What's the difference between Presbyterian and Baptist?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Presbyterians and Baptists both belong to Protestant Christianity, which traces its origins to the 16th century when reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to preach against the practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church. These reformers rejected matters of Catholic doctrine; Catholic tradition alongside scripture were replaced by scripture alone, and faith and good works as requisites for salvation were replaced by faith alone. The reformers also rejected the Catholic Church’s structure, which consisted of a rigid hierarchy that controlled access to God via a set of sacraments.

Presbyterians are more directly connected to Protestantism through the Reformed movement of John Calvin (also known as Calvinism), while Baptists are descended from the English Dissenters, a broadly connected group of reformers who separated from the Church of England. It should be noted that while not Catholic, the Church of England is also not entirely within the realm of classical Protestantism; as Baptists are most strongly historically defined by their separation from the Church of England, not from the Catholic Church, they often reject Protestant identity.



As stated above, Presbyterianism is one of the resulting denominations of the Protestant Reformation, owing its origins more to John Calvin and his Reformed theology rather than Martin Luther and Lutheranism. John Knox, a Scotsman who worked alongside John Calvin, brought Calvinism back to Scotland. It is chiefly from Knox, through his connections to Calvin, that Presbyterian descends from. Scottish Reformed Christianity, of which Presbyterianism is a part, was first officially expressed through Knox’s Scots Confession.


As participants in Reformed/Calvinist theology, Presbyterian doctrine can be summarized by the TULIP doctrine, an acronym used as a concise (albeit limited) explanation of Calvinism. The five points represented by the TULIP doctrine are:

  • Total Depravity (the true character of humanity is evil/sinful)
  • Unconditional Election (God chooses whom he will save, the “elect”, based only on his will)
  • Limited Atonement (salvation is only for the elect)
  • Irresistible Grace (when the elect are called to salvation, they cannot resist)
  • Preservation of the Saints (salvation cannot be lost)

In addition to these basic points, Presbyterians are “confessional.” This means they generally hold to a confession, or a statement of faith, as their basis for their interpretation of God and the Bible. Doctrine is understood to be more of a communal than individual effort, and confessions are used as unanimous and universal agreements on basic points of belief within the members of a church.  


The word “Presbyterian” is both an identifier with churches that share the preceding beliefs and history, as well as a more general term for church structure and hierarchy. The term comes from the Greek word for “elder”, implying a rule by elders, which Calvin believed to be Biblically based. It is a representational form of governance, with members electing their elders. An entire Presbyterian church community is governed by a General Assembly; beneath this there are synods, presbyteries, and then individual churches, which are governed by a pastor, as well as elders and deacons, who are elected by members of the local church.  



The origins of Baptist Christianity can be hard to place, but it is generally agreed that they descend from the English Dissenters. These Dissenters were not a single organized group, but rather members of a variety of movements that were united by a belief that the Church of England had not gone far enough in separating from the Catholic Church. Some believe that the Anabaptists of continental Europe, famous for re-baptizing people who had been baptized as infants, had some influence on these early English Baptists, while some later Baptists promoted the perspective that their churches and doctrines had existed in perpetuity since the time of Christ, predating the Protestants and existing alongside but independent from the Catholic Church.


Similar to the TULIP doctrine for Presbyterians, Baptist beliefs (and structure, in this case) can also be summarized (concisely but somewhat inefficiently) by an acronym; in this case, BAPTISTS.

  • Biblical Authority (the Bible is the ultimate authority)
  • Autonomy of the Local Church (each church is sovereign and accountable only to God)
  • Priesthood of the Believers (all Christians are priests and have equal access to God)
  • Two Ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)
  • Individual Soul Liberty (everybody has the right to choose what to believe)
  • Saved, Baptized Church Membership (membership in the church depends on a person’s profession of faith and baptism)
  • Two Offices in the Church (pastor and deacon)
  • Separation of Church and State (the church and the government are separate entities)

Baptist beliefs can be hard to summarize because it is a core tenet that each individual church is autonomous; therefore, beliefs and practices can vary wildly. Perhaps the most common beliefs are that the Bible is the infallible word of God, salvation is achieved through faith alone, and baptism must be performed for believers (not infants) through complete immersion.


Ultimately, the structure of a Baptist church is fairly simple because in theory it should not extend hierarchically beyond the local church. Every church should have a pastor and a number of deacons to support the pastor, and the church is responsible for itself and accountable only to God. However, many churches do associate themselves with a larger community of other churches that share similar beliefs (association to one of these communities does not imply control by the governing body of that community, however).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial