For about one thousand years, the vestiges of the system of church government that the apostles of Christ established languished beneath the oppression that the papal religion cultivated in the world. The power of the Roman Catholic clergy, the bishops especially, increasingly drew its authority from the papacy. The reign of Pope Innocent III early in the 13th century represented the zenith of that authority. Not even the most powerful secular rulers in Europe dared to oppose his will.
One hundred years later, however, the situation reflected a dramatic reversal. The French king exerted so much influence that for just over seventy years, beginning early in the 14th century, the papacy relocated to Avignon and all the popes during that period were French. Even subsequent Roman Catholic historians designated that period as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. That development was the signal that papal influence was waning, one of the factors that prepared the way for the coming of the Protestant Reformation.
The revival of Presbyterianism in the government of the church required the complete break with Roman Catholic theology and ecclesiology that the Reformation provided. Martin Luther and his German colleagues initiated that rupture by reasserting the Apostolic doctrine of justification by faith alone. The separation ensued because the papacy refused all calls for reform and branded Luther and his followers as heretical innovators of false doctrine. The establishment of separate German churches under the general umbrella of Luther’s teaching left in place a largely episcopal form of government. In Geneva, Switzerland, however, the foundation that French reformer John Calvin established became the basis for the reemergence of Presbyterian government in Protestant churches, particularly in Scotland.
One result of the persecution that Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, launched in England, beginning after her coronation in 1553, was the emigration of some Protestant leaders to the continent of Europe. More than three hundred English Protestants lost their lives during Mary’s five-year reign, but others found refuge either in Germany or in Switzerland. Among those who spent time in Geneva under the instruction and influence of Calvin was John Knox of Scotland, who assumed the pastorate of a group of English-speaking refugees.
Besides Knox, other students of Calvin transmitted his ideas in theology to other parts of Europe. But Knox took those ideas back with him to Scotland where he used them to establish the Church of Scotland along distinctly Presbyterian lines. The effort to institute such a church generated a massive conflict between Knox and his supporters and those who were loyal to the young Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots. Mary wished to ensure that the Roman Catholic religion would continue to be the only faith of her realm.
While Knox had no desire to subvert the Queen’s authority in the civil sphere, he operated on the basis of Presbyterianism’s cardinal principle—there was to be no authority in the church except for that of Jesus Christ. Mary, Queen of Scots, despised that principle and insisted that she alone must determine what her subjects were to believe. There occurred a series of interviews between the young Queen and the much older Reformer, with Mary sometimes dissolving in tears of frustration as Knox took his stand firmly on the truth of Holy Scripture. Eventually, Mary fell victim to the politics of England where Queen Elizabeth I sought to consolidate her power. After Elizabeth ordered Mary’s arrest and removal from Scotland to minimize Mary as a threat to the English throne, Knox’s work proceeded with even greater effect.
The organization of the Church of Scotland was the most thoroughly Presbyterian of any church body since the days of the apostles. The members of each congregation elected from among them the men who would be elders, following the New Testament model. The elders functioned as the church session, watching over the spiritual welfare of the members in their charge. The minister of each congregation was one of the elders, and the elders from various regional congregations formed a presbytery. Ultimately, several presbyteries formed a synod, and the synods established the church’s highest court, the General Assembly.
The controversy over the relationship between the civil power and the church continued into the reign of the infant King James VI of Scotland who later became King James I of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Nevertheless, the principles of Presbyterianism that Knox used to organize the Church of Scotland took firm hold and resisted subsequent efforts to overthrow them. John Knox retired from Edinburgh to St. Andrews in 1571, returning the following year to preach a farewell sermon at St. Giles Cathedral, with his death ensuing just a few days later. Knox left behind him a faithful successor, Andrew Melville, who continued to guide the Church of Scotland by the principles of Presbyterianism that Knox established as the foundation of the church. The struggle between church and state continued throughout Melville’s career with King James I, who reigned in London from 1603 to 1625, asserting the theory of the Divine Right of Kings as the basis on which to control the state and the church. The Scottish Presbyterians continued to resist such interference.
For political reasons, King James resolved to colonize Ireland, especially its nine northern counties known as the Province of Ulster, by settling Scottish people there, most of whom were Presbyterians. Eventually, they formed the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. At the same time, in the period after 1620 (Melville died in 1622), other Presbyterians became part of the colonization of the New World. Their use of Presbyterian principles not only influenced the formation of the Presbyterian Church in the United States but also the republican form of government that the founders of the United States established through the U.S. Constitution that took effect in 1788. In the same year, the Presbyterian Church in the United States adopted its own Confession of Faith, following nearly exactly the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). The Westminster standards codified the principles of Presbyterianism, in both theology and church polity, that governed every truly Presbyterian church. The principles of representative government also bore fruit in parliamentary systems that developed in other parts of the Western world during the Modern period.
The principle that the members of the congregation must have the ability to elect their own representatives to govern the church is fundamental to Presbyterianism. In conjunction with that truth, Presbyterians from the Reformation period onward asserted the interdependency of the various congregations, presbyteries, and synods. Knox and Melville observed that neither of those ideas were innovations. The apostles of Christ, they insisted, directed the government of the churches in their time by the same pattern.
The revival of Presbyterianism in the Reformation period opened the way for the establishment of congregations of faithful believers in the truth of the gospel. In addition, it prepared the way for the inauguration and expansion of a wave of Protestant missionary endeavor that paralleled the Age of Exploration. Ultimately, Presbyterian missionaries and evangelists took the gospel message to various parts of the world, leading to the deliverance of many souls from the bondage of false religion. As the Reformation propelled Presbyterianism into the Modern period of Church History, the reality of the ongoing battle for the truth underscored the prospect that departures from the truth would continue to confront the advance of the gospel.