A Question about Presbyterians and Baptists
May 29, 2023, 4:38 PM

Question: What are the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists?

Answer: Greetings and thank you for your question. Let me say at the outset that any answer that anyone gives to this question will be somewhat limited. The terms "Baptist" and "Presbyterian" are so broad nowadays because there are so many denominations that call themselves Baptist or Presbyterian. So, the answer I'm going to provide will, by necessity, be very general and try to give you the basic differences that would apply to most Baptists and most Presbyterians.

First, some historical context. Presbyterians and Baptists are denominations that came out of the protestant reformation. There are some fundamentalist Baptists who try to say that there were practicing Baptists (nearly indistinguishable from today) from the very beginning of the early church. Those arguments are largely specious and uncorroborated. When the protestant reformation got underway, there were already some divisions amongst the reformed when it came to the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). There was a split between the Lutherans and the Reformed over this. In October of 1529, there was a meeting between the Lutherans and the Reformed to discuss the doctrine of the Lord's Supper in Marburg Germany. The goal was to try and unite the protestants under one banner, but in the end Martin Luther and his followers could not come to an agreement with Ulrich Zwingli and his followers. Thus, the Lutherans and the Reformed ended up going their separate ways. 

While that was happening on the continent of Europe during the 16th century, about 100 years later, in England, a different debate was taking place. During the heyday of the protestant reformation, England was a little behind the ball. England split from the Roman Catholic Church not mainly for doctrinal reasons, but for political reasons. Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and the pope would not grant him one. To be sure, there were some ardent reformers in England, but the reformation in England was somewhat blunted. The Church of England was seen by many as a "halfway house" between Rome and Protestantism. A group of English reformers, who called themselves the Puritans, wanted to complete the reformation in England. During the first half of the 17th century, control of the country was split between Catholics and Protestants, depending upon who was occupying the throne. Eventually, during the English Civil War(s) (1642-1652), the Puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, seized control of the country and attempted to complete the protestant reformation in England. Part of that process was the convening of the Westminster Assembly, which outlined a Presbyterian Church confession of faith and catechism. The Westminster Assembly was mainly populated with Presbyterians, but there were some Congregationalists. 

With that out of the way, much of what I'm going to say regarding the differences between Baptists and Presbyterians will come out of this historical context I provided. In England at that time, you had Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) describes what Presbyterians believe, the Savoy Declaration (1658), which takes the Westminster Confession of Faith as its starting point, is a Congregationalist confession, and the London Baptist Confession of Faith (originally crafted in 1644 and modified off of the Westminster Confession in 1689), is the confessional document for Baptists. All three documents are Calvinistic in their soteriology; that is, they hold to a doctrine of salvation that conforms to what is commonly called Calvinism. The major differences between Presbyterians and Baptists according to these confessional documents is going to be in their polity and their ecclesiology. In other words, Baptists and Presbyterians differ in how they exercise church government and how they observe the sacraments. Let's look at these in order.

(1) Church Polity. A Presbyterian style of church government is going to argue that each church is governed by a plurality of elders and served by deacons. In many cases, there is a 3rd church office for minister of the word, an elder who has the primary responsibility to preach and administer the sacraments. Moreover, the church is organized at a regional and national level. At the regional level, you have what are called presbyteries. This is a gathering of the church in a particular region, and each church in that region is represented at presbytery by her pastor and a ruling elder. At the national level, the church gathers in general assembly, in which each presbytery sends delegates to represent the presbytery at general assembly. In most cases, the presbyteries are responsible for maintaining the credentials of her ministers, for examining and ordaining ministers, adjudicating appeals from individual churches, overseeing education and missions within the presbytery, and things like these. The general assembly represents the highest court of the church, as well as handling missions and education of the entire denomination. 

A Baptist style of church government recognizes the autonomy of the local church. Baptist churches might associate with one another for improved outreach, education, and mission work, but the rulings of the associations are not binding upon the local church. Each individual church is governed by elders and deacons, but Baptists do not typically recognize a separate office for minister of the word but might distinguish between teaching and ruling elders. 

(2) Ecclesiology. In regard to the sacraments. The most obvious difference is in how Baptists and Presbyterians understand the sacrament of baptism. Presbyterians see a high degree of continuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. In the Old Covenant, the sign of circumcision was given to each male adult convert and each male infant eight days after birth. It was a sign and seal of the covenant promises made to Abraham and marked entrance into the people of God (i.e., the nation of Israel). Baptism is seen as the sign and seal of the promises of the New Covenant, and thus (because of covenantal continuity) baptism is not only to be applied to adult converts, but also to all infant children of believers. Baptism marks entrance into the people of God (i.e., the Church). Baptists see a high degree of discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. Circumcision is seen as a sign and seal of the earthly, physical promises made to Abraham and his descendants regarding the land of Israel. Baptism is seen as a sign and seal of the heavenly, spiritual promises made to Abraham and those who follow in the faith of Abraham. Circumcision was given regardless of belief or faith in God. Baptism is only given to those who profess belief in Christ. There are also differences in the mode of baptism. Presbyterians will baptize by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring. Baptists only baptize by immersion. Furthermore, Presbyterians will typically recognize the infant baptism of someone coming into the Presbyterian church from another denomination (even Roman Catholicism) as long as the baptism was performed with water and used the Trinitarian formula ("in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit"). Baptists will typically require baptism by immersion for anyone who has received infant baptism. One other difference is sometimes seen in the Lord's Supper. Most Presbyterians recognize the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Lord's Supper to be received by faith. Some Baptists see the Lord's Supper as merely a memorial meal. 

The only other major difference between Presbyterians and Baptists is in their view of covenant theology. Both groups hold to covenant theology, but there are some differences between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession when it comes to covenant theology, and these differences center in on how one views the Mosaic Covenant in relationship to the Covenant of Grace. Presbyterians see the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. Baptists do not see the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace, but rather see the Covenant of Grace typified and revealed in the Mosaic Covenant. 

Now, everything I said is in reference to the Presbyterians and Baptists that emerged from the English reformation of the 17th century. The Baptists of that period would be considered Reformed Baptists, or Particular Baptists, or Calvinistic Baptists. There is a strand of non-Calvinistic Baptists that essentially was born out of American revivalism. These Baptists would reject Calvinism and reject Covenant Theology. They would be Arminian in their soteriology and Dispensational in their understanding of the Bible. The major differences I outlined earlier would still hold as well as the differences between Calvinism/Arminianism and Covenantal/Dispensational. 

Much more can be said, but I believe what has been said highlights the major differences between Presbyterians and Baptists. 

I hope this helps.

~Pastor Carl

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