The Presbyterian and Baptist traditions are influential Protestant denominations that have left their mark in Europe, America, and around the world. The traditions agree on many important matters of faith and practice, but they have important differences, too.
Presbyterians and Baptists agree on doctrines like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They disagree about baptism, the nature of the bread and cup at the Lord’s Supper, and church government. Presbyterians are Calvinists. Some Baptists are Calvinist, some aren’t.
Why do Presbyterians and Baptists believe the way they do? What are the largest Presbyterian and Baptist denominations? The comparison charts below offer readers valuable information for the purpose of understanding these important Christian denominations better. Keep reading to learn more.
Also see Presbyterian vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.
Presbyterian and Baptist Comparison: Overview
Unless otherwise noted, the chart below reflects the historic convictions of the Presbyterian and Baptist traditions. In the second half of the 20th century, some denominations and churches in each tradition began questioning and abandoning the historic teachings of their movement. As a result, some “Presbyterian” and “Baptist” churches no longer believe or teach the doctrines and practices that have defined their respective traditions for centuries.
|Name||The term “Presbyterian” is derived from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning “elder.” In New Testament context, the word refers to a form of church government that is elder led.||The word “Baptist” comes from the practice of “believer’s baptism,” i.e. only professing Christians are baptized, not infants.|
|Origin||John Calvin (1509-1564), 16th century France||The Baptist tradition has roots in English Puritanism and the Anabaptist tradition in Europe.|
|Early influencer(s)||John Knox (1514-1572), 16th century Scotland||John Smyth (1554-1612) in England, Roger Williams in America (1603-1683)|
|Significant writing outside the Bible||The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)||The London Confession of Faith (1689), the New Hampshire State Baptist Convention (1832)|
|What are the largest denominations in the tradition today?||The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA); the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)*|
see charts below
|Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBCUSA)*|
see charts below
|Primary doctrine||The Trinity, the fallenness of humanity, the death of Christ as an atonement for sin, the physical resurrection of Christ, salvation is by grace through faith, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Second Coming||same|
|Theology||Presbyterian churches are Reformed; historically, the teachings of John Calvin shape the tradition’s doctrine; Covenant Theology undergirds their faith and practice||The Baptist tradition is one of the most doctrinally diverse denominations in Protestantism (e.g. Baptists may be Calvinist or Arminian); Baptists generally agree on Believer’s Baptism, the autonomy of the local church, and the separation of church and state|
|Theological and social worldview||It depends on the denomination; the PCUSA welcomes liberal and progressive theological positions and social causes; the PCA maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters||It depends on the denomination; the Southern Baptist Convention is theologically and socially conservative; others like American Baptists Churches (USA) welcome liberal and progressive ideas and practices|
*The PCUSA, the largest Presbyterian denomination, is more liberal than the second largest, the PCU. The SBC, the largest Baptist denomination (and the largest Protestant denomination in America), is more conservative than the NBCUSA. Social issues that divide denominations and churches include, but aren’t limited to: ordaining women, same-sex marriage, ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, and much more.
What are the theological differences between Presbyterians and Baptists?
Please see “Primary doctrine” and “Theology” in the table above as a starting point to understand the theological similarities and differences in the Presbyterian and Baptist traditions. (Also see Presbyterian vs Reformed: What’s the Difference?)
The table below reflects the historic convictions of each tradition. Conservative denominations and churches maintain strong convictions about these doctrines, while liberal and progressive bodies within the traditions hold them loosely or have replaced them with modern convictions.
|Presbyterian tradition||Baptist Tradition|
|Scripture||Presbyterians believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Many conservatives accept and defend the terms “inerrancy” (i.e. Scripture has no errors) and “infallibility” (i.e. Scripture can’t lead astray in belief or practice). Moderate-liberal churches read and teach Scripture selectively.||same|
|God||Presbyterians believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.||same|
|Christ||Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is God in human flesh. He is 100% God and 100% man. Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died as an atonement for sin, and physically resurrection on the third day.||same|
|Holy Spirit||The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. The Spirit applies the salvation that the Father planned and that the Son earned for sinners. He bestows spiritual gifts on believers that they are to use for the edification of the Church.||same|
|Salvation||Presbyterians are Calvinists and have robust doctrines on election and predestination.||Baptists can be Calvinist, Arminian, or something else.|
|There are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; Presbyterians describe baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace made by God through Jesus and extended to us||There are two: Believer’s Baptism (but not infant baptism) and the Lord’s Supper; Baptists don’t believe sacraments are channels of grace.|
|Baptism||Presbyterians practice “paedobaptism” (paedo = “child”) also known as infant baptism by means of sprinkling. Baptism signifies inclusion into the Covenant community. Adults can be baptized if they never were as a child.||Sometimes referred to as “credobaptism” (credo = “I believe”), the sacrament is for professing believers who have trusted Christ for salvation.|
|The Lord’s Supper||Presbyterians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders. They reject the teaching of the Catholic church on transubstantiation.||Also called “communion,” most Baptists believe consuming the bread and cup is a memorial of the atonement of Christ. They reject the teaching of the Catholic church on transubstantiation.|
|Church organization||Calvin taught that there are elders who preach and teach and others elders who help rule over the church. Elders in a local church comprise a session. Elders in the same geographical location form a presbytery. Groups of presbyteries form a synod.||The autonomy of the local church is an important Baptist doctrine. Local churches often belong to denominations, associations, or networks, but their relationship is cooperative.|
|View of the end times||Amillennial; Presbyterians believe the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 occurs between Christ’s first and second coming.||Baptists may be amillennial. Some are premillennial, so they believe the 1,000-year period is literal and will occur after the Rapture, seven-year tribulation, and the return of Christ|
Presbyterian and Baptist Denominations
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has experienced attendance declines in recent decades, but it’s still the largest Presbyterian denomination in America by a significant amount. The Presbyterian Church in America has seen slight increases in recent years, due in part to conservatives leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA). (Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)
|Presbyterian Church (USA)||1.7 million|
|Presbyterian Church in America||370,000|
|Evangelical Presbyterian Church||150,000|
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America. It’s over twice the size as the second-largest, the United Method Church. The division between the Southern Baptist and Northern Baptist denomination is rooted in conflict at the time of the Civil War. In recent years, the Convention has confessed and sought forgiveness for unbiblical beliefs and practices in relation to African-Americans. 
|Southern Baptist Convention||16 million|
|National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.||5 million|
|National Missionary Baptist Convention of America||2.5 million|
|Baptist General Conference of Texas||2.4 million|
|American Baptist Churches in the USA||1.2 million|
|Cooperative Baptist Fellowship||1 million|
|Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.||1 million|
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