The terms “Presbyterian” and “evangelical” are two common adjectives that describe Christian churches. Yet their names signify important facts about their history, beliefs, and practices, some of which are unique. Presbyterians and evangelicals may look similar and have some overlapping beliefs and practices, but they also have important differences.
The Presbyterian denomination and the evangelical tradition belong to the Protestant branch of the Christian faith. Presbyterianism champions Reformed or Calvinist theology, while there is tremendous theological diversity in evangelicalism.
What do the terms “Presbyterian” and “evangelical” mean? When did each tradition start, and why? Are they theological and socially liberal or conservative? How do their beliefs about the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the end times compare? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Presbyterian and Evangelical: What’s the Difference?
The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word presbyteros (πρεσβυτέριον), meaning “elder.” In the New Testament, the word refers to a form of church government that is elder-led. In comparison, the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον), meaning “gospel” or “good news.” The term describes a gospel-centered or cross-centered theology or worldview.
|Origin||Presbyterianism traces its history to Swiss pastor and theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and French pastor and theologian John Calvin (1509-1564).||The modern use of the term originated in the 20th century. It’s distinguished from liberalism and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has similar theology to evangelicalism because both movements have a high view of Scripture.|
|Branch||Presbyterianism was one of the first movements within the Protestant Reformation of German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546).||Evangelicalism is also Protestant in theology, affirming that the Bible is solely authoritative and that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone for God’s glory.|
|Early influencer(s)||Scottish minister and pastor John Knox (1514-1572), founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.||English preacher and author Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), American preacher and evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), and many others.|
|Significant writing outside the Bible||The Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).||Evangelicalism generally values works from various Protestant denominations that emphasize a gospel-centered approach to evangelism, missions, biblical interpretation, and more.|
|Organization||Presbyterianism rejects a bishop-led rule, aka Episcopalianism. Instead, Calvin encouraged a council of clergy to oversee a region and a consistory (“session” or “council”) to oversee a local church.||Evangelical churches can have a congregational, presbyterian, or episcopalian form of church government. Evangelical churches that aren’t associated with a historic denomination are often congregational.|
|What are the largest denominations in the tradition today?||The Presbyterian Church USA (PSUSA) has about 1.7 million members, and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has about 375,000 members. There are also several other Presbyterian denominations.||“Evangelical” can describe a church in any denomination if they centralize the gospel and emphasize other characteristics of the movement, such as valuing conversions and applying their faith through social causes like caring for the poor.|
|Divisions||Early in Presbyterian history, divisions arose over ecclesiastical matters like church government. In recent years, divisions have occurred over social issues between liberals (e.g., PCUSA) and conservatives (e.g., PCA).||Evangelicalism is a diverse movement. Churches and individuals can have different theologies, government models, theology, and views on social issues.|
|Theological and social worldview||It depends on the denomination. For example, the PCUSA welcomes liberal and progressive views, while the PCA maintains conservative positions on theological and social matters.||Historically, evangelical churches are conservative theologically and socially. However, some have recently drifted from conservatism and embraced liberal values on various issues.|
Presbyterian and Evangelical Beliefs on God and Scripture
Though the name “Presbyterian” refers to the tradition’s form of church government, the word “Reformed” describes its theology. In this context, “Reformed,” also called Calvinism or Covenant theology, describes the theological tenets that leaders like Zwingli and Calvin held taught in contrast to Lutheran, Anabaptist, and other branches of Protestantism.
|Scripture||Historic Presbyterianism holds to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Some use terms like “inerrancy” (i.e., Scripture has no errors) and “infallibility” (i.e., Scripture can’t lead astray in belief or practice). However, many liberal-progressive churches now reject this doctrine.||Historically, all evangelical churches have a high view of Scripture, even if they don’t always use the terms “inerrancy” and “infallibility.”|
|God||Presbyterians believe in the Trinity: One God exists in three persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully divine.||Evangelicals are also committed Trinitarians.|
|Jesus||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 was physically resurrection on the third day.||Evangelicals also believe that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. Many evangelical theologians hold to “penal-substitutionary atonement.”|
|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.||Evangelicals have the same core beliefs about the person of the Holy Spirit. In addition, some evangelical churches believe in and practice Pentecostal theology.|
Presbyterian and Evangelical Beliefs on Salvation and Church
|Salvation||Presbyterians are Calvinists and have robust doctrines on election and predestination. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone.||Evangelical churches believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. They can be Arminian, Calvinist, or something else.|
|Baptism||Presbyterians practice “paedobaptism” (paedo = “child”), also known as “infant baptism” through sprinkling. Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace through Jesus. Adults can be baptized if they never were as a child.||Most evangelical churches may practice “Believer’s Baptism,” which means they only baptize adults or paedo-baptist (paedo = “child”), which means they baptize children.|
|The Lord’s Supper||Presbyterians believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and cup. The elements aren’t merely symbols or reminders.||Evangelical churches have various views on the Lord’s Supper. Some believe in the real presence of Christ, and others believe the bread and cup are memorials.|
|View of the end times||Presbyterians are Amillennial. They believe the 1,000-year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 occurs between Christ’s first and second coming.||Evangelical churches may be Premillennial, Amillennial, Post-millennial, or something else. Yet, all evangelicals believe in the Second Coming of Christ.|
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