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Independent Baptist vs Presbyterian – What’s the Difference?

Independent Baptist vs Presbyterian

What does it mean to be a Presbyterian, and how does this differ from being an Independent Baptist? The term “Presbyterian”, with a small “p” can refer to a type of Church polity, like “congregational” or “episcopal”, but in this video we’re talking about capital-p “Presbyterians,” and our focus is mainly on Presbyterians of the current time in America.

First, let’s look at a little bit of history. Presbyterians in America find their heritage in the Church of Scotland. Until the 16th century, the Church of Scotland was essentially just the Roman Catholic Church, and had existed back into the Middle Ages, at least, but it was in 1560 that the Scottish reformation took place, under the influence of men like John Knox. Like the earlier 1534 separation of the Church of England, this separation split off essentially the entire following of Roman Catholicism in the region into this new Church. This new Church of Scotland, upon reformation, found itself Presbyterian in polity and theology, following the Reformed theology of John Calvin. From the 1700s through the 1900s, large waves of Scots emigrated to the United States, where they now are up to 10% of the US population. With them they brought Presbyterianism.

The denominations of Presbyterians have split and merged and split again over the years, leading to the current situation. The largest Presbyterian Denomination in the USA is the Presbyterian Church (USA), or “PCUSA,” with 1.4 million members as of 2017. Second in line is the Presbyterian Church in America, or “PCA” with about 375 thousand members as of 2017. There are dozens of other groups, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Bible Presbyterian Church.

Presbyterians historically have held to the Bible as the standard of faith and practice, with the subordinate standard being the Westminster Confession of Faith. This statement of faith was actually written by the Westminster Assembly for the Church of England, but in the course of political and doctrinal wrangling, the Church of Scotland adopted it. Later, with the 1660 restoration of the monarchy in England, the Church of England no longer held to the Westminster confession, but the church of Scotland retained it.

However, this statement of faith has seen some revision.  In 1788, an earlier Presbyterian denomination, called the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, revised the Westminster confession in a very American way – removing and rewriting Chapter 23’s statement on Civil magistrates and removing the allowance for monarchs and rulers to enforce theological orthodoxy by penalty of law. Most all Presbyterian churches in America retain this change. However, later changes have also been made. In 1903, articles were added on the Holy Spirit and “the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions,” as well as a declaratory statement. Shortly after in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America split, and not all resulting denominations kept these changes. Additionally, in 1954, the successor denomination of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, called the “United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” made changes on the section on Divorce and Remarriage. The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was the precursor to the current largest Presbyterian denomination in the USA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has retained all of these changes to the Westminster confession. Additionally, the PCUSA added the “Confession of 1967.” This confession was added instead of risking dividing the denomination by making sweeping changes to the Westminster confession. The PCUSA is home to a much more Liberal wing of churches than is found in the second largest US denomination, the PCA, and thee PCA rejects these recent changes and additions to the Westminster confession. Notably, the 1903 declaratory statement seems by many in more conservative strands of the PCA and other Presbyterian denominations to be a compromise on the Calvinist Reformed tradition and understanding of Unconditional election and a concession to Arminianism In part, the statement reads:

with reference to Chapter 3 of the Confession of Faith: that concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine of his love to all mankind, his gift of his Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and his readiness to bestow his saving grace on all who seek it; that concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the gospel to all; that men are fully responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer; that his decree hinders no man from accepting that offer; and that no man is condemned except on the ground of his sin.

This understanding of the shift of the PCUSA in the last century, will perhaps provide a clearer picture of Presbyterians in the United States today. The PCUSA is the mainline denomination. It links up with all the other theologically liberal mainline denominations and no longer has guards on its theology. For this reason, it becomes difficult to generalize. The PCA is more conservative, continues to enforce adherence to the Westminster confession, and is Evangelical.

Let’s now turn to see some of the differences between PCUSA, PCA and Independent Baptist Churches.

The PCUSA does not hold to biblical inerrancy, which is a mark of Mainline churches in America today. Like all Evangelical churches, the PCA does, and Independent Baptists do too.

According to the 2011 Presbyterian Panel Survey, only 4 out of nine members in the PCUSA affirm that only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”[1] This number would be near 100% in the PCA and among independent Baptists.

Likewise, the PCUSA does not teach a born-again theology or practice evangelism. The PCA does both, as do Independent Baptists.

The PCUSA supports abortion, while the PCA does not. Independent Baptists also are opposed to abortion.

The PCUSA does not consider homosexuality to be sinful and will ordain practicing homosexuals, while the PCA will not, nor will Independent Baptists.

The PCUSA ordains Women as teaching elders and deacons, while the PCA and Independent Baptists do not. I’ll thrown in here that this is also one of the main differences between the PCA and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which is also more conservative than the PCUSA but does allow Women to be teaching elders.

The PCUSA has a book of confessions as guidelines, but little enforcement, while the PCA enforces adherence to the Westminster confession. A minority of independent Baptists are confessional, but most reject confessions, instead having a statement of faith on a church-by-church basis as a description of the church’s interpretation of scripture.

The PCUSA is still technically reformed in theology, but it isn’t something to fight for anymore. Most churches in the PCUSA won’t have strong Calvinist preaching, and the spectrum of theology is very broad. The PCA is strongly reformed and Calvinistic. Some independent Baptist churches are Reformed, some are Arminian, and the plurality are in the middle, teaching Eternal Security but denying Limited atonement.

The PCUSA isn’t concerned about the Charismatic movement, but most Charismatics are similar to Evangelicals in many persuasions and would be uncomfortable in a liberal denomination, so there aren’t many churches in the PCUSA that are Charismatic. The PCA is not open to charismatic doctrine. Independent Baptists too are, with small exception, not open to Charismatics. The EPC rears its head again here, as it is accepting of Charismatics and has many Charismatic congregations.

On Bible Versions, you will mainly find the NRSV being used in PCUSA churches. PCA churches are much less likely to use it, instead using the NIV or other popular evangelical translations. A significant portion of Independent Baptist churches use the King James Version exclusively.

Here are some additional notable differences between confessional Presbyterians who hold to the Westminster Confession and most Independent Baptists.

On Baptism, Presbyterians hold to Immersion, Pouring, or Sprinkling all being acceptable modes. Independent Baptists only accept immersion. Presbyterians hold to infant Baptism, while Independent Baptists practice believer’s Baptism exclusively. Presbyterians will accept the Baptism of other denominations, including Baptists, as legitimate, while most independent Baptists would have a person re-baptized to join their church if they were baptized in a Presbyterian church, and certainly in the case of infant baptism or sprinkling.

Presbyterians view the Lord’s supper and Baptism as sacraments, while Baptists consider them only ordinances. As part of this, some Presbyterians view Baptism as a means of grace, where baptism confers regeneration to the elect. This is not effectively the same as Baptismal regeneration, which Presbyterians deny, but this view, which Calvin himself holds, includes Baptism within the granting of Salvation grace. Independent Baptists reject this view, holding that Baptism is symbolic of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, is an identification of the believer with Christ, and for most Independent Baptists, that baptism adds the believer to the local church body.

Presbyterians generally hold to Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, or communion, that is that there is a spiritual presence of Christ in the Elements. Baptists hold to it being a memorial and only symbolic.

A significant number of independent Baptists hold to a local-only ecclesiology, rejecting the idea of a universal church.

Presbyterians get their name from their Presbyterian polity. The local churches are governed by groups of elders, and then above groups of churches is a presbytery run by elders from those churches and other leaders. Above presbyteries may be synods, like in the PCUSA, but the PCA has no synods. Finally there is also a general assembly. Independent Baptists have no authority above the local church. Within the church there may be different forms of government, most commonly congregational government under the direction of one pastor, or in some cases multiple elders.

The presbytery ordains Presbyterian ministers, while Independent Baptist ministers are ordained by local churches.

The vast majority of Presbyterians hold to Covenant Theology, while most Independent Baptists are dispensationalist. This works out in several ways. One way is that confessional Presbyterians view the Sabbath as continuing, but moved to Sunday. This view is present in Some Baptist churches, but the dispensational view sees the Sabbath as entirely abolished, and Sunday worship as disconnected from Sabbath observance. Additionally, Reformed churches such as the Presbyterians will see the Old Testament law broken down into moral laws and ritual laws, with moral laws still in force, while dispensational Independent Baptists would view the law as fulfilled and done away, and the current set of moral law provided by the work of the Holy Spirit, the New Testament, and the law of Christ.

Finally, and perhaps least important, Presbyterian churches tend to, but not as a whole, be more high-church than Independent Baptists, with use of liturgy and special garments in services among the clergy.

[1] //www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/panel14-fall2011.pdf (Accessed 12/11/2018)

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