Presbyterianism is a type of church denomination. Christianity is made up of different denominations, such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and many, many others. Not all Presbyterian churches are members of the same specific denomination. Just like Baptists have different denominations (Southern Baptist, United Baptist, Missionary Baptist, etc), Presbyterians have different denominations as well. Some of those include the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. There are several different Methodist and Lutheran denominations as well, not to mention all the other types of Christian denominations. Unfortunately, all these specific different denominations came about because they disagreed in some way with the other denominations.
The word Presbyterian comes from a Greek word that means elder. Every Presbyterian church has elders that the congregation has elected. The elders represent the congregation and are entrusted to make many decisions for the congregation. Some Presbyterian denominations rotate through elders, electing new ones every few years, and other denominations elect elders for life. Chapter ??? deals with elders in more detail.
Every type of church denomination has distinctives that make them different from other types of denominations. Presbyterian churches have three major distinctives.
The first distinctive is called connectionalism. This simply means that we believe that all our churches should be connected with all the other Presbyterian churches within our denomination. No one church should operate independently of the other churches. We believe this because the Bible teaches that there is only one Church. Presbyterians recognize that it is impractical for churches of different denominations to be united together because they believe different things. However, as much as is humanly possible, we try to organize our denominations in ways that unite them with our other churches. It is a shame that different denominations cannot all believe the same doctrines or agree on all the same practices, but within Presbyterianism, we do our best to work out the Biblical ideal of One Church. Ideally, when Presbyterian churches agree on doctrines and practices, they can easily show this unity.
The way that we connect with other churches is through our church structure. Every church is a member of what is called a Presbytery. Presbyteries are made up of all the churches within certain geographical regions. Representatives from each of the churches gather together several times a year at a Presbytery meeting. There they make certain decisions that relate to all the individual churches. Once per year, representatives from the different presbyteries gather together at a General Assembly for the entire denomination. There they gather to make decisions that impact all the Presbyteries.
Even though our churches unite together in presbyteries and the General Assembly, each church still has the right to make most practical decisions all on its own. For instance, Presbyteries approve and ordain ministers, but they do not force churches to have a certain minister. Instead, each church decides which minister they would like to have in its congregation. Each church maintains a significant amount of authority for its own affairs.
The thing that unites Presbyterian churches more than anything else is doctrine (Chapter ???). They work hard to agree upon the same beliefs concerning what the Bible teaches. This is in accord with the Bible’s teaching that there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of All (Ephesians 2:4-6).
The second distinctive that makes Presbyterian churches different is baptism. Chapter ??? deals with baptism in more detail, but to summarize briefly, Presbyterians baptize both infants and believing adults, and they do it by sprinkling or pouring water on their heads instead of immersing them under water.
The third distinctive of Presbyterianism is called Reformed Theology or Calvinism. Again, Chapters ???? deals with these in more detail, but, in short, Calvinists believe that God is sovereign over all things, including the saving of people’s souls from sin and death. Sovereign means that God is Lord over all things, no matter how insignificant—he has a plan for all of history and the power and authority to accomplish that plan. Saving people’s souls is a significant part of that plan. His plan cannot be thwarted, no matter how hard Satan and evil people may try.
There are other differences, but these three—Connectionalism, Baptism, and Calvinism—are the three most obvious and important.