The Presbyterian Church's Foundational
Principles for Governance
Chapter 1 - Historic Understandings

Christ Is Head of the Church

All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the church, which is his body.

Christ calls the church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.

Christ gives to his church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the church confesses that he is its hope and that the church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.

The Faith of the Church

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in the Book of Confessions. The creeds and confessions of this church reflect a particular stance within the history of God’s people. They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition. They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers, a people known by conviction as well as by action. They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gives witness to the faith of the church catholic. The confessions express the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in the recognition of canonical Scriptures and the formulation and adoption of the ecumenical creeds, notably the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds with their definitions of the mystery of the triune God and of the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seeks to manifest more visibly the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and is open to opportunities for conversation, cooperation, and seeks to maintain communion, community and common action with all other branches of the one, catholic church, with other ecclesiastical bodies and with secular groups.

In its confessions, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also identifies with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation, which focuses on the rediscovery of God’s grace in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. The Protestant watchwords—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone—embody principles of understanding which continue to guide and motivate the people of God in the life of faith.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) expresses the faith of the Reformed tradition. Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love. Related to this central affirmation of God’s sovereignty are other great themes of the Reformed tradition:

1. The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;
2. Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God;
3. A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation;
4. The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.

The confessions are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. While these standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to counsel with or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in them. Moreover, a more exacting amendment process is required to change The Book of Confessions than is required to change the remainder of the Constitution.

Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is, "The church reformed, always being reformed," according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.

The Great Ends of the Church (2)

The great ends of the church are:

1. the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
2. the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
3. the maintenance of divine worship;
4. the preservation of the truth;
5. the promotion of social righteousness; and
6. the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Back to top
7. The Composition of the Church

The church universal consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children, who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and commit themselves to live in a fellowship under his rule. Since this whole company cannot meet together in one place to worship and to serve, it is reasonable that it should be divided into particular congregations. The particular church is, therefore, understood as a local expression of the universal church. The law and government of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presuppose the fellowship of women and men with their children in voluntary covenanted relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests upon the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.

Governance in the Body of Christ

Presbyterian governance seeks continuity with and faithfulness to the heritage that lies behind the contemporary church. This form of government is established in light of Scripture to give order to this church but is not regarded as essential to the existence of the church of Jesus Christ nor to be required of all Christians.

The Historic Principles of Church Government (3)

The radical principles of Presbyterian church government and discipline are:

1. The several different congregations of believers, taken collectively, constitute one church of Christ, called emphatically the church;
2. A larger part of the church, or a representation of it, should govern a smaller, or determine matters of controversy which arise therein;
3. In like manner, a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part, and to all the parts united: that is, that a majority shall govern;
4. Consequently, appeals [here meaning requests, often termed overtures] may be carried from lower to higher governing bodies, till they be finally decided by the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole church.

For these principles and this procedure, the example of the apostles and the practice of the primitive church are considered as authority.

The Historic Principles of Order

In setting forth a form of government, worship, and discipline, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaffirms the historic principles of church order which have been a part of our common heritage in this nation and which are basic to our Presbyterian concept and system of church government, namely:

Right of Judgment

That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men (4) which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship."(5)

Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.

Corporate Judgment

That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ hath appointed; that in the exercise of this right they may, not withstanding, err, in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own.


That our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visible church, which is his body, hath appointed officers, not only to preach the gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline, for the preservation of both truth and duty; and that it is incumbent upon these officers, and upon the whole church, in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing, in all cases, the rules contained in the Word of God.

Truth and Goodness

That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, "By their fruits ye shall know them." And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

Differences of Views

That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

Election by the People

That though the character, qualifications, and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution, yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.

Church Power

That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church governing body ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God. Now though it will easily be admitted that all synods and councils may err, through the frailty inseparable from humanity, yet there is much greater danger from the usurped claim of making laws than from the right of judging upon laws already made, and common to all who profess the gospel, although this right, as necessity requires in the present state, be lodged with fallible men.

Church Discipline

Lastly, that if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the church universal.


As members of the Body of Christ, ecclesiastical governance unites governing bodies (whether they have authority over one or many churches) in a pattern of shared responsibilities, rights and powers as provided in the Constitution. Governing bodies are committed to the unity of the whole church, separate, interdependent, accepting mutual accountability under the Constitution. They are subject to review by more inclusive governing bodies. In the oneness of Christ’s Body, by these means, the act of one governing body is the act of the whole church.

A Particular Presbyterian Church

A particular church consists of those persons in a particular place, along with their children, who, in voluntary covenanted relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ, profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who have been gathered for the service of God as set forth in Scripture, subject to a particular form of church government. Each particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall be governed by the Constitution. Its officers are ministers of the Word and Sacrament, elders, and deacons. Its government and guidance are the responsibility of the session. It shall fulfill its responsibilities as the local unit of mission for the service of all people, for the upbuilding of the whole church, and for the glory of God.

Presbyterian Polity

The governing bodies of this church are: the session of a particular church; the presbytery, the synod, and the General Assembly. Within the Church Universal, each governing body maintains a special commitment to certain additional principles of Presbyterian polity.

This church shall be governed by presbyters (elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament [traditionally called ruling and teaching elders]); ordained only by the authority of a governing body.

Ecclesiastical jurisdiction is a power to be exercised jointly by presbyters gathered in governing bodies (traditionally called judicatories or courts). Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ. Decisions shall be reached by vote, following opportunity for discussion, and a majority shall govern.

Governing bodies possess whatever administrative authority is necessary to give effect to duties and powers assigned by the Constitution of the church. A higher governing body shall have the right to review actions of a lower one, the right to direct that errors be corrected, and the power to determine matters of controversy upon reference, complaint or appeal.


1. This document was prepared in an attempt to draw from the Form of Government those understandings deemed foundational to our polity.
2. This statement of the great ends of the church, slightly edited here, came from the United Presbyterian Church of North America, which united with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1958. The statement was then made a part of the Constitution of The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, as the united body was called. This now classic statement was adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910, following various actions between 1904 and 1910 looking forward to the revision of that church’s Constitution.
3. This section, with the exception of the first paragraph, was first drawn up by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, and prefixed to the Form of Government as published by that body in 1788. In that year, the synod was divided into four synods and gave place to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, which held its first meeting the following year. The four synods formed were the Synod of New York and New Jersey, the Synod of Philadelphia, the Synod of Virginia, and the Synod of the Carolinas. The presbyteries of these four synods were represented in the first General Assembly, which met in Philadelphia on May 21, 1789. The general plan drawn up in 1788 became that by which the Presbyterian Church in the United States and The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America were subsequently governed.
4. The words "men" and "man’s" throughout this quotation from the eighteenth century should be understood as applying to all persons.
5. This quotation may be found in The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.109, in The Book of Confessions.

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