What is the difference between that Baptist church in town and the Presbyterian one across the street? Is there a difference? In previous posts we discussed, the baptist and methodist denomination. In this post, we will highlight the similarities and differences between two historic protestant traditions.
The terms Baptist and Presbyterian are very general terms today, referring to two traditions that are now varied and increasingly diverse and are each presently represented by numerous denominations.
Thus, this article will be general and will refer more to the historical views of these two traditions, rather than the specific and divergent views that we see today in many Baptist and Presbyterian denominations.
What is a Baptist?
In the most general terms, a Baptist is one who believes in credobaptism, or that Christian baptism is reserved for those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ. Although not all who believe in credobaptism are Baptists – there are many other Christian denominations that affirm credobaptism – all Baptists believe in credobaptism.
Most who identify as Baptists are also members of a Baptist church.
What is a Presbyterian?
A Presbyterian is one who is a member of a Presbyterian church. Presbyterians trace their roots back to the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. This Reformed family of denominations derived its name from the Greek word, presbuteros which is often translated into English as elder. One of the main distinguishing features of Presbyterianism is their church polity. Presbyterian churches are governed by a plurality of elders.
Traditionally, Baptists and Presbyterians have agreed on much more than upon which they have disagreed. They share views on the Bible as the inspired, infallible Word of God. Baptists and Presbyterians would agree that a person is justified before God on the basis of God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone, through faith in Jesus alone. A Presbyterian and Baptist church service would share many similarities, such as prayer, hymn singing, and the preaching of the Bible.
Both Baptists and Presbyterians hold that there are two special ceremonies in the life of the church, though most Baptists call these ordinances, while Presbyterians call them sacraments.
These are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also referred to as Holy Communion). They would also agree that these ceremonies, while they are special, meaningful and even a means of grace, are not saving. That is, these ceremonies do not justify a person before God.
One of the biggest differences between Baptists and Presbyterians is their views on Baptism. Presbyterians affirm and practice pedobaptism (infant baptism) as well as credobaptism, while Baptists only view the latter as legitimate and biblical.
Pedobaptism vs Credobaptism
For Presbyterians, Baptism is a sign of the Covenant that God has made with his people. It is a continuation of the Old Testament sign of circumcision. Thus, for a Presbyterian, it is fitting for the children of believers to receive this sacrament as a sign that they are included in the Covenant along with their families. Most Presbyterians would also insist that, to be saved, a baptized infant will also need, when they reach an age of moral responsibility, to personally have faith in Jesus Christ. Those baptized as infants do not need to be baptized again as believers. Presbyterians rely on passages such as Acts 2:38-39 to support their views.
Baptists, on the other hand, insist that there is insufficient biblical support for baptizing anyone but those who themselves are trusting in Christ for salvation. Baptists view infant baptism as illegitimate and insist that those who come to faith in Christ be baptized, even if they were baptized as infants. To support their views, they draw on various passages in Acts and the Epistles which refer to baptism in connection with faith and repentance. They also point to the lack of passages which clearly affirm the practice of baptizing infants.
Baptists and Presbyterians would both affirm, however, that baptism is symbolic of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Neither insist that baptism, whether paedo or credo, is necessary for salvation.
Modes of Baptism
Baptists hold to baptism by immersion in water. They argue that only this mode fully represents both the biblical model of baptism and the imagery that baptism is meant to convey.
Presbyterians are open to baptism by immersion in water, but more commonly practice baptism by sprinkling and pouring water over the head of the one being baptized.
One of the biggest differences between Baptists and Presbyterians is their church polity (or practice of church government).
Most Baptist churches are autonomous and governed by meetings of the whole congregation. This is also called congregationalism. The pastor (or pastors) oversees the day to day operations of the church and see to the shepherding needs of the congregation. And all significant decisions are made by the congregation.
Baptists do not usually have a denominational hierarchy and local churches are autonomous. They freely join and leave associations and have the final authority over their property and in choosing their leaders.
Presbyterian, in contrast, have layers of governance. Local churches are grouped together into presbyteries (or districts). The highest level of governance in a Presbyterian is the General Assembly, which is represented by all the Synods.
At the local level, a Presbyterian church is governed by a group of elders (often called ruling elders) who lead the church in accordance with the presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly, according to the church’s constitution.
Local Baptist churches are free to select their pastors from the criteria they themselves select. Pastors are ordained (if they are ordained at all) by a local church, not a wider denomination. The requirements for becoming a pastor vary from church to church, with some Baptist churches requiring a seminary education, and others only that the candidate be able to preach and lead well, and meet the biblical qualifications for church leadership (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7, for example).
Pastors who serve Presbyterian churches are typically ordained and selected by the presbytery, and assignments are made normally with a local church’s congregational affirmation of the presbytery’s decision. Ordination as a Presbyterian pastor is not merely a church’s recognition of giftedness or qualification, but a church’s recognition of the Holy Spirit’s ordering of ministries, and happens only at the denominational-level.
Baptists refer to the two rites of the church – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – as ordinances, while Presbyterians refer to them as sacraments. The difference between sacraments and ordinances as viewed by Baptists and Presbyterians, are not great.
The term sacrament carries with it the idea that the rite is also a means of grace, whereas ordinance emphasizes that the rite is to be obeyed. Both Presbyterians and Baptists agree that God moves in a meaningful, spiritual and special way through the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Super. Thus, the difference in term is not as significant as it at first appears.
Both traditions have and have had well known pastors. Famous Presbyterian pastors of the past include John Knox, Charles Finney and Peter Marshall. More recent Presbyterian ministers to note are James Kennedy, R.C. Sproul, and Tim Keller.
Famous Baptist pastors include John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, Oswald Chambers, Billy Graham and W.A. Criswell. More recent notables include John Piper, Albert Mohler, and Charles Stanly.
Another significant difference between most present-day Baptists and Presbyterians is their views concerning God’s sovereignty in Salvation. With notable exceptions, both present day and historic, many Baptists would consider themselves modified Calvinists (or 4-point Calvinists). Most Baptist affirm eternal security (though their view is often in contrast to the Reformed doctrine we call perseverance of the Saints. But that is another discussion!). But also affirm man’s free will in salvation, and his ability in his fallen state to determine to follow God and trust in Christ.
Presbyterians affirm God’s absolute sovereignty in Salvation. They reject man’s ultimate self- determination and affirm that a person can only be saved by God’s active, electing grace. Presbyterians insist that fallen man is unable to make steps towards God and that, left to themselves, all men reject God.
There are many exceptions, and many Baptists would consider themselves reformed and affirm the doctrines of grace, in agreement with most Presbyterians.
In general terms there are many similarities between Presbyterians and Baptists. Yet, there are many differences too. Baptism, church governance, choosing ministers, and even God’s sovereignty in Salvation are all significant disagreements between these two historic protestant traditions.
One great agreement remains. Both historic Presbyterians and Baptists both affirm the grace of God towards man in the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians who identify as both Presbyterians and Baptists are all brothers and sisters in Christ and part of his church!