PCUSA vs PCA Presbyterians: What’s the Difference?


The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are the two largest Presbyterian denominations in the United States. The PCUSA and the PCA have shared history dating back to French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) and the Protestant Reformation. They have traditionally held the same theological convictions, though in recent decades have taken starkly different paths.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is five times as big as the Presbyterian Church in America, yet its membership is declining while the PCA’s is rising. The PCUSA welcomes liberal and progressive theological positions and social causes. The PCA maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters.

How do the PCUSA and PCU compare to each other in regard to their origin and membership numbers? How do they view the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647? What ecclesiastical and social issues do they disagree about? See the comparison charts below for more information.

Presbyterian Church of America
“Let the elders [i.e. presbyters] who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” 1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)

PCUSA and PCA: Comparison Overview

Numbers tell part of the story of what makes the PCUSA and PCA denominations different. However, theology, and its implications for society tell the rest of the story. Readers are encouraged to use the chart below as a starting point for understanding the differences between these Presbyterian denominations.

Presbyterian Church (USA)Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
Established 1983; the result of a merger (see below)1973; the result of a merger (see below); the denomination was established as the “National Presbyterian Church,” then adopted the PCA name in 1974
Membershipgenerally decreasing: 1.7 million (2015), 1.3 million (2019)generally increasing: 370,000 (2015), 384,000 (2019)
Congregationsabout 10,000about 2,000
MergedDuring the American Civil War, the northern body, i.e. the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS) and the southern body, the United Presbyterian Church USA (UPCUSA), split. In 1983, after 122 years of division, they merged.Approximately 260 conservative churches separated from the PCUS and UPCUSA (and their PCUSA merger) because of their liberal and progressive theological convictions and vision for ministry.*
Doctrinal platformHistorically, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF); The Confession of 1967, which updated dated words and terms of the WCF, though critics argued that the original was sufficient; in 2002 the PCUSA modified the modern statement based on criticism that the 1967 version didn’t use inclusive language [1]No modern statement; the Westminster Confession of Faith only
TheologyHistorically, Calvinist; some evangelical members and churches, but many more moderate-liberal members and churchesHistorically and presently Calvinist; more conservative than PCUSA; some devoutly Reformed, others broadly evangelical
PublishingWestminster John Knox Press byFaith magazine
National headquartersLouisville, KentuckyLawrenceville, Georgia
Websitepcusa.orgpcanet.org

*Conservative congregations disagreed with the denomination’s involvement with ecumenical bodies like the National Council of the Churches of Christ, the World Council of Churches, and the Constitution on Church Union.

First Presbyterian Church
“And [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians 1:18 (ESV)

PCUSA and PCA: Beliefs

Historically, all Presbyterians have similar beliefs about doctrines like God, Christ, sin, salvation, and heaven. While the PCUSA acknowledges their roots in these doctrines, modern culture tends to significantly shape their present-day convictions and ministry objectives. The PCA holds firmly to the teachings of Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Presbyterian Church (USA)Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
Important literature other than the BibleThe inclusive-language edition of the 1967 Confession; The Book of Confessions, and all the books included in itThe Westminster Confession of Faith; other Reformed Confessions
AuthorityPCUSA doctrine articulates belief in “the authority of Scripture” however “God alone is lord of the conscience, and it is up to each individual to understand what these principles mean in his or her life.” [2]Scripture; church tradition isn’t greater in authority than Scripture or on par with it
Scripture“We believe that through it God speaks to us–that it is inspired.” [2] Some PCUSA hold the doctrine of inerrancy, though some who use the term don’t apply it to certain topics like history and science.The Bible is inerrant (i.e. without errors) and infallible (i.e. not able to lead astray) in all that it teaches.
Trinity“There is a profound complexity in the orthodox Christian doctrine of God, but it is not incomprehensible. Although humans do not have a full understanding of God, there is a reasonable basis for belief in the triune God. The doctrine expresses genuine monotheism.”There is one God, who is eternal and exists in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ / AtonementChrist is “fully human, fully God”; “God in Christ has paid the price. Atonement is a reality. God has to do it all. We caused the alienation; it is God who must, at great cost, create the conditions that bring about reconciliation.” [2]God in His sovereignty has chosen sinners to be redeemed through power of the Holy Spirit and by means of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.
Salvation“Our salvation (justification) through Jesus is God’s generous gift to us and not the result of our own accomplishments.”Justification is by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Holy Spirit“The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God–but they are one God.”The Holy Spirit is fully divine and the third member of the Trinity.
Baptism“When Presbyterians speak of baptism as a covenant, we emphasize the multiple commitments involved. First and most basic, there is God’s commitment to us. Then there are the commitments the community of faith makes to us. Finally, and no less important, are the commitments we make to God, to our children, and to the church.” [2]Baptism is a sign of God’s covenant. Infants should be baptized, however adults who profess faith later in life should be as well.
CommunionThe Real Presence of Christ; “The physical nature of the bread and the wine does not change. And yet Jesus is genuinely present here, as he promised, to sustain and strengthen his people.”The Real Presence of Christ; it’s neither a physical presence (e.g. like Catholics believe) nor it is merely symbolic (e.g. what Baptists believe)
Ordination of WomenMen and women can be ordained as pastors and elders.
Only men can be ordained in “obedience to the New Testament standard for those who rule the church and teach doctrine.” Ministers, ruling elders, and deacons in the PCA are men only, in obedience to the New Testament standard for those who rule the church and teach doctrine, though women have a wide range of use for their gifts in our churches.
EschatologyAmillennial; believes in the Second ComingAmillennial; believes in the Second Coming

Social issues in the PSUSA and the PCA

Presbyterian Church (USA)Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
Homosexuality“The PCUSA has no consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on issues of same-sex practice.” [3] Recently, the General Assembly amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between “two people.” Ministers may perform any legal marriage between two people. Ministers who object to same-sex marriage aren’t required to perform such ceremonies.

PCA believes that God’s intent in creation was that male and female would be complementary, that the privilege of sexual expression would be between male and female only, and this expression would be only in the context of marriage. Both heterosexual and homosexual sexual behavior outside of marriage violates the human spirit and distorts God’s intent for men and women. [4]
AbortionMorally “acceptable” though it “ought to be an option of last resort.”“Abortion would terminate the life of an individual, a bearer of God’s image, who is being divinely formed and prepared for a God-given role in the world.” [4]

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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