Presbyterian vs Episcopalian: Comparison

The Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions are Protestant branches of the Christian faith that originated in 16th-century Europe. These denominations have a lot in common, especially when contrasted with Roman Catholicism. Presbyterians and Episcopalians don’t, however, agree on all matters of faith and practice.

Presbyterians and Episcopalians agree on doctrines like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Regarding Catholicism, neither recognizes the papacy. Presbyterianism is truly Protestant, while the Episcopalian church is a middle way between Catholic and Protestant.

Why is the Episcopalian tradition considered halfway between Catholicism and Protestantism? Is the Episcopalian church related to the Church of England or the Anglican Church? Is the Episcopalian church Calvinist like the Presbyterian church? Keep reading to learn more.

Also see Presbyterian vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.

Presbyterian vs Episcopalian
“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Ephesians 1:22 (ESV)

Presbyterian and Episcopalian: What’s In a Name?

Many people are aware that the terms “Presbyterian” and “Episcopalian” describe Christian traditions or denominations but don’t know the exact meaning of each word. Unlike Lutheranism, which is named after it’s founder, Martin Luther or Baptist, which is named after an ordinance they practice, the terms Presbyterian and Episcopalian are related to a church office. (Also see Presbyterian vs Anglican: What’s the Difference?)

What does Episcopalian mean?

The terms Episcopalian, Church of England, and Anglican are often used synonymously, though each term is partially unique. In general use, the terms refer to the same historic branch of Christianity. In narrow use, history and geography nuance their meaning.

EpiscopalianFrom the Greek word for “overseer” and the Latin word for “bishop,” the term refers to a form of church government that locates ecclesiastical authority in the office of bishop as opposed to the papacy. The term is also used to identify a person committed to such a church.
Church of EnglandThe term refers to the Protestant branch Henry VIII and his successors established in England in the 16th century. In America at the time of the Revolutionary War, church members increasingly identified themselves as “Episcopalian” because of tension between the Americans and English.
AnglicanFrom the Latin phrase ecclesia anglicana, the terms means the “English Church.” This term is less common in America. “Episcopalian” denominations and churches are considered part of the worldwide “Anglican” communion.

The Church of England experienced a crisis in the United States during the American Revolution. The tradition had been present in the country since its first church was established on American soil at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

Many Americans who supported and led the war effort against the British belonged to the Church of England, including George Washington. After the war was over, representatives met to establish a denomination independent of the Church of England.

What does Presbyterian mean?

The term “Presbyterian” has a broad use and a narrow use. In general, the term refers to the tradition of Protestant Christianity or certain aspects of it, especially its form of church government.

What does “Presbyterian” mean?
Broad useIn common usage, the term “Presbyterian” refers to a Christian tradition or denomination that traces its roots to French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) and is “Calvinist” in theology.
Narrow useIn a narrower use of the term — and the origin of the of the denominational name — “Presbyterian,” from the Greek word for “elder,” refers to a form of church government that is elder-led.
Episcopalian church
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 (ESV)

Presbyterian and Episcopalian: Overview

King Henry VIII of England and pastor-theologian John Calvin of France each protested the abuses they perceived in the Catholic church in 16th-century Europe. Henry and Calvin didn’t necessarily rebuke the same abuses and their protests varied in expression. Nevertheless, each started a movement that impacted the Christian faith, the European continent, and America.

Episcopalian traditionPresbyterian tradition
OriginKing Henry VIII (1491-1547), John Calvin (1509-1564), 16th century France
Early contributorsKing Edward VI (1537-1553), Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600)Pastor and theologian John Knox (1514-1572), 16th century Scotland
Important literatureThe Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles of ReligionThe Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647
OrganizationChurches mostly exist in “communions.” The historic succession of bishops is highly valued; priests and deacons are the other offices in the church.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.
TheologyThe church ultimately moved away from early Calvinist influences to the dismay of the Puritans. It adopted a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism.Presbyterianism is a Protestant denomination and rejects several key Catholic beliefs and practices. It emphasizes doctrines like Covenant Theology, predestination, and the Lord’s Supper and baptism. In relation to theology proper, it emphasizes God’s glory, providence, and sovereignty.
Social worldview todayIt depends on the communion. The “Episcopal Church,” the largest communion in the U.S. is socially and theologically liberal.It depends on the denomination. The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) welcomes liberal and progressive theological positions and social causes. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters.

The Episcopal (or Anglican) and Presbyterian traditions had significant interaction early in their histories. Significant examples include Knox’s work on The Book of Common Prayer and the Puritans’ attempt to influence doctrine in the Anglican church. Neither Knox nor the Puritans committed to the Anglican church after Hooker finalized the beliefs and practices of institution. (Also see Presbyterian vs Lutheran: What’s the Difference?)

Presbyterian and Episcopalian: Theological Comparison

In general Episcopalians and Presbyterians find agreement on certain doctrines, like the Trinity. However, because some Episcopal churches implement practices that are traditionally Catholic, the best comparison to make is denomination-to-denomination, church-to-church, or even member-to-member. Nevertheless, a broad overview can help get a person started on understanding the two traditions.

Episcopalian traditionPresbyterian tradition
Theology (broad)Often considered halfway between Catholic and ProtestantTruly Protestant
Theology (narrow)Some communions and churches appear more Catholic in belief and practice, while others appear more Protestant.Presbyterians are Calvinists. They emphasize the authority of Scripture, Covenant Theology, predestination, Presbyterian church government, and communion and baptism.
View of the BibleThe “low church” (see below) has a high view of Scripture. The “high church” values Scripture plus ecclesiastical tradition.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 denominations read and teach Scripture selectively.
View of GodEpiscopalians believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.Presbyterians believe in the Trinity; there is one God who exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.
View of ChristJesus 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.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.
View of salvationHistorical roots are closer to Calvinism than Arminianism. Today, liberal communions are ecumenical and inclusive of other religions.Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved. As Calvinists, Presbyterians believe in predestination, holding that God has selected some, but not others, to salvation.
View of the Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He is fully divine. Episcopalians are historically cessationist, yet some small communions practice charismatic worship (e.g. International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church).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. Presbyterians are historically cessationist.
View of the OrdinancesThere are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace.There are two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or communion; they don’t automatically convey grace.
View of the Lord’s SupperThe exact nature of the Lord’s Supper is a mystery.Presbyterians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders.
View of the BaptismClergy baptize infants and adults; baptized individuals are “grafted into the church”Presbyterians practice infant baptism (and adult baptism) by means of sprinkling. Baptism signifies inclusion into the Covenant community.
View of the end timesamillennialamillennial

Also see: What Bible Translation Do Presbyterian Read?

Presbyterian and Episcopalian Denominations

The largest Presbyterian denomination is the Presbyterian Church (USA). In recent decades, disagreement over social issues like same-sex marriage have split churches in the denomination. (Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)

Presbyterian DenominationsReported Membership
Presbyterian Church (USA)1.7 million
Presbyterian Church in America370,000
Evangelical Presbyterian Church150,000
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians100,000

The largest denomination in the Episcopal tradition is the Episcopal Church. While some pockets of conservatism remain in the denomination, liberal and progressive viewpoints have largely prevailed in reforming doctrine and practice in most churches.

Episcopal DenominationsReported Membership
Episcopal Church2 million
Anglican Church in North America112,000
Continuing Anglican Churches100,000
Reformed Episcopal Church15,000

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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