March 28, 2004 Q & A

Catholic vs. Presbyterian


Could you tell me the difference between the Presbyterian church and the Catholic Church.


Short question, potentially very long answer. I'll try to focus briefly on some basics, beginning with the foundational matter of authority.

The Roman Catholic Church understands the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as do we, but alongside the Bible, stands the authority of the tradition of the church, the decrees of its councils, and the ex cathedra pronouncements of its popes. Tradition, councils, and popes tell the faithful what the Scriptures teach and can add dogma to what the Scriptures teach (for example, the immaculate conception of Mary). We regard this as man exercising authority over the Word of God rather than sitting in humble submission before it.

In contrast, this is what we confess to the world in the Westminster Confession of Faith (a statement which we believe faithfully summarizes what the Bible teaches, but which is wholly derived from the Bible, subordinate to it, and may be corrected by it):

4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God....

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men....

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them....

9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

(Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, "Of the Holy Scripture")

With particular reference to the Church, we hold that Christ alone is the Head of His Church, and that there are no princely rulers in the church, but elders and preachers gifted by the Spirit and called to rule and teach in local churches in subordination to the Word of God. Again, our Confession:

6. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof." (WCF, Chapter 25, "Of the Church"; see Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22, 1 Pet. 5:2-4)

Christ is the King and only Lord of the church. He rules us by His Word, the Holy Spirit who first inspired it continuing to work now by enabling us to understand, believe, and obey the Scriptures. Elders and preachers are gifts He gives to the church to guide and help us understand and obey the Word, but they are not infallible.

Our Confession again,

1. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate. (WCF, Chapter 30, "Of Church Censures"; see Acts 14:23, 20:17,28, Heb.13:7,17, Eph.4:11,12, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, 5:17-21, etc.)

2. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain and remit sins, to shut the kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures, and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures as occasion shall require. (WCF, 30.2)

1. For the better government, and further edification of the church, there ought to be such assemblies as a commonly called synods or councils, and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office and the power which Christ hath given them for edification and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the church. (WCF, Chapter 31, "Of Synods and Councils")

2. It belongeth to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God and government of his church, to receive complaints in cases of maladministratiion, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission. (WCF, 31.2)

3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both. (WCF, 31.3)

4. Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical, and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs ... [exceptions stated]" (WCF, 31.4)

A key point here is our understanding that church authorities are to act "ministerially" and based always on the Word of God. They cannot make laws in addition to God's revealed Word, but must labor to understand that Word properly and then declare it to the church and base their governing and disciplining actions upon it. We do not claim for any merely human governors of the church a magisterial authority.

From this fundamental difference in regard to authority and to the relative roles of the Bible, tradition, decrees of councils, and edicts of popes, flow the other differences. Why do Presbyterians not pray to Mary and the saints? Because the Bible nowhere tells us to do so; it is an invention by gradual accretion in the tradition of the church. And because, on the other hand, the Bible tells us that "there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus," who is our Great High Priest, through whom we have boldness to come to God's throne of grace (1 Tim.2:5, Heb. 4:14-16). Christ is all the intercessor we need (Heb.7:23-28).

There are fundamentally different approaches to worship, which might be summed up this way:

Roman Catholic:

Whatever the tradition and councils have given us is what we do in public worship.


We give to God in worship only what is revealed in His Word as pleasing to Him (see Lev.10:1-3, Ex. 20:4-6, Mark 7:1-8).

While we are looking at worship, we observe that Presbyterians differ fundamentally with Roman Catholics in regard to the Lord's Supper. We both agree that Christ Himself ordained the observance of communion by His church and that this involves bread and wine. From that point on we agree on almost nothing. But let me try to summarize:

Roman Catholics:

By the grace received in his ordination the priest has power to utter the words of consecration by which mere bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ for sacrifice on the altar, and by receiving this mystical body (and blood) of Christ the faithful receive Christ Himself bodily and His grace to wash them clean of all their sins.


(a). The minister is not a priest; Christ alone is our priest in the sense of interceding for us before God by sacrifice. The minister is a servant, who declares the Word so that the faithful may understand what is taking place.

(b). The power of the minister is to declare what the Scriptures teach, not to say words that change bread into Christ's body.

(c). The bread and wine symbolically represent the body and blood of Christ. When Jesus at the Last Supper said to His disciples (of the bread), "This is My body which is broken for you", He was standing before them in His body, whole and intact. He meant this bread symbolizes My body. (When He said, "I am the door to the sheepfold," He was similarly speaking symbolically, or "I am the light of the world").

(d). There is no sacrifice of Christ on any altar, for He offered Himself once for all (Heb. 7:27, 9:12, 9:26-28, 10:10). So perfect and acceptable was the sacrifice of the God-Man of Himself for sinners that no other sacrifice is required. When on the cross He said, "It is finished," He meant not only his suffering of death, but also His making atonement by His suffering. By that "one sacrifice for sins for all time," that "one offering." "He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Heb.10:12,14). We hold it to be a great dishonor to Christ's once-for-all atoning work on Calvary to claim that His body and blood continue to be offered as sacrifice for sin. This is why we speak of the communion "table", not altar.

(e). The faithful receive Christ by faith, not physically. The elements are signs. They point to Christ and what He has done to atone for our sins. They point to Him also as our risen and living Savior and Lord who is present in His Church by the Holy Spirit, continuously offering Himself to believers. The bread and wine call us to draw near to Christ by faith, to receive forgiving and sanctifying grace from Him, to grow in our union with Him. But it is all spiritual and by faith.

I could go on listing differences, but two very important ones remain. I will deal with the most important last.

Presbyterians believe that God's Word is a sufficient revelation of His will for our lives (see above, Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1, especially Sections 6 and 7, and read 2 Tim. 3:15-17).

We think it is an arrogant usurpation of Christ's authority for church rulers to presume to have authority to add to His word rules and commands. Where does the Bible require ministers in Christ's church to be celibate? It doesn't, but rather teaches the opposite (1 Tim. 3:2-5,12, see 1 Cor. 9:5). But Catholic authority requires Catholic priests to take vows of celibacy, which are contrary to human nature and create terrible stumbling blocks leading to sin (which is now being plastered shamefully all over the public media). For centuries the Catholic Church told its people they must refrain from eating meat on Fridays; to do otherwise was sin. Now it's okay. It was a sin. Now it's not. The church says so. But the Bible does not say one word, except Colossians 2:20-23 (and 1 Tim. 4:1-5).

Appeal may be made to Matthew 16:19 (and 18:18), which read this way: "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" (and vice versa). There! The church officers make a binding decision on earth, and heaven will ratify it. But the passage actually says exactly the opposite. The second verbs in each case ("shall be bound" / "loosed"), are future perfect tenses, properly translated: "shall have been bound / loosed". So that the correct reading is: "Whatever you bind / loose on earth shall have been bound / loosed in heaven". That is, officers of the church on earth must base their decisions on what heaven has already determined. And what would that be? That would be what "Heaven," that is, God, has revealed by the Spirit in His Word, the Scriptures.

But the most important issue concerns salvation. We believe the Bible teaches that the all-sufficient atoning sacrifice of Christ and the perfect obedience of Christ, offered to His Father in our behalf and given to us as God's gift in the declaration of justification is all the basis for salvation that a sinner needs. See Romans 3:19-30, Philippians 3:2-9, Galatians 3:10-13, Romans 8:1-3. We believe that we receive this gift only by faith, Ephesians 2:8,9. Good works enter in as the fruit of saving faith, as its outworking in our lives. But the moment I throw myself on the mercy of God trusting in Christ's saving work for me, I am then and there and once and for all justified in God's sight and nothing I do after that in the way of good works can add to what Christ has done or to God's justification.

This has gone on quite long. As I noted at the beginning, your question is very short. Maybe you were looking for something other than what I have given you. But I do want to close with a few clarifications.

"Presbyterian": This is from the Greek word in the NT, presbyter, meaning elder. Presbyterian churches are churches which believe that Christ governs his church through the work of elders, a plurality of elders in each local church, and councils of the elders of the churches in a region or a nation.

Historically the "Presbyterian" churches were churches of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and England that shared with other Protestant churches on the Continent a common understanding of Bible doctrine that is often referred to as "Reformed" (and historically associated with John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland). In the 1640s the pastors and teachers of the Church of England met to officially reform the English church in the light of Scripture. Among other things they spent several years writing the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. These have since been the defining documents of Presbyterian churches.

Unfortunately, in the last 100 years or so, many Presbyterian churches have wandered away from their Confession because, at bottom, they were accepting man-made philosophies and ideas as being more true than the Bible. So not all "Presbyterians" believe what I have given you above. But those who believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God and who still believe - as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church does, by God's grace - the summary of its doctrines in the Westminster Confession, would agree with what I have told you.

I hope this is helpful to you. I have not meant in any way to offend, though sometimes stating things starkly can have that effect. I have tried to be clear about the differences, which is what you asked, and I cannot pretend that I do not think truth is on one side and not on the other. You, of course, may speak with equal frankness and I welcome a reply or further questions.

The Lord guide you in His paths of truth and righteousness.



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