History of the Presbyterian Church
We must see Presbyterianism as a system for governing our beliefs and organizing our lives. It's history begins in the Book of Acts. In chapter 6 it is discovered that the zeal of the early Christians was resulting in the neglect of some of the basic necessities of life, including the care and maintenance of widows and orphans.
Thus, the early church fathers decided to organize the community so that certain persons were designated to preach the word and certain others were designated to care for the poor and downtrodden. This is the basis for what today we call Elders and Deacons within the Presbyterian Church.
The early history of the church is one of persecution. The Roman Emperors saw the Christians as a threat, and variously threw them to the lions, burned them at the stake or Crucified them. This fostered a very decentralized era in Church governance. With authorities searching for holy men and women there was no way for a rigid heirarchy to form.
This persecution, with varying degrees of severity, went on for over two hundred years until the time of Constantine, about 300 AD. When at the Milvian Bridge he had a vision that told him, "By this sign you shall conquer." The sign was the Cross. And Conquer he did. Soon he became Emperor of Rome.
Suddenly, Christianity was no longer persecuted. More than tolerated, it was favored. And not many years later Theodosius, another emperor, made it the religion of the state.
In this new environment, church government had an oportunity to become more heirarchical and rigid. Bishops gained more power, and the decentralized structure that had shepherded the church through the years of persecution melted away.
It was not until the time of Luther and Calvin that the pendulum would swing back toward a decentralized structure. This was largely because of the amount of corruption that had arrisen in the church heirarchy.
Luthor began the reformation and Calvin continued it, insisting that "the bible was the sole authority". A heiarchical structure for governing the body of Christ was difficult to divine from the words of the bible. However, the Book of Acts rather explicitly laid out a form of governance that had been formed early on.
Calvin adopted this form and John Knox, his student, carried it with him to Scotland. It was in Scotland that the Presbyterian Church would grow and prosper. For the Scots had long ago become used to a decentralized form of government. The clan system had long made the power of the kings of Scotland illusory at best. The Scots were fond of self-determination.
From Scotland Presbyterian ideas would spread to America, where they would vitally influence the Founding Fathers and the American Constitution.
In this way, Presbyterianism moved across the continent of Europe, over the Atlantic Ocean to America. We must ask ourselves the question, why did it take hold in some areas and in others (such as the mediteranean basin) it was totally ignored. The answer might lie in the geopolitical and economic factors affecting a people at any given time. For example, in the early church, Presbyterian forms of government were necessitated by the persectution of the Christians. The ideas of Calvin and Knox were likely accepted in Scotland because the Scot social structure made it familiar. Finally, it would become a driving force in America because the decentralized nature of the frontier and the long distance between the colonies and the central authority of King and Parliament in London (it could take two to four weeks for a ship to cross the Atlantic). Presbyterianism played a large part in the Second Great Awakening and the church would remain a leading force in Christian movements in the United States.