HOW DO YOU SPELL “PRESBYTERIAN*?”
and other frequently asked questions
Are you Christian?
Yes! We believe that God was fully and decisively revealed in the person of Jesus, the Christ or Messiah; and that through him, humanity has been reconciled to God. And we do our best to live as disciples of Christ in the world, following the model of his life, teachings, and ministry. We believe in the Trinitarian mystery of one God in three “persons”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
Presbyterians trace their ancestry back to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, when many Christians sought a new way of being and doing “Church,” and split from the Catholic Church. In the city of Geneva, Switzerland, efforts at reform were led by John Calvin. His student, the Scottish John Knox, brought the principles and polity of the Reformation back to Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was founded.
Don’t you guys believe in predestination?
While election, or predestination, was one of the tenets espoused by our ancestor John Calvin, not many Presbyterians today believe that some people were chosen for salvation before the beginning of time while others were chosen for eternal damnation.
Rather, we believe in grace and the sovereignty of God; which is to say that God is completely powerful and completely free, and will do what God will do without being constrained or limited by human understanding. And God has chosen for everyone- every single person who ever has or ever will live- to have a seat at the table. This is the gift of grace-- a gift that we will never deserve and can do nothing to earn. God loves and “saves” us not because we are good, but because God is good. As recipients of this free gift of grace, we respond with gratitude, service, and praise.
How are you similar to (or different from) Catholics, Methodists, etc.?
As stated above, we believe in the mystery of the triune God and that God fully and decisively revealed God’s self to humanity in the person of Jesus. These are central beliefs that we share with (almost) all Christians. We also share a common Scriptural canon—the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments- and some of the same confessions of faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. With other Protestant Christians, we believe in salvation by grace (see above).
The main thing that sets Presbyterians apart is our polity, or system of governance. The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek presbyteros, which means “elder.” Instead of a Pope or bishops, our churches are governed by a hierarchy of councils made up of equal numbers of pastors and elders—elected members of the congregation. A single church is guided and governed by its Session made up of the pastor(s) and elders. That church is a member of a regional Presbytery (we’re a member of the Presbytery of the Palisades—45 churches in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties), governed by a council made up of commissioners from all the churches in that Presbytery. And so on, all the way up to the national level. Our national governing body is called the General Assembly. We essentially function as a representative democracy where all decisions are made by groups of people elected from the congregation.
Do you have Communion?
Communion (or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) is one of two sacraments in the Presbyterian church (the other being baptism; more on that in a minute). At Grace United, we celebrate Communion the first Sunday of every month, and on other special occasions. In the Presbyterian tradition, everyone is welcome at the Lord’s table—there are no tests or classes to take, and no special qualifications to be met. As a sign of God’s freely given gift of grace, and a “foretaste” of the kingdom of God, Communion is unconditionally open to everyone.
In the Presbyterian understanding, there’s nothing magical about the bread and wine (or grape juice) that we eat and drink. In fact, the ordinariness of the elements is a powerful reminder that God’s grace is present and available to us in all of the ordinary, seemingly mundane details and stuff of everyday life. Rather than being the literal body and blood of Christ, the Communion elements are, for us, outward, visible, tangible, tasteable reminders of an invisible, inner, spiritual reality.
Do you baptize babies or adult believers?
Both! Infant baptism reminds us all that God’s grace claims us even before we are able to respond in faith. Adult baptism is a reminder that this gift of grace calls for our constant, ongoing response. While we recognize and celebrate both infant and adult baptism, we only baptize once (though there are opportunities for a re-affirmation of the baptismal covenant, and we remember the promises of baptism in every worship service), and recognize baptisms performed in other traditions in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As the second Presbyterian sacrament (see above), baptism is a visible sign of inclusion in God’s new covenant of grace.
Can I get married at your church?
Most likely. In Presbyterian polity, pastors get to decide what weddings they will and won’t officiate, while property use decisions are made by the church’s Session. You don’t need to be members of the church, and you don’t need to be Presbyterian. As a denomination, the PC(USA) affirms same-gender marriage, and our church voted to officially be LGBTQIA+ affirming and inclusive. After meeting and counseling with our pastor, as long as the couple will be good, loving, supportive, nurturing partners for one another; as long as their relationship is free from abuse and domination; and as long as their relationship reflects Christ’s love for the world, we’d be happy to marry you!
* Throughout this document, “Presbyterian” (or “Presbyterians”) refers specifically to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, and the one to which Grace United Presbyterian Church belongs. There are other Presbyterian denominations with different beliefs, commitments, and polities.