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Presbyterianism (from Greek πρεσβύτερος presbyteros , the elder) is a form of church constitution in which the church is governed on several levels by bodies of elders and pastors. The Presbyterian church constitution is particularly common among Reformed churches . Presbyterianism stands between hierarchical episcopalism (leadership by bishops) and congregationalism , in which the congregations are completely independent. In the German-speaking world, the term presbyterial constitution or presbyterial-synodal order is usually used , in French it is système presbytéro-synodal .


Presbyterianism goes back to the Huguenot church order , which was introduced by the National Synod in Paris in 1559 . The reformer John Knox laid down the special Scottish expression in 1560 in the First Book of Discipline , which together with the Second Book of Discipline of 1578 became the guiding principle for the Church of Scotland . The system was decisively defined in the document The Form of Presbyterial Church Government , which was passed by the Synod of Westminster in 1645 and which is part of the Westminster Standards . From Scotland, Presbyterianism (in the strictest sense) spread to other parts of the United Kingdom and eventually to the entire Anglo-Saxon world.

At the Wesel Convention in 1568, the church order was adopted in a modified form for the Reformed Church in the Netherlands . With the General Synod of Duisburg in 1610, the Reformed communities of the Duchies of Jülich-Kleve-Berg adopted this model. Since the Rheinisch-Westfälische Kirchenordnung of 1835 adopted this model in a modified form, presbyterial-synodal structures were finally introduced in all German regional churches in the 19th and 20th centuries . The church orders of the Reformed regional churches in Switzerland are also related to this model.

The offices

A prerequisite of the Presbyterian church constitution is the doctrine of four offices represented by John Calvin , according to which the church cannot be led by the clergy alone, but by the interplay of various offices. In addition to the pastors , who preach God's word, and the teachers (“ docteurs ”) who instruct the congregation in the Christian faith, elders (“ anciens ”) are responsible for practicing church discipline; in addition, deacons organize welfare for the poor. All offices are temporary electoral offices. In many Presbyterian churches, elders and deacons are ordained alongside pastors and teachers (who were later mostly regarded as identical) . Both pastors and elders are seen as successors of the πρεσβύτεροι mentioned in the New Testament, so that in Anglo-Saxon Presbyterian churches they are often summarized with the common term elders and differentiated as teaching elders and ruling elders .

The governing bodies

Presbyterianism has governing bodies on three or four levels, each of which delegates members to the next higher body:

  • the session (English session , consistoire in the Huguenot church ), the leadership of the local community
  • the presbytery (English presbytery ), which leads a group of parishes in a limited local area (in the Netherlands it is spoken of classis , in the Huguenot church of colloque )
  • regional synods in larger churches
  • a general assembly or general synod as the highest governing body of the church.

Each governing body is composed of pastors and elders and is chaired by an elected chairman. In the English-speaking world, the moderator is usually called, in German the term Praeses is often used for synods and general or regional synods . In the local congregation, the parish priest (or one of the parish priests) usually presides; in higher committees, pastors and elders are usually represented in equal numbers and have equal rights.

The individual congregation is legally and financially independent, but committed to the church constitution and the confession of the church.

The elders of a church are elected by the church. Ordained pastors are also elected by the parish, but must be confirmed by the presbytery.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Text output .