Although “reformed” often refers to all churches which were shaped by the Reformation of the 16th century, there were already by the end of that century ecclesiae reformatae which distinguished themselves under that name from the Lutheran churches. The distinctions were both in doctrine and in form of church government.

These churches were often described as Zwinglian or Calvinist, names the churches themselves resisted, declaring that they sought to be reformed according to the word of God.* While grateful for the witness of the reformers, they were convinced that a reformed church is also semper reformanda (always to be reformed) in accordance with the divine purpose.

When the Swiss reformation spread to Scotland, great emphasis came to be laid upon achieving a polity which was both scriptural and effective for continuous reformation (see church order ). Presbyterianism was held by many to be such a polity, while courageous minority groups opted for a Congregational order, over against the authority of either bishop or council. From this historical development there emerged the churches of continental Europe called Reformed and those of Great Britain and Ireland called Presbyterian or Congregational/Independent.

Along the paths of exile and in the settlements of trade and empire, the European movement steadily expanded throughout the world. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches* reported, in 2001, 215 churches with well over 70 million members and adherents in 107 countries.

The distribution of these millions around the world is very uneven. The centres of strength, with numbers over a million each, are Australia, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Scotland and Switzerland. Yet strength is not only in numbers, and minority churches have a proud record. In Mediterranean countries, in Latin America, in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, churches with total membership only of thousands have endured under persecution and repression, often winning the respect of other Christians and of the surrounding community. One of the frequently used symbols of Reformed/Presbyterian churches is the burning bush; though burning, it was not consumed.


These churches did not intend at the Reformation or in their more recent foundings to begin a new church* or to teach new doctrine. They commonly affirm the doctrines of the Apostles’* and Nicene* Creeds; their confessions are attempts to expound the central themes of the scriptures. They have disagreed among themselves about the use of creeds* and confessions to test the orthodoxy of members and ministers, but they have always emphasized the importance of declaring the truth through word and sacrament.

Main emphases of Reformed teaching have been the sovereignty and authority of God,* the lordship of Jesus Christ* as the divine Saviour, and the centrality of scripture* as the rule of faith and life. In relation to these positive doctrines of divine rule and revelation,* many theologians of this tradition have also emphasized the total dependence of created humankind upon God, the utter lostness and depravity of sinners and the consequent need of a saving action by God which by prevenient grace* draws the sinner back to a right relationship with the Creator and Redeemer. If these emphases then become the basis for a logical extrapolation of doctrine, a harsh predestinarian view of salvation* and damnation can emerge. The developments within the Reformed family of churches have tended towards a return to the primary emphases on divine lordship and grace, but past doctrinal controversies are by no means over. They are often revivified when ecumenical discussion takes place.


The polities of the Reformed churches were consciously developed to enable a return to what was held to be the discipleship of the early church. The main features of the Presbyterian polity are the parity of ministers, the participation of all members in church government and the authority of councils (see conciliarity ).

While exceptional needs call for the exercise of a special authority, as in the case of the first apostles, the regular ministry of word and sacrament is exercised by ministers who have an equality of standing. If one of them (or indeed a layperson) presides over a meeting or a council, it is as a moderator elected for a fixed period of service. In meetings of the local church or councils of representatives of local, regional or national churches, the ministers are conjoined with lay elders; the voting is not carried out in separate groups of ministers and laity. In the local church some meetings are open for the participation of every member. Regional and national leadership and decision making belong to councils, not to individuals.

This polity is open to considerable variations. The most important is that which produced Congregationalism* by a fusion of elements from the Reformed tradition and from the radical wing of the Reformation. Here the wider councils are only advisory to a local church, in which the presence of the risen Christ gives full authority to the deliberations of the church meeting. A second variation affects the relation between ministers and elders in terms of the New Testament offices: are only ministers presbyters, with elders as helpers and administrators (see 1 Cor. 12:28), or are both ministers and elders presbyters, some being preachers and teachers as well as ruling (see 1 Tim. 5:17)? Third, there may be additional offices, e.g. church professors of theology, deacons in community service and, in the Hungarian-speaking churches, bishops with a long-term role of presidency and oversight.

Reform, unity and division

From their beginnings Reformed churches have had a vision of a reconstituted Christian unity.* In the view of the Reformed leaders, the failure to achieve consensus* with the Lutherans was a tragedy, which Lutheran-Reformed dialogue* in the 20th century has sought to overcome. Calvin and Farel succeeded at least in turning three Protestantisms into two by the historic consensus of Zurich (1548) with the Zwinglians. In succeeding centuries such very different men as Richard Baxter in England and Friedrich Schleiermacher in Germany have struggled to realize a unity based in reform.

It is sadly evident, however, that Reformed churches have also shown a tendency to division. It is difficult even to draw a chart of the many divisions among Presbyterians in countries as varied as Scotland and Brazil. Admittedly there are comings together as well as fallings apart to complicate the charting, but the overall impression is of a splitting trend.

Those who have anxiously considered the reasons for this trend have found them both in features accidental to the church’s life, such as national characteristics of stubbornness or impetuosity, and in negative consequences of the positive features of Reformed doctrine and polity. To stress the right of all to ponder the scriptures, each in their own language, may lead to dispute over interpretations; to give to all a participation in church government may turn dispute into schism,* when a defeated minority leaves a council to establish a purer reform in its own assembly. The conviction that God’s truth is to be known is turned into the belief that a particular church or group or individual knows it better than anyone else.

Within their own life and through their interchurch relations, the Reformed churches have often been notably self-critical, sometimes with penitent recognition of the divisive tendencies just described. This feature, coupled with the vision of unity inherent in scriptural reformation, has led Reformed churches in the modern era to make a strong contribution to the ecumenical movement.

Ecumenical contribution

The foundation of Presbyterian (1875) and Congregational (1891) worldwide confessional bodies was seen by the participant churches as a step towards wider relationships. At its formation, the Alliance of Reformed Churches throughout the world holding the Presbyterian system declared: “In forming this alliance, the Presbyterian churches do not mean to change their fraternal relations with other churches, but will be ready, as heretofore, to join with them in Christian fellowship.” This policy has been repeatedly endorsed by subsequent gatherings of the alliance and of the International Congregational Council.

Reformed churches were among the first to respond to the initiatives which led ultimately to the founding of the WCC. While many of the conservative churches grouped in the Reformed Ecumenical Council* have distanced themselves from the WCC, the majority of Reformed churches have continued to be deeply involved in ecumenical developments. Most united churches (see united and uniting churches ) have had a Reformed church among those which formed them.

As churches of Presbyterian and Congregational polity sought union, in 1970 the 11th assembly of the International Congregational Council and the 20th general council of the Alliance of Reformed Churches united, to form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches* (Presbyterian and Congregational). Its 23rd general council was held in Hungary in August 1997 with the theme “Break the Chains of Injustice” (Isa. 58:6).


n J.-J. Bauswein & L. Vischer eds, The Reformed Family Worldwide: A Survey , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1999 n S. Louden, The True Face of the Kirk , London, Oxford UP, 1963 n M. Pradervand, A Century of Service: History of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1875-1975 , Edinburgh, St Andrew, 1975 n L. Vischer ed., Reformed Witness Today: A Collection of Confessions and Statements of Faith by Reformed Churches , Bern, Evangelische Arbeitsstelle Ökumene Schweiz, 1982.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches

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