Comparisons: How Presbyterian Beliefs Compare with those of Protestant Denominations
Not in the Reformed Family
By James Ayers

April 1996 Presbyterians Today Online


We can say "what Baptists (or Methodists or Lutherans) believe" only with some reservation. Devout members of every denomination hold a wide variety of opinions on key questions of the faith--and Presbyterians are no exception. In general, however, Presbyterians have proven to be the great moderates of church history. The "Presbyterian position" can usually be found by taking the average of the two most divergent opinions on a given issue, as the following questions illustrate.


How should the church be governed?
All denominations believe in the orderly exercise of governance, but they differ on where they vest decisive authority. Episcopally governed churches give primary decision-making power to bishops: for Lutherans, Episcopalians and Methodists, as for Catholics, policies are set and pastors are appointed by one designated leader. Congregationally governed churches place this authority in the individual congregation: Baptist and Congregational churches hire and fire their clergy and decide on their own bylaws and beliefs. Presbyterians, wanting to avoid both those extremes, set primary power in a presbytery made up of the clergy and elder representatives of the churches of a given region.


What does the Eucharist mean?
Communion TableThe sacramental churches (especially Anglicans as well as Catholics) hold that when you receive the Communion bread and wine, you are truly receiving Jesus, because the bread and wine have been transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Rejecting this, the ordinance churches (almost everybody else) argue that nothing happens to the elements: the bread and wine remain bread and wine, nothing more. They are simply symbolic tokens to help you remember that Jesus died for you. Presbyterians (and, with minor differences, Lutherans) insist that while the substance of the bread and wine remain unchanged, Christ is truly there to be received into the inmost being of those who partake.


Who should be baptized?
In the view of Pentecostal, Baptist and Holiness churches, baptism focuses on the testimony of the believer: it is the symbolic act of obedience by which a person declares his or her allegiance to Christ--and so it is appropriate for those who have expressed their own faith in Jesus (and not for infants). For Lutherans, Episcopalians and other Protestants, like Catholics, baptism is especially the act of God by which saving grace is given to the one being baptized. It is the ordinary means by which you receive this grace, and so it is necessary for all members of the family of faith (and therefore for infants as well). Presbyterians see baptism as an affirmation of faith on the part of the whole congregation, as we express our confidence in God's call to the one being baptized. And we see baptism as receiving the promise of God, which the one baptized will live out in the time to come.


How should we read Scripture? 
In most congregations there are those who see the Bible as an intriguing collection of ancient folk tales, and others who claim every Biblical word is absolute and authoritative. Unitarians and some others would expect that we today might well be inspired by pondering on the lessons of some of those tales, while members of the Church of Christ and other denominations would scrupulously expect to apply every Biblical detail to contemporary life. Most Presbyterians would place themselves between these two positions: we take seriously questions about the sources and genres of the Biblical text, and yet we have confidence that the Bible is the pre-eminent way through which Jesus calls and teaches his people.


What is the relative importance of Word and sacrament for the spiritual nurture of church members?
Some denominations (Baptists, Pentecostals, many others) emphasize the Word, the Bible, with detailed 30- to 40-minute sermons each Sunday, but celebrate the Lord's Supper perhaps as infrequently as twice a year. Other Protestants (Episcopalians, for example) join the Catholics in celebrating the Eucharist at least once a week, usually accompanied by a 5- to a 7- minute homily. Lutheran and Disciples of Christ churches are notable for their stress on both Word and sacrament, with extensive preaching and weekly Communion. Presbyterians also claim Word and sacrament as an emphasis, but they are rather diverse in how often they receive the Lord's Supper: the "average" church probably celebrates Communion once a month, but many congregations do so every Sunday and many others follow a quarterly Communion schedule.