Presbyterian vs Methodist: What’s the Difference?


The Presbyterian and Methodist traditions have been two of the most prominent branches of Protestant Christianity over the last 500 years. Each has a strong tradition of biblical preaching, administering the sacraments, and investing in global missions work. Yet many people wonder about the difference between the denominations.

Presbyterianism originated in 16th-century France through the influence and ministry of John Calvin. It subscribes to Calvinist and Reformed theology. Methodism originated in 18th-century England through the influence and ministry of John Wesley. It subscribes to Arminian theology. Both are Protestant.

What are the important differences in what Presbyterians and Methodists believe and practice? What doctrines do they agree about and where do they differ? What challenges is each tradition facing in the 21st century? What are the largest denominations in each tradition in the 21st century? Keep reading to learn more.

“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1 (ESV)

Presbyterianism and Methodism comparison

The Presbyterian and Methodist traditions have a lot in common. Historically, they both hold to fundamental Christian convictions like belief in the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the Second Coming.

Presbyterian and Methodist both reject Catholic doctrines such as the authority of the papacy, communing with saints who are no longer living on Earth, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and cup at communion literally turns into the body and blood of Christ.

OVERVIEWPresbyterianMethodist
Origin and roots16th-century France and Scotland; the Protestant Reformation in Germany18th-century Oxford, England; the Anglican tradition (i.e. the Church of England)
Early influencersJohn Calvin in France (1509-1564) and John Knox in Scotland (1514-1572)Brothers John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) in England
Meaning of nameFrom the New Testament Greek word “presbyteros,” meaning elder, in the broader sense it refers to an elder-led form of church governmentFrom the English word “method,” the name refers to what people at called the Wesley brothers and other like-minded believers who maintained a strict regiment of spiritual disciplines
Known forCalvinist/ Reformed theology, including predestination; the Presbyterian form of church governmentMinistering to the poor and suffering; the Holiness Movement within 19th century Methodism sparked the Pentecostal movement in the 21st century

Do Presbyterians and Methodists ever minister together? Yes. Today, there are many examples of Presbyterian and Methodist churches working together for social causes like feeding the hungry. Famously, John Wesley and Calvinist evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) became close friends at Oxford and did ministry together, including in the United States, even though they had significant theological differences.

“I want the whole Christ for my Savior, the whole Bible for my book, the whole Church for my fellowship, and the whole world for my mission field.”

John Wesley
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28 (ESV)

Presbyterianism and Methodism beliefs and practices

In recent years, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations and churches have experienced division over social issues. Church leaders and members wrestle over whether or not to ordain women and to fully accept same-sex couples and those who identify as transgender.

Some denominations have left individual congregations to decide matters on their, which has resulted in historic declines in attendance. Many liberal churches in each tradition no longer subscribe to the beliefs listed on the chart below, yet they remain the historic convictions of the denominations.

BELIEFSPresbyterianMethodist
AuthorityScripture over traditionScripture over tradition
Christdeity, 2nd person of the Trintiydeity, 2nd person of the Trinity
Sinoriginal sin, total depravity (see below)original sin, not total depravity
Salvationjustification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alonesame
Belief systemCalvinismArminianism
AtonementLimitedUnlimited
Theological emphasesGod’s sovereignty, providence, and glorySanctification alongside justification, freedom of the will
Sanctificationis perfected at deathcan be perfected before death
Baptisminfant baptism signifies inclusion into the covenant communityto many Methodists infant baptism is an act of “prevenient grace,” embedding a desire to seek God and turn from sin
Historic internal disagreementsExample: double predestination has been a divisive issue in some Presbyterian churchesExample: revivalism has been a divisive issue in some Methodist denominations and churches
Modern internal disputes“Mainline” vs “evangelical” or “conservativism vs liberalism” on topics like the authority of the Bible, which has implications for issues like the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, gender identity, and moresame

What is “original sin”? The doctrine of original sin states that all people are born in a condition of guilt and are destined to experience eternal death unless there is divine intervention.

It also states that everyone’s sinful nature inclines them to sin and evil. In Methodist theology, God-given prevenient grace overcomes original sin when its not resisted.

What is “total depravity”? Total depravity builds on the doctrine of original sin. It holds that every aspect (“total”) of a person is permeated with sin (“depravity”), i.e. their mind, emotions, will, and much more.

A person’s free will can affect a person’s fallen state. Only God’s unearned mercy and grace (though not “prevenient”) that implants in a person’s mind and heart the desire to repent from sin and trust in Christ’s death and resurrection can overcome their totally depraved nature.

“Christ is much more powerful to save, than Adam was to destroy.”

John Calvin

List of Presbyterian and Reformed denominations

The word “Reformed” in certain uses can refer broadly to non-Catholic, non-Eastern Orthodox Christians when the context is the “Protestant Reformation.”

Within Protestantism, “Reformed” is often used as a broad synonym for Presbyterian (e.g. “Reformed theology”) and occasionally for churches that have many Calvinist convictions (e.g. “Reformed Baptist).

Historically, “Presbyterian” churches that subscribe to Calvinist theology arose in France and Scotland, while “Reformed” churches that are also Calvinist came out of the the Reformation movement in Switzerland.

NameReported Membership
Christian Reformed Church in North America237,000
Cumberland Presbyterian Church71,000
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians100,000
Evangelical Presbyterian Church150,000
Korean American Presbyterian Church55,000
National Association of Congregational Churches63,300
Presbyterian Church in America370,000
Presbyterian Church (USA)1.7 million
Reformed Church in America246,000
United Church of Christ914,000

What is the United Church of Christ? The UCC has roots in early American history, but the present-day organization is the result of two denominations merging in the mid 20th century: the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church in the United States. The CCC and ERC were the result of merged congregations as well. In the 21st century, the UCC is considered a global leader in liberal and progressive Christianity.

List of Methodist denominations

NameReported Membership
African Methodist Episcopal Church2.5 million
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church301,000
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church290,000
Congregational Methodist Church15,500
Evangelical Church of North America15,000
Evangelical Methodist Church7,300
Southern Methodist Church6,000
United Methodist Church7.6 million

What are Holiness churches? So-called “Holiness” denominations and churches grew out of 18th-century Methodism in England. Theologically, they are Arminian-Wesleyan. When some early Methodist movements focused on evangelism and conversion, the first leaders in Holiness churches emphasized sanctification. The term sanctification describes the process of spiritual growth and maturity into Christ-likeness that the Bible commands.

Holiness ChurchesReported Membership
Free Methodist Church of North America110,000
Wesleyan Church385,000

Other notable Holiness denominations include:

  • The Christian and Missionary Alliance (428,000 membership)
  • Church of God, Anderson Indiana (233,000 membership)
  • Church of the Nazarene (905,000 membership)
  • The Salvation Army (413,000 membership)

References:
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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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