With so many different religious denominations around the world, it can be difficult to keep them all straight. Even within Christianity, it can be tough to keep track of all the different religions and understand who believes what. Just to complicate matters, the history of many of our denominations goes back to just one or two churches that are often still up and running today. How can we know who belongs to what?
For example, are Presbyterians and Protestants the same? Protestantism is a broad description of any Christian religion that resulted from the European split with the Catholic church in the 1400s and 1500s. All Presbyterians practice a Protestant form of the Christian religion, but not all Protestants practice as Presbyterians. There are currently hundreds of different faiths practicing under the Protestant umbrella.
So, by definition, all Presbyterians are Protestants, but not all Protestants are Presbyterians. The word “Protestant” obviously means we were protesting something, but what were we rebelling against? Where did Presbyterianism come from, and how are we considered Protestants?
What Is Protestantism?
The Protestant movement is generally credited to Martin Luther, who was a German theologian in the late 1400s and for the first half of the 1500s. After receiving his master’s degree, he went on to law school. After only a few weeks, however, he dropped out and entered a monastery. Eventually, he became a priest. He later went on to pursue his doctorate in Biblical Studies. Once he received it, he became a professor at Wittenberg University in Germany.
Luther had been becoming disillusioned with many of the Catholic church’s teachings and actions, believing that the church had become greedy and less concerned about people’s salvation and more concerned with making money. In the early 1500’s a disagreement with a local friar’s method of selling indulgences to forgive sins led to Luther’s publication called Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed on the door of a local church. The word of the church’s misdeeds got out, and the idea of reformation was planted.
Things continued to escalate, and eventually, Luther was branded a heretic and excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1521. Back then, heretics were arrested and burned to death. Fortunately, a new king had recently come into power in Germany and he didn’t believe Luther had gotten a fair trial.
Luther had a new trial, but unfortunately, it didn’t go his way. He and his followers were branded political outlaws, and the Powers That Be ordered all the books Luther had written over the years to be burned.
Luther went into hiding and began work on a German translation of the New Testament. Luther believed that anyone could understand the Bible and should have access to it if they wanted. Before this, Bibles were always in Latin, and only highly educated people and priests knew how to read it. People had to rely on priests to tell them the word of God, and Martin believed that wasn’t fair or necessary.
Luther believed that the Bible was the only source of religious authority and that it was only by the Grace of God that anyone could be saved. He also believed that churches were supposed to communities of believers and that anyone could speak to God. The Catholic church of the time, which believed that regular people should access God through the priests and clergy only, disagreed with Luther.
Eventually, the reformation that had started in Germany traveled to other countries in Europe. Worshippers used the names of the reformers they followed to describe their practices, like Lutheranism and Calvinism. King Henry VIII famously used the new ideas coming out of Germany to break with Rome and develop the Church of England.
Today, there are hundreds of different protestant denominations, all around the world. Approximately one billion people worldwide consider ourselves to be Protestants. Even though our practices and doctrines are a little different between each group, some things stay constant:
- With a couple exceptions, we all worship on Sunday
- Our worship focuses on the sermon
- Hymns are often part of the service
- We have a liturgical calendar, and almost all of us celebrate Christmas and Easter
What is Presbyterianism?
Presbyterianism is an offshoot of Calvinism, one of the first new Protestant religions to come out of Germany and Switzerland in the 1500s. John Calvin was a French scholar who grew up in a strict Catholic household. He eventually converted to the reformed faith that was just beginning to make its way to France. Because of his beliefs, it was too dangerous to stay in France, so he eventually made his way to Switzerland.
John Knox was a Scotsman who studied under Calvin in Switzerland. He eventually returned to Scotland, bringing his Calvinistic teaching with him. This, along with some new ideas coming up from England, was the start of Presbyterianism. It made its way over to the United States with the Scottish and Irish immigrants and has been here since the 1600s.
Like most Protestants, we believe that:
- God is the Supreme Being in the universe
- God speaks to us through the Bible
- Only Jesus’s sacrifice for us will lead us to salvation
- We must share the Word of God with others
What makes us different from some other Protestants is that we believe in something called “reformed theology.” Based on the original reformation of the 16th century, we believe that members of our congregation should serve along with the clergy. We also prefer to devote our God-given gifts to quiet devotion and believe in social justice.
One other belief we have that might differ from other Protestants is the belief in predestination. We believe that God has already chosen who will be saved and who won’t be. Since it isn’t up to us, the only thing we can do is not judge others and hope that God will be merciful to everyone. We do believe that you can change God’s mind, but we can do that work as an individual; no one can do it for us.
The Presbyterian church also has what we call “elders.” Elders are chosen from the congregation, by the congregation. They are our church’s governing body and help to make sure it runs well and fulfills its spiritual duties.
Presbyterians all come together as a congregation to worship. Each of our church’s services can look different, depending on what the ministers and elders prefer for their congregation. But usually, we have plenty of prayers, music, Bible readings, a sermon, baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper.
Like most other Protestant religions, we believe in only two sacraments instead of the Catholic church’s seven sacraments. The two we practice are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which is just another name for communion.
While anyone can be baptized at any age, it’s common for babies to be brought in front of the congregation to go through the ceremony. We don’t require that the person being baptized be held completely underwater. We do believe that you only need to be baptized once. This means that if you’ve gone through the ceremony in another church and then convert to Presbyterianism, we still consider you baptized.
It can be confusing sometimes to understand the differences between religions that all started from the same basic idea. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s inspired new religions, many of which split into different belief systems themselves. The end result is like a large family: we may go off and do their own things and have different last names, but when the holidays roll around, we all home to the same parents.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.