The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions Index

Protestant Vocabulary

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

After the Protestant Reformation those who broke with the Church still retained many terms from their Catholic tradition. However, their theology and forms of church government gave the terms a different meaning for them. In addition, developments within their churches gave rise to new terms. Thus the Protestant vocabulary includes a blending of words familiar to the Catholic tradition, but used in unfamiliar ways and of terms exclusive to Protestantism.

Because of the great variety of Protestant churches, there are many variations both in definitions and words among the denominations. Churches in the Anglican tradition, for example, have retained a great number of Catholic terms to designate their ecclesiastical personnel; Reformed or Calvinist churches have been more radical in their rejection of Catholic terminology. See ANGLICANISM.

The vocabulary given below does not represent an exhaustive dictionary of Protestant terms. It includes words that appear frequently in writings by and about Protestants, and it omits words that are treated elsewhere in separate articles.

Absolution in Protestant theology means the forgiveness of sins by God. It normally involves a formal declaration by the minister to assure the penitent of God’s mercy in remitting sin. The Protestant, which intend to confer absolution, vary considerably. They may be either a general absolution given to the congregation or an individual confession and absolution.

Most denominations offer the opportunity in their worship for a public confession of guilt, which may be made by the minister on behalf of his congregation or by the congregation as a body. After a period of quiet reflection, the minister may deliver an exhortation on God’s mercy, which the congregation answers with a prayer for pardon. The Methodist ritual, for example, is: “We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoing. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake.” The minister then concludes with a similar communal prayer, asking God to “pardon and deliver us from all our sins.”

In some churches, notably the Anglican and Lutheran, there is provision for private and individual confession and absolution of sins. One of the formulas used by a Lutheran minister to grant absolution reads as follows: “Upon this thy confession, I, by virtue of my office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce unto thee the grace of God, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive thee all thy sins in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Adiaphora, the Greek term for “indifferent,” is used among evangelicals to describe certain doctrines or practices that may be observed or ignored without injuring the foundations of faith. Historically, the term was coined in 1548 when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V established the Augsburg interim provisional formula for settling the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants (see CHARLES V, EMPEROR). The party of German Protestants who were willing to accept certain Catholic practices in the interest of peace were called Adiaphorites. Controversy with those who opposed concessions was finally settled by a ruling in 1577. Thereafter, concessions could not be made in times of persecution, but individual churches were free to alter practices not commanded or forbidden by Scripture. Thus the term adiaphora is now used to refer to those elements that the liberal party in a denomination believes it can concede in the interest of peace with another denomination or group. A critical area of controversy on adiaphora in modern times is the permissibility of worldly pleasures such as theaters and dances. The Pietistic tradition tends to consider these activities as sinful in themselves, but other Protestants hold them to be indifferent and therefore permitted (see PIETISM).

Annihilationism, or the belief that some human souls will cease to exist after death, has two principal forms in Protestant thought. Strict annihilationism holds that man may lose his immortality by unrepented wickedness, and may lose his existence either through a direct act of God or through the corrosive effect of evil. Conditional annihilationism teaches that, although man is naturally mortal, God imparts to the redeemed the gift of immortality while allowing the rest of humanity to sink into nothingness. Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are familiar proponents of annihilationism. See ADVENTISTS: JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES.

Anointing is the Protestant equivalent of the sacrament of extreme unction. The anointing is made, with oil that has been blessed, if a sick person requests it. Among the few churches which practice anointing, the Anglicans have the oldest tradition, The following formula is approved for use by the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States: “I anoint thee with oil (or I lay my hand upon thee), in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all thy pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored unto thee. Amen.” See EPISCOPALIANS.

Believers’ baptism is professed by such groups as the Baptists and Disciples, who hold that baptism can be validly conferred only on people of sufficient maturity to profess the Christian faith. In churches that follow the practice of believers’ baptism, young people are allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to be baptized as a public testimony of their belief. Those who have been baptized in infancy must be rebaptized when they reach the age of reason. See BAPTISTS.

Benediction in general means any act or pronouncement of blessing. In Protestant church services the benediction is usually pronounced at the end of the service. It may be improvised by the minister or specified by the official books of the church.

Bishops represent an ecclesiastical authority, which is completely rejected by the Calvinists churches, but is recognized in certain other Protestant bodies. Except the Anglican Church (which also has archbishops), they are the highest ministerial official, but their authority is strictly limited by church law. Among the Methodists, for example, a bishop has a nominal position in the district over which he presides, but his decisions in matters of importance must be confirmed by a higher judicial council (see METHODISTS). (See the definition of minister.)

Call in Protestantism is somewhat similar to vocation” in Catholic usage. It may imply either a conversation from unbelief or a divine summons and designation of individuals to assume particular functions and offices in the church. In the first sense, all Christians are said to be called, but in Calvinist theology a call has the connotation of a predestined election to salvation. In the second sense, persons receive a call to the ministry, the deaconship, missionary work, evangelism, and in fact, to any specialized religious service. In many cases the call involves certain striking emotional experiences.

Charge can refer to several things. It may be one or more churches organized under a single pastor who is responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church members. It may also be the commission that a candidate for the ministry receives before his ordination, which may be delivered by the bishop, presiding ministers, or the laity. In Anglican churches a charge is the address made by a bishop, archdeacon, or other ecclesiastic at a visitation of the clergy under his jurisdiction. Although such a charge normally offers general instructions and adomitions, it may also be a formal and specific command from Anglican superiors to their clerical subjects.

Church members are counted in different ways by the various Protestant denominations. Some churches in the Methodist tradition identify a member as any person who has been baptized and has accepted baptismal and membership vows as provided in their rituals. Baptists and certain other groups count as members all adults who have accepted baptism, but they do not insist that members subscribe to a particular covenant or confessional creed. Most Protestant churches do not count a person as a full member until he has reached a certain stage of maturity. Two notable exceptions are the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches.

Since not all members are equally active in a congregation, churches may make distinctions in their membership statistics. The communicant membership of a church includes those who attend services fairly regularly and participate actively in public worship, especially in the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Inclusive membership covers all persons on the parish roster, whether or not they are communicants. Some of the larger denominations also provide for affiliated membership with a particular congregation. This special category of membership provides for those who are living away from their home parishes. It enables these “absentees” to retain some form of an active connection with the parish so long as they are on its parochial records.

Covenant is a biblical term which many Protestant denominations use to signify the formal pledge taken by members of their group to follow the same religious principles. The term has been particularly prominent in Calvinist and Presbyterian Church history. In England and Scotland groups of Presbyterians entered into numerous religious and political covenants to maintain the cause of their religion. In the Massachusetts colony the Puritans and Separatist Pilgrims made a famous covenant that led to the establishment of the Congregationalist Church. “Covenant theology” is the basis of organization in those churches where local congregations make their own decisions regarding doctrine and other policies.

Deacons differ in dignity and authority in various Protestant churches. In Lutheran churches, fully ordained ministers who are serving as assistants to other ministers are called deacons. In Baptist and Congregational churches, deacons assist the pastor during religious services. In Presbyterian churches, however, deacons act as church elders and are charged chiefly with the collection and distribution of alms. (See the definitions of Elders and Ministers.)

Dedications are prayers for special occasions. They roughly correspond to the Catholic idea of a blessing, but without implying that the object dedicated is being blessed. There are detailed formulas for the dedication of a bell, a burial ground, a church building, a dwelling, a parish house, a school, and altar, sacred vessels, an organ, the pulpit, and, in fact, any material object that has a relation to things spiritual.

The pattern usually followed is to begin with a prayerful dedication of the object, then to ask for divine guidance or assistance, and to close with a brief invocation. After this dedicatory prayer there is generally another, longer prayer concerning the main purpose for which the object was dedicated. In the dedication of a church, the ritual provides separate formularies for every item of significance in the building, from the altar and its vessels to the bells and choir loft.

Discipline was given a specialized meaning by the Methodist church. It used the term to designate its official and published statements, its rules of organization and procedure, and its official descriptions of administrative agencies and their function, as well as its official ritual. This specialized definition of discipline has since been adopted by other Protestant religious bodies. The term is often used in a broad sense to indicate the ecclesiastical principles and practices of a local church or of an entire denomination.

Elders, who are elected to their office by church members, are the basis of Presbyterian Church government (see PRESBYTERIANS). The title “elder” may refer to the minister, who is considered a “teaching elder.” It is usually identified, however, with the “ruling elders” of the church, who represent the members of a congregation in the affairs of a single church. At progressively higher levels, there are also elders chosen to attend presbyteries, bringing together five or more churches; synods, bringing together at least three presbyteries; and general assemblies, which are the highest government body of the church. In addition to the pastors and ruling elders, deacons, who are in charge of administering the charity of the Presbyterian Church, are also regarded as elders. Normally, all elders are ordained to their office. (See the definitions of Deacons and Minister.)

Elements are the bread and wine (or grape juice used in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Most Protestant denominations use leavened bread, but certain Anglican bodies allow the use of either leavened bread. Instead of wine, unfermented grape juice is required among the Methodists and groups derived from them. Generally, the elements that remain after the Communion service are treated with respect, whether they are to be consumed or promptly destroyed. Some Anglo-Catholic communities, and a few others, reserve some to the elements in the church for distribution to the sick in their homes.

Fellowship is probably one of the most familiar and distinctive terms in the Protestant vocabulary. In using the term, Protestants intend to emphasize the idea of participation and sharing. For them, “fellowship” has come to stand for all the factors in a church group that spiritually bind together its members even in the absence of external, authoritative forms. Fellowship has been described as a community of people who recognize the unity of the human family and who believe that Christian love serves as the guide for personal conduct and for overcoming evil.

Installation has a technical meaning for Protestants when they refer to the occasion when a minister or other ecclesiastical person takes over in a new church. At the formal installing of a pastor or elder, one of the essentials is his acceptance by the delegates of the people in the local church. The laity have called the minister to serve their congregation. At the installation they promise to “receive the word of truth from his mouth,” to “encourage him in his labors,” and to “furnish him with whatever (they) may see needful for the honor of religion and for his comfort.” Ministers are installed after ordination, and reinstalled when they accept the charge of a new community.

Litanies are forms of general supplication commonly used in many denominations. They may be either appointed for certain days of the week or be either recommended for Sunday and feast-day services. The classic type falls into two parts: The first part includes an invocation of the Persons of the Trinity, with deprecations, obsecrations, intercessions, and a final set of invocations which includes the Kyrie eleison and Lord’s Prayer; the second part includes versicles and responses, followed by collects.

Two of the Protestant forms of litany most generally used are the Latin Litany, composted by Martin Luther in 1529, and the litany issued by Thomas Cranmer for the English Church in 1544 (see CRANMER, THOMAS). Since then, adaptations or imitations of these and earlier litanies have found their way into the liturgical life of all the major denominations. The Presbyterians have a form of litany that follows closely the latter part of the Litany of the Saints in the Catholic Church. Such invocations as “From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice and all uncharitableness,” are answered by the people, “Good Lord, deliver us.”

There are also special Protestant litanies to the Holy Spirit, for the Church, for the nation, and on the subject of labor. Not uncommonly (as in a Litany on Labor), the minister makes a series of long invocations, after each of which the congregation variously answers, “Bless and guide us, we beseech Thee,” or “O Lord, deliver us,” or “Hear us, we beseech Thee.”

Lord’s Supper is a name used particularly by Protestants for Holy Communion. It was introduced in John Wycliffe’s English version of the Bible in 1382 and was popularized as a term when it occurred in the title of Nicholas Ridley’s Brief Declaration of the Lord’s Supper, written in 1554 (see WYCLIFFE, JOHN). From its use by the Church of England the term was adopted by Protestants generally. When Protestants refer to the Lord’s Supper, they may mean either the actual reception of Communion or the elements received. Sometimes, also, the whole order of worship at which Communion is given is called the Lord’s Supper, to distinguish it from other services of the Protestant church.

Merger, that is, the legal joining of two or more independent bodies, has taken on a specialized meaning for Protestants in connection with the ecumenical movement. In Protestantism, mergers have taken place on a denominational level when two or more previously distinct religious bodies have formed one new denomination. The United Church of Christ, formed in 1957 by a union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, is an example of such merger (see UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST). However, mergers take place more frequently on a local level, when two or more churches transfer their respective property and other rights to a single and newly created legal institution. See ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT.

Minister is the most common title used for the person who has charge of a Protestant congregation. The early reformers chose the title deliberately to emphasize their opposition to ecclesiastical authority. They wished to imply that the person charged with spiritual functions in their churches was not their superior but was an equal, chosen by his peers to minister to his fellow Christians.

Moderator is a title used particularly by Presbyterians. It designates the persons elected to preside at meetings of the governing bodies of their churches. Moderators preside at sessions held for a single church, at presbyteries held for several churches, at synods bringing together several presbyteries, and at the general assembly or highest governing body. The minister normally serves as moderator at the sessions held for his own church, and the moderators appointed by higher governing bodies are also usually ministers. Moderators serve for a designated length of time and have authority to carry out the mandates issued by the bodies over which they preside.

Order of worship may be specified for some Protestant services, although there are no forms, which must be rigidly followed. The most common order of worship is the order for Communion, for which three or more ceremonial methods may be suggested. Other orders of worship are provided for morning and vesper services, feast days, weddings, funerals, and legal holidays.

The orders are never strictly prescriptive but are intended as a general guide for conducting liturgical worship. This is not only commonly understood but is specified in the rituals themselves. Frequently a ceremonial is introduced with the phrase, “this order may be used,” or the celebrant is advised that “here may the minister offer extempore prayer or one or more of the following.”

Ordinances have come to mean the Protestant equivalent of sacraments. The term is regularly employed to identify baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but the other five sacraments of the Catholic Church are not recognized in Protestant theology. Even where the word “sacrament” is admitted, as among the Anglicans, the articles of religion specify that there are only two sacraments “ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel,” whereas “those five commonly called sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for sacraments of the Gospel.” Sometimes the first two are called sacraments and the last five, ordinances, to distinguish Catholic and Protestant systems.

Pastor and preacher are used in an almost synonymous way by Protestants. However, the former refers specifically to one who has charge of a local church, whereas the latter refers to one who delivers sermons or exhortations without regard to administrative duties. The ministries of pastor and preacher are performed by the same person in the majority of Protestant churches, since most congregations have only a single resident clergyman attached to their charge.

Perfection has a unique meaning and significance in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. The word was chosen by John Wesley to describe that further state of sanctification which a justified person may achieve with the grace of God. Wesley’s concept of perfection was an implicit reversal of classic Reformation thought on the absolute depravity of fallen man and his consequent inability to attain holiness. According to his idea, the more perfect a man becomes the more his love for God is manifested by a corresponding love of neighbor. While perfection is repudiated by the more evangelical churches, it has entered the mainstream of Protestant thought in English-speaking countries. The influence of Wesleyan ideas helps to explain the social consciousness and achievements of Protestantism in nations such as the United States. See WESLEY, JOHN.

Polity, in itself, simply means the form or constitution of any particular denomination, but Protestants give a much broader meaning to the term. Often they use it to designate all the features of ecclesiastical government, which are distinctive to a particular Church. Thus when people speak of Methodist or Baptist polity, they are describing an institutional consciousness or esprit de corps which is shared by all members of a particular religious body, and which keeps alive their group devotion and enthusiasm.

Stewards are laymen who are charged with the responsibility of fulfilling certain administrative duties in a parish, congregation, synod, or diocese. Stewards are either elected to their office or acquire stewardship rights and duties by virtue of another position they hold in the church. The number of stewards in a local church varies from 2 or 3 to 30 and more.

Tithing is the gift or payment of a tenth of one’s income to religious and charitable agencies. The custom is mentioned frequently in the Bible, and a number of Protestant denomination counts tithing as a basic responsibility of members to their church. An Adventist, for example, on the day of his (adult) baptism is required to answer affirmatively to the question, “Do you believe in church organization, and is it your purpose to support the church by your tithes?” Other Protestant groups regard the payment of tithes as a vital stage in developing Christian responsibility, but they do not hold it to be a binding obligation.

Vestry in its literal sense is the room attached to a church where the clergy vest themselves for divine worship, and where the sacred vestments and equipment for liturgical services are kept. Protestants very commonly also apply the term to the administrative body of the laity who have charge of temporal affairs in their churches. Vestries often have authority to elect the new rector of a parish, and they accept his resignation if he leaves. In some churches members of the vestry may include both men or women. Warden’s vice presidents of the vestry and lay delegates to diocesan conventions are chosen by the members of the vestry.

Witness has become the classic expression for many characteristic sentiments of Protestantism. Properly speaking, a witness is “one who testifies,” and is the English word for the biblical martyr, a man testifying to the faith even at the price of his blood.

Protestants from a revivalist tradition often use the term (see REVIVALISM). Evangelists and missionaries, who seek to propagate the Gospel and extend its influence into the hearts of men, are called witnesses. A person is said to give witness when he preaches the word of God to others, as in the ministry, in Sunday school instruction, or in revivalist meetings. The congregation also witnesses by listening to the preacher, and especially by putting into practical effect the exhortations they receive from him. One of the most distinctive Protestant versions of witnessing is the external manifestation made publicly by a convert from sin. The idea here applied is that one person’s testimony is the best way of converting others to the same repentant state of mind.


Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 9, pp. 19-26

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of