How to Speak Presbyterian

It has been estimated that 58 percent of the members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not grow up in the denomination. For readers in that category, here is a short rundown of the lingo you are likely to hear in a Presbyterian church that you may not have heard in another church.

Communion Table or Lord’s Table
This is the table at the front of the sanctuary that holds the bread and the wine for Communion. Sometimes other items are placed on this table, such as the Bible, a cross, or candles. The reason this is call a Lord’s Table rather than an altar is that on the night in which he was betrayed, when Jesus was eating the Passover meal with his disciples, they were sitting at a table (Luke 22:14). An altar is a place for making sacrifices. In the Reformed tradition we believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient once for all. This sacrifice does not have to be repeated with a Mass or other Communion on an altar.

This is the group of people, elected by the congregation, who make the decisions for the running of the local church. In some churches this group is called the “church council.”

The session is composed of elders. This doesn’t have to do with age so much as those who are considered competent and wise enough to make good decisions. There are two kinds of elders, “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.” The ruling elders come from the congregation and are elected to serve in three-year cycles. The teaching elder is the pastor. This person is called a teaching elder because they have to go to a lot of school to get the education to preach and teach proper doctrine. The pastor is often also called the minister, or a “minister of the Word and Sacrament.”

The presbytery is made up of a group of churches usually in a certain geographical area. The Presbytery meeting includes “presbyters,” both ruling and teaching elders, who gather to make decisions affecting the presbytery. By having their representatives gather together as a group, congregations both support each other and are held accountable to each other.

Book of Order
This is the rule book for the Presbyterian Church. It contains the guidelines for church life, including structure, worship and collective action. It not only tells us how to do things but also explains why. It was developed and can be modified by the General Assembly, with the ratification of a majority of the presbyteries.

General Assembly
Every year all the presbyteries in the country elect commissioners or representatives to a meeting of the General Assembly. The General Assembly makes decisions for the church as a whole. This is where Presbyterians become a national rather than a local church.

These are the folks, a proportionate number of ministers and elders, elected by the presbyteries to go to General Assembly. Rather than being instructed in how to vote at the Assembly by their presbytery, the commissioners as a body seek to discern the will of the Holy Spirit.