How the 2 Biggest Presbyterian Denominations Differ & Which We Endorse

How the 2 Biggest Presbyterian Denominations Differ & Which We Endorse

Are you interested in checking out a Presbyterian church?  Are there a few in your area and you wonder how they compare?  Do you know someone that attends this type of church?  Would you like to improve your understanding of this denomination?  

This article explains the Presbyterian religion and their two biggest church subgroups.  You will learn about origins, beliefs, and what to expect at a Sunday service. If you are considering visiting a Presbyterian church, or you’re just curious about the denomination, this comparison guide will help you gain a better understanding of some options.  It is important to note that the two denominations covered in this article disagree about some key beliefs.  While I attempted to give a simple explanation of each without a lot of commentary, it is vital to know that Grace Capital Church ascribes to an orthodox understanding of Christian doctrine and can only support the ideology of one of these denominations.  Read on to the "Takeaway" to find out which one; and please reach out if we can help assist you in your search for the right denomination for you. 

Related:  Which Christian Denomination is Right for Me? An Easy Comparison Guide

As you consider the similarities and differences between churches, you would do well to remember a quote attributed to various authors: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  As Christians, we are all a part of one universal Church and are charged with the responsibility of unity and love amid diversity.

Related:  3 Essential Beliefs all Christian Churches Share

What is the Presbyterian Religion?

The biggest thing that stood out to me in my research on Presbyterianism is the dizzying number of splits and mergers that have occurred dating back to its birth in the 1700s.  Honestly, it was hard to follow.  

Presbyterians hold to the theology of Calvinism, which states that Christians are predestined to be saved from the penalty of sin and receive eternal life through Jesus Christ.  Some denominations ascribe to the school of thought on the other end of the sprectrum, called Arminianism, which espouses the doctrine of free will - that people are saved and given eternal life when they choose to put their faith in Jesus Christ.  Oftentimes, denominations, churches, and individuals can vary in the degree to which they hold to their chosen school of thought; many times people hold to a mixture of the two.

According to Pew Research Center, at about 40% of Presbyterians holding a college degree, they are some of the most formally educated among religons.  Compare this, for example, to Baptists of whom less than 20% have this level of formal education.  Interestingly, about the same number of Atheists (43%) have earned a degree, while a whopping 59% of Jews hold a college degree.

One of the most defining characteristics of Presbyterianism is their polity.  They are hierarchical and their governing bodies hold and exercise power to rule their churches - mainly in the areas of choosing and dismissing pastors, disciplining members, and determining the order of services.

While there are many more denominations within Presbyterianism, I have chosen only two to discuss not only because they are the largest, but also because they differ in their key beliefs as well as many social issues.  

Related:  How to Become a Christian in 2 Life-Saving Steps

 

2 Biggest Presbyterian Denominations

(in historical order)

 

Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)

Origin:  The PCA denomination began in 1973 after many splits and mergers over a period of two centuries.  

Main Distinctions:  They ascribe to orthodox Christian theology ackowledging the deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible's inerrancy.  Their website [accessed 11 Sept. 2023] states they prioritize their role in fulfilling the Great Commission of spreading the Gospel message that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and a restored relationship with God.  They also have a focus on Christian education, and missions work.  In regard to social issues, they are conservation - for example, they oppose abortion and homosexuality.  They do not ordain female pastors.

Demographics:  At close to 400,000 members, it is the second largest Presbyterian denomination in America.    

Age Race Education Annual Household Income Party Affiliation

50% Age 30-64

11% Age 18-29

80% White

6% Black

6% Latino

 

33% College Degree

3% Less than High School

27% Less than $30,000

25% $100,000 or More

60% Republican

34% Democrat

Pew Research Center. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023
 

Organizational Framework:  As explained above, Presbyterian churches have centralized government.  In comparison with the PCUSA (below), they give individual congregations more freedom to govern themselves.  One notable difference is that PCA churches own their physical property rather than it belonging to the denomination.

Factors affecting the General Feel:  It is traditional, following a regular order of worship.  They sing both ancient and modern songs.

 

Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)

Origin:  Like the PCA, the PCUSA denomination experienced many splits and mergers over a period of two hundred years.  Their current organization was formed in 1983.

Main Distinctions:  There is a wide array of beliefs held by individual churches in regard to the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture;  the denomination does not state a definitive stance but leaves it open to interprtation [of particular interest is the table found on pg. 21 of the position statement of the 123rd General Assembly in 1983, availabe on the PCUSA website - Accessed 12 Sept. 2023]. One of their predominant values is to actively serve those in need, using Micah 6:8 as their model.  Regarding evangelism, they prefer to let their actions speak of their faith.  Sherron Kay George explained in her article about Presbyterians and evangelism that they believe that "only God calls, elects, sends and saves people. [So,] asking who is “saved” or “lost” are inappropriate questions for Presbyterians. We leave that to God’s sovereign love and justice."  They are active in sharing their beliefs on many social issues; two of note that are hot topics in the Christian faith are abortion and homosexuality, of which they are proponents.  While the denomination has a long history of internal conflict, they place a strong emphasis on being ecumenical with organizations outside of their own, and can have a tendency to think of the core messages of all religions to be of equal value.

Demographics:  It is the largest Presbyterian denomination with over a million members. 

Age Race Education Annual Household Income Political Affiliation

54% Age 30-64

8% Age 18-29

88% White

5% Black

47% College Degree

3% Less than High School

32% $100,000 or More

24% Less than $30,000

 

47% Democrat

44% Republican

Pew Research Center. Accessed 11 Sept. 2023
 

Organizational Framework:  There are several tiers of leadership with positions held by a selection of pastors and elected elders.  At the top of the governing body is the General Assembly.  They also have a high church court called, General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), which handles any church constitution issues or concerns that arise.  The PCUSA owns the physical properties of their churches.

Factors affecting the General Feel:  The order of worship is structured and predictable, containing four components: gathering (prayer and music, including hymns and other spiritual songs), Word (Bible readings, sermon, responsive prayers recited as a congregation, passing the monetary offering plate), sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), and sending (closing prayer). 

 

Takeaway

Finding the right church for you is important and there are many options!  As you proceed in your search, always ensure the church adheres to the core beliefs of Christianity:  

  1. There is only One God and He is three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. We are saved by grace, not works, only through the death (for the penalty for our sins) and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  3. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.   [Read more about this:  3 Essential Beliefs all Christian Churches Share]

If you are interested in finding a church where traditional and predictable orders of worship are followed, a Presbyterian church may be a good fit for you; but we caution you on which one you choose.  As you can see, the two denominations covered in this article are vastly different in their theology.  Being that Grace Capital Church ascribes to orthodox Christianity, of the two denominations covered in this article, we can only endorse the doctrine of the PCA denomination.  To learn more about why we cannot support the beliefs and practices of PCUSA, check out this important article: 3 Essential Beliefs all Christian Churches Share.

Do you want to learn more about Presbyterianism?

Check out: 

  1. Calvinism vs. Arminianism - which view is correct?
  2. 13 Differences Between the PCA and the PCUSA - an article written by a PCA pastor

Do you want to learn more about what it means to be a Christian and how to find a church?

Check out these articles:

  1. How to Become a Christian in 2 Life-Saving Steps
  2. 3 Essential Beliefs all Christian Churches Share
  3. 4 Sects Mistaken as Christian & How they're Unsound
  4. 6 Tips for Choosing the Right Church For You
  5. 4 Reasons to Become A Church Member

 If you live in the Greater Concord, NH area, we’d love for you to come visit us!  Check out service times and where to find us here.  

Or, join us during a livestream from anywhere in the world.

Do you have questions?  Comment below or reach out to us.

Also in this Series:

  1. Which Christian Denomination is Right for Me? An Easy Comparison Guide
  2. 5 Pentecostal Churches: From Historical Root to Modern Practices
  3. 3 Baptist Church Denominations: A Comprhensive Comparison Guide

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