Guide to Presbyterianism
Presbyterianism and our history
The Church of Scotland is a presbyterian church. Presbyterianism is the name given to those church denominations that are organised and governed through courts of the Church, involving both elders and ministers (as opposed to government involving bishops - episcopacy). It emerged in the Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries as an effort by some Protestant reformers to recapture the form as well as the message of the church described in the New Testament.
They noted that in the New Testament elders had been appointed to rule the early churches (Acts chapter 14, verse 23) and that the term elder had been used interchangeably with the word bishop, Greek episcopos (Acts chapter 20, verses 17 and 28; Titus chapter 1, verses 5 to 7).
These reformers argued that although a hierarchy among elders could be observed in New Testament times (1 Timothy chapter 5, verse 17), it was not the sharp division between bishop and priest ('priest' is a contraction of the older word 'presbyter') that characterised the Roman Catholic church.
Approximately 50 million Protestant Christians around the world practise presbyterian church government. Substantial numbers of presbyterians are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and its former colonies, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary, France, South Africa, Indonesia, Korea and the United States. The older name Reformed Churches remains prevalent among groups of continental European origin; Presbyterian is generally used by churches of British origin.
397AD to 1560
Today's Church of Scotland claims historical continuity with the earliest Christians. Christianity first reached Scotland through St Ninian at Whithorn in 397AD and St Columba at Iona in 597AD. As communications improved, the Church came under administration ultimately from Rome and increasingly resembled the Church throughout the rest of Western Europe.
Down the centuries, the Church established a formidable legacy of spiritual, pastoral and educational achievements. Nevertheless, by the mid-16th century, there were many that believed that the Church in Scotland no longer reflected the life of Christians as described in the New Testament of the Bible. In 1560, Scotland became one the last countries in Europe to undergo a reformation of the Church.
Largely inspired by the preaching of John Knox who worked and studied alongside John Calvin in Geneva, the Scottish Reformation led to dramatic and often violent upheavals in both church and state. You can visit the Freechurch website at www.freechurch.org.
The Disruption of 1843 saw a major split in the Church of Scotland. This was caused by controversy over who had the right to appoint ministers - landowners (who owned church buildings) or congregations. Parliament in London refused to reduce the rights of landowners and so approximately one-third of ministers left to create the Free Church of Scotland (which became the United Free Church in 1900, when most of the Free Church joined with the United Presbyterians).
1929 to 1968
The United Free Church of Scotland and the old Church of Scotland reunited in 1929, by now with congregations electing their ministers and freed from Parliamentary control since 1921. In 1966 the General Assembly allowed women to be ordained as elders and in 1968 as ministers.
The Church and the nation in the 21st century
Today's Church of Scotland is seeking to emphasise the importance of people over buildings and institutions in a movement known as the Church without Walls. We increasingly try to work ecumenically with other churches in Scotland - particularly in combating Scotland's serious problem of sectarianism.
In a nutshell
- The Church of Scotland is Scotland's national church, also known as the Kirk.
- The Church of Scotland is independent from the State.
- The Church of Scotland is a member of the reformed family of churches which arose as a challenge to the corruption of doctrine and practice within the church of the time.
- The Church of Scotland is presbyterian - governed by ministers and elders.
- The Bible is believed to contain the Word of God and, along with the Sacrament of Holy Communion, is central to the life of the Church.
- The Church of Scotland operates the largest voluntary social work organisation in Scotland.