Protestant vs Presbyterian: What’s the Difference?


Protestant and Presbyterian are two terms associated with Christianity, but many people aren’t sure what the differences are between them. Some people are aware that neither Protestants nor Presbyterians are Catholic, yet they aren’t sure exactly what they are.

The Protestant branch of Christianity grew out of a 16th-century rebellion against Catholicism in Europe. Martin Luther of Germany ignited the reform movement. Presbyterian is a branch within Protestantism that grew out of reform movements in France and Scotland led by John Calvin and John Knox, respectively.

What is the exact meaning of the terms Protestant and Presbyterian? Why did the Protestant Reformation emerge in Europe? Why did the Presbyterian branch emerge from within the Protestant Reformation? What are the names of the other branches? Keep reading to learn more.

Presbyterian sanctuary
Presbyterian Church sanctuary in Chicago, Illinois; facing the back

The meaning of Protestant and Presbyterian

The terms “Protestant” and “Presbyterian” have overlapping meanings, yet each is unique as well. To understand the group of Christians each term refers to, it’s important understand certain aspects of the history of the church. Before that, however, knowing the exact definition of each term is beneficial. (Also see Presbyterian vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference?)

ProtestantPresbyterian
MeaningFrom the word “protest,” the term identifies Christians associated with the Protestant Reformation.From the Greek word for “elder,” the term refers to a form of church government that centers on the office of elder.
Denomination“Protestant” isn’t the name of a denomination; the term is an often-used unofficial label for Christians traditions with similar convictions, e.g. Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Assemblies of God, etc.“Presbyterian” is the name of a Protestant tradition; there are several Presbyterian denominations, e.g. Presbyterian Church of America, Presbyterian Church USA, etc.
OrganizationThere is no formal organization to Protestant Christianity as a whole, i.e. no single human leader; many Protestant churches work together for the sake of evangelism and social causes.The Presbyterian form of church government consists of elders who oversee local churches; elders in a designated geographical area form a presbytery; the presbyteries in a designated region form a synod; national-level organization is called a General Assembly.
Relation to Roman CatholicismNo formal relationship; disagrees with Catholicism on several important theological issues, e.g. the Papacy; there is some agreement, too e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity.Same
Distinguishing doctrinesThe key doctrines of Protestantism are (1) salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone, and (2) the inspiration and authority of the Bible.Same. Additionally, Presbyterian churches follow the teachings of John Calvin and like-minded pastors and theologians; predestination is one of several key doctrines in the tradition.

Luther’s famous stand: When Luther, considered the founder of the Protestant Reformation, was tried for his criticism of the Catholic church, he famously replied:

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

Presbyterian church sanctuary
Presbyterian Church sanctuary in Chicago, Illinois; facing the front

What do Protestants believe?

Protestant Christianity is centered on the conviction that the Bible alone is authoritative for the Church and for Christians. Martin Luther of Germany — among others, like John Calvin of France and Ulrich Swingli of Switzerland — argued that the Catholic church had strayed from Scripture in several matters, like the practice of indulgences. (Also see Presbyterian vs Roman Catholic: What’s the Difference?)

Luther didn’t intend to start a new branch of Christianity; his intention was to call the Catholic church back to the Bible.

Key term | indulgences: The term “indulgences” describes a pardon for the teaching that temporary punishments remain for people even after the forgiveness of their guilt for sin. The Protestant Reformers strongly disagreed with the practice of indulgences, because Catholic leaders used the practice for their own agendas and because they believe that Christ’s sacrifice sufficiently remits all punishment due to sin.

Key Protestant convictions:

  • Salvation is by grace, through faith, in Christ alone: How is a sinner saved? That is a critically important question that every tradition in Christianity answers. Moreover, each tradition’s doctrine of salvation is a central conviction of their belief system. Protestant Christians find agreement that sinners are saved (1) because of God’s grace, as opposed to inherent or earned merits, (2) through faith as opposed to works, even religious works, and (3) in Christ alone who is the only way to the Father (John 14:6).
  • The Bibles is the sole authority for the Church and Christians: Historically, Protestantism has charged Catholicism with over-valuing Church tradition to the detriment of Scripture. For example, the use and abuse of indulgences arose because of the worldly and selfish agendas of Catholic leaders, according to the Reformers. If the Catholic had not breaches the boundaries described in the Bible, indulgences wouldn’t have become normative in the Church.

Also see What Bible Translation do Presbyterians Read?

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus in John 14:6

Key Protestant traditions:

Some Protestant traditions trace their roots to the first wave of reform movements in Europe in the 16th century. Other Protestant traditions began in later centuries, some of which were offshoots of the first wave. Key branches include:

  • Lutheranism: Luther didn’t intend to start a denomination, but that was the result when he protested the abuses of the Catholic church. The church Luther started in Germany spread through Europe, especially Scandinavia (i.e. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden), and to America in later centuries. (Also see Presbyterian vs Lutheran: What’s the Difference?)
  • Reformed: Theologically, Presbyterian churches are Calvinistic, also known as Reformed. Some use the terms “Calvinist” and “Reformed” interchangeably, yet others make a distinction between the two. This Protestant movement started in France and spread to other places in the Western world like Scotland, England and America.
  • Anglican: Also known as the Church of England, the Anglican tradition is in many ways closer to the Catholic branch of the Christian faith than any other Protestant tradition. It began and flourished in England and over time became influential in America. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the denomination increasingly used the term Episcopalian in America. (Also see Presbyterian vs Anglican: What’s the Difference?)
  • Anabaptist: Meaning “new baptism” or “re-baptism,” this movement is named of their repudiation of infant baptism, which isn’t only found in Catholicism, but also in the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican traditions.

Later Protestant traditions:

  • Baptist: This tradition is named after their convictions about baptism. Rejecting infant baptism, the tradition subscribes to “believer’s baptism,” which is the conviction that only professing Christians should be baptized. While this rules out infant baptism, it doesn’t necessarily forbid child baptism for those who can make a genuine profession of faith in Christ. The Baptist tradition spread like wildfire in America. (Also see Presbyterian vs Baptist: What’s the Difference?)
  • Methodist: John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, like Luther before him, never intended to start a denomination. Wesley’s desire was to reform the Anglican church. When the church resisted his efforts, a new movement arose. Though Wesley disagreed with Luther on a variety of doctrines, the writings of the German Reformer had a substantial impact on Wesley’s conversion to Christ.
  • Pentecostal: This tradition, which dates to the early 20th century, is one of the fastest-growing traditions in the 2,000-year history of Christianity. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, marked by speaking in tongues, is a key doctrine in Pentecostal traditions. Pentecostal churches are theologically Arminian like Methodism and practice believer’s baptism like Baptists. The largest Pentecostal denomination in the world is Assemblies of God.

“Justification is the main hinge on which salvation turns.”

John Calvin

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