Presbyterian Vs. Protestant: What Is the Main Difference

By Paul King •  Updated: 10/06/23 •  15 min read

In the realm of Christian denominations, the Presbyterian and Protestant traditions exist as distinct entities, each with its own unique characteristics. This article aims to explore the main differences between these two traditions by examining their historical backgrounds, beliefs and doctrines, church governance, sacraments and worship practices, as well as other denominational distinctions. By adopting an academic style that is objective and impersonal, this article seeks to humbly and compassionately provide understanding for an audience seeking knowledge in this subject matter.

The Presbyterian tradition finds its roots in the Protestant Reformation, which took place in the 16th century. One of the key figures in this movement was John Calvin, who emphasized the sovereignty of God and the authority of scripture. The Presbyterians adhere to Calvin’s teachings and consider the Bible to be the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice. As it is written in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

In contrast, the term ‘Protestant’ encompasses a wide range of Christian denominations that emerged from the Reformation. Protestants believe in the principles of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone). They emphasize the personal relationship with God and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.’

When it comes to church governance, Presbyterians follow a system that is based on the rule of elders. The term ‘Presbyterian’ itself comes from the Greek word ‘presbuteros,’ which means elder. The church is governed by a body of elders, both ruling elders and teaching elders, who are elected by the congregation. This system is derived from the biblical model of leadership seen in passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which outline the qualifications and responsibilities of elders.

On the other hand, Protestants have a more diverse range of governance structures, with some denominations having a congregational model where decisions are made by the congregation as a whole, while others may have a hierarchical system with bishops and synods. The diversity within Protestantism allows for different interpretations and practices, but the underlying belief in the priesthood of all believers remains constant.

In terms of sacraments and worship practices, both Presbyterians and Protestants generally recognize two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also known as communion or the Eucharist). Baptism is seen as a symbol of initiation into the Christian faith and a sign of God’s grace, as mentioned in Acts 2:38: ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is viewed as a commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection and a means of spiritual nourishment. As Jesus himself said in Luke 22:19-20, ‘And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

While both traditions share these sacraments, there may be variations in how they are practiced and understood within each denomination. It is important to note that these differences should not be a cause for division or animosity among Christians, but rather a means for mutual respect and understanding.

In conclusion, the main differences between the Presbyterian and Protestant traditions lie in their historical backgrounds, beliefs and doctrines, church governance, sacraments, and worship practices. By exploring these distinctions, we can gain a deeper understanding of the richness and diversity within the Christian faith. As followers of Christ, it is our responsibility to embrace these differences with love and unity, as stated in John 13:34-35: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.’

Key Takeaways

Historical Background

An image depicting a historical landscape with a medieval church on one side, symbolizing Presbyterianism, while on the other side, a Renaissance-style church represents Protestantism

The historical background of the Presbyterian and Protestant denominations is rooted in the Reformation, a transformative period in the 16th century that led to the separation from the Catholic Church. During this time, various theological disputes arose, prompting individuals to seek a deeper understanding of their faith.

One key figure in the development of the Presbyterian denomination is John Calvin, a renowned French theologian. His teachings emphasized the sovereignty of God and the authority of scripture. As it is written in Psalm 119:105, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.’ Calvin believed in the importance of studying and adhering to the teachings of the Bible.

Presbyterians, in particular, embrace a hierarchical system of church governance. This means that elders and ministers play a significant role in overseeing congregations. In 1 Timothy 5:17, it is stated, ‘Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.’ This biblical verse highlights the responsibility and respect given to those who serve as elders in the Presbyterian Church.

On the other hand, Protestantism is a broader term encompassing various denominations that share the belief in justification by faith alone. This belief is rooted in Ephesians 2:8-9, which states, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ Protestants affirm that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, rather than through good deeds or religious rituals.

It is important to note that Protestants have diverse doctrines and practices. Some embrace liturgical traditions, while others identify as evangelical, emphasizing personal faith and evangelism. However, all Protestant denominations hold a common belief in the primacy of faith in Christ.

To further understand the beliefs and doctrines of these denominations, we can look to the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. This parable emphasizes God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. It reminds us that no matter how far we have strayed, we can always return to Him and experience His grace. This story serves as a powerful reminder of the core principles shared by Presbyterians and Protestants – the importance of faith, repentance, and God’s unwavering love.

Beliefs and Doctrines

An image showcasing two distinct church interiors, one representing Presbyterian beliefs and doctrines with a simple yet elegant design, and the other portraying Protestant beliefs with a more elaborate and ornate aesthetic

Beliefs and doctrines are fundamental aspects that distinguish religious groups from one another. When comparing Presbyterian and Protestant denominations, we can observe several key differences that shape their theological perspectives.

  1. Salvation theology:
    Presbyterians believe in the concept of predestination, which is rooted in the idea that God chooses who will be saved and who will not. This belief is supported by Bible verses such as Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ.’ Presbyterians understand that human beings, due to their inherent sinfulness, are incapable of saving themselves. This perspective aligns with the teachings of John 6:44, where Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.’

  2. Predestination doctrine:
    Presbyterians firmly adhere to the doctrine of predestination, which asserts that God has already determined the destiny of every person. This belief is based on the sovereignty of God and recognizes the limitations of human free will. Romans 9:18 affirms this doctrine, stating, ‘Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’ Presbyterians find solace in understanding that God’s plan is just and perfect, even if it involves predestining some for salvation and others for condemnation.

To further grasp the concept of predestination, let us consider the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. Despite being sold into slavery by his own brothers, Joseph eventually becomes a powerful ruler in Egypt. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’ This story exemplifies how God’s sovereign plan can work through difficult circumstances, illustrating the notion of predestination.

  1. Church governance:
    Another distinguishing factor between Presbyterians and many Protestant denominations is the structure of church governance. Presbyterians follow a system of representative government, where decisions are made by elected elders and ministers. This organizational structure is based on the biblical principle of shared leadership, as seen in Acts 20:28, which advises the elders of the church to shepherd the flock of God. Presbyterians believe that this system promotes accountability and ensures that decisions are made collectively, reflecting the body of Christ.

In contrast, many Protestant denominations adopt a more congregationalist model, where decisions are made by the congregation as a whole. This model emphasizes the autonomy and participation of individual believers in the decision-making process. It draws inspiration from passages like 1 Corinthians 12:27, which states, ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

The differences in beliefs and doctrines between Presbyterians and Protestants showcase the rich diversity within Christianity. These variations in theological interpretation and church governance reflect the ongoing dialogue and exploration of fundamental concepts found in the Holy Bible.

Church Governance

An image depicting a Presbyterian church with a centralized hierarchy, emphasizing the authority of elders and the congregation's participation in decision-making, contrasting it with a Protestant church presenting a more decentralized structure, highlighting individual interpretation of scriptures and the absence of ordained leaders

Church governance is a significant aspect that distinguishes different religious groups from one another. The Bible provides guidance on how church leadership should be structured and how decisions should be made. In the Presbyterian tradition, governance is structured hierarchically, with authority flowing from the top down. This is in line with the biblical principle of submitting to authority. In Hebrews 13:17, it says, ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.’

In Presbyterian churches, elders are elected by the congregation to form a governing body known as the session. This session oversees the spiritual and practical affairs of the church, including the appointment of ministers. This aligns with the biblical model of elders being responsible for the spiritual guidance of the church. In 1 Timothy 5:17, it states, ‘Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.’

On the other hand, Protestant churches often have a congregational form of governance, where decisions are made collectively by the members. This reflects the biblical principle of the body of Christ functioning as a community and making decisions together. In 1 Corinthians 12:27, it says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’

To illustrate the importance of church governance, let’s consider the story of Moses and the advice he received from his father-in-law, Jethro, in Exodus 18. Jethro noticed that Moses was overwhelmed with the responsibility of judging the people and making decisions for them. He advised Moses to delegate his authority and appoint capable leaders to help him in the task. This story highlights the importance of having a structured governance system in place to ensure effective leadership and decision-making within the church.

Understanding these biblical principles of church governance helps to shed light on the unique characteristics of Presbyterian and Protestant traditions. It also shapes the way these religious groups engage in worship and administer sacraments. By following the biblical guidance on church governance, believers can ensure that their churches are led in accordance with God’s will and that decisions are made in a way that honors Him.

Sacraments and Worship Practices

An image capturing the essence of Presbyterian and Protestant worship practices and sacraments

Sacraments and worship practices hold great significance in the religious traditions of Presbyterian and Protestant denominations, shaping the way believers connect with their faith communities. While both denominations uphold the authority of Scripture and the worship of God, there exist notable differences in their sacraments and worship practices, which can be better understood through relevant facts and quotes from the Bible.

  1. Liturgical Traditions: Presbyterian denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), often follow a more structured and formal liturgy, guided by set prayers and rituals. This adherence to a structured worship style can be seen in verses like Psalm 95:6, which states, ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.’

In contrast, many Protestant denominations, particularly those influenced by evangelicalism, tend to embrace a more spontaneous and informal worship style. This aligns with the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which encourages believers to ‘pray continually.’

  1. Contemporary Worship Styles: Protestant denominations often incorporate contemporary worship styles to engage with modern culture. This can include the use of contemporary music, multimedia presentations, and casual dress. While the Bible does not explicitly prescribe a specific style of worship, it does emphasize the importance of heartfelt praise and worship. As Romans 12:1 states, ‘Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.’ Thus, as long as worship is done with sincerity and reverence, the style can vary.

  2. Sacramental Theology: Both Presbyterian and Protestant denominations recognize baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, but they may differ in their theological understanding. Presbyterian denominations, influenced by Reformed theology, often highlight the sacraments as visible signs of God’s grace and the means of spiritual nourishment. In the words of 1 Peter 3:21, ‘and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.’

On the other hand, Protestant denominations may view the sacraments more as symbolic acts of obedience and remembrance, as Jesus instructed his disciples in Luke 22:19, ‘And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Understanding these differences in sacraments and worship practices provides insight into the distinct identities and expressions of faith within the Presbyterian and Protestant traditions. By drawing from relevant facts, quotes from the Bible, and incorporating stories that highlight the significance of worship and sacraments, we can deepen our understanding of these religious practices.

Denominational Differences

An image showcasing two distinct church buildings side by side, one adorned with Presbyterian symbols like a Celtic cross and the other with Protestant attributes like a Luther rose, representing the denominational differences within Christianity

When examining the denominational differences between Presbyterian and Protestant traditions, it is important to consider the various theological perspectives and worship practices that shape their distinct identities.

Presbyterianism, a branch of Protestantism, is characterized by its governance structure and adherence to Reformed theology. The Presbyterian denomination places great emphasis on the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, and the significance of predestination. As it is written in 2 Timothy 3:16, ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’

In contrast, Protestantism is a broader term encompassing various Christian denominations that emerged from the Reformation. These denominations, including Presbyterianism, share the core principles of the Reformation, such as the belief in salvation by grace through faith. However, Protestantism encompasses a wider range of theological perspectives and worship practices, reflecting the diversity within the tradition.

To gain a deeper understanding of these denominational differences, let us turn to a story from the Bible. In Mark 10:17-22, a rich young man approached Jesus and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus responded, ‘You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” The young man confidently replied, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’

Jesus, knowing the young man’s heart, looked at him with love and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ However, the young man was unwilling to part with his wealth and went away sorrowful. This story illustrates the importance of surrendering worldly possessions for the sake of following Christ, highlighting the emphasis on self-denial and sacrificial living within certain Protestant traditions.

Additionally, the unique theological outlook and governance structure of Presbyterianism can be further understood through biblical references. James 5:14-15 states, ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.’ This verse reflects Presbyterianism’s emphasis on the role of elders in the church and their responsibility to provide pastoral care and prayer for the sick.

Paul King

I post written versions of my powerful sermons exploring topics like prayer, praise, biblical truths, and more expressions of faith. My church has a deeply spiritual culture, which I try to convey through vivid storytelling and applications in our everyday life. I spread the Good Word with lots of conviction and passion.