was the French lawyer John Calvin, whose teachings also inspired the Calvinist movement. As a relatively new religion, we made our way to the New World in the 1700s with many of the early Scottish immigrants. With our roots firmly proven as one of the early Protestant/Reform churches, it seems obvious that we wouldn’t hold with many of the traditionally Catholic beliefs that our ancestors rebelled against.
For example, do Presbyterians believe in transubstantiation? As with most other Protestant religions, Presbyterians believe that the elements of the Lord’s Supper (also known as Communion) remain bread and wine and do not turn into the actual body and blood of Christ. However, many followers of the faith still wholeheartedly believe that the spirit of Jesus Christ is present and enters the body every time during the ritual.
In that way, we differ slightly from other Protestant religions, who believe that the bread and wine serve mainly to remind ourselves of the sacrifices Jesus made on our behalf and his resurrection. In a sense, we’ve taken the Catholic and Protestant ideas and merged them into something uniquely Presbyterian. But how do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and what about the other holy sacrament, baptism?
Communion goes by many names in the Christian world: the Eucharist, Sacrament Most Holy, the Lord’s Supper, the Bread and the Wine, the Lord’s Table, or the Last Supper. The names cross denominations and belief systems, but the basic practice is the same. Bread (leavened or unleavened, depending on your tradition) and wine (or grape juice, or nonalcoholic wine) are ritually consumed by the congregation.
While many other denominations have a communion altar, we consider this ritual to be a simple meal in remembrance of Jesus. So, instead of performing the Lord’s Supper on an altar, we have communion at the Lord’s table. On the Lord’s table, you’ll find leavened bread and drink. The drink varies among our congregations, but in deference to our younger or abstaining members, many of us use grape juice or nonalcoholic wine in lieu of actual wine.
We believe the loaf of bread that we use should be a good, hearty loaf that is placed whole on the Lord’s table. It must be able to show the congregation the abundance and heartiness of God’s love for us, because as it says in John 6:35, “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ “ The bread itself can be made with wheat, maize, rice, barley, or any other culturally appropriate and available flours. Some of our congregations even have a second gluten-free loaf available for those of us with wheat allergies.
Communion is highly significant to us. We believe that through participating in the Lord’s Supper, we reaffirm that our salvation is in the hands of God alone and that Jesus Christ was His only gift to us. Through communion, we repent our sins and pray for God’s grace to favor us. We solidify our place in God’s community and strive to live a life dedicated to following Jesus Christ’s teachings.
We believe there is no right age to begin taking communion. Each person is different, and as long as they are baptized everyone is welcome to take part. We encourage children and young people to join in as soon as they feel ready and able to understand the meaning behind communion. Many of our churches hold a Sacraments class for interested youth so they can learn more before participating in their first communion.
Each of our churches follows its own timetable regarding celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Some of us practice weekly, while others partake once a month. Communion is generally held during the Sunday church service. We will often also offer the Lord’s Supper during special occasions, like Easter or other holidays.
We believe that taking communion is an opportunity to renew the vows we took (or were taken for us) when we were baptized. As was taught in the early days of the church, we feel that when we practice the sacraments, we recognize the three primal elements of life: water, bread, and wine. The water of baptism begins our new life as a follower of Christ while partaking of the bread and wine sparks our memories of our vows and allows us to bring our lives back into alignment with Jesus’s teachings.
Baptism, The Other Presbyterian Sacrament
Generally speaking, most Protestant traditions believe in just two Holy Sacraments (as compared to the Catholic church’s seven): Communion and Baptism. We are no different. Baptism is one of the most momentous events in our lives of faith. It is the door that opens us up to God’s grace and allows us to experience his love more fully.
We believe that people need only one Baptism in order to be received into God’s community. So long it was performed “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” you are considered part of our congregation. We believe that you can’t undo your baptism through sinful behavior. God has accepted you into His grace and His promise never needs renewal.
Humans, however, often need to renew their promises to God to remind themselves of their faith. This is one reason why baptisms are performed in front of the congregations during our regular Sunday services. We take part in the ceremony by professing our faith, voicing our support of the person being baptized, and promising to help our new member be raised in the faith. Once you are baptized, you are considered a member of the church.
We practice both infant and adult baptism. When we are baptized as infants, we believe that God Himself has chosen us to live in faith and worship. As we grow up in the congregation, we continually renew our vows that were made on our behalf, through communion and participation in other’s sacramental rituals as a congregant. When coming to baptism as adults, we recognize the responsibility asked of us and are ready and willing to accept it.
For us, the important part of the ritual is the cleansing with holy water. Our pastors will gladly support the family’s choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. Whatever the choice, we believe the water symbolizes God’s generous outpouring of grace, and our own lives overflowing with love and faithfulness. As it says in John 7:38, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
Like a few other Protestant faiths, we also believe that Confirmation, while not a sacrament, is an important extension of the baptismal rite. It is our chance to fully come into our own as members of the church. We go before our congregation and profess our faith and promise to follow the baptismal vows that were said on our behalf as babies.
Most of our churches reserve their classes for the 13-year-olds of the congregation, although many will make allowances for youth who are older. Some of our churches offer these classes on a yearly basis, while our smaller congregations offer them on an as-needed basis. During our classes, we study the Bible, our Church’s history, we learn about the sacraments, and we have fun and fellowship with our fellow confirmands. Classes are usually held in the Spring.
More About Presbyterianism
We got our name early on in our history when Protestants were still working out the kinks of our new religion. Those who believed churches should be governed by bishops (episkopos in Greek) became Episcopalians. Those who believed churches should be governed by their own members became Congregationalists, and those of us who chose to be led by elders (presbuteros in Greek) became Presbyterians.
Today, our elders, who are chosen by the congregations, and our pastors help govern our churches. We call our ministers the Teaching Elders, and our members who are elected Ruling Elders. Elders are called into service by God through the congregation’s choices. Even though their terms of service may be finite, they are considered an Elder for life.
We also follow a Reformed theology. Meaning, our beliefs are based around the Protestant Reform movement of the 1500s. In addition to counting Martin Luther and John Calvin as our forefathers, John Knox was instrumental in bringing Calvin’s teachings to Scotland and founding our first church there. While Calvin was exiled to Geneva from France, Knox was able to study under him directly.
We believe the Bible was divinely inspired and as a result, the perfect recording of God’s word. As it says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
We believe that the teachings revealed to us in the Bible are central to our worship. We regularly read from the Bible in all of our services and believe that we are called to share its good word with all members of our congregation, and it should be shared in whatever language is easiest for our members to understand. We tend to prefer the Revised Standard Version (RSV) or New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to the older King James Version.
For us, salvation is in God’s hands alone. We can’t earn salvation by doing good works or generally trying to be good enough, because as innately sinful humans, we can never be good enough. Salvation is granted to us through God’s grace. Luckily, God sent us Jesus, who died and was resurrected for us. Because of His sacrifice, we are saved.
Each of our congregation’s Sunday service looks different, as the elders and pastors work together to develop a service that works best for their own congregation. However, there are prayers, music, Bible readings, sermon, and offering. Communion can happen monthly or weekly depending on the individual church, and baptisms are performed as needed. We are a deeply religious people who believe that we are saved solely by the grace of God. Our roots run back hundreds of years to the earliest teachers of the Reform movement in Europe. It is through their good work that we’ve come to understand how the miracles of the two sacraments work in our lives and remind us continually of Jesus’s sacrifice for us, so that we may join God in Heaven.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.