Christian denominations are a defining feature of Christianity, the dominant religion of the world with the most number of adherents by far.
This page covers everything you need to know about the major branches of Christianity including:
- What is, and is not, a Christian denomination
- A very brief history of Christianity
- The birthplace of most major Christian denominations
- A solid introduction to the major denominations and their unique features
Best of all? It is completely free to read and share.
“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of existing communions…
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms…
it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.
The hall is a place to wait in… not a place to live in.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Contents page (with links)
Part 1: Introduction
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life
John 3:16 – via Bible Gateway
Obviously it’s important to understand what a Christian denomination is before we go into the finer details.
So in Part 1 we’re going to cover:
- What a Christian denomination is
- What a Christian denomination is not
- A brief history of Christianity’s key elements, especially those most important to understanding Christian denominations
Time to get started.
What is a Christian Denomination Anyway?
A Christian denomination is any Christian group distinguished by a particular structure, or statement of beliefs (or ‘creeds’) that do not violate any foundational Christian beliefs.
Sounds pretty simple.
Now just what are ‘foundational’ Christian beliefs?
For that matter what is a Christian?
What is a Christian?
In the broadest possible sense, the single unifying feature of Christianity is belief in the Divinity of Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ and what do I mean when I say the ‘Divinity’ of Jesus Christ?
I mean Jesus Christ is God the Son, eternal, omniscient, everlasting, who became a man, lived a perfect, sinless life, and paid the punishment for our rebellion against God in an act known as ‘the Atonement’.
Through His death on the cross and His resurrection Christ atoned for our sins.
Atone – to make amends or reparation, as for an offense or a crime,
via – Dictionary.com
The reason Jesus Christ is so central to the Christian Faith, is because we owe everything to Him.
He represents the culmination of all God promised us right back to the beginning of original sin.
In short, all Christians (by definition) believe Jesus Christ is our Holy God and He became our saviour through the Atonement.
This is what Christians have taught and believed since the very beginning of Christianity.
What Gets You Out of the Club?
You’re probably thinking that there’s more to it though right?
How do we decide what is a legit Christian denomination, and what is not?
After-all, anyone can call themselves a Christian.
It comes down to a few core beliefs which are considered clear and fundamental teachings, according to the Bible, by the majority of Christian denominations.
Belief in Jesus, as I described above is one. The other is the doctrine of the trinity.
You may have heard the term before.
The word ‘trinity’ is not in the Bible.
However, the trinitarian view of God best describes the Bible’s words regarding the relationship between the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Generally speaking, it is the Bible’s teaching that there are three personal, unique persons, that make up the One Godhead.
They are God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit.
Three persons – one God.
To deny that any one of them is God is to deny the Bible’s clear teaching about God.
This is what Christians have taught and believed since the very beginning of Christianity.
This is the universally understood nature of the Christian God that is common to all Christian denominations.
So we can say, based on what we’ve discussed, that a group or person is definitely not Christian if they:
- Deny the trinity, especially if they…
- Deny Christ’s Deity (and humanity) or they…
- Deny God’s sovereignty, and finally if they…
- Distort the Bible’s teaching in any way that, logically leads to a denial of 1, 2 or 3
These are not the only things, but they are super important. No true Christian group would deny any of these teachings.
So the next big question is, if all Christians believe in Jesus, and the Bible teaches us about him, why are there so many denominations?
To understand better how and why denominations exist we need to understand a little bit of Christian history.
From Christ to Kingdom Come: A Very Brief History of Christianity
It all starts with a man named Julius Caesar, who was definitely not a Christian.
Julius Caesar is a household name today and he is hailed by many historians as the greatest military leader in history.
More importantly, Julius Caesar was a key figure in overthrowing the Roman republic and laying the groundwork to institute the Roman Empire.
The formation of the Roman Empire
Rome had been a prosperous republic for several centuries up to the formation of the Empire.
Julius Caesar’s great-nephew, Caesar Augustus (63BC – 14AD) was the first to take the title of the Emperor of Rome.
Augustus ruled from 27BC until his death in 14AD. Under his leadership Rome underwent massive expansion and prosperity.
Augustus was also the Emperor of Rome at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ – the central figure of Christianity.
From Caesar Augustus, until Constantine the Great (306AD), Rome was ruled by a great many emperors of varying quality and capability.
The Historical Jesus
Few outside of Jesus Christ’s followers wrote in extensive detail about Him, but no less than 4 non-Christian historians wrote explicitly about Him.
If we take the Bible completely out of the picture, using only the writings from non-Christian sources, we can know at least these things:
- Jesus was raised in Nazareth
- He spoke and taught and influenced many people
- He was very famous as a gifted teacher (he was on the radar of Roman Kings)
- He allegedly performed many ‘amazing wonders’, and was often regarded as a ‘sorcerer’ by his opponents and critics
- He died at the hands of the Jewish authorities, under the authority of Pontius Pilate
- There was a solar eclipse that coincided exactly with His crucifixion
- Shortly following His death, many reports from His disciples and many others surfaced that they had seen Him alive after His death
- That Christianity was heavily persecuted
- Despite this persecution, Christianity exploded and spread rapidly across the Empire and beyond
Jesus According to the Bible…
Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, was raised as a child in Egypt, and then grew into adulthood in Nazareth.
Jesus was a direct descendant of the great King David of Israel.
Jesus Christ fulfilled several hundreds of prophecies spread throughout the Old Testament that make references to the coming Messiah, the saviour of Israel and the world.
Many of which came thousands of years before Jesus Christ was born. They include:
- Being born in Bethlehem
- Being raised in Nazareth
- Being a ‘Gallilean’ (settling in Galilee)
- His riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, amidst a large crowed of adoring onlookers
- His betrayal
- Death on the cross
- The spear that pierced His side
- Many, many more
He began his ministry travelling throughout the mediterranean, teaching and performing many incredible miracles.
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.
John 21:25 – via Bible Gateway
During this period He attracted monumentally large followings of people, such that He often had to head out of town and into large open spaces to teach them.
His messages were radical, and often directly contrary to the wisdom of His day.
Stuff like telling people to love their enemies, and do good to them.
He also claimed, on more than one occasion to be of divine origin.
He claimed, in so many words, that He was the promised Messiah. This was what got him in the most trouble with the Jewish leaders of His day.
Under the rule of Pontius Pilate, and by his authority, Christ was handed over to the Jewish Sanhedrin, who (except for Joseph of Arimathea) declared him a heretic and He was crucified.
At this point His disciples, crippled with fear, fled and went into hiding.
According to the Christian Bible, Christ rose from the dead 3 days later fully restored in bodily human form.
The Jewish and Roman leaders paid exorbitant bribes to the Roman Guards to testify that the body was stolen.
He then appeared to his disciples, and over a period of 40 days was seen by multiple large groups of people. In one case over 500 witnesses at one time.
Many eyewitnesses spoke with Him, saw and touched Him, witnessed him speaking and eating food etc. until, according to the Bible, He ‘ascended’ to sit at the right hand of God the Father, to rule with all authority and power.
He also commissioned his twelve disciples who would follow Him throughout his ministry up to his crucifixion, and go on to become the founders of the early Church.
These men fearlessly spread the message of Christianity – that Jesus Christ had risen, and our sins could be forgiven through His sacrifice – throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.
His disciples witnessed most of His incredible miracles, His baptism, the transfiguration, His crucifixion, His resurrection appearances and His ascension.
Christ’s final instruction to His followers was “to go into every corner of the world and share the good news of the Gospel, baptising in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. This is known as the ‘Great Commission’.
It was this encounter with the risen Christ, and the events at Pentecost, that fully empowered His disciples to carry out the Great Commission.
Every disciple eventually laid down their life in pursuit of sharing the message that Jesus was the messiah (God) and that he had come to save the world from their own sin.
Today thanks to the Bible, and the other texts I mentioned, historians know with almost absolute certainty these things (and more):
- Jesus of Nazareth existed
- The tomb He was buried in (with a giant stone rolled over the entrance, guarded 24/7 by Roman soldiers), was empty by about the third day following His death
- His disciples, at first frightened, confused and hiding like brow beaten dogs, had transformed into passionate, ecstatic, zealous proponents of Christ’s resurrection, who refused to be silenced despite multiple beatings and imprisonments, all of whom eventually died proclaiming that Christ rose from the dead and was the Messiah
- Some of Christ’s most outspoken opponents were also radically converted and transformed, and also died as Martyr’s within the lifetime of eye witnesses
- The earliest written historical records describing Jesus’ resurrection and the accounts of witnesses date to within 30 years of Jesus’ lifetime (the oldest are no later than the end of the First Century)
The Spread of Christianity
For a long time Christianity was a heavily persecuted faith both by the Roman authorities, and by the Jews.
Emperor Nero especially, who ruled from 54AD – 68AD, is known as one of the most brutal persecutors of Christians in history. He was also particularly unpopular with the Romans and was eventually assassinated (as were many other emperors).
Much of the New Testament was written to encourage Christians to stay strong in their faith despite the risk of being tied to a pole naked and gored to death by bulls… among other things.
Despite this persecution, following Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection (somewhere around 30AD) Christianity underwent massive expansion, through the efforts of his followers, especially a man named Paul of Tarsus.
The Rise of Western Christianity
Over the 300 years following Christ’s life on earth, approximately half of the population of the Roman Empire would come to claim Christianity as their personal faith!
Emperor Constantine is credited with being the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.
He was also the last Emperor to rule over the united Roman Empire. He built Constantinople, made it the capital of the Empire, and instituted Christianity as the state religion.
This gave the Church in Constantinople a serious claim to fame, and a political precedent for sharing power with the Church in Rome. However, the Church in Rome was still by far the largest, and had historical claims to its importance, including being the Church founded by St Peter (hint, hint, this is important!).
In 313 Constantine issued the ‘Edict of Milan’ guaranteeing religious freedom across the Roman Empire. He also donated large swaths of land and other assets to the Christian Church.
Many of the most significant formal Christian doctrines were clarified, finalised and codified during this time, including the Canon of Scripture (which books were included in the Bible) and the Nicene Creed (the doctrine of the trinity).
From this time onwards, the Church gained substantial power across the Empire which was both good and bad for Christianity.
Of course, Christians were no longer persecuted.
At the same time Church became serious business. The Church suddenly became quite an attractive vocation for anyone seeking for a comfy career, or a chance at real power.
This was also the beginning of the Churches increased fusion into the powers of the state.
Beginning with Constantine’s Rule, the Church began conducting official councils to discuss, debate and clarify orthodoxy.
The most important of these are known as the first seven ecumenical councils.
- The First Council of Nicaea (325AD)
- The First Council of Constantinople (381)
- The Council of Ephesus (431)
- The Council of Chalcedon (451)
- The Second Council of Constantinople (553)
- The Third Council of Constantinople from (680–681)
- The Second Council of Nicaea in (787)
The aim of these councils was to codify and distinguish the historic, orthodox Christian teachings from heresy. Constantine also saw Christianity as a means of unifying and holding the Empire together.
During this time, several groups who disagreed with aspects of doctrine codified during one or more of the seven ecumenical councils broke away from the Church and followed their own teachings.
This patchwork of offshoots from the Roman Catholic Church are known as ‘pre-schism Churches’.
These include the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, and some others.
The largest of these are known today as:
- Oriental Orthodox
- Assyrian Church of the East
- Coptic Christians
In general these Churches broke away from the Roman Catholic Church due to disagreements over doctrines that were laid out during the seven ecumenical councils.
According to traditional Christian orthodoxy, these Churches beliefs about Jesus Christ and the trinity are not equivalent to the three major denominations (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant) due to their rejection of one or more of the doctrines outlined in the seven ecumenical councils, including the true nature of Christ.
This makes them not true Christian teachings, according to traditional Christianity, and the Bible.
The Evolution of the Catholic Church
Over time the Church evolved.
The power of the Pope began to increase both in the Church and in the politics of the Empire.
As the centuries went by the Catholic Church adopted a number of beliefs and practices in particular which some in the Church took issue with.
Problematic teachings included things like the sale of indulgences, the veneration of the saints (especially Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ) and most especially was papal authority.
Papal authority, according to Catholic tradition, is the claim of the pope to absolute power and authority over the whole Church, as God’s supreme intercessor on earth.
There were other issues, but much of it came back to the doctrine that the pope was the supreme spiritual leader of the entire church.
This caused significant tension, especially amongst the other patriarchs, such as Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria.
The Great Schism
Before the protestant Reformation however, the first great division of Christianity occurred in 1054 and is known as ‘The Great Schism’; also known as the ‘East-West Schism’, or the ‘Schism of 1054’.
This marked the culmination of tensions which had been brewing between the East and the West portions of the empire as far back as the fourth century, primarily over the supremacy of the pope in Rome, but included things like the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist. What? It’s important!
The Great Schism separated the Latin Western Church led from Rome, with the Eastern Greek Church led from Constantinople (Byzantium).
This split gave rise to two (out of three) major divisions of Christianity that exist today, the Roman Catholics (the Latin West), and the Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church (Byzantium).
An important consideration here is the rise of Islam in the Middle East, which from the 7th century began conquering Christian territory and reducing the influence of the Roman Empire, eventually provoking the First Crusade in 1099, shortly after the great Schism.
Over time as Christendom’s territory receded in the East, it continued to expand in the North.
So we now have the Orthodox Church in the East, and the Roman Catholic Church in the West.
Over time, frustrations brewed over the internal problems in the Church.
Before the Reformation, several men were already challenging Catholic dogma.
Peter Waldo, born in Eastern France in 1140, was the founder of the Waldenses.
The Waldenses were called to live in poverty, in service to the poor and needy.
Whilst this movement did not directly challenge the authority of the Pope it clearly sought a more ‘apostolic’ faith compared to the ultra powerful, wealthy Roman Church.
John Wycliffe (1330-1384) is credited with being one of the first ‘reformers’.
Although he never led The Reformation he was an influential critic of the Catholic Church.
Wycliffe took a very strong stance on the authority of the Bible right along the vein of what would eventually become the Protestant Reformation.
His works were well known, and highly influential, among the reformers and also a Bohemian bishop named Jan Hus.
Wycliffe is credited with producing one of the first English translations of the Bible, designed for mass consumption.
Jan Hus, in the early 15th century in Moravia (modern day Czech Republic), picked up Wycliffe’s teachings and spread them throughout Bohemia and Moravia where they became wildly popular. His followers became the Hussites.
Shortly prior to The Reformation, several wars almost extinguished the Hussites.
On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther strolled up to the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, and slammed his 95 thesis on the front door… like a total boss.
This article stipulated, in Luthers view, the serious errors that the Catholic Church needed to address.
Most important of these was his firm conviction that by God’s grace alone, are we able to be saved from God’s judgement. That and the Bible (not the Pope, or tradition) was the sole authority on matters of faith and teaching.
In short, the Bible was God’s inspired Word, and the Pope was just some guy, some sinner, just like the rest of us.
According to Luther, the Popes word was not infallible, and he had no power to forgive sins.
Luther was not the first to take issue with the Church, but he struck a chord.
Thanks in large part to the printing press (one of the many technological advancements achieved during the Middle Ages), Luthers 95 thesis went viral, and sparked a firestorm of controversy.
In 1520 Martin Luther was branded a heretic (like Wycliffe and Hus), so he shook his sandals of the Catholic Church and started a revolution… or a ‘Reformation’ if you will, har har har.
By the time he got back to Wittenberg, Luther’s influence had exploded and had taken on a life of its own.
Once it became clear that it was cool to rebel against the Catholic Church and make up your own mind about what the Bible says, it was mayhem.
At around-about the same time, in Zurich, another zealous preacher by the name of Huldrich Zwingli was resisting the Church in a very similar vein to Luther, gaining momentum in what would become the reformed tradition.
Another important consideration here was the rise of the Black Plague, which decimated London no less than 6 times from 1563 – 1667, almost perfectly coinciding with The Reformation (coincidentally). Every time there was an outbreak it took 10-30% of the population!!
Imagine the coronavirus, in a world that has no concept of person to person transmission, or microbiology and was steeped in superstition… the Black Plague was still way worse.
Eventually, the reformers codified their beliefs into what is known as the five solas:
- Sola scriptura – ‘scripture alone’
- Sola fide – ‘faith alone’
- Sola gratia – ‘grace alone’
- Solo Christo – ‘Christ alone’
- Soli Deo Gloria – ‘to the glory of God alone’
For more on the five sola’s, see the protestant section below.
Following Martin Luther sects began popping up everywhere for all sorts of reasons. Most of these were reactions to Catholic practices and beliefs that they believed weren’t in the Bible.
The Catholic Church went to great lengths to restore order, and quell the rise of these dissenters. In 1529 the Lutherans and other reformers were officially labeled ‘protestants’, a term they quickly embraced, and wore as a badge of honour.
Around the same time as the protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church launched a ‘counter-Reformation’, and in 1545 held the Council of Trent, an ecumenical council, specifically to deal with the startling rise of protestant groups across the Western Empire.
Time went on, denominations continued to pop up all over the place, and internal disagreements and changes in focus continued to spawn Christian sects.
Some denominations began to diverge simply due to geographical isolation.
As time went by, some denominations began to see such diversity as a problem, and make an effort to reconcile and form larger communions.
Some came to see the idea of a ‘denomination’ as divisive and have sought to dispense with the term altogether.
The landscape of Christianity has evolved over time, morphing into a complex array of denominations all with their own unique flavours.
As the centuries went by denominations and their differences changed. They were less about their gripes with the Catholic Church and more about their responses to the ever evolving cultural, economic and moral landscape that surrounded them.
Many of the largest and oldest denominations have split at some point into two major sub-denominations, often based on how conservatively the original group held to the truth of the Bible.
This in turn affects how they view many modern social and political issues, which can lead to rather significant differences between them.
Finally you have the individual believers, every one of whom is in some way unique. Everyone is a product of their own level of understanding of the Bible, and their own values and personal study (or lack of it).
Today Christianity is an enormous and varied landscape of beliefs and practices. Churches can be more traditional, or more modern in both their appearance and their beliefs.
This freedom, vitality and diversity is exclusively the result of the reformation, and the acts of a very small few brave, irreverents who dared to stand up to the might of establishment.
The Reformation would forever change the landscape of Western Civilisation.
Movements, not Denominations
Before we dive into different denominations, there are a number of well known terms often used to describe certain groups of Christians, or movements, but are not specific denominations themselves.
When I first dove headfirst into the sandbox of Christian denominations one of the first things I was interested in was the epic Holy War waging between Calvinism, and Arminianism.
But Calvinism, actually, is not a denomination per se. Not in the same sense that ‘baptists’ is a denomination of Christianity.
Calvinism is a branch of Christian Theology developed and popularised by John Calvin, summarised in what are described as the ‘five points’ of Calvinist theology (affectionately referred to as TULIP).
- Total depravity
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
These five points are by no means all that Calvinists preach and believe, but are considered the defining characteristics.
While not a denomination specifically, several denominations are rooted in reformed theology.
In fact, many proponents prefer the term ‘reformed’ to ‘Calvinist’, because reformed theology did not originate with Calvin. There were others before him (like Huldrich Zwingli).
Denominations with strong Calvinist roots are the Reformed, the Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists.
Arminianism is the antithesis of reformed theology.
While Calvinism emphasises the total sovereignty of God, Arminianism emphasises mankind’s free will to either choose, or reject God.
The Arminian believes that while God is completely omnipotent, and has a perfect overarching plan for mankind, we are each individually free to choose to accept God’s grace, or to reject it.
Like Calvinism, Arminianism is also not a denomination, but a branch of theology which runs deeply through a great many denominations and schools of Christian thought.
Molinism? Never heard of it you say?
Nor have most Christians! (heh heh heh).
If Calvinism emphasises God’s sovereignty and Arminianism emphasises mans free will, then Molinism tries really, really hard to explain them both.
Somewhat surprisingly, Molinism is a less widespread system of philosophical theology pioneered by 16th-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, which advocates for a concept known as ‘middle knowledge’.
Molinism tries to answer the question:
‘How is it possible that God can know and be in control of everything, but we can still be held responsible for our actions?’
It is a more sophisticated attempt to reconcile human free will, without limiting God’s sovereignty and is advocated by some of the present day’s most prolific Christian philosophers.
Mainline denominations represent those denominations in particular which are known to be the oldest and most influential denominations in US history, not including the Roman Catholics.
Here’s an excellent list curated by the Religion in public blog:
- American Baptist Church (USA)
- Disciples of Christ
- Episcopal Church USA
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- Reformed Church in America
- United Church of Christ
- United Methodist Church
These denominations are generally considered to have pushed more toward modern liberalism, and it is more or less for this reason that many of the sub denominations exist.
This is why for many of the most original denominations, particularly in the USA you will generally find two major sub branches, which will tend to be either more theologically and politically conservative (evangelical), or progressive (mainline).
If you spent a month researching the topic of ‘evangelical Christian’ and still weren’t entirely, exactly sure what it meant, you wouldn’t be alone.
The term ‘evangelical’ is taken from the Greek ‘Evangelion’, and is just a fancy word for ‘Gospel’, which is just a fancy word to describe the core message of Christianity (the Good News that our sins can be forgiven through Jesus Christ). So evangelical Christians are, Christians, basically.
The simplest understanding of the term is essentially any Christian who takes a strong stance on the authority of the Bible, who cares about evangelism (obviously), and generally adheres to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
If the term ‘evangelical’ has any real meaning, it is as somewhat of a contrast to the ‘mainline’ denominations.
They are perhaps the major sub-branches of mainline denominations which split away at some point, because they believed the mainline denominations were pushing too much away from the Bible’s clear teachings, and more toward theological, social and moral liberalism (again, HUGE generalisation!).
Technically, Christian fundamentalism is just a term that describes those Christians who adhere to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
In the modern sense however, the word refers to a particular movement.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, there was concern that the ‘mainline’ (see above) denominations were shifting away from a traditional, biblical commitment to Christian doctrine. Most significantly by undermining the authority of the Bible as God’s innerant Word.
Basically these guys were worried that Christians were starting to lose the faith, but not the title of ‘Christian’.
Thus a significant work was commissioned by a number of prominent conservative Christians, including John Nelson Darby, and Dwight L. Moody. The result was a large collection of writings available today as a two volume set outlining the ‘fundamentals of the Christian Faith’.
In short, there are six main points:
- The Bible is true, and error free
- Mary was a virgin when she conceived Christ (which means it was a miracle… duh)
- Jesus Christ is fully God (kind of the definition of Christianity if you ask me)
- Salvation is by grace alone (God’s undeserved forgiveness), through faith alone (genuine belief in Christ’s death and resurrection on the Cross)
- When Christ rose from the dead, he did so in full human bodily form (he could eat food, be touched, etc.)
- That Jesus will truly, and physically return to earth in what’s known as the ‘second coming’
Today the term is often used derisively, and has developed a negative connotation, which is a shame.
Ultimately, a ‘fundamental’ Christian, is just a Christian who believes the Bible is Gods Word, and attempts to live their life in light of the Bibles message, understanding it as it was plainly intended to be understood.
The term Orthodox by itself simply refers to any set of beliefs which are considered the most ‘original’ or ‘accepted’ beliefs. For Christians it refers more specifically to Christians who most closely represent the original ‘creeds’ of Christianity, including especially the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed.
The term also refers to ‘Eastern Orthodox’ Christians, which is a specific and major branch of Christianity, which I will go into more detail on below.
And now on to the main event…
Part 2: Christian Denominations
In this section, we’re going to learn more about the different denominations themselves including:
- How many denominations there are
- What their ancestry tree looks like
- Approximate size of each major denomination
- A comprehensive breakdown of each major denomination
- Distinguishing features
- Major sub-groups
Let’s do this.
How Many Christian Denominations Are There?
“According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organisations in the world today.”
See that quote above?
It’s very wrong.
Identifying how many different Christian denominations there are is a tricky affair. It depends a lot on your definition of ‘denomination’, and a lot on your definition of ‘Christian’.
But the idea that there are – like seriously – tens of thousands of protestant denominations around the world is nonsense.
Most research centres categorically define Christians as any group ‘self-identifying’ as Christian, which is useful for gathering statistics, but it is not really correct as these estimates also include cults and heretical sects as legitimate denominations (anyone can call themselves a Christian!).
The most significant problem with such a large number is that it came from estimates which distinguished denominations simply by their country of origin. So the same denomination in two (or 50!) separate countries, counted as two (or 50!) separate denominations!
But in many cases these estimates also distinguish between some individual Churches. This is especially problematic in denominations like Baptists and Churches of Christ, where the structure is highly independent.
The great majority of so-called denominations fall under the banner of relatively few major denominations. And these denominations can all, more or less, trace their history back to The Reformation (or the Great Schism).
Truthfully, no one really knows exactly how many denominations there are, but in all likelihood the real number is probably somewhere from 200, up to perhaps 3000 at most.
Where did they all come from?
Before we get down to it, I thought I would put together a nice, simple breakdown of where each denomination fits into the greater whole.
Christian Denominations Ancestry Flow Chart
How big are the Christian Denominations?
This is nice, but it doesn’t really give you an idea about the size.
It turns out that getting reliable estimates of the relative sizes of each denomination is extremely difficult (trust me, I tried!).
Pew research acknowledges that the majority of the estimates that they can gather are based on self-reports of membership from a given denomination or group.
Objective estimates of actual numbers based on a census is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
I spoke to my father-in-law, who is a CoC pastor, shortly before I published this post who explained that most CoC members, especially in generation X and Boomers, on census forms would tick ‘christian’ instead of ‘CoC’, or something else, because CoC don’t consider themselves a denomination.
Just one example that reinforces the difficulty associated with obtaining accurate, reliable demographic data on different groups.
It is also important to distinguish between membership, and attendees. Most Churches will have substantially more attendee’s than members.
Estimating numbers also raises more fundamental questions like:
- Is it important?
- What makes someone a ‘Catholic’ or ‘Baptist’?
- How do we know who is ‘sincere’, and who is just a pew warmer?
While keeping these considerations in mind, I’ve put together a couple of charts based on data I collected from Pew research, Wikipedia, and some official websites which hopefully give at least some idea of the relative spread of Christianity worldwide.
The Big Three
Protestants by Percent of Total Estimated Membership
Roman Catholic: 1.313B
Eastern Orthodox: 270M
Churches of Christ: 1.2M
Salvation Army: 1.9M
Time to get down to business.
Starting with the Mother of all denominations…
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Matthew 16:18 – via Bible Gateway
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you probably know the Roman Catholic Church has been around for a long, long time; and it’s huge… really huge.
In Christianity the three major belief systems are Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
By far the largest Christian denomination on earth is the Roman Catholic Church, estimated at well over 1 billion adherents. This is over 10% of the population of the whole world.
Not all of these individuals are faithful, penant, regular mass attendees. Still though… 10% is insane.
Just to compare, the most generous estimates put all protestant denominations combined at probably not quite 1 billion worldwide.
This also makes The Roman Catholic Church by far the largest distinct religious body on earth.
So how did this happen?
Despite some heavy persecution, there were periods of relative peace and safety for Christians in the early Church, and its influence spread out quickly from the original apostles’ ministry.
As Christianity grew, so did the need for some form of oversight.
Even during the first century Churches were taking on a formal structure. There were specific titles in use such as ‘bishop’ and ‘deacon’ or ‘elder’.
Multiple letters in the New Testament are written specifically for educating Church leaders in their roles, including advice on standards of behaviour and ethics.
The early Church regularly discussed matters of doctrine and theology, to maintain consistency in belief and distinguish orthodoxy from the many heresies and false teachings.
Many of the most famous early Church fathers (and the apostles) dedicated large swaths of their writing to identifying and condemning heresies.
Fast forward to 313 AD and Emperor Constantine issued the ‘edict of Milan’ guaranteeing religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire and started pouring funds into the Christian Church.
If you’re wondering when the ‘early Church’ became the ‘Catholic Church’ it depends on a few factors.
The Catholic Church itself will insist that it is the unbroken continuation of the true Church since the time of Christ.
Different aspects of Catholicism developed over different periods of time. Roman Catholics trace a lineage of popes back to St Peter the apostle.
The Roman Church had long been held in special honour because Rome was the capital city of the Empire (before Constantinople).
It was also the largest Church by far with over 30,000 members by the Fourth Century, and because it was founded by Peter and Paul.
The term pope was more or less used to refer to any bishop prior to the fourth century.
In the fifth century, Pope Leo I is (hmmm, let’s say controversially) credited with one of the first claims to absolute papal authority.
Leo laid out the biblical foundations for the papacy, and for the primacy of the Pope, as the rightful successor to St Peter, and head of the whole Church.
Pope Leo I was also an ardent opponent of rising heresies, and a powerful ambassador for the Roman people. He spoke face to face with Attila the Hun and was the one who persuaded him not to sack Rome.
He was also then responsible for staying the hand of the Vandals who, instead of burning Rome to the ground, plundered it and left the city unscathed, and with virtually no bloodshed.
In 590 AD, Pope Gregory I officially instituted the Papal States, by consolidating the Churches power over all lands controlled by the Pope.
As the Church evolved and its power expanded, so did its teachings, its hierarchy and its influence.
The Roman Church developed into a highly complex theological and political system beginning at the Pope as the supreme leader of the Church, with a cascading system of leadership all the way down to the local parish.
The Church became an extremely powerful force throughout the Middle Ages.
Very early on during The Reformation, the Catholic Church held the council of Trent over a series of 25 sessions, spanning almost 20 years (1545-1563), in order to deal specifically with the circumstances of The Reformation.
The council of Trent, the 19th ecumenical council and the last council for the next 300 years, firmly established an everlasting split between the protestants, and the Catholic Church.
What exists today as the Catholic Church is essentially the unbroken continuation of this Church since Emperor Constantine. As mentioned, Catholics themselves believe their history can be traced back to Peter, the original leader of the Church.
Virtually all other Christian denominations that exist today are the result of a split from the Catholic tradition, or of some internal split within some denomination which at some point or another split from the Catholic tradition.
The Roman Catholic Church was the dominant religion throughout the middle ages (despite the rise of Islam) and has remained this way for almost its entire history, and therefore has had enormous influence over the development of the entire Western World.
The influence of the Catholic Church has been felt in some of the furthest reaches of human civilization.
The Catholic Church has an extremely formal and sophisticated hierarchical style of Governance. The hierarchy is known as the ‘Holy Orders’ and is one of the ‘seven sacraments’ of the Catholic Church.
At the head of the Catholic Church are the bishops, with the Bishop of Rome being the supreme head of the Catholic Church. You would know him as the Pope taken from the Greek word Pappas, meaning ‘father’.
At the time of writing (April, 2020) the current pope, and leader of the Catholic Church is Pope Francis I, the 266th pope (from st Peter), the first Jesuit priest in history to take the title of Pope.
The Pope is also the head of Vatican City.
The Popes Governing jurisdiction is known as the ‘Holy See’, which is basically the entire Catholic Church worldwide.
Bishops then in turn govern their individual jurisdictions called ‘dioceses’ or ‘archdiocese’.
An archbishop governs an archdiocese, which is more or less just a larger, more populous diocese. A diocese is a collection of local parishes, which can occupy a relatively small geographical area.
Below the bishops are the priests, who administer over more local congregations and are assisted by deacons.
So that’s the simplest hierarchy in the Church, but there are other important positions too.
Cardinals are hand selected to assist the Pope, and can be comprised of bishops, but also other important figures with different backgrounds.
Technically any male Catholic believer can be elected to the position of the Pope (if the current Pope dies, or resigns that is).
Unless you’re a cardinal however, your chances are preeeeeeeety slim.
The Roman Curia is the governing body within the Catholic Church which assists the Pope with governing the Catholic Church.
Conclave are important religious meetings between the Pope and important people. The successor to the Pope is decided over a papal conclave (and probably a good cup of Joe).
Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
The Jesuits are a truly fascinating branch of the Catholic Church. Founded in 1534 by Ignatius De Loyola and his six students, the order was characterised by a devotion to poverty and chastity. One of their primary objectives were missions to reach not only foreign lands, but also to curb the ‘troublesome’ rise of protestantism throughout the Empire. In this they were quite successful.
The Jesuits played a key role in the Council of Trent (see above).
Early on the Jesuit order quickly expanded.
Being a Jesuit throughout history has proven to be an extremely dangerous job in many cases, often being required to travel into extremely hostile nations to fight poverty, and to share the Gospel.
However Jesuits are not only missionaries, they are also heavily involved in education, helping the poor and other charity work.
Despite a brief dissolution from 1773-1814, the Jesuits are alive and well today and Jesuit priests still number in the tens of thousands worldwide.
Monastics (Monks, Friars, Trappists, Nuns, Sisters)
In general within catholicism, the monastic life lived by individuals within monasteries, abbeys, convents and the like is one characterised by poverty, chastity, piety, simplicity and charity.
To varying degrees these monastics have taken vows to commit their lives to God, to their place of worship, to generally renounce all forms of ownership, and commit to a life of prayer, simple living and labour.
Monks and Nuns live a highly secluded life devoted almost entirely to work and prayer with nearly total confinement to the monastery or convent.
Friars and Sisters are much less secluded. They spend time inside the convents and friaries praying and living, but also work and engage with the local community, most often in schools and hospitals.
Papal Authority is a key point of distinction between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and is probably the foremost Catholic doctrine challenged by protestant Christianity.
In essence, papal authority in the Catholic Church is the doctrine that offers full, immediate and uninhibited authority to the Pope who is regarded as the spiritual successor to Saint Peter.
During the First Vatican Council of 1870 the subject of papal infallibility was introduced also.
The Seven Sacraments
Then seven sacraments are the essential doctrines of the Catholic Church. They are foundational to all Catholic believers and represent the overarching vision of Catholic Christianity.
- Baptism – that baptism is necessary for salvation, an integral component of becoming a Christian and can be administered to infants
- Confirmation – immediately following baptism, it is the confirmation of an individual into the faith
- Holy Communion – this is the Eucharist, the breaking of bread and wine during Mass, the most important sacrament of all (see below)
- Confession – exactly what is sounds like, the confession of our sins (see below)
- Marriage – exactly what it sounds like, the union of a man and a woman, by official ceremony and vows in Church
- Holy Orders – the hierarchy in the Church – Bishop, priest, deacon, etc.
- Anointing of the Sick – for healing
The sacraments are all administered through the Church, and really hammer home the central role and importance that the Church plays in the life of the Catholic believer.
The Catholic Church was on and off about celibacy until the second Lateran council in 1139, when it was definitively affirmed, and then reaffirmed again at the Council of Trent in 1563.
Whilst the reformers were very critical of the mandate for celibacy, the Catholic Church saw it as an extremely pious and serious commitment to God alone. No doubt this was influenced by a desire to distinguish the Catholic Church from the reformers.
Celibacy refers to the commitment of all men who enter the Catholic clergy, from the humble deacon, up to the Pope, or for nuns and sisters who enter into a convent, to remain totally sexually pure, and unmarried.
There are only very few exceptions to this, for example ordained Anglican priests who are currently married, and then convert to Catholicism, and convert straight into the priesthood, are allowed to stay married.
In recent years the Catholic Church has been the subject of controversy for a number of reasons, perhaps most well-known is the relatively large number of allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct amongst the clergy, especially directed towards minors.
The reality is, it would be virtually impossible for such an enormous, historically enduring and influential organisation not to generate controversy.
The Catholic Church has played a central role in the development of Western Civilisation, which means that Western Civilizations history is, to a large extent, the Church’s history also. That includes the good, but also the bad and the ugly.
This is the act of coming to God with a heart of humility, with the intention of confessing your sins and acknowledging God’s mercy and holiness.
It involves examining the conscience, followed by a verbal confession of all known sins, and an expression of repentance and gratitude for God’s mercy and grace. This is done in front of an authorised priest, who then proclaims forgiveness (by Jesus Christ) for the repentant believer.
Mass is the most important aspect of the Catholic believers faith.
However, it is an extremely organised, reverent, structured, religious ceremony primarily revolving around the Eucharist (holy communion).
The world over Mass is celebrated multiple times per day, often out of necessity for the sake of seating capacity, but also because it’s the central focus of the Catholic faith.
The Eucharist is the consumption of bread and wine, as Christ commanded during the last supper, in remembrance of Him and what He’s done for us.
Mass is absolutely central to the life of Catholicism. It is the focal point of our acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord, and His sacrifice for our sins, which is at the very heart and soul of all Christianity. We are sinners, in need of a saviour.
There is no other name by which we can be saved.
To miss Mass as a Catholic believer, without a good reason, is considered a mortal sin.
Mass is comprised of several proceedings, all focused like a laser beam on adding weight and importance to the Eucharist. They are:
The formal preparation for the Eucharist including: entrance, greetings, supplications and sombre preparations for the Eucharist.
Liturgy of the Word
The reading and (authoritative) teaching of God’s Word, and recitation of the creeds (esp the Nicene Creed).
This is the rough equivalent of the sermon, or Sunday message for most protestants.
Liturgy of the Eucharist
This is the principal component of Mass, the act of communion, with three main parts:
- Preparation of the Gifts – the bread and wine
- Prayer of the Eucharist – the central component of the whole mass, this is the prayer which appeals to Christ to make Himself present
- Communion Rite – the part where you actually take communion, includes prayer and supplication
Final greetings, blessing of the people, prayers and dismissal.
Whilst Mass is the rough equivalent of a Sunday Church service for protestants, it has much more theological and religious significance to Catholicism.
To Catholics Mass is essential.
Every aspect of the Mass is extremely reverential and formal, steeped in a millennia of tradition and religious significance.
Make no mistake, Mass is a BIG deal in the Catholic Church.
What Catholics believe
The Nicene Creed
First and foremost Catholics, like all Christians, affirm the Trinity.
The Athaniasian Creed
The Catholic Church also affirms the doctrine of the full humanity, and full deity of Jesus Christ.
Apostolic succession is the claim that the Pope is the supreme head of Christ’s Church, and that the Pope represents the unbroken continuation of Church leadership since Saint Peter, whom Jesus gave ‘the keys to heaven’.
Bishops are the continuation of the apostles of Christ, and the leaders and ministers of large geographic regions under catholic influence called ‘dioceses’.
Apostolic succession is the primary basis for the doctrine of Papal supremacy and authority that we’ve heard so much about already.
This is the passing down of God’s truth and doctrine through the teachings of the bishops of the Church, the spiritual successors to the apostles.
This also stipulates that the infallibility of the apostles has been imputed to the Pope and Catholic doctrine by sacred tradition, i.e. the Pope has the authority to institute doctrines which are equivalent in authority to scripture (though not all individual Catholics accept this).
The Veneration of the Saints
Catholics believe that Mary was without sin, so that Christ could be conceived without sin.
The Church also honours a number of important Catholics and theologians throughout history who, according to them, have a special status.
It’s important to note, a common misconception among protestants is that these saints are an object of worship in the Catholic Church, that’s not true.
According to Catholics, the saints are intercessors, and Catholics appeal to the saints (especially Mary) to intercede for them on their behalf (they argue this is the same thing as when individual Christians offer to pray for one another, and engage in corporate prayer).
Purgatory is a real place, the place of ‘final sanctification’ for the unclean, before final inclusion into heaven.
Adam and Eve sinned, and fell from grace. Subsequently all humans since are born into sin and require God’s forgiveness.
Salvation by Grace Alone
God’s unmerited favour, which is administered through the process of adherence to the sacraments, and faith
These were books written and compiled in between the last book of the Old Testament, and the first books in the New Testament.
These books are known to protestants as the ‘apocrypha’. Catholics refer to them as the ‘deuterocanonical’ books.
These books are not included in the protestant Bible because they are considered by Christian scholars to contain known errors. God is perfect, omnipotent, and perfectly trustworthy.
If a book contains errors then it is, a priori, not inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the inclusion of these books in the Catholic Bible Canon was a subject of long debate, but they were finally canonised in 1546, during the council of Trent.
Relationship to other branches of Christianity
While the culture of Christianity in the 20th and 21st Centuries has moved more towards ecumenism, especially in more mainstream Churches, the Catholic Church and protestant Christianity are still divided on many of the same key issues which sparked The Reformation in the 16th century.
Whilst the Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences, protestants and Catholics continue to be divided on the authority of the Pope, the role of works in salvation, transubstantiation, purgatory, and several other crucial matters.
There is no sign of any key reconciliation between Catholics and the majority of protestant groups in the near (or even far) future other than some surface level ecumenical spirit.
Probably a shorter list would actually be important Western thinkers in history who weren’t Catholic. Catholicism has dominated Western history for a millennia.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
- Easily one of the most well-known and renowned Christian theologians and philosophers in history
- His writings have had immeasurable influence on the development of Western thought, culture and morality right up to present day
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)
- Important and influential member of the clergy during the crusades
- Very instrumental in the rise of popularity and power of the Knights Templar
- Preacher of the Second Crusade
- Bernard has been venerated as one of the most influential theologians of the medieval period, and certainly of the 12th Century
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
- Another extremely influential Christian philosopher
- Prolific writer well known for his philosophical arguments attempting to prove God’s existence through reason
- Notable for his arguments in favour of harmonising the notions of faith and reason
William of Ockham (1287–1347)
- Another super heavyweight of Middle Ages philosophy and logic
- His legacy lives on today and his influence is still felt in modern thinking, especially science
- Best known for his philosophical principle known as ‘Ockhams razor’
- Methodological naturalists are huge fans of Ockham razor, despite awkwardly ignoring the last part which acknowledges the authority of the Bible
- Ockham believed that God was a necessary, self-evident being, i.e. it was irrational to deny God’s existence
“For nothing ought to be posited without a reason given, unless it is self-evident or known by experience or proved by the authority of Sacred Scripture” – William of Ockham (as quoted in Got Questions).
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)
- Fierce warrior of Basque heritage
- He was severely injured in battle and endured several surgeries on his legs (with no anaesthesia!!)
- During his period of recovery devoted himself to studying Christian writings and became zealous for evangelising non Christians (which included protestants… still though)
- Ignatius is of course most well known as the founder of the Jesuit order, an order of Catholic monks devoted to missionary work and many other things
Luis Molina (1535-1600)
- Molina was a Jesuit born in Madrid, Spain
- Wrote the ‘Concordia’; thirty years of work where he articulated the system of philosophical theology known as ‘Molinism’
- Also wrote extensively on law and politics
René Descartes (1596-1650)
- Considered one of the fathers of modern philosophy
- Probably most famous today for the phrase “Cogito ergo sum”, or ‘I think, therefore, I am’
- Also a brilliant mathematician and theologian, and had a profound influence on the philosophical and theological think tanks of his day
I first learned of Rene Descartes in my introductory philosophy course as an undergraduate. His work comprised a core component of the curriculum. Such is the extent of his legacy and influence.
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
- Born in France, in Clermont and raised in Paris
- He was homeschooled by his father (yay for homeschooling)
- His father, for various (well intentioned) reasons prohibited his son from studying mathematics, which ultimately served to encourage his curiosity
- Pascal taught himself geometry, and apparently independently discovered that the sum of a triangles angles is always 180 degrees
- He published a landmark paper on conic sections when he was 16(!!). He was also a pioneer in the mathematical theory of probability (with colleague Fermat)
- An ardent creationist he is perhaps most famous for his argument “pascals wager”
- In essence, Pascal argued that it’s rational to be a Christian because you have essentially nothing to lose if you are wrong
- Oh and he invented a calculator
Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
- Ordained as an Anglican priest
- Converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Cardinal
- On 13th October 2019 he was (posthumously) canonised as a saint of the Catholic Church
Whether you’re a Catholic or not, if you want a lesson in the value and importance of studying scriptures and understanding the value of belonging to a particular denomination, read some of Newman’s work, especially on his conversion to Catholicism. Newman was a man who cared deeply for the truth of Christianity and where it had been best preserved.
Gregor Mendel (1822–1884)
- The father of modern genetics, his work is literally the cornerstone of our understanding of inheritance
- Mendel is a super important guy, and he made his world changing discoveries working as a German monk on his peas and their flowers in his Catholic monastery
- Sadly, his work was mostly ignored during his lifetime, and was only re-discovered in the early 20th Century, so Mendel himself never got to see his own work become so foundational to modern genetics
G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
- Prolific author and commentator, known for his irreverent wit and absent mindedness
- One of the most influential Christian authors of the 20th Century, he wrote thousands of journalistic articles and opinion pieces for The Illustrated London News, several books and biographies
- Chesterton’s writings had a significant influence on C.S. Lewis and his conversion to Christianity
“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” – G.K. Chesterton (as quoted on The Wardrobe Door)
Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977)
- Catholic philosopher from Germany
- Considered among one of the most important Catholic intellectuals of the 20th Century
- He wrote much on ethics and Christian theology
- Hildebrand was an extremely outspoken critic of Hitler and Nazism and as a result he was forced to flee Germany in 1933, where he eventually settled in New York
Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990)
- Very well known author, satirist and all around media personality of the 20th Century
- Initially a fan of communism, Muggeridge, after spending time in socialist Moscow in the early 1930’s became a scathing critic of Russian Communism
- He was an extremely influential journalist, a British intelligence agent during WWII, radio personality, and he also wrote various novels, political and social satire and eventually (like any half decent journo) garnered a reputation for being critical of… pretty much everything, especially of the drug and sex fuelled 60’s enlightenment
- He even took at stab at the Royal Family once, resulting in him being banned from the BBC for short stint
- He was a contemporary of George Orwell, Ian Fleming and other well known authors of his time, and was also a well known TV personality
Resources for digging deeper
- The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church – Pretty much everything the Catholic Church believes
- The Vatican Website – The official website of Vatican City
- Catholic Online – Great for all things Catholic
- Life Teen – for Catholic teens
- Carrots for Michaelmas – for Catholic Mums and Homemakers
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Acts 1:8b – via Bible Gateway
The Eastern Orthodox tradition originated in Greece, from Constantinople shortly prior to the first Crusade. So it’s also known as Greek Orthodox, however there are several other distinct groups which are all in communion together and share in the Eastern Orthodoxy tradition.
All of these groups essentially trace their history back to the Greek Orthodox faith which spread throughout the Eastern Christian Empire.
Despite losing a lot of the extended Empire to Islam over several centuries (starting in the 7th Century when Islam was founded), including the Holy city of Jerusalem, the early Christian/Roman Empire was still massive even towards the end of the first millennium AD. Not only that there were still large Christian Churches in Islamic controlled territory.
One prominent feature of the first Crusade which began in 1095, was the tenuous relationship between the Greek Byzantines who controlled Constantinople (the Eastern region of the Christian Empire), and the Latin West who were centred on Rome.
Shortly after Emperor Constantine reunited all of Rome (for the last time) in the fourth century, it fractured into Eastern and Western regions permanently. These regions engendered cultural, ideological and geographical differences.
Perhaps most notable was the language difference. The language of Rome was Latin, and in Byzantium it was Greek.
The two Empires had existed for centuries with increasing estrangement and it seemed only natural that the unity within the Church itself would eventually suffer also.
The sheer distances, and the cultural milieu in which each Church practised daily cannot be underestimated.
At the time, the Church was mostly comprised of 5 major patriarchates ruled by these leaders:
- Bishop of Rome
- Bishop of Alexandria
- Bishop of Antioch
- Bishop of Constantinople
- Bishop of Jerusalem
Disputes had arisen between the many Eastern Churches of Byzantium, and the Western Roman Catholic Church, long before the first Crusade. These disputes were over liturgical practice, jurisdictional claims and more.
Most importantly, the Eastern patriarchates (patriarchate: geographical region under the authority of one Bishop) rejected the Bishop of Rome’s claim to supreme authority over the Church.
The Catholic Church claims the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is the direct successor to Saint Peter, the apostle whom Christ chose to lead the early Church. The Catholic Church argued that this endowed the Pope with a special, supreme, authority over the whole Church.
The dispute was not whether the Pope had a special place, they all agreed he did, but whether that constituted total authority, or more of an ‘in name only’ kind of position.
The centuries long struggle to maintain unity in a Church that was theologically, politically and culturally divided culminated in 1054 in what is now known as ‘the Great Schism’, roughly half a century before the first Crusade.
Also worth mentioning that by the year 1054, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were all Islamic controlled regions, and had been for several centuries.
The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church have remained totally distinct religious traditions ever since. That is almost a thousand years.
The Eastern Orthodox Church comprises a number of mostly independent, autocephalous (governmentally independent from one another) traditions all descending more or less from the Greek tradition which was brewing in Byzantium up to and following the Great Schism of 1054.
One of the primary reasons for the split in 1054, between the Roman and the Greek Churches was the issue of authority.
Many bishops argued that the Pope was merely ‘the first among equals’, but not supreme in his authority to govern the Church.
So, the Eastern Orthodoxy then is made up of Orthodox Churches, each made up of the body of autocephalous, communities called diocese (a well defined geographical region).
These diocese share in authority and autonomy and are inspired by apostolic succession. That is the Bishops are the unbroken succession of elected leaders that can be traced back to the original twelve apostles of Jesus Christ.
This means that individual dioceses or patriarchates have more autonomy than those in Roman Catholicism, however they are all united under common doctrines, which include many of those from the ecumenical councils of the early Church.
In the Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church the highest position of honour goes to the Ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, the honorary head Bishop sharing in authority with all the remaining Bishops of the Orthodox Church (unlike the Pope who is the supreme authority in the Catholic Church).
This is followed by the priests or presbyters who are assistants in the Church to the Bishop, then the deacons and the minor orders.
The Orthodox Church begins with the local Church, administered by a priest which forms part of a diocese.
A diocese is a collection of several parishes and is overseen by a bishop. A patriarch is a bishop who oversees a national diocese.
The Eastern Orthodoxy is made up of a number of Churches which are, more or less, distinguished by their geographical region of influence, perhaps the most well-known (in the West) is the Greek Orthodox Church.
The next most notable branch is the Russian Orthodox which according to tradition was founded by the Apostle Andrew, one of Christ’s original twelve disciples.
The Russian Orthodox are descended from the Christianisation of the slavs and the baptism of Prince Vladimir of Kiev in 886, before the Great Schism. This lead to a rapid rise in Christianity in this region, throughout this period in what is now modern day Kiev.
Despite their formation before the great Schism, the major influence of the Greek centred Churches on the Christianisation of Scandinavia led to this region of Christianity following in the Orthodox tradition.
The Russian Orthodox Church is now the largest communion of Orthodox Churches today.
The Russian branch is notable due to the heavy persecution that it endured under communist soviet regimes, and how this influenced its development in the 20th Century.
They have also produced some of the most impressive and significant iconography in the Orthodox tradition.
Other Orthodox Churches following the Eastern tradition include the Ukranian Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox, and multiple patriarchates which fall somewhat under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
These Churches all vary in their autonomy, but are all in communion as part of the greater Eastern Orthodox Church.
Finally there are also the ‘Western’ branches of Orthodox Churches, which represent the spread of the Orthodox Church into geographically ‘Western’ regions, such as the ‘Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’, or the ‘Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America’ (what a mouthful).
The Eastern Orthodox Church also has a presence in other Western nations such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
The Greek and other Eastern Orthodox Churches have a very distinctive traditional aesthetic. Despite the great schism, the Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church, much like the Catholic Church maintains a long, tight tradition of orthodoxy.
The distinguishing features between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are also identifiable in their historical and cultural traditions, with the Catholic Church finding its roots in ancient Roman culture, and the Greek Orthodox Church finding it’s roots with a more mediterranean, Hellenistic influence.
Orthodox Churches are often easily recognisable from their purpose built, traditional Church with their own very distinctive architecture and ornamentations both inside and out.
Eastern Orthodox Churches are known for their rich and colourful decor. The interior of a typical Orthodox Church is quite unique from Catholic and Protestant Churches typically.
These ornamentations are not merely decorations, much of this artwork has important theological significance too, especially the iconography.
The icons in the Orthodox Church comprise ornate artworks of important religious figures and ceremonies and can be found in the Church, and in the homes of Orthodox believers.
According to the Orthodox Church icons are a ‘window to heaven’.
The Church states firmly that they are not an object of worship however:
It is important to note that the icons themselves are venerated only, not worshipped; we only worship God in the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
Icons serve as a constant reminder of God’s omniscience and provide an object to guide the believers prayer and help them to focus.
- Holy Orders
- Anointing of the Sick
Unlike the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church doesn’t explicitly limit itself to ‘seven’ sacraments…
What Eastern Orthodox believe
Like all of Christianity, Orthodox Christianity affirms the trinity and the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ.
Much like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church have sacraments, a similar hierarchical structure, they observe the eucharist, the veneration of the saints, and more.
Orthodox Christians also maintain the doctrine of apostolic succession, but this is somewhat distinct from the Catholic views.
Orthodox Christians (rightly) acknowledge a difference between the office of the apostle, and the bishop. Apostles are hand selected by Jesus Christ, and were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, whereas the bishops role in the Church is primarily in pastoral care and oversight of the diocese.
The Greek Orthodox also believes that the Christian Faith and the Church are inseparable.
It is impossible to know Christ, to share in the life of the Holy Trinity, or to be considered a Christian, apart from the Church.
– Rev. Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald
Eastern Orthodox Church places its faith in God’s revelation to us.
According to their doctrines God’s revelation is passed down to us through the holy scriptures (the Bible), through tradition (the handing down of knowledge and apostolic authority through the generations), through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and through God’s revelation to us through His creation.
Relationship to other branches of Christianity
Christianity in the 20th and 21st Centuries has seen a rise in interest of mutual collaboration and ecumenical spirit.
Communication has improved in very recent times, however as of 2020, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox remain independent and many of the theological differences that led to the schism are unsettled.
Important Eastern Orthodox Believers
Cyril of Alexandria (336-444)
- Patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) from 421 until his death in 444.
- A prolific writer and influential theologian, Cyril is notable for his advocacy of theotokos, that Mary is the mother of God (an important doctrine related to the Athanasian creed) and his strong opposition to the Nestorians, Novatians and the Jews.
- Today he is regarded as one of the early Church fathers.
- He lived long before the the Great Schism, but has been held in high regard throughout the history of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Theophanes the Greek (Feofan Grek; 1340-1410)
- Famous Russian Orthodox painter of the Medieval period.
- Orthodox Iconography is serious business.
- Grek was born in Constantinople, but eventually moved to Moscow, Russia.
- Highly regarded as one of the most brilliant artists in Greek Orthodox history, noted for his expressive, often impressionistic style.
- Much of his work is now displayed in Russia’s finest art museums.
Andrei Rublev (1360-70 – 1427-30)
- Famous Russian Orthodox painter, student of Feofan Grek.
- Considered one of the most important artists of Russian Orthodox iconography of the Medieval period.
- Rublev’s crowning achievement was his icon ‘The Trinity‘, the most highly regarded piece of artwork in Russian history.
Cyril Lucas (1572-1638)
- Patriarch of Alexandria is surrounded in controversy over a series of writings called ‘confessions’ which are claimed by the reformers (Calvinists) to have been written by Lucas
- These writings are a call for the Eastern Orthodox Church to adopt at least some Reformation theology
- A staunch opponent of Catholicism, he was eventually strangled and thrown into a river
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
- Fyodor Dostoevski was a prolific Russian author and devoted Russian Orthodox Christian. His faith (among other things) was thematic in a number of his writings, including one of his most famous books The Brothers Karamazov.
Major Churches within Eastern Orthodoxy
- Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Patriarchate of Alexandria
- Patriarchate of Antioch
- Patriarchate of Jerusalem
- Russian Orthodox
- Serbian Orthodox
Resources for digging deeper
- Orthodox Church in America
- Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Orthodox Research Institute
- Vladimir Grygorenko’s Icons
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
Ephesians 2:8-9 – via Bible Gateway
Protestantism refers to the collection of Christian denominations which can almost exclusively trace their ancestry back to The Reformation, which almost exclusively originated with Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli.
The term protestant was originally a pejorative label, to distinguish the heretical dissenters that broke away from the Catholic Church in ‘protest’ against the Catholic hierarchy and what they saw as its false teachings. However, as was often the case, these dissenters quickly and proudly adopted the moniker as a title of honour.
For Protestant Christians, the Bible is the sole source of authority for matters of faith, and our understanding of God. This is key.
Protestants believe that the Bible is God’s Word and is our most reliable source of information on all matters of the Christian Religion.
Generally, Protestants are unified by the authority given to the Word of God, and are distinguished by their interpretation of it.
The clergy in the Catholic Church were the gatekeepers to Christian knowledge and doctrine for centuries. Their teachings, and the Catholic Church’s doctrines were iron clad.
So long as they remained the harbingers of Christian doctrine, everyone just kind of went along with it.
Few could understand the language the Bible was written in (latin), except for the Catholic clergy.
The renaissance brought rapid advances in the development of human thought across all endeavours from math, to science, to philosophy and of course religion and theology.
As technology continued to improve, and Christian civilisation continued to develop and flourish, change was almost inevitable. It was only a matter of time before men began to question the dogma of the Catholic Church, and the corruption and materialism in much of the Church hierarchy.
There were several major grievances in particular that were the most concerning:
- The authority of the Pope
- The infallibility of the Pope
- The sale of indulgences
- The veneration of the saints (glorifying Mary as sinless)
- The lack of emphasis on God’s grace as the sole source of salvation
- The more general state of greed and corruption within the Church as a whole
It all kicked off in 1517 when Martin Luther, a well educated and recently ordained monk posted his 95 thesis on Wittenberg door. This was a collection of proposed reforms that Luther saw as crucial to restoring the Church to a Bible based Christianity.
In reality, Luther never had any intention of leading a rebellion, or leaving the Church at all. His 95 thesis were not reasons he was leaving the Church, they were his attempts at reform.
Not long after this (1521) Luther was summoned to attend the diet of Worms.
A diet was a really big deal. It was when the leaders of the imperial estates gathered every 5-10 years to discuss political matters, which obviously included religious matters. These diets were an assembly of Kings, Bishops, Princes, Dukes and other positions of influence.
He refused to backdown, and by the time he got home, was excommunicated from the Church.
When Luther left the Church and took his following with him, it changed everything.
Not only did Luther leave the Church, but he planted the seed. As Luthers reforms spread, thanks in no small part to the recent invention of the printing press, so did the courage, and confidence within the people to believe that it was OK to challenge the Church’s teachings, and that it was OK to disagree about theology.
Martin Luther is credited with being the first official reformer, but Huldrich Zwingli developed his reformed theology pretty much independently, although the two were contemporaries.
Also Desiderius Erasmus, like Wycliffe came prior to Luther.
Not a reformer himself, Erasmus called for reform in the Catholic Church, for a restoration of its emphasis on the fundamentals of Christianity, the Bible as the source of Christian authority (as opposed to the Pope, tradition, doctrines, etc.)
Erasmus’ works were highly influential for Luther and Zwingli (and John Calvin).
Luther and Zwingli sought, but ultimately failed to unify their doctrines.
Their inability to agree on the nature of the Eucharist led to the two major branches of The Reformation: the Reformed and the Lutheran tradition, from which essentially all other denominations can be traced.
Lutherans, and other protestants vigorously clung to their individual identities and traditions. It was extremely important to all the original protestant groups that their identity was clearly distinguished from all others. Debates were frequent, fierce, and sometimes violent.
The Reformation unleashed a deep reservoir of passion for theology and doctrine. Individual Churches and denominations fought tooth an nail to discuss, debate and codify their theological views.
Another important factor is when Luther sided with princes in the 1524 German peasant revolt. This is key because Lutheranism became the state religion in many parts of Germany, Scandinavia and The Baltic’s.
It’s important to understand the role that the state had in the development of these protestant movements, given how closely intertwined the Church and state were at this time.
Also the invention of the printing press was an extremely important factor in the development of the protestant movement. The ability of ideas to be able to spread quickly through printed materials cannot be undervalued.
As The Reformation spread, its influence was felt everywhere.
During The Reformation Europe went through a period of intellectual and spiritual flourishing (and rebellion, war and bloodshed too so… ). The Reformation could be said in hindsight to have been just as good for the Catholic Church.
The protestant movement forced the Catholic Church to switch gears in the way that it had done things up to that point.
In England the situation was more complicated and political in its origin.
Henry VIII king of England, wanted to divorce his wife. When the Church refused to dissolve his marriage Henry VIII declared the Church of England no longer subject to the Pope, and dissolved much of the Churches assets, claiming them as his own.
The Church of England became the first, and head of the Anglican Church.
As protestantism grew, so did the idea that our human understanding of the Bible was imperfect, and that not only is it OK to disagree, and debate crucial matters of Christian truth, but it is good!
As Luther’s influence spread, so did the more general trend of not accepting everything everyone said at face value. It wasn’t long before different leaders within the protestant movement started developing disagreements about other points of scripture. Some saw different points as deserving more emphasis. Many of these differences grew organically and blossomed into fully separate denominations.
Over its entire history, Protestant Christianity has been characterised by the freedom of individuals to study and understand the Bible for themselves. It is this spirit which has both continued to push Protestants to maintain their reliance on the Bible as the Word of God, but also to continue to foster disagreement and discussion.
So long as the spirit of Protestant Christianity is captured by unity in Christ, and the priesthood of all believers, then there is freedom within it to continue to challenge doctrinal tradition, and keep Christianity honest.
What Protestants Believe
We’ve talked about what constitutes Christian belief in a broad sense. We can say generally what defines a Christian within Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
First and foremost, Christians accept the doctrine of the trinity. One God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
From this we can also conclude that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. All Christians are in agreement on these two points.
But what makes protestants so unique?
Roman Catholics have a universal body of doctrine which they adhere to, and is canonised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
One of the defining characteristics of protestantism is that no such universal doctrine exists.
Protestant denominations are those groups which broke away from the Catholic Church led by Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and the other reformers, and all groups which have developed within this movement over time.
Protestants are divided across structural, doctrinal, cultural, social and many other issues.
So how do we capture all genuine protestant groups in a way that rules out heresies and non-Christian groups (especially those that claim to be Christian)?
More importantly, how do we understand what distinguishes protestant Christians from Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians?
Well, as you might imagine, the Bible can tell us.
The cornerstone of the protestant movement was the belief in the Word of God as the sole authority on matters of doctrine and faith.
Protestant Christians universally reject the notion of papal authority.
Protestant Christians affirm the doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ and unanimously acknowledge Jesus Christ alone as the current and everlasting leader of the Church.
Protestants believe that every member of the body of Christ is fallible, and utterly dependant on Jesus Christ, and that the final authority on any and all matters of faith and doctrine is the Bible and only the Bible.
Did I say that clearly enough?
Despite there being no ‘organised’ doctrine or catechism, protestants came to clarify the fundamentals of their faith into what is known as ‘the five solas’. These are the latin phrases which describe the core beliefs of protestant Christianity.
Different denominations over time developed their own confessions, or creeds which expanded on these in ways unique to their theology.
But all protestants essentially adhere to these basic points of Christianity.
These five solas soundly distinguish protestant Christianity from the Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox.
You might call these the ‘unbreakable rules’ of protestant Christianity. Here they are in a nutshell:
- Sola Scriptura
- Sola Gratia
- Sola Fide
- Solus Christus
- Soli Deo Gloria
1. Sola Scriptura – “Scripture alone”
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness
2 Timothy 3:16 – Via Bible Gateway
Sola Scriptura is the first on the list for a reason. At the heart of protestant Christianity, is the Holy Bible.
This really is true of protestantism, over and above the Catholic Church. Whilst the Roman Catholic Church fully accepts the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, they also place authority in the traditions of the Catholic Church and in papal authority.
Yet, the Bible says of itself that it is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practise.
This means that to put anything, or anyone at an equal standing with the Bible undermines the fundamental principle of protestant Christianity.
By extension this also means that to undermine the authority of the Bible as anything less than the Word of God himself again puts one in very dangerous territory.
If we accept the fundamental importance of the Bible, as the source of Christian truth, then it leads us naturally to accept a number of fundamental truths, which are outlined clearly in the Bible.
FYI, this doesn’t mean ‘The Bible is true because it says so’.
A better understanding would be ‘if the Bible is true, then it is sufficient, because it says so’.
It’s the difference between saying:
“This statement is true” and “This statement is in English”.
The first phrase is meaningless. The second one is true.
So how do we know the Bible is true?
– a good question, for another time –
It also means that other figures of authority in and out of the Church must be tested against the Bible. If they deviate from the clear teachings of the Bible, they are not preaching Christianity.
Also from this the next four gain all their authority, because they are taken from the Bible.
2. Sola Gratia – “Grace alone”
For by grace you have been saved…
Ephesians 2:8 (the first half) – via Bible Gateway
Exactly how it sounds. The straightforward biblical principle that all Christians know by heart is that we can only be saved by God’s grace.
We are all hopelessly lost. We are sinners who fundamentally reject God in every way, and there is no hope for salvation other than by God’s grace. His undeserved favour handed down to us in His infinite mercy.
3. Sola Fide – “Faith alone”
… through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God
Ephesians 2:8 (the second half) – via Bible Gateway
How do we receive God’s grace then, if we can’t ‘do’ anything to get it. By putting our faith (trust) in Jesus Christ alone. No one else. Not Joseph Smith, not the Pope, no one.
4. Solus Christus – “Christ alone”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”
John 14:6 – via Bible Gateway
let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead… there is salvation in no one else;
Acts 4:10-12 – via Bible Gateway
God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11 – via Bible Gateway
In case I haven’t made it clear multiple times now, Jesus Christ is the primary/defining figure in Christian Theology. Jesus Christ is the second member of the trinity. He is the begotten Son of God, who became a man, lived a perfect sinless life, and became the perfect, sufficient sacrifice for our sins.
Our sins are forgiven, because Christ took the punishment for them.
He is the mediator between mankind and the Father, our saviour, our benefactor and our advocate.
He is worthy of all glory and honour.
If you remember nothing from this post after you’ve finished, remember this:
In Christ alone…
Ok, enough preaching.
5. Soli Deo Gloria – “Glory to God alone”
Finally, God is our creator, and our sole object of worship and honour. No human. No thing. Not Zeus, or the sun, or ourselves (our favourite alternative), or our inventions.
We worship nothing and no one else but God (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit).
So, that’s basically what brings all the major protestant Christian denominations together.
We’ve covered a lot of ground already. But protestantism is a diverse landscape.
Whilst there certainly are not ‘thousands’ of different denominations, there may be several hundred. However, they essentially all fall under the banner of relatively few major branches of protestantism.
Let’s take a look at these major branches of Protestant Christianity and what makes them unique.
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
2 Peter 1:21 – via Bible Gateway
The Lutheran Church is in some respects, the godfather of all of modern protestantism. It is the denomination which directly traces its ancestry back to Martin Luther, from whom, almost all of modern protestant denominations can trace their history to and it is the one which bears his name.
Luther in many ways was the most conservative of the reformers. He had specific issues that he wanted the Church to address, but otherwise he saw no reason to radically alter the Church.
As a result, Lutheranism has a more traditional feel to it than most other protestant denominations.
If you’ve read the whole post up to this point then you’re no stranger to Martin Luther.
Martin Luther is the godfather of the protestant Reformation.
After a terrifying thunderstorm, Luther vowed to commit his life to God, and began his religious education in 1505.
Luther’s experience also made him a dedicated convert. This dedication would help him spread his message and build his influence and popularity.
His study of the Word of God raised what he saw as serious errors in the Catholic Church, especially the notion that anything but God’s grace is sufficient to save the sinner, and make him right before God (especially the purchase of indulgences, and the Popes authority to forgive sin).
Barely a decade later, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther made history when he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg.
The Catholic Church called Luther to attend the diet of worms in 1521 where he doubled down on his convictions. The Church wouldn’t budge either.
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen. – Martin Luther, 1521
Luther was branded a heretic and an outlaw. He went into hiding at Warburg Castle, but his protests had lit a fire.
His message that God alone could forgive sins, and only by faith in Christ could we be saved was a welcome breath of fresh air to an exasperated Christian population.
Fed up with the Church taking advantage of them, his message couldn’t help but be popular among the people.
Several of his contemporaries followed him and worked with him to expand his teachings.
These ‘heretics’ were quickly branded ‘Lutherans’ by the Catholic Church, and the name stuck.
Lutheranism grew in Germany. By the end of 16th Century it was the state religion in many parts of Germany, then Sweden, and Scandanavia, Hungary, Transylvania and by the 17th century arrived in US.
Luther wrote the Augsburg confession, still the fundamental guiding doctrine for Lutherans today (with varying degrees of authority). He also wrote the large and the small Catechism.
Luther died in 1546, but his followers continued to expand, and spread throughout Christendom. In 1580 his writings were consolidated into the Book of Concord.
This book contains the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Augsberg confession, apology of the Augsberg confession, Luthers tracts, articles and the large and small catechisms.
The book of Concord is a vigorous defense of Lutheran doctrines, and of protestantism (inerrancy of scripture, rejection of catholic sacraments, sale of indulgences, etc.)
Today there are over 140 Lutheran Church bodies globally, most of whom are members of the World Lutheran Federation.
Lutheranism today remains one of the largest protestant denominations.
Luther made scathingly hostile remarks regarding the Jews on several occasions.
But it must also be noted that he (and everyone else at the time) also at times made scathing remarks against the Catholic Church, and some of the more radical protestant movements popping up. This was a passionate time when everybody had intensely strong feelings of religious identity.
Luther was a man with his own flaws, just as we all have.
Lutherans have a structure organised around synods, with three main levels.
- Churchwide organisation – The central authority for a given Lutheran Church
- Synod – regional hub made up of congregations
- Congregation – A local Church
There are also a number of more independent Lutheran Churches, with greater autonomy than those congregations in membership with larger synods and organisations.
Bishops are the heads of synods. However, The Lutheran Church believes in the ‘priesthood of all believers’, so instead of priests, they have pastors, elders and deacons.
Pastors and elders are elected by the congregation. This is an important difference to the Catholic Church, where all of the holy orders are selected and ordained through the hierarchy system, not by the congregation.
The Lutherans boast a direct line back to Martin Luther and his break from the Catholic tradition. They represent the most orthodox and inherited tradition from Luther himself, the great reformer.
What Lutherans believe
Lutherans are protestant Christians, and so accept all the major distinguishing beliefs of classic protestantism.
Lutherans generally accept the teachings of Luther as detailed in the book of Concord which contains the original Christian creeds, plus much of Luthers writings including the Augsburg confession.
However various branches of the Lutheran Churches hold the Augsberg confession with varying degrees of authority.
Major Sub-Denominations or Churches
- Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)
- Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS)
- Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in England
- Lutheran Church in Great Britain
- Resurrection Lutheran Church
- Lutheran Church of Australia
Resources for digging deeper
Luther’s 95 thesis (in English)
The Book of Concord (online version)
Lutheran Reformation – a LCMS initiative
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
Isaiah 46:9-10 – via Bible Gateway
Calvinism, as previously stated, is less of a denomination in its own right, and more of a theological framework which developed mostly independently of Luthers Reformation.
Very soon after Luther began making waves, reformed theology took on a life of its own, spawning several clear denominational groups over time and making it one of the oldest distinct traditions, second only to Lutheranism.
Today the major Christian denominations which follow most closely in the reformed tradition are the Dutch reformed, The German reformed, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Reformed Baptists.
Reformed theology however is pervasive and it’s influence can be felt throughout modern Christian theology.
The reformed Church began in Zurich through the efforts of Huldrich Zwingli.
The reformers trace their history, almost back to the beginning of the protestant Reformation.
Zwingli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and both men were influenced by the writings of some prominent pre-Reformation thinkers, including Wycliffe and Erasmus. Luther and most of the first generation reformers were very closely intertwined.
As both movements grew so quickly, they inevitably rubbed shoulders, to the point where many of the first generation reformers had been influenced by, and even persuaded into The Reformation by Luthers writings.
Quite often the leaders of The Reformation heard first Luther, and were then taken under the wing of the reformers, particularly Zwingli, Farel and Bucer.
So significant was the influence of the early reformers, that the best understanding of its history, is through the lens of its individual leaders.
Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531)
The first reformer, grew up at the Eastern base of the Swiss Alps and he began preaching in 1506.
Unlike Luther, Zwingli’s criticisms of the Church at that time were more well received, and Zurich made many reforms under his direction. These included the removal of graven images, the declaration that priests had the right to marry, and declared transubstantiation to be unbiblical.
Through Zwingli, reformed theology spread quickly through Switzerland, then Burn, Bazle, Appenzell, St Gaul, Shaflhauzen and on and on.
Zwingli’s base was however, in Zurich.
John Calvin (1509-1564)
Calvin is the face of the reformed tradition, from whom it gets its colloquial name ‘Calvinism’.
Calvin was raised in France, just north of Paris, and his father wanted him to have a good education. He studied arts and law, and eventually converted to protestantism.
Calvin was on his way from France to Spain during this time, but conflicts forced him to detour through Geneva.
The town was embroiled in religious and political turmoil. A local fiery preacher, William Farel, convinced Calvin to stay in Geneva permanently.
Over Calvin’s life his fame and reputation as a brilliant theologian grew enormously.
Reformed theology eventually became the state religion in Geneva, and Calvin heavily influenced this achievement. Calvin’s state became a hub for the development and rapid spread of his reformed theology.
Calvin was a student of reformed theology, inspired by those who came before him, but hardly anyone did more to popularise and spread reformed theology throughout the world.
He published his first edition of the institutes of the Christian Religion, while in Basel in March of 1536. This work is the cornerstone of reformed theology today.
Martin Bucer (1491–1551)
Bucer was centred in Strasbourg France. He was highly influential, and yet less famous today than other reformers.
Born in Schlettstadt to a poor cobbler, Bucer took his vows in 1506 – the same year as Zwingli.
In 1518 he attended the Hiedelberg disputation where he was strongly convicted, and quickly left his vows in the Catholic Church to join the reformers.
He ended up in Strasbourg sometime around 1524 where he was present during the attempts to reconcile Luther’s and Zwingli’s theological perspectives on the Eucharist.
Bucer played a (noble, and difficult) role as mediator. Ultimately however the two viewpoints could not be reconciled.
Bucer was also a close companion, friend and mentor to John Calvin as the two men lived together for a time and eventually became neighbours.
Note: Bucer penned one of the most eloquent descriptions of the role of the law in the life of the Christian believer that I’ve ever heard – rather than being saved by the law, Christians
“consent to it in their hearts and are moved by the Holy Spirit to live and behave according to it”
Bucer is considered by many to be one of the great ‘silent achievers’ of The Reformation. Silent in the sense that his fame and legacy have set him in the background, despite the enormous impact this great theologian had on the protestant Reformation.
Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541)
Initially studied medicine, he left to study theology and trained as a humanist under Erasmus.
After receiving his orders and moving to Basel he rubbed shoulders with prominent reformers Luther and Zwingli, he eventually left the Catholic Church and joined The Reformation.
Capito was a rare voice of calm and a proponent of non-violence in an otherwise tumultuous time in Christian History.
He courageously advocated for peace, particularly among the protestants. For this reason he was somewhat misunderstood.
In 1530 Capito co-drafted the confession of faith with Bucer.
John Oecolampadius (1482–1531)
John Oecolampadius led The Reformation in Bazel, Switzerland.
Proficient in Greek and Hebrew, John was originally a humanist and (like Capito) he became friends with Philip Melanchthon a Lutheran reformer and associate of Martin Luther.
Like his contemporaries, he was persuaded by the efforts of The Reformation, particularly with the issue of transubstantiation.
He began following Luthers teachings, and became a close confidant of Zwingli, defending protestantism against the Catholics in a series of disputations, garnering a reputation as an excellent preacher.
He eventually moved closer to reformed theology.
Guillaume Farel (1489–1565)
Farel was a contemporary of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Capito and Oecolampadius.
If Capito was known for his peaceableness and desire for brotherly love, Farel was known for the opposite.
His study of theology led him to question the Catholic teaching. This opened his ears to The Reformation movement and Luthers theology.
Less than four years from his graduation he began boldly preaching Reformation theology.
He quickly garnered a reputation for his “lion-like outbursts“. His temperament earned him many enemies, and he survived multiple assassination attempts.
At the extreme end of the zeal spectrum, Farel was even considered by Calvin to be a little over the top at times (just a little).
William Farel was the man responsible for convincing John Calvin to set up residence in Geneva and join The Reformation efforts there. The importance of this encounter cannot be understated.
His talent for debate, and zeal for preaching popularised reformed theology in much of French speaking Switzerland, and paved the way for John Calvin to develop his reformed theology.
Farel was both chastised, and respected for his fiery temperament and zeal for Christ, but without it, one has to wonder what protestant Christianity would look like today.
Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575)
The most influential second generation reformer, Heinrich Bullinger was Zwingli’s heir in Zurich, Switzerland.
A prolific writer and theologian he produced substantially more writings than most of his contemporaries. Bullinger was only 17 years old when he fully abandoned the Catholic teachings.
Following the untimely death of Zwingli, Bullinger was quickly recognised for his passion, his reformed theology and his grasp of the Scriptures.
He was officially named Zwingli’s successor for the protestant movement in Zurich.
Not only that Bullinger was renowned for his generous heart and charity. His home was a sanctuary for the less fortunate, including those escaping Catholic persecution.
John Knox (1514-1572)
Developed and studied in Geneva under Calvins theology, which he brought with him back to Scotland and established Presbyterianism (see below).
The key feature of reformed Churches is the emphasis on God’s sovereignty. This is the most important thing.
He created the Heavens and the Earth by His divine will. He knows you personally, and calls all the stars by name.
Nothing (nothing!), falls beyond the grasp of His perfect will and plan.
Reformers are known for their scholarship and tend to emphasise dedicated study, learning and understanding the word of God.
Reformers are generally respected for their contribution to the Churches knowledge.
Most reformers today fall within Presbyterianism. As such, I have dedicated a whole section just for them (the next one).
If we include Presbyterians, the reformers are one of the largest branches of Christian Theology, with reformed denominations collectively being among the largest in the US, the UK and Northern Europe.
Calvinism also has a large online presence, many major/popular online Christian ministries teach a reformed theology.
One of the most well known and respected modern preachers, John McArthur, is an avid Calvinist.
What Reformers believe
Reformed theology can be summarised by the five points of Calvinism (TULIP).
- Total depravity of man
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistable Grace
- Perseverence of the Saints
Reformers also variously adhere to several documents including:
- The Westminster Confession of Faith (by far the most commonly adopted statement of reformed doctrines)
- The Canons of Dort
- The Savoy declaration
- The Marburg articles
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- The Belgic confession
- And many more
Reformers believe that good works are strong evidence of a believers salvation (they are necessary, but not sufficient).
They reject transubstantiation.
This is an important distinction with Lutheranism. Lutherans generally believe Jesus Christ is present, in and under the eucharist. Reformed theology affirms that the bread and wine of the eucharist are only symbolic of Christ’s flesh and blood.
The difference might seem subtle, but it’s important. When Zwingli and Luther couldn’t come to an agreement about the nature of the Eucharist, Luther derided Zwingli as “a damned heretic”!
Relationship to other Denominations
One of the major divides of modern Christianity (at least theologically) is the debate between arminianism, and predestination.
The reformers exclusively developed and pioneered reformed theology which emphasises God’s total sovereignty, in contrast to arminianism, which emphasises mans freedom to choose or reject Christ’s offer of forgiveness for sin.
These two major theological views lead to a number of important corollaries and distinctions between them.
On the whole however reformers are considered a part of the protestant tradition, and are well within the purview of genuine Christianity by the vast majority of Christian protestants.
Major Sub-Denominations or Churches (excluding Presbyterians)
- National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
- Conservative Congregational Christian Conference
- Christian Reformed Church in North America
- Reformed Church in America
- The Alliance of Reformed and Theonomic Churches
- Protestant Church in the Netherlands
- Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches
- The Reformed Church in Hungary, Transylvania and southern Slovakia
- The Reformed Church in Romania
- The Reformed Church of France
- … There’s at least one major reformed Church in most Eastern European Countries
Note: the vast majority of reformed Churches in the Great Britain, Scotland and Ireland are Presbyterian (see below)
- Christian Reformed Churches of Australia
- Congregational Federation of Australia
Resources for digging deeper
“set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, 6 namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.
7 For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain,
8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
Titus 1:5-9 (NASB) – via Bible Gateway
Presbyterians get their name from the term ‘Presbyteros‘, from the ecclesiastical Greek, meaning ‘elder’, or ‘one that presides over assemblies or congregations,’.
Presbyterianism is one of the oldest and largest traditions in The Reformation movement.
The Church of Scotland, Scotland’s official Church is Presbyterian.
Presbyterianism was started by John Knox.
Knox was born in Scotland, and educated at University of Glasgow.
Like most of the reformers, Knox was ordained into the Catholic Church, then after studying the bible for himself, began to question the Catholic teachings.
He was influenced by St Augustine’s and St Jerome’s writings and quickly left and became a passionate preacher, known for his scathing criticism of the Catholic Church.
Aggravated by the abuses of Catholic theology/tradition, Knox taught in London, then fled persecution during the reign of bloody Mary – King Henry VIII’s first daughter and successor, who viciously campaigned to restore Roman Catholicism in England.
John Knox had a hand in the development of the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion before fleeing England and becoming a friend and contemporary of John Calvin.
From here he embraced Calvin’s reformed theology and then moved back to Scotland in 1559, to start the reformed movement there within a ‘Presbyterian’ style of Church government.
Knox was tasked with drafting official articles which quickly established Reformed theology as the state religion. He also helped write the Scottish confession of faith used by the Scottish parliament.
Knox was a rabble rouser. A fiery evangelist who promoted the idea of Righteous rebellion, an idea that gained popularity in Scotland.
Despite the Scottish Queen’s attempts to push back and restore Catholicism, Knox’s theology increased in popularity and eventually gained a permanent foothold.
In 1567 the Reformed Church in Scotland was formally recognised.
From here, Presbyterianism grew quickly throughout Scotland, Holland, Ireland, and elsewhere, quickly establishing itself as a distinct and influential branch of The Reformation movement.
Eventually the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, which remains one of the key documents outlining Presbyterian reformed theology today.
As with most protestant groups, Presbyterianism found its way to America early, and was very influential in early American political structure and formation.
Major splits have occurred within the Presbyterian Church following the fundamentalist movement of the 19th Century, and are generally due to attitudes towards Christ, scripture and sin.
Presbyterians are known for being one of the oldest established denominations in The Reformation, and further, also one of the oldest and largest protestant denominations in the United States.
The Presbyterian Church is so named because of the more governmental structure of the Church compared to other reformed movements. The Church is made up of four levels of Government.
General Assembly (national)
A General assembly is the nationwide gathering representing an entire Church organisation nationwide. They are responsible for overseeing the broader mission of the Church as a whole and they meet biannually.
Synod (3+ Presbyteries in close geographical proximity)
A synod represents a collection of generally 3 or more presbyteries and overseas the mission and broad aims of the geographical region of Churches represented, and also acts as the point of transmission between the General assembly and the presbyteries and sessions.
Not all Presbyterian Church organisations have a synod.
Presbyteries (district level)
Presbyteries oversee a geographical region of local Churches, similar to a ‘diocese’ in the Catholic and Anglican hierarchies. These are run by presbyters (elders).
Kirk Sessions (local)
Sessions are local Church meetings comprised of the local Minister and elected elders of the Church responsible for the running and maintenance of local Church matters.
Church leadership is made up of the Minister (pastor), elders (presbyters), deacons who are board members, but like in other denominations are assistants to the elders and ministers, and then the congregational members and attendees.
In the Presbyterian Church there is an emphasis on education and teaching. Presbyterian ministers are trained thoroughly (by contrast baptists and methodists often allowed zealous laymen to preach the gospel) before being ordained. This is in keeping with their more organised Church structure, and an emphasis on sound doctrine and understanding of the Word of God.
“Even today, more theologians come from Presbyterian or Reformed backgrounds than from other groups, and Presbyterian theologians have made significant contributions to issues concerning the Church.” – Got Questions
What Presbyterians believe
Presbyterians follow a reformed theology, and have used the Westminster Confession of Faith to characterise their denominations view of the Bible and other crucial matters of the faith for almost their entire history.
As with essentially all protestant denominations, Presbyterians reject the authority of the Pope.
They reject both the hierarchical style of the Catholic Church but also the more congregational structure of many other denominations in favour of a ‘Presbyterian’ framework.
Presbyterians reject transubstantiation, and most of the other Catholic sacraments.
Salvation is by Grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Presbyterians affirm the central creeds of Christianity, the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds, as elaborated in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Relationship to other Denominations
In general Presbyterians are considered well within the purview of traditional Christian belief especially within reformed/protestant Christianity.
A Few Major Sub-Denominations or Churches
- Evangelical Presbyterian Church
- Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- Church of Scotland (ground zero!)
- United Reformed Church (Presbyterian and Congregationalist merger)
- Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster
- International Presbyterian Church
- Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales
- Presbyterian Church of Australia:
- Presbyterian Church in the State of New South Wales
- Presbyterian Church of Queensland
- Presbyterian Church of Tasmania
- Presbyterian Church of South Australia
- Presbyterian Church of Victoria
- Presbyterian Church in Western Australia
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He [Jesus] said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.
Matthew 19:8-9 – via Bible Gateway
There is a lot of debate about whether the Anglican Church is really a ‘true’ protestant Church, as it’s often considered more of a middle ground between Catholics and Protestants.
And yet, in a way, the Anglican Church is probably the truest ‘protestant’ Church of all since it was the first of the big reformers to strategically separate itself from the Catholic Church.
By contrast most of the first generation protestants were either excommunicated, or forced to break away because of irreconcilable differences with the Catholic Church.
The Anglican Church is, basically, the Church of England. The Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church through the efforts of King Henry VIII and his advisors.
However, it wasn’t until his daughter Queen Elizabeth I took the throne that the Anglican Church really began to flourish.
The Church in England
Reports exist from Tertullian and Origen of a Church that was present in ‘Britain’ long before the formation of the Catholic Church. This Church suffered greatly during the 6th Century invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.
Pope Gregory commissioned none other than St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the pagans into the Church of England.
King Henry VIII
The Church of England broke from the Catholic Church during the reign of King Henry VIII. King Henry the VIII was a rather sour character. Both Henry and his eldest daughter Mary are among the most infamous rulers in British history.
So, the story goes that Henry – seeking desperately for a male heir to his throne – sought a divorce from his first wife, who provided him with ‘only’ a daughter, and several miscarriages (nice guy).
The Pope wouldn’t allow this (for political reasons, as well as theological). So Henry exerted his authority as the King of England, and set about dissolving the Pope’s authority over the affairs of the Crown.
Although Henry VIII hated Martin Luther, and was not a reformer in the same sense, the origin of the Church of England cannot be disconnected from the Protestant Reformation.
Henry VIII’s advisors, who were protestants, masterminded the plan which would allow Henry to get his divorce. Furthermore, Henry started making reforms in England that would consolidate power and wealth into the Church of England.
They drew up official documents and theology, and the Anglican Church was born.
Historians believe that without Henry’s divorce the English Reformation would likely have not occurred.
You’ve heard that Henry VIII instituted The Reformation in England under less than honourable circumstances, and for less than honourable reasons.
There’s more to the story however. Henry VIII was a staunch opponent of Luthers Reformation and of Luther personally. Throughout Henry’s life and the short reign of his son the throne was characterised by political and religious turmoil.
Henry was a money vacuum. He lived his life in almost constant debt, blowing enormous amounts of money on his lavish lifestyle. Much of this fortune was extracted from the Catholic Church as he liquidated their assets across Britain.
Henry was succeeded by his son, and then his first daughter Mary, who sought to abolish The Reformation and turn England back to Catholicism.
Mary was a brutal tyrant, burning no less than 300 protestants at the stake before her death merely 5 years after she took the throne.
An under appreciated figure in the development of the Church of England was King Henry’s second daughter Elizabeth I, who would go on to become Queen Elizabeth the I.
If Henry is responsible for the inauspicious circumstances surrounding the creation of the Anglican Church, Queen Elizabeth is responsible for its survival.
Whilst historians almost unanimously agree that Henry’s first divorce was the catalyst, it was Elizabeth’s reign which brought lasting change to The Reformation in England.
Elizabeth is considered one of the greatest monarch’s in British history, and this has a lot to do with her firm leadership during such a tumultuous period of England’s history.
She restored order in the Kingdom, and brought reform to the Church of England that generally satisfied the majority.
The massive size and influence of the Anglican Church today, has a lot to do with the historical ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire. Not least the eventual fall of Constantinople and the mediterranean to the Muslims also.
As the historical centrepiece of the mighty Roman Empire gradually corroded away, the West continued to flourish with England as the focal point of power and the rise of the British Empire
With the Church of England as the official state Church, so too did Anglicanism flourish in the West.
Thus, while Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination followed closely by the Eastern Orthodox, the Anglicans are the third largest. This also makes the Anglican denomination the largest protestant denomination, if you consider them a protestant denomination that is.
The Episcopalian Church
Anglicanism made its way to the United States early on in its history, and became an established tour de force, with over 400 Anglican Churches nationwide by 1775 (the year the war of Independence began).
Being a Church that is connected directly with the Church of England, and thus the British monarchy, is rather awkward when your countrymen are fighting for total independence from the crown.
At the wars end, the Church sought a way to reform the Anglican Church, whilst being separate from the Church of England (especially since those priests loyal to the crown were being imprisoned and/or deported).
This process began at the general convention, Philadelphia 1785 and culminated by the ordination of two Americans into the Anglican clergy in 1789, and the thus the Episcopalian Church was born.
The Church of England
This is the home Church of Anglicanism, and the state Church of England. Made up of two major branches, the Church of Canterbury in southern UK, and the Church of York in the North.
At the head of each is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York respectively.
The Anglican Church has a distinctly hierarchical, Episcopalian, structure, similar to the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but like the Greek Orthodox Church, does not give supreme authority to the Pope.
Throughout the anglican communion (even Episcopalians), the Church of England is considered the head of the Church (the mother Church).
The hierarchy in the Anglican/Episcopalian Church is similar to the Catholic Church.
Like the Catholic Archbishop, an Anglican Archbishop, is a Bishop who presides over a collection of smaller local Churches (parishes), which cover a significant geographical region, such as a capital city, or major metropolitan area.
Presides over a collection of six or more local parishes. Bishops are elected at an assembly of bishops.
Oversee local parishes.
Assistant to the priests and bishops in dioceses and parishes.
Administration and Volunteers
Any Church members who are either employed by the Church, or volunteer in some help capacity.
Anglican cathedrals are impressive (especially in the UK), ornate, sometimes very old structures that rival Catholic Church cathedrals in their impressive and detailed architecture.
Cathedrals are the office of the bishops. There are 42 Cathedrals in England.
“They are physical and cultural landmarks, often the most magnificent, complex and ancient buildings in their local area.” – The Church of England
Her Majesty the Queen of England
Since the time of Elizabeth I, the ruling monarch of England (and the United Kingdom) holds the title:
‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’.
The monarch of the United Kingdom is coronated by the Archbishop of Cantebury (the Bishop of the Church of England).
The Queen in turn (as advised by the Prime Minister) appoints Archbishops, Bishops and priests.
All appointed Archbishops, Bishops, Priests and Deacons must swear allegiance to the ruling Monarch.
The General Synod
A collection of Bishops elected every five years that meets twice per year to discuss matters of Church legislation.
The Anglican Communion
So the Anglican communion is the conglomerate of Anglican Churches, including the Episcopalian Church, which originated from, and is in communion with the mother Church, the Church of England.
Anglicans acknowledge the bishop as the authority of the Church.
The unifying factor in Anglicanism is acceptance of the 39 articles of religion, and the book of common prayer.
What Anglicans believe
Anglicanism adheres to the main Creeds of Christianity formed during the 3rd-5th centuries, including the Nicene and Apostles Creed and the Athanasian creed.
The 39 articles of the Anglican communion describe the main tenets of the Anglican beliefs, which includes their affirmation of the three historic Christian creeds, their affirmation of the Bible as the sole authority and standard of truth, original sin, baptism, sacraments, the eucharist (communion, the Lord’s supper) and more.
The Book of Common Prayer is a book describing essentially the way in which Church, and other important meetings of the Anglican Church should go, including prayers, songs and orders of service for everything from Christmas, to baptisms.
Reject purgatory and transubstantiation (as do all protestants in one way or another) – this is important, because it demonstrates that the CoE did not simply copy/paste Catholic doctrine into their own liturgy when they separated from the Roman Catholic Church.
Reject the supreme authority of the Pope and the infallibility of the Pope.
Anglicans appeal to the Bible as the supreme authority on matters of faith, and the Bible is to be studied and understood in light of tradition, and human reason (in that order). The Anglicans also hold the apocrypha books in high regard, but do not consider them canonical (they’re not a part of the Bible).
Baptism is an outward confession of faith, and an act which expresses the believers belonging to the Church. This is not (so far as I can ascertain) required for salvation, according to the Church of England and the 39 articles of religion.
Relationship to other Denominations
Though regarded by most other protestant denominations as more on the traditional side, and probably a little more Catholic than they would prefer, they are generally acknowledged as adhering to the main fundamentals of protestant Christianity, especially in their rejection of the primacy of the Pope, and their affirmation of the authority of the Bible.
Major Sub-Denominations or Churches
- The Episcopalian Church – the American (originating) branch of the Anglican Church formed shortly after the War of Independence
- The Reformed Episcopalian Church – the fruit of the great evangelical awakening in the Episcopal Church in the 19th Century US
- The Anglican Church in North America
- The Anglican Orthodox Church
- The Anglican Catholic Church
- The Church of England
- The Church of Wales
- The Anglican Church of Australia
Resources for digging deeper
Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites)
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:27 – via Bible Gateway
Anabaptists were labelled by their enemies and oppressors to identify them as heretics, and to increase persecution against them.
The term roughly means ‘rebaptism’, because they believed their infant baptism in the Catholic Church to be invalid. They advocated instead for ‘believers only baptism’ in adulthood, as an outward profession of ones faith.
Despite their pacifism, and the persecution they suffered, anabaptists spread throughout Christendom faster than a swarm of fire ants.
On a snowy Winter’s night, January 1525, in Zurich, a group of protestant believers got together, and baptised one another. This was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
A movement not wholly unfamiliar to the majority of protestant Christianity today, yet they were considered ‘radical’ by the standards of the other reformers of their day.
They grew out of Zwingli’s reformed theology, but the anabaptists took it further.
Some of the most important Anabaptists were Konrad Gretel (Zurich), Hans Denk (Bavaria), Balthasar Gubmaier (Germany).
These men disagreed with Zwingli on some key issues. As Shelley states in Church History:
“Most revolutionary movements produce a wing of radicals who feel called of God to reform The Reformation… calling the moderate reformers to strike even more deeply at the foundations of the old order.”
These Anabaptists did what all self-respecting protestants did; they studied the Bible.
They saw no biblical precedent for involving the Church in the states affairs, which included taking up arms, nor did they see any evidence for infant baptism.
This was not a trifling disagreement.
You see, when they declared the invalidity of their infant baptism, they immediately baptised themselves which was a crime according to most of the religious and state institutions (including the reformers).
So they were:
- Protesting against the Catholics
- Rejecting the notion of Church and State
- Radicalising the protestant movement
This placed them at odds with the Catholics, Protestants and the State… which was everyone, basically.
They were heavily persecuted for this.
Anabaptists were eventually forced out of Zurich, and they attempted to gain footholds in Germany and Holland, but were met with equal amounts of resistance there.
Despite The Reformations dangerous simmering cauldron of religious ultra-denominationalism, the Anabaptists stayed impressively true to their stances of non-violence and non-retaliation.
Somewhere over 4000 Anabaptists were martyred during this time. This kind of persecution rivals some of the worst of the middle ages, such as the slaughter of Jews along the Rhine in Germany before the first Crusade.
Due to this persecution many fled to the United States and were taken in by the Quakers (see below) and settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683.
As Anabaptists continued to migrate to the US, they propped up in Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and the West.
Today the two primary schools of Anabaptists that remain in the US are the Mennonites, and the Amish.
The Mennonites are a branch of the Anabaptists that originated in the Netherlands and North Germany under the guidance of Menno Simmons (1496-1561). Menno was a staunch pacifist, despite the jarring descriptions of persecution against the Mennonites.
Jacob Amman, a 17th-century citizen of Switzerland, was even more radical than the Mennonites, and took a stance on excommunication and shunning.
After moving to the US, he broke away from the Mennonite Church and founded the Amish.
The Amish are world famous for their simple living and modest dress standards.
Over time some Amish groups began to disagree as well, with some wanting to stay on the straight and narrow, and others wanting to loose the reigns just a little.
Today there are multiple flavours throughout Amish society, with some sects being a lot more open to new technology and less traditional attire, whilst others are still extremely traditional.
Although there is wide breadth of diversity among the ancestors of the first Anabaptists, by far the most distinguishing feature today is their unique lifestyle.
Often more traditional, especially among the old order Amish and Mennonites, they tend to lead quieter lives. They maintain their pacifism (known as ‘conscientious objection’) and practise believers only baptism.
The Amish in particular are pretty hard to miss.
What Anabaptists believe
Anabaptists have a number of unique beliefs and many more typical protestant beliefs:
- Believers only baptism (no infant baptism) – where they get their name (Anabaptists)
- Strong emphasis on separation of Church and state
- Communion (bread and wine not Christ’s real blood and body)
- Sharing of resources
- Simple living
- Care for the poor and widows
- The Bible as the sole authority for faith and practise
Amish (Old Order)
- Communion twice a year
- Foot washing
- Separation from the world
- Speak German and Pennsylvania Dutch
- No electricity
- Plain clothes akin to 17th-century European peasants
- “Running Around” before baptism at age 17-20
Anabaptists adhere to the Schleithiem Confession, put together in 1527, which gained widespread acceptance amongst Northern European Mennonites.
Another important document is the Dordrecht Confession of Faith which was composed in 1632 in the Netherlands.
Major Sub-Denominations or Groups
- Mennonite World Conference
- Mennonite Church
- General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
- Missionary Church
- Old Order Amish Churches
Sadly, in 2016, the Mennonite movement in the UK held its last official service, as its decreasing attendance forced its attendants to close the doors.
- Anabaptist Mennonite Network (not a Church, but an online network of anabaptists)
“The network comprises people from all over Britain and from a wide range of Church backgrounds, most do not have direct historical links with Anabaptism.” – AMN
- Dunmore East Christian Fellowship (Ireland)
- Anabaptists Association of Australia and New Zealand
Relationship to other Denominations
Anabaptists emerged very early on in The Reformation. Whilst traditionally were viewed as those ‘radical’ reformers, most denominations descended from Anabaptist tradition adhere to the traditional doctrines of Christianity despite some, such as the old order Amish, putting a little more emphasis on good works.
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Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
Matthew 3:5-6 – via Bible Gateway
All you really need to know about the baptist denomination is that they believe the only true leader of the Church, is Jesus Christ.
What this means is that there is little to no formal, hierarchical structure or oversight that determines what specific baptists believe.
What this means is that there is enormous variation amongst the baptist denomination. Within the baptist movement there are hundreds of branches and sects with a complex and storied history leading back, more or less, to The Reformation.
If you ask a committed baptist where the baptist Church originated, they’ll more than likely tell you that the baptist Church originated on the day of Pentecost, when the Church originated.
They will (correctly) explain to you that from the beginning, starting with the apostles of Jesus Christ, the Church was made of those who believed in Jesus Christ as their saviour, who repented of their sins and were baptised in water unto the faith.
Strictly speaking however, the baptists as a denomination arose among the protestant Christians who can more reliably trace their roots back to The Reformation.
More specifically, the Baptists are descendants of the Anabaptists, the radical reformers who gained a foothold in the 1520’s, early in The Reformation (themselves born out of the reformed tradition of Zwingli), but they drew influences also from the Anglican tradition too.
John Smythe is credited with starting the first ‘baptist’ congregation in Amsterdam, in 1609 and the movement spread rapidly (along with many other separatist splinter groups) despite heavy persecution by the Catholic Church.
However, an exact history of the origins of modern day baptists is not so clear cut.
Steve Weaver, Baptist Historian, argues that John Smythe likely did not found Baptists, as they exist today. He cites a 1691 work by Herculeans Collins who rejected the association with John Smythe.
Quoting Professor William Loyd Allen (in the comments), Weaver says:
“sorting out Baptist origins is “like trying to untangle a snarled fishing line in the dark.””
John Smythe attended Cambridge University, and was ordained an Anglican. Well versed in Greek, he studied the New Testament and made one important conclusion which set him apart from his fellow Anglicans. He saw no evidence for the practise of infant baptism.
He became a ‘separatist’ when he separated from the Anglican Church (where do they come up with these names?). He then began preaching his believers baptism and gained a following. However, it is often noted that Smythe frequently changed his theology to the point where he ended up at odds with his own congregation.
Eventually many of them assimilated with the Anabaptists.
Thomas Helwys, a follower of Smythe, brought the baptist movement to London in 1612 and in 1639.
Baptism emerged in the US out of modern day Rhode Island.
Two men, Roger Williams and John Clarke founded the Baptist movement in the United States. By the 1700’s they were among the three largest denominations in the US.
Today there are more Baptist groups than can be counted, with the largest being the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
More important than the number of different Baptist groups, is what all Baptists have in common.
What distinguishes the baptist Church from other denominations is their emphasis on the importance of water baptism (hence the name) for believers only.
Baptists reject infant baptism, and advocate for ‘full immersion’, which means that an individual must be fully immersed in a body of water, other wise it doesn’t count (this was, of course, Achilles fatal mistake).
Another important feature of the Baptist Church but not entirely specific to them is the independence of their Churches, especially in America. There is
Today the largest group of Baptists in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention, emphasises doctrinal unity and diversity in function and organisation. This has allowed them to consolidate their beliefs into a more conservative doctrine. However, there is still enormous diversity across the baptist landscape worldwide.
What Baptists believe
The baptists were among the first protestants to embrace a more ‘arminian’ theology, in that they believed salvation was completely available to all who freely chose to believe it.
However, some early baptist Churches popped up preaching a more reformed theology also.
Baptists today are an extremely diverse group of Christians and Churches with a huge variety of individual Church practices. That being said they generally all fall within the purview of traditional Christianity.
They adhere to all the traditional creeds of Christianity and other protestant denominations.
All Baptists today (by definition) reject infant baptism, and generally practise full immersion baptism.
Relationship to other Denominations
Baptists, in general, fall firmly within the purview of traditional protestant Christianity, although the debate between Arminianism and Reformed/Calvinist theology is as healthy and vibrant as ever.
That being said, with such a large variety in beliefs and practises amongst baptist Churches, individual Churches ought to be judged on their own merits.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
- Baptist World Alliance
Fun fact: In June 2004, the largest Baptist organisation in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention (see below) broke ties with the Baptist World Alliance. They had been a member of the alliance for almost century. The decision was made due to the SBC’s perception that the WBA had shifted too far away from evangelical Christianity, and towards liberalism.
- Southern Baptist Convention – 16M (!!)
- American Baptist Churches USA – 1.3M
- Convergence Worldwide – 250k
- General Association of Regular Baptists – 157k
- National Association of Free Will Baptists – 300k
- National Baptist Convention of America – 1.5M
- Progressive National Baptist Convention – 2.5M
These are just the major branches (I restricted it to those with over 100,000 members). There are many, many more.
- The International Baptist Convention – a communion of 64 Baptist Churches in 24 Countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America
- The European Baptist Federation – “over 50 Baptist Unions, representing 14,000 Churches and 826,000 members” according to their website.
- Australian Baptist Ministries
Resources for digging deeper
but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
1 Peter 1:15-16 – via Bible Gateway
The Wesleyan Methodist, Methodist and Holiness Churches all trace their history back to John Wesley, a well educated man who devoted his life to holiness and devout godliness.
Wesleyans emphasise the born-again experience, being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
Their is a strong emphasis in the Wesleyan tradition on helps and services, social justice and chasing perfection.
Holiness Churches believe that Christians (through the power of the Holy Spirit) can be completely devoid of any sin.
By the early 18th Century, Luther’s Reformation was almost a century gone by. Anglicanism was well established as were the baptists and congregationalists, and the religious fervour that characterised the early Reformation was being supplanted by the enlightenment.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist flavour of Christianity lived for 88 years (1703 – 1791). An impressive feat for the 18th Century.
John Wesley and his brother Charles were born in England, and both went to Oxford. John was eventually ordained as a Deacon, and then a Priest in the Church of England in 1735.
The brothers, and a small group of friends would meet together, and were quite strict in their punctuality and the way they carried out their religious activity earning them the name ‘methodists’.
John Wesley became fond of the simple notion of holiness. Inspired by some Moravians that he met, he was awestruck by their unflinching peace during a near death experience on a nearly ill-fated passage from England to the US.
Upon returning to England after a disappointing missionary trip, Wesley was troubled by his own shortcomings.
It was only after hearing a sermon, reciting some of Luthers writings that he began to understand being saved completely by grace alone, through faith alone.
This transformed him into an enthusiastic young evangelist.
Wesley’s popularity blossomed.
Preaching to the poor and less fortunate, he garnered large followings who would meet most often in peoples homes. By the end of the 18th century, Wesley’s ‘methodism’ had already begun to spread throughout the United States.
Wesley drew up the 25 articles of religion, modified from the Anglican’s 39 articles, and began distributing it throughout his followers.
Wesley preached passionately and persuasively for almost the rest of his life, travelling allegedly hundreds of thousands of miles, preaching as far as he could go.
Through skilled evangelism and passionate leaders, organised Wesleyan Christianity spread rapidly throughout the US and England, emphasising simple holiness, practical helps, and the born-again ‘experience’.
Wesleyan theology came to be characterised by the daily practise of perfecting oneself. His theology of ongoing sanctification and the belief that with deliberate practise and effort Christians could eventually rid themselves completely of sinful behaviour, eventually led to the holiness movement.
These holiness Churches took Wesley’s idea to the extreme, believing that humans can rid themselves entirely of sin, by experiencing a ‘second work of grace’, in which the Holy Spirit then eradicates sin in the believer and empowers them to live a perfectly sinless life.
- Personal holiness
- Aspiring to sinless perfection
- Personal transformative experience
- Being filled with the Holy Spirit, and made perfect through Him
What Methodists believe
Wesleyans affirm the apostles creed especially, but also the nicene and athanasian creeds, and the Wesleyan 25 articles of religion.
Their doctrine of the three ‘graces’ – prevenient, justificatory, sanctifying grace emphasises the need for living righteous, holy lives.
The Wesleyans tend to be Arminian, emphasising the free will of the believer and loss of salvation; a fairly natural consequence of their emphasis on holiness and sanctifying grace.
Therefore they believe that Jesus Christ died for all human beings, and salvation is for those who freely choose to follow Christ.
More specific to the holiness movement is the belief that all believers have the capacity to live perfect lives without sin, at least eventually, by faith with the help of the Holy Spirit.
This view of holiness is not as strongly emphasised in Wesleyan and Methodist branches today, but Wesleyan theology in general does place emphasis on Holy living, in obedience to God’s Word and helping those in need.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
- The World Methodist Council
- Church of Nazarene – 650k
- The Wesleyan Church – 140k
- African Methodist Episcopal Church – 1.8M
- Christian Methodist Episcopal – 850k
- United Methodist Church – 8M
- The Methodist Church UK
- The Wesleyan Methodist Church Australia
Relationship to other Denominations
Wesleyan Methodist Churches form one of the major modern branches of Christianity and in general are arminian in their theology. Besides the general debate between Reformed and arminian modes of grace, descendants of John Wesley are not particularly controversial.
Resources for digging deeper
Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart,
1 Peter 1:22 – via Bible Gateway
There are two main groups of Christians who associate with the term Brethren and while distinct, have some similarities, particularly their more independent nature and non-creedal system of belief.
One is more widespread and mainstream than the other.
The Brethren, or ‘brothers’, originally came from Germany in the late 17th century. The Reformation was in full swing, and a small group of Germans familiar with Pietists and Anabaptists committed to the New Testament as their only creed. The first minister was a man named Alexander Mack (1679-1735).
These men were committed to practising Christianity as the New Testament apostles had done.
They met in small groups, took a firm anti-creedal stance and emphasised a living and vibrant Christianity, as opposed to the stuffy, organised religion they were surrounded by.
Due to persecution (common to any protestant group which resisted state recognition), in 1723 the group was forced to make their way to the United States where they grew quickly.
Several Churches in the US and elsewhere today are descended from Alexander Mack and his contemporaries.
John Nelson Darby (Plymouth Brethren)
In the winter of 1827—28, four men—John Nelson Darby, Edward Cronin, John Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson, met and prayed together in Dublin, Ireland.
These men met together to discuss and read the Bible together with a particular emphasis on Bible prophecy.
Believing that Anglicanism, and the rise of methodism and other things had brought Christianity away from New Testament teachings. John Nelson Darby was very influential in spreading this staunchly non-creedal, highly independent Church ideals.
Rather than take any particular denominational ‘name’ they simply saw themselves as a fellowship of brethren (brothers) who met together to worship Jesus Christ.
The denomination grew quickly and gained its most prominent audience in Plymouth, UK.
Today the two major branches are the Open Brethren, and the Exclusive Brethren.
Another, smaller branch of the exclusive Brethren known today as the ‘Plymouth Brethren Christian Church’ has garnered controversy in Australia recently as reports surfaced of their extremely exclusive, close-knit communal lifestyle emerged.
Ex-members had attested to their being excommunicated, and the effect that such an insular upbringing had on their assimilation into society after leaving the Church, and the lack of contact with remaining family members after they left the Church.
Another more serious issue concerned the way the Church dealt with a sex abuse scandal involving a member of their Church. The greater Brethren denomination almost universally label this group a cult.
The most distinguishing feature of the descendents of Alexander Mack is their doctrine of ‘The three negatives’.
Brethren are staunchly pacifist.
Some branches do hold chaplaincy offices in the military.
They often argue that non-violence is exercised through the Government’s duty to protect its citizens, on their behalf.
Generally, the Brethren advocate for simple living, avoiding worldly materialism and have a strong commitment to simple obedience to God’s Word.
Many often wear plain/modest clothing and practise foot washing. Some brethren women also wear head coverings.
3. non-swearing (oath taking)
There is a strong commitment to honest living, integrity and moral uprightness.
They believe the Christian should not need to ever swear an oath, because their word ought to be their bond.
The Plymouth Brethren are characterised by their highly independent, unstructured gatherings.
They have no ordained ministers or paid clergymen, and no one individual has authority over another.
Sunday services are comprised of a weekly communion (Lord’s supper) and multiple gospel messages and Bible readings.
What Brethren believe
Simple obedience to the word of God.
Strong emphasis on living out and faithfully studying the word of God.
Plymouth Brethren promote the equality of all believers. They do not believe in having any kind of formal structure, so they have no paid ministers or Clergy.
Plymouth Brethren also have a strong emphasis on preaching. They meet together everyday to preach, and to read the Bible. They also regularly engage in street preaching.
The family unit is also central to their life and faith.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
- Church of God – 250k
- Church of the Brethren – 135k
- Evangelical Covenant – 100k
- Evangelical Free Church of American – 370k
- Open Brethren
- Exclusive Brethren
- Plymouth Brethren Christian Churches (multiple Churches across Australia, US, UK and Europe in close communion)
Relationship to other Denominations
Brethren Churches are generally considered ancestors of the Anabaptists but with important differences. Apart from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Churches (likely a cult), Brethrens are predominantly and centrally clustered within the United States.
Apart from the controversies surrounding the PBCC in Australia, Brethren’s fall within the Anabaptist tradition. Brethren claim to have no creeds, however they still adhere to the main beliefs of Protestant Christianity (they would believe them, because that’s what is taught clearly in the Bible)
Resources for digging deeper
Brethren Official Site 1.
Brethren Official Site 2.
Plymouth Brethren Christian Church Official Site
Life in the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, and after (Worthwhile Documentary)
Random blog posts about head coverings
Churches of Christ (CoC)
These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the Church,23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 1:19-22 – via Bible Gateway
Churches of Christ (and similar groups) claim they are undenominational and have no central headquarters or president. The head of the Church is none other than Jesus Christ.
The Churches of Christ movement, and many others affiliated with the ‘restoration movement’ from 19th century America take independence to the next level.
We’re really moving along now.
The Reformation, the renaissance and the enlightenment are a bygone era.
The 19th Century was a truly remarkable time in world history. A lot happened during this Century, both in and out of America.
Here is just a tiny a snippet of the things the 1800’s brought about:
- The American Civil War
- The abolition of slavery in the US
- The presidency of Abraham Lincoln
- The assassination of Abraham Lincoln
- The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt
- The Eugenics movement
- Karl Marx publishes the communist manifesto
- The rise of communism, fascism and many world superpowers
- The peak of the industrial revolution
- America’s rise to the leading world power
- Jane Austen publishes ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – one of the most beloved works of fiction ever written
- Charles Dickens publishes ‘Oliver Twist’ (“please sir, can I have some more?”)
- Charles Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’ – one of the most influential pieces of science writing ever published
- Gregor Mendel discovers the law of ‘independent assortment’ in genetics – one of the most important discoveries in scientific history
- The discovery of Antarctica
- The death of Napoleon Bonaparte and Beethoven
- The end of the Spanish Inquisition
- Sir Richard Owen coins the term ‘dinosaur’
- The samurai order in Japan is officially dissolved
- The invention of the telephone and the lightbulb (seriously, if you thought the internet was a big deal, it has nothing on this!)
- Wyatt Earp and the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corall
- Mark Twain publishes ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ – one of the most famous and controvertial books ever written
- The commercialisation of the automobile
- The statue of Liberty
- The Eiffel Tower
- Arthur Conan Doyle publishes ‘Sherlock Holmes’
- The unofficial end of the American ‘Wild West’
- The Cardboard box (wait… someone had to invent this?)
- The Electric Chair
- The First international test Cricket match (England vs Australia)
- The emergence of popular science fiction (Jules Verne and H. G. Wells)
- Several horrendous famines which kill collectively, well over 30M people in India and other countries
For Christianity, the 19th Century was a time of many ups and downs, of massive and enthusiastic revivals.
The world was changing… fast.
Christianity was, and still is, in the tricky situation of learning how to change with a changing world, but not in a way that undermines the basic message of Christianity.
Many different ideas within Christianity were birthed during the 1800’s. It was a time of great awakenings, and revivals.
It was a time when many were concerned that Mainline denominations were abandoning the Bible and a solid faith, grounded in objective truth.
Many believed it was trying too hard to assimilate into the current explosion of science and technology; favouring humanistic reason and natural materialism, at the expense of trusting the Bible and God alone as our source of objective truth.
Others did not see that Christianity and science were at odds, but rather, complemented one another.
Still others were concerned with Christianity’s lack of enthusiasm. Old Christian institutions were being labeled by some as stagnant and lacking the fervour of first century Christianity. Many sought a more vibrant faith, one that more closely represented first century Christianity (not unlike the radical reformers during The Reformation).
One particular movement is known as the restorationist movement.
The Restoration Movement was an attempt to ‘restore’ Christianity to its apostolic roots (the formation of the Church in the first century AD).
The history is a patchwork movement where similar ideas independently propped in various times and places, around the turn of the 19th century.
- James O’Kelly of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793
- 1802 the Baptists in New England led by Abner Jones and Elias Smith
- 1804 Kentucky Presbyterians led by Barton W. Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell West Virginia 1809
All these men, and more, sought to restore unity in the Church, believing that denominations and creeds were too divisive. They eventually came to be known simply as ‘Christians’, or ‘disciples of Christ’.
The movement gained traction and spread rapidly across the US, and then worldwide.
The largest surviving groups of this movement today have names like Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ.
The CoC mission is a restoration of the original Church the way it was at the formation of the Church at Pentecost.
CoC Churches are mostly autonomous, with little to no formal denominational oversight.
Churches of Christ organisational structure is highly independent leading to an extremely diverse array of varying beliefs and practices, especially in the United States.
Most Churches of Christ Churches take a non-creedal stance. Other common practices include:
- No musical instruments in worship
- No formal ‘creeds’ or ‘doctrines’
- Reject denominational designation (as opposed to more modern Churches which are classed as non-denominational)
- Generally practice full immersion baptism
- Weekly communion
In Australia there is a national council (council of Churches of Christ in Australia) which coordinates correspondence and representation at the national and international level with, for example, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and the World Conference.
There are also state level councils which provide representation for the states, and administer at the state level, for example in collaboration with state Governments.
Otherwise Australian CoC Churches also maintain a high degree of autonomy on specific theological and social issues.
What CoC believe
Despite the high level of autonomy, and non-creedal stance, Churches of Christ Churches for the most part adhere to all the central points of historical Christianity, given especially their conviction to practise Church and the Christian life in accordance with the New Testament.
Relationship to other Denominations
Churches of Christ are highly autonomous, and are firm anti-creedalists. Despite this they still acknowledge the majority of the major protestant beliefs that are detailed in the early Christian creeds, especially the trinity and the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – 700k
- Churches of Christ – 1.6M
- Christian Churches and Churches of Christ – 1M (Where do they come up with these names?)
- Churches of Christ (UK)
- CoC England
- CoC Wales
- CoC Scotland
- CoC Northern Ireland
- CoC Republic of Ireland (one Church in Dublin)
- Churches of Christ (Australia)
- CoC Queensland
- CoC South Australia/Northern Territory
- CoC New South Wales
- CoC Victoria/Tasmania
- CoC Western Australia
Individual Churches are mostly autonomous, and trace their roots to the restoration movement in the US.
Resources for digging deeper
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Romans 12:10-13 – via Bible Gateway
The Salvation Army is a Christian denomination with a Military inspired heritage and structure. Their core ethos is to preach the Gospel and help anyone who needs it without discrimination.
Booth was dictating a letter to his secretary, George Scott Railton (his faithful associate for 48 years), and said, “We are a volunteer army.” Bramwell, his son, heard his father and said, “Volunteer, I’m no volunteer, I’m a regular!” Railton was instructed to cross out the word volunteer and substitute the word, salvation. Soon they were tagged, “Soap, Soup and Salvation Army.” – The Gospel Truth
The Salvation Army to me, brings to mind the image of a thrift store full of bargains, and a white uniform with a red shield emblazoned on it. It’s true the Salvation Army is very strongly associated with active community services and help.
They are also a well defined denomination within Christianity with Churches that gather regularly on Sunday, just like all other Christian denominations.
Founded in 1865, on July 2nd, by William Booth.
Booth was a Wesleyan minister and he began by preaching to the poor and underprivileged. Both he and his wife were talented preachers, and his wife an ardent advocate of women’s rights to ordainment and preaching.
They exploded. Before the close of the 19th Century the Salvation Army had already expanded to Ireland, the US and Australia.
Scott Railton began working at Henry Hills Variety theatre in the United States on the 14th March 1880. They made a name for themselves early on by rehabilitating a known drunk ‘Ashbarrel Jimmie’.
The first Salvation Army meeting in Australia, was held in Adelaide, in 1880 led by Edward Saunders and John Gore. By 1883, they had set up a home for ex-convicts.
Today, the Salvation Army is working in over 130 countries, and was listed #4 largest U.S. Charity on the Forbes 100 Largest Charities list in 2019.
This put them ahead of giants like the Red Cross, YMCA, Compassion, World Vision and UNICEF, just to name a few.
The Salvation Army, unsurprisingly, has an enourmous emphasis on helps and services to the community.
“The Salvation Army is a place of hope. When every other light is extinguished, and every other star has gone down, this one gleam shines steadily and clearly out in the darkened sky: ‘if I could only get to The Salvation Army, they will do something for me.'” – William Booth
Despite this they maintain a plain biblical teaching.
There is a strong undercurrent of social justice. They make frequent references to help in the community without discrimination. Booth’s wife and loyal supporter was a champion for women’s rights, and was instrumental in passing laws specifically in service to helping women and girls.
The Salvation Army is Wesleyan-Arminian in their theology and tradition, however they do not practice communion or baptism. They believe the Christian should be focussed on the inner work of Grace, not outward expressions.
Musical Instruments are definitely not prohibited. In fact, musical instruments were first used as means to help stave off some of the persecution experienced in their early days. Since then brass bands have been adopted as an integral part of the Salvation Army Church life with their own uniforms and epaulets.
Perhaps the most interesting feature that characterises the Salvation Army (besides their enormous amount of charity work), is the use of a military style structure to their organisation. Church heirarchy is given military titles such as Lieutenant, Captain and Major (or the equivalent for a given country).
Another simple mnemonic that they adopted was the three S’s – Soup, Soap and Salvation, to describe their mission and evangelism strategy.
“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church.
Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God.
Its mission is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”
Services offered Worldwide
- Disaster relief
- Quality of life
- Youth services
- Community services
- Assistance to the:
- Drug and alcohol addicts
What Salvation Army believe
Salvation Army are a self described evangelical Christian movement, devoted to helping the poor and infirm.
They affirm all of the standard Christian doctrines, but do not practise baptism or communion.
Their mode of enlistment into a volunteer service, entered into for life can be thought of as somewhat of a substitute for baptism, in that it exercises essentially the same outward expression of faith and commitment.
Those wishing to join the Salvation Army as members are required to adhere to the soldiers covenant.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
The Salvation Army is an organised, worldwide Church and charity organisation with its international headquarters in London. The current leader (as at April 2020) of the organisation is General Brian Peddle, the 21st leader of the Global Salvation Army. He took office in August 2018.
So far as I am aware they are a unified denomination in terms of their beliefs, their organisational chain of command, and their mission statement.
Relationship to other Denominations
The Salvation Army adheres plainly to all the main creeds of traditional protestantism, with perhaps more emphasis on the need for committed obedience over the life of the believer.
Resources for digging deeper
If you google search ‘Salvation Army’, you’ll be inundated with literally dozens upon dozens of official Salvation Army websites from across the world in your search results.
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
Acts 19:6 – via Bible Gateway
Pentecostals are right out on the highest end of the spectrum, in terms of the revivalism that shaped the 19th Century. They take their name from their conviction that the Acts of the apostles, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of pentecost is how the Church can, and should, be operating today.
Pentecostals are the most outward proponents of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially healing, the gift of prophecy, and speaking in tongues.
Pentecostals charismatic and highly experiential mode of worship has influenced major portions of the Christian Church, and the fruit of their unquenchable enthusiasm can be felt throughout Christendom today even amongst more conservative denominations.
Much of contemporary Christianity and enthusiasm has been heavily inspired and influenced by the fervency of pentecostal Christianity.
Pentecostalism is one of the most recent major denominations of Christianity to find its roots.
It began in the early 20th Century in the United States of America, and its popularity exploded due to its irreverent, charismatic gatherings characterised by large, energetic, extended worship services and a large degree of freedom of expression.
Charles Fox Parham was a teacher at Bethel Bible College, where the first instance of speaking in tongues was recorded. The movement quickly spread to Houston, Texas.
William J Seymore, a student of Charles Fox Parham led the Azuza St Revival in Los Angeles. He was the first to advocate that speaking in tongues was the surest evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Initially the Pentecostal Movement was met with significant backlash from the mainline US denominations, and so the majority of pentecostal believers were forced to separate, and form their own denomination.
Over time however, the spark of pentecostal enthusiasm continued to spread. It’s popularity continued to grow, and by the mid 20th Century pentecostal beliefs had made their way into other denominations, especially the Roman Catholic Church.
But nowhere has seen more growth than in other countries such as Latin America and especially Africa.
The defining characteristic of Pentecostals is their teaching that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a secondary experience that follows salvation, and is necessary (or at least highly conducive) to empower the believer to be highly effective in their ministry.
This is an extension of the ‘holiness’ movements idea of a second work of grace.
From this fundamental doctrine Pentecostals derive a number of subsequent beliefs which are more or less dependant on this. Most importantly is the role of the ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ and how they are expressed today, especially the gifts of ‘tongues’, ‘healing’ and ‘prophecy’.
For the vast majority of pentecostals, the gift of ‘speaking in tongues’, is interpreted as the ability to speak in a ‘heavenly language’ unintelligible to humans, but is communicated through the Holy Spirit for the ‘edification of the believer‘, and the building up of the Church.
However many also acknowledge the gift as describing the phenomenon of individuals spontaneously speaking in a known human language the given individual has never heard, or learned.
This is consistent with how the gift was manifested by Peter on the day of Pentecost.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance…
6 And at this sound the multitude came together… 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?
Acts 2:4-7 – via Bible Gateway
Furthermore, there is an enormous variety of interpretations of the Spiritual Gifts, even within pentecostalism/charismatic Christianity.
Besides this, significant portions of pentecostal Christianity are known for other ‘signs and wonders’, including commonly a phenomenon known as ‘being slain in the Spirit’, which involves an individual involuntarily exhibiting some outburst of behaviour, which can be anything from convulsions, to bursts of laughter, or abundant and outward feelings of immense joy and ecstasy.
Countless reports exist of a large variety of other miraculous phenomena, including countless miraculous healings of a large variety.
What Pentecostals believe
Many pentecostals traditionally view speaking in tongues as the first evidence of being ‘baptised by the Holy Spirit’, and argue that the gift is freely available to all who earnestly seek it.
Others are more conservative, and adhere to Pauls admonition in 1 Corinthians 12 that the gifts are distributed among the believers at the Holy Spirits discretion, all are given a gift, but tongues is only one of a number of possible gifts.
Other gifts of the spirit include the gift of healing, prophecy, interpretation, teaching, apostleship, helps/service, understanding/wisdom, and more.
Many pentecostals believe that there is a special gift of healing given to some, but that all Christians can pray for healing and miracles.
In general, virtually all Christians accept that anyone can call on Jesus Christ, and pray for healing and wellness. But the belief that the ‘gift of healing’ especially exists as a ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’ and is still active today is unique to Pentecostals.
Some believe further that God is willing to heal (literally) anyone, and everyone who prays for it, and that failure to see healing is based on some other factor, such a lack of faith.
Another important aspect of Pentecostal theology is that of prophecy. This can take many forms, but in general is manifest as a particular ‘word’ for either a congregation, an individual believer, or sometimes even directed toward entire geographic regions, or whole countries.
As these beliefs move further toward the extreme end of the spectrum, there are many who identify themselves as anointed prophets or prophetesses of God.
Many also believe that any Christian can be moved by the Spirit to prophesy if they seek it out.
Prophecy, in the typical pentecostal sense is believed to be a direct imparting of special knowledge from God, prompted by the Holy Spirit.
In the many years I have studied and engaged with pentecostals I see no universal agreement about whether this special knowledge is considered as equal in authority to the Bible or not.
In general, most would argue that it does not take the place of the Bible, nor is it to be interpreted independently of it. However, there is an enormous variety of individual beliefs across the pentecostal spectrum.
It’s easy to see how the idea of extra revelation, and highly experientially focussed modes of worship can lead to groups who push the boundaries of traditional Christian belief.
Some major pentecostal Churches, like Bethel for instance have stirred controversy for some of their more extreme practices, for example the bizarre and recent phenomenon known as ‘grave sucking’.
Besides their views on the baptism, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals in general hold to the same fundamental historic Christian doctrines, as the majority of other protestants. However, the ecstatic appeal of many areas of pentecostal practise may have a tendency to overpower the more biblical and straightforward aspects of the Gospel.
Thus, while on paper, pentecostals assert that the Word of God is above all, and that prophecy and tongues are not equal with scripture, everyday experience and practise of pentecostals sometimes suggests otherwise.
The challenge of pentecostalism (explained well by GotQuestions) is the excitement, and euphoric experiences can be so attractive to those seeking it, that it’s value and importance subverts the importance of the Word of God, living a holy life and speaking the truth in love.
As a result adherents become addicted to the point where their desire to recapture the euphoria of these ecstatic experiences leads them into a constant pursuit of the absurd as the effect becomes increasingly difficult to replicate. This ultimately pushes these ‘experience addicts’ dangerously close to heresy.
All that being said, pentecostalism is well known for its vibrance, its enthusiasm and its appeal. The vast majority of pentecostals are loving, joyful, enthusiastic and sincere followers of Jesus Christ who put the Bible as their sole authority of faith and practise, as sincerely as any other red-blooded protestant.
Many individuals within the pentecostal/Charismatic Movement have been hugely successful in their major missionary campaigns, especially in third world nations.
Perhaps the most prominent example is the late Reinhard Bonnke, who is regarded today as “Africa’s Billy Graham”.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
- Pentecostal World Fellowship
- Assemblies of God – 2.8M
- Calvary Chapel – 500k
- Church of God – 1M
- Church of God in Christ – 5.5M
- International Church of the Foursquare Gospel – 350k
- International Pentecostal Holiness Church – 250k
- Vineyard Churches international – 150k
- Assemblies of God in Great Britain
- Australian Christian Churches
Hillsong is a flipping gargantuan Church.
It was founded by Brian and Bobby Houston in Australia in the 70’s.
Now with an estimated 130k members, Hillsong runs toe-to-toe with some of the largest mega-Churches in the US, with an international presence that spans the entire globe.
Though closely affiliated with Australian Christian Churches, Hillsong recently became fully independent.
The Church is singularly run by founder and senior pastor Brian Houston and his wife and co-founder Bobby Houston.
Hillsong are world famous for their contemporary Church culture and worship music which is heard and listened to by Churches of all but the most conservative denominations across the globe.
Hillsong’s statement of faith clearly identifies them as pentecostal in their theology.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Pentecostalism is huge. One of, if not, the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the world, with the possible exception of the Anglican Communion (note the discrepancy in my Pie chart).
Relationship to other Denominations
Pentecostals views on the Holy Spirit and the gifts, especially tongues, are quite unorthodox compared to the majority of traditional Christian Theology.
However, they hold to all the essential doctrines of historical protestantism and for the most part have been responsible for some of the most extensive growth of the Christian Church throughout the 20th century, and continue to be characterised by their infectious enthusiasm, their contemporary music, and their heart for missions worldwide.
Resources for digging deeper
The Wikipedia article on Pentecostalism is surprisingly good and reads as if it was written by a pentecostal.
Uniting Church (Australia)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 – via Bible Gateway
‘Uniting’ Churches are less of a ‘denomination’ and more of an idea. This idea is very self explanatory.
A united Church is a formal union between two or more protestant denominations becoming one. However, a prominent example of a specific denomination under the banner of a ‘uniting’ Church is the Uniting Church in Australia.
In 1977, in Australia there formed a ‘union’ of Presbyterian, congregationalist and methodist Churches. This makes them, so far as I am aware, the most recently established large-scale Christian denomination in existence.
The Uniting Church of Australia exists only in Australia (duh), but very many ‘uniting’ Churches exist elsewhere in the world.
The uniting Church in Australia are big on service and helps. They are the largest organisation besides the Government to provide community services, including health care, aged care nursing, youth work, the works. If there’s someone in need, there’s probably a service in the Uniting Church organisation doing something to help (this is pretty well true of most major denominations TBH).
They are the third largest denomination in Australia behind Catholics and Anglicans. That makes them larger than the ACC, and the Baptists.
All united Churches, not surprisingly, emphasise a strong ecumenical spirit. This is seen not just within the union itself, but also in its relationship with other Churches across the landscape.
Another distinguishing feature is their strong position on many modern social justice issues, in Australia in particular with regards to Aboriginal reconciliation, asylum seekers, religious intolerance and welfare.
For a Church with a distinct focus on unity to be successful amidst potentially conflicting original doctrines, there must be a strong culture of diversity and inclusivity. Naturally, the uniting Church is a lot more relaxed in its administration of specific doctrines and practices.
Organisationally, necessarily, the Church has a fairly Presbyterian structure, but individual Churches can vary significantly in their style of worship, order of service or doctrines.
This is the local level of the Church. The Uniting Church is proudly diverse in the modes of worship within local congregations.
“There are congregations that have existed for many years and new and very different ones – café style Churches, groups that find it better to worship on Wednesdays than Sundays”
These are the organising council for a geographic region. They are responsible for ordaining ministers and pastors, and for overseeing the general responsibilities of the Church in that region.
There are six synods which represent the Uniting Church at the state level.
The General Assembly is the national head of the Church with a president, and General secretary who oversee’s the Church nationwide.
What United Churches believe
The United Church generally adheres to the main points of historical Christianity.
Besides this there is a strong emphasis on welfare, dignity, equality and wellbeing of individual humans.
On modern social issues the Uniting Church is more liberal in their views on issues such as same-sex marriage.
Relationship to other Denominations
Uniting Churches have a strong ecumenical spirit, however their liberal stance on some social justice issues is not met with the same enthusiasm in more evangelical and conservative Christian Denominations.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
The Uniting Church in Australia in a unified Church body with a National Assembly.
Uniting Churches around the world most likely are similar, in that the key feature of these Churches and organisations is unity within the governing body.
Distinctly independent denominational bodies seems contrary to the overarching goal of a united movement.
Resources for digging deeper
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV) – via Bible Gateway
So if you’ve managed to get this far in the post in a single sitting, then you have my congratulations.
But you may also be noticing that across denominations there are significant similarities.
Many denominations are known for something specific.
For example, Baptists are known for their emphasis on ‘believers baptism’ and ‘full immersion’ which means baptism is jumping into a swimming pool, as opposed to sprinkling water on someone’s head.
Yet, you’ve probably noticed many other denominations seem to believe essentially the same thing. You could be forgiven for thinking that some differences seem trivial, even kind of imaginary.
For a lot of people Christian denominations are seen as divisive and sectarian; denominations hold Christians back from the truly united ideal they envision in New Testament Christianity.
As the the idea of different Christian denominations in the 20th Century emerged in recent years as something to be ashamed of, an increasing number of Churches have popped up and formed independent congregations.
These Churches are not associated with any established denominations and, as a result, have proven to be extremely popular.
Many non-denominational Churches represent some of the largest mega-Churches in the United States, with multiple ‘campuses’ spread across the country.
The idea of non-denominational Churches needs to be distinguished from more traditional ‘undenominational’ Churches (like Brethren, or CoC) who typically have their roots in anti-creedalism. Modern non-denominational Churches are motivated more by a desire for independence from some organisational body or higher authority (other than God).
This independence gives them freedom to innovate, and to be able to adapt and respond quickly to a changing culture. For this reason non-denominational Churches tend to be quite popular. They are not shackled by tradition or complicated confessions.
Bruce Shelley, in Church History argues for four main reasons non-denominational Churches have been so attractive, especially to younger generations:
- The lack of a denominational tie means these Churches do not have the difficult challenge of explaining to young people why they should be interested in centuries old religious confessions or creeds. They adopt inclusive, welcoming titles like ‘community Church’ that send a message that you are welcome here
- Their often energetic, contemporary style of worship and order of service
- A talented and commanding preacher who is well spoken and likeable. Many non-denominational Churches are most recognisable by their senior pastor. These pastors often preach a message that is very applicable to our everyday lives and experiences
- These Churches are often extremely well organised, and high quality in everything from the runtime, to the building itself. Non-denominational Churches are often very clean, large, new buildings with many extras – groups and weekly activities of every imagining, many have professional on-site cafe’s, child care facilities, enormous car parks, and many paid staff, especially ushers who aid newcomers in navigating their enormous campuses
There is I think, another reason that these Churches are so popular, and that is the widespread appeal of their teachings.
Modern non-denominational Churches have adopted a style of Church and worship which has placed emphasis on simple, digestible matters of the Christian Faith which don’t rouse significant disagreement or controversy amongst Christians.
Their message is generally quite simple, the world needs to know the ‘love of Jesus’. Which is a good message. But it leaves a lot to the imagination.
One issue I have is that non-denominational, all too often ends up being a synonym for non-offensive.
One reason that different Church denominations exist, is because whilst the essential doctrines of Christianity are relatively straightforward, some of the Bible is more challenging.
Not only that but denominations can arise over the emphasis of certain doctrines over others, or what parts are more important.
In other words, if your Church prides itself in being non-denominational, it’s probably because that Church theologically detours around the dirty details and nuance of Christian theology.
What Non-Denominational Churches believe
The paradox of being a Church independent of a traditional denomination, is that while you’re at liberty to emphasise your trust in the Bible alone as God’s Word, it also affords substantial creative license in the development of your individual Churches beliefs.
With no doctrinal standards, or centuries of theological elaboration, modern independent Churches are at liberty, to take as many liberties as they like with God’s Word.
That being said, most non-denominational Churches accept and preach the main historic beliefs of Protestant Christianity.
Due to their more energetic style of worship and living, non-denominational Churches are also often very attractive to individuals who lean more toward a charismatic/pentecostal faith, with the large, concert style worship sessions being an opportunity for those seeking a more experiential style of worship.
Major Sub-Denominations or Branches
Hopefully its obvious that there are no sub-groups, as each individual Church enjoys absolute autonomy by design.
However, some of the larger non-denominational ‘mega-Churches’ are notable, simply for their size.
Remember these are individual Churches, not whole denominations!
Life.Church – the senior pastor is Craig ‘guns’ Groeschelle, multiple campuses, 53k average weekly attendance
Church of the Highlands – senior pastor is Chris Hodges, 52k average weekly attendance
Lakewood Church – senior pastor is Joel Osteen, 43k average weekly attendance
North Point Community Church – senior pastor is Andy Stanley, 38k average weekly attendance
And many, many more
Relationship to other Denominations
There is no shortage of mega Church pastors who have got themselves in hot water over something they said. Many of these guys are hugely wealthy, and they have a large financial incentive to say things that are pleasing to a mass audience.
However, for the most part, these Churches are Christian Churches, which teach Christianity, and generally speaking most Christian denominations would not exclude them from Protestant Christianity, not officially at least.
But beware that these Churches are fantastically wealthy, and are more or less obligated to justify their wealth using scripture, one of the many things that regularly get them in hot water. This often pushes them close to an idea known as the ‘prosperity Gosel’ (see below).
Resources for digging deeper
See the associated links above for more information on the individual Churches.
So that pretty much wraps up our section on traditional Christian denominations. But we’re not done yet.
An important component of understanding Christian denominations, is knowing where to draw the line.
So to wrap up this introductory guide, I want to cover two more basic religious groups. The first is a series of movements, or denominations which are right on the outskirts of legitimate Christianity.
They do, at least in theory, adopt traditional Christian theology on the fundamental points. However they have adopted certain practices or views which put them more at odds with mainstream Christianity. For example having some teaching which is, whilst not a fundamental belief, clearly not what the Bible teaches, or is based on some questionable interpretation of the Bible.
Then we’ll finish up by looking at some of the most common and recognisable religious groups who are universally regarded as non-Christian, by all traditional Christian groups, and we’ll talk about why they don’t make the cut.
The following are a list of a few groups which are considered more on the fringe of Christian orthodoxy and are commonly regarded as not true Christianity by large groups within more mainstream protestant denominations (especially more conservative, or evangelical denominations) and Catholicism.
There are no doubt many more than what I’ve listed here, but the following are quite prominent and well-known, especially within Christianity.
In no particular order…
Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel
The hard part about the line between true Christians, and cults, heresies and charlatans, is that it can be kind of blurry (I know many of my brothers would disagree, but just throw me a bone here, OK).
I’m pushing my luck by not calling out the prosperity Gospel as a straight up heresy. But I want to emphasise that prosperity Gospel teachers, so far as I am aware still teach the fundamentals of the Christian faith, at least in theory.
The prosperity gospel has been given multiple names including, ‘the Charismatic Movement’, ‘the health and wealth gospel’, ‘name and claim it’, and others, but this movement is simply based on two overarching, but related ideas.
This movement teaches that, apart from salvation and heaven, God will give us abundant blessings both for:
… if we have enough faith.
More importantly, is that most of the leaders of this movement have been able to amass their stupendous fortunes by promising healing and prophetic words for their followers in exchange for an admission ticket, or in the form of donations because:
‘with what you generously give, God will repay even more’.
Leaders of the word of faith movement have made a name for themselves for their extremely charismatic (there’s that word!) and commanding personalities.
One of the most famous faith healers alive is Benny Hinn. Benny Hinn is an infamous prosperity/word of faith preacher who has been running massive healing crusades for many years where he has claimed to be able to heal, and perform other bizarre miracles.
Benny Hinn has been the subject of multiple investigations, and accusations of fraud on the basis of frequent testimonies of alleged ‘healings’ going into recession. There have been reports that genuinely ill persons (especially with physical, visible ailments) are sidelined and refused to go on stage, or are not permitted entry.
Costi Hinn (Benny Hinn’s nephew) has recently become very active in the evangelical community. He wrote a book exposing many of the shady practices of Benny Hinn’s ministry, of which he has first hand knowledge having been a part of Benny’s ministry for most of his childhood.
Here’s just a shortlist of some of the most well-known prosperity teachers of the 20th century.
- Robert Tilton – ran Success-N-Life infomercials. He was known for making huge appeals and asking for ‘pledges’ for Gods blessing. Pledges came in the form of donations to his ministry. His donors were routinely promised that God would provide large financial wealth and prosperity on account of their generosity.
- Joyce Meyers – A fantastically rich lady who is a household name amongst women’s Bible study groups the world over. She is often criticised for preaching little more than ‘self-help’ messages wrapped in Christian cellophane.
- T.D. Jakes – T.D. Jakes is also a oneness pentecostal so far as I am aware. Oneness pentecostalism is a very serious heretical doctrine which denies the trinity (see below).
- Creflo Dollar – televangelist, speaker, musician and founder/senior pastor of World Changers Church International
- Kenneth Copeland – televangelist, and one of the oldest heavyweights in the prosperity movement, multi millionaire and particularly notorious for his ‘give and it will be given’ mentality including recently imploring Churchgoers to continue tithing, even as they lost their jobs on account of the coronavirus lockdown
- Oral Roberts – One of the most influential televangelists of all time. A ministry which was surpassed only by Billy Graham. Appealed to millions for money to open a hospital claimed God told him to do it, that he had to raise 8M (provided two separate dates in two separate instances) otherwise he would… die basically. He raised the money, built the centre, and it was closed after only nine years. Embroiled in controversy, he was sued for fraud by a number of patients admitted there.
The prosperity gospel has close ties to pentecostalism, although many pentecostals reject the prosperity gospel.
Seventh Day Adventists
Seventh Day Adventists grew out of the ‘Second Great Awakening’ of the 19th Century. The group was founded by William Miller, in the 1830’s.
Miller considered himself a prophet of God, but he turned out to be very wrong. Miller surmised that Christ was returning in 1844, based on his understanding of Daniel 8:14:
He said to me, “For 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the holy place will be properly restored.” – via Bible Gateway
He quickly gained a large, devout following who lived with fervent expectation for the return of Christ.
As you might have guessed, it didn’t happen. This led to what’s known as ‘the Great Disappointment’.
- Accept the infallibility of the Bible
- Believe in the trinity (but their history is controversial, they didn’t always).
- They have a statement of beliefs which appears to be basically in line with Christianity
- Have about 20 Million Members worldwide
By far their most distinguishing beliefs today are:
- The imminent return of Christ (Advent) which, for what it’s worth, is not particularly distinct from traditional protestant theology.
The key point though is their emphasis on the ‘imminence’, which seems to be a throwback from their original belief in Christ’s return in 1844.
They (very sensibly) don’t set any specific date, but are generally expecting Christ’s return ‘any minute now’.
Other protestants put less emphasis on the ‘when’ of Christ’s return and more on the ‘readiness’. The Bible clearly explains that Christ will come ‘like a thief in the night’, and no one will know, until it happens (then everyone will know at once).
- There adherence to the ‘sabbath’ day of rest (Saturday, the seventh day of the week), as opposed to Sunday, which other Christians tend to associate with Christ’s resurrection
There are several issues with the Adventist Church:
- Their initial rejection of the trinity, which appeared to be adopted later, in an effort to maintain orthodoxy with traditional Christianity
- The denomination was entirely born out of the teachings of a demonstrated false prophet (Ellen White, moreso than William Miller), and still holds them in high regard
- Their belief that something specific did happen in 1844, if not the second-coming of Christ. This seems to be an attempt to save face in the presence of a blatant falsehood.
- The movement was kicked along by the desperate attempts to salvage a false prophecy by advocating for even more spurious and unverifiable nonsense.
A warning, in my opinion to any would be believers in modern, extra biblical revelation and prophecy. Prophecy ought to be completely verifiable, and when it’s not verified, the teacher is either labeled false, or they’re forced to delve further into their deceptions by appealing to increasingly speculative claims.
- The legalistic nature of their doctrines. For example their adherence to the ‘sabbath’, and their insistence on ‘healthy eating’
This movement started with George Fox in the 17th century. Dissatisfied with Christianity as it was, Fox sought an ‘authentic Christianity’.
After much soul searching (but apparently not much Bible study) Fox claimed a direct encounter with Christ.
Fox’s followers first gathered into an organised meeting in 1667, which became regular meetings.
From this time on the Church grew.
Like so many others, Fox’s followers also experienced persecution both in Europe, and when they first emigrated to the US.
Quakers believe that all humans possess an inner light. Those who are receptive, and earnestly seek God’s prompting can hear directly from him.
This is their mode of ministry in the Church, where individuals share and speak as the Holy Spirit enables them.
Quakers are distinguished by a number of characteristics too:
- Men and women ought to seek out God, and respond to His prompting, and they will receive more ‘light’
- God can speak directly to the heart of a believer
- Strong anti-slavery stance (commendable)
- Gifts of the Holy Spirit – as guided by the inner light
- Simple living and dress
- No paid clergy, unstructured, spontaneous style of worship
- No sacraments
- Belief that ‘God is in everyone’
- Very open to a variety of experiences and personal beliefs
Frankly, this denomination is really pushing it. I was really tempted to include them in the collection of heresies (see below).
There are some communities which clearly identify themselves as quakers, and associate their history with the history of quakerism but are unashamedly not Christian (most notably the Australian and the British/UK branches).
Many of their official websites core statements expresses their belief “that God is in everyone”, which is at best, a very vague reference to the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, at worst is blatantly heretical.
Many of these same websites are conspicuously vague about the nature of God, and many go further and say that large swaths of their congregations do not believe in God, and are at most ‘deistic’.
However, there is still a core in this denomination which believes in the Christian God, and accepts the fundamentals of Christian belief, even if they are extremely open minded, and have an unorthodox method of worship, to say the least.
Heresies and Cults
It’s kind of a shame that the last subject of this post is the cults. It means that it’s the last thing you’ll remember from this post. But it is what it is.
Heresies tend to share a couple of important characteristics:
- They generally consider themselves ‘Christian’ denominations, or at least, they adopt the use of the term Christian because it serves a useful evangelistic purpose
- They all deny at least one of the established, critical doctrines of Christianity, most often the doctrine of the trinity, or the divinity of Jesus Christ
- They were all established no earlier than the 19th Century
- Typically either humans are elevated in some way to some level of higher spiritual authority, or God (or Jesus Christ) is cast down to something less than all-powerful, eternal and everlasting
- In general, each one individually considers itself the only ‘true’ denomination, and regard other groups not within their purview to be false religions
- Along the same vein, All of them are considered by all traditional Christian denominations as cults or heresies
Another interesting characteristic is these groups often make their deeper spiritual beliefs and practices more obscure and difficult to discover for the general public, preferring to present a more simplistic view which is less distinguishable from Christianity.
In order to see more clearly why they are not Christian requires a more persistent analysis of their core doctrines which can be a (deliberately?) difficult task
Non-Trinitarian Denominations (Including Oneness Pentecostals)
The doctrine of the trinity is, despite being one of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, also one of the most controversial.
It is controversial in the sense that it doesn’t anywhere appear directly in the Bible.
Nowhere does it say explicitly that God is a ‘trinity’, and nowhere does it say that God is ‘three persons’ (with the possible exception of the grammatical self-references of God as a ‘plural’ entity. eg. “let us make man in our image” – Genesis 1:26).
However, the Bible does multiple times over make clear references that “the father is God”, and that “Jesus Christ, the son, is God”, and the “Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son”, and never, anywhere, ever makes any reference to anyone else, being God.
Scripture makes clear and unambiguous that the Father is distinct from the Son, and the Holy Spirit is also distinct from the Father and the Son.
It’s also controversial because, despite not being explicit, it’s considered a ‘salvation issue’, that is, to deny the trinity is heresy, and you are not a true Christian.
This is a belief which has remained universally accepted by Christians, Catholics and Greek Orthodox since the time of Christ. Essentially, to deny the trinity is to deny the deity of one or more of the triune Godhead (most often Jesus Christ and/or the Holy Spirit) or to envision them as ‘modes’ of one God, which ignores their uniqueness and agency.
The doctrine of the trinity was formulated early in Christian history in order to combat the influence of these ‘heresies’ that denied the deity of Christ and/or the Holy Spirit.
Without going into an entire blog post length discussion about the trinity, suffice to say, it’s a really big deal. If you deny the trinity, no matter how similar any other beliefs are, you are not a Christian. It’s that simple.
Many Christian denominations argue vehemently about the relationship between grace, and works, and faith, and all that. Predestination vs arminianism. Pacifism vs Just Holy War, communion, baptism, gifts of the Spirit, you name it, there will be two denominations which disagree.
But the one thing all denominations agree on, is the trinity. To deny this gets you out of the club, quick smart.
The doctrine of the trinity may be wrong, sure. But if that’s true then Christianity is just a false religion.
But what can never be true is that you can be Christian, and be non-trinitarian.
That, is a contradiction by definition.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, is a significant Church started by Joseph Smith in the 19th Century, in New York City.
According to legend, way back in the 4th Century (around the time the canon of the Bible was being formalised), an angel named ‘Mormon’ wrote a ‘sacred’ book on golden plates (which is absolutely the most normal and sensible material you would use to inscribe a large amount of religious text).
The angel Mormon buried this book in what is now modern day New York (an incredible coincidence) where it remained for almost two thousand years.
Then in 1822 the angel’s son (also an angel), came to a man named Joseph Smith, in a vision and told him about the sacred writings.
The angel wanted Smith to translate the book.
Smith allegedly discovered the book in 1827, and immediately set about translating (with the help of God) the text of the golden plates into English. This translation was published in 1830.
Mormonism grew quickly, but was also heavily persecuted. Sadly, Joseph Smith and his brother were jailed, and eventually murdered whilst in prison.
Brigham Young quickly succeeded Smith, shepherded in many of the remaining Mormon’s and eventually migrated them to Utah where they founded (seriously!) Salt Lake City – I’m sure this is common knowledge in Utah.
It is from this home base that Mormonism grew steadily into the 16 million strong membership that it is today.
According the Mormon faith, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible are both equally divine and authoritative, however the Book of Mormon is essentially ‘higher’ than the Bible in that it contains corrections and ‘higher’ truths.
Mormons also hold two other texts as equal in authority with the Bible and the Book of Mormon:
- Doctrine and Covenants – rolling release updates to Christian doctrine
- The Pearl of Great Price (which adds to and clarifies points which were ‘lost’ from the Bible)
These writings are elevated to the same level of authority as the Bible because they were written by ‘prophets’ (mostly they were written by Joseph Smith) and believed to be divinely inspired.
Smith believed that Mormonism was the restoration of ‘true’ Christianity, and that all other denominations had gone astray.
There are several issues that exclude Mormonism as a legitimate Christian denomination (don’t worry, the irony is not lost).
They have a number of beliefs which are clearly not taught in the Bible, and are particularly serious:
- They believe that God the Father was once a man
- That Jesus and Satan are brothers (i.e. Jesus is not eternal, omniscient, a member of the trinity)
- That the Bible contains significant errors
The problem with this is that the only real basis for trusting in the God of the Bible, is in having confidence that His word is true.
If the Bible contains errors, then why should we bother to trust it at all?
And why should we then bother to trust the word of a man who followed Jesus by almost 2000 years, and claimed that his book was the correct one, and fixed all the problems in the Bible?
The Book of Mormon logically undermines its own authority, by undermining the Bible’s.
More info: LDS Church official website
I want to point out that, despite my sarcasm, I do not mean any ill-will towards individual Mormons. I am aquainted with at least one person who is a member of the LDS Church, whom I know to be a really nice (and very intelligent) person.
Just because I believe that the LDS Church is not a Christian Church, does not mean I think they are bad, or weird. The challenge is that they believe they are, but the rest of Christianity doesn’t, and the Bible agrees.
The defining characteristic of the fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the latter day saints, is polygamy.
Since 1890, mainstream Mormons formally rejected polygamy as a practise and today, in general, any Mormon believers who practise polygamy are excommunicated from the Church (with extreme prejudice! … probably).
As mainstream mormonism rejected the practise of polygamy in 1890, small factions within it were clearly upset about this. So they broke away, and became the fundamentalist mormons.
The FLDS came into the spotlight recently thanks to the story of Warren Jeffs, the current (sort of) leader of the FLDS Church on the Utah-Arizona border.
He is currently serving a life sentence (+20 years) for two counts of sexual assault against minors.
Jeffs allegedly still maintains full control over his 15k+ group of followers from behind bars. Although this is hard to believe given the tough time he’s had on the inside including a suicide attempt, refusal to eat and other issues including just recently an alleged mental breakdown.
This group is not a particularly large group of people, but worth distinguishing from the main body of mormons if only out of empathy to orthodox mormonism.
Fundementalist Mormons have also engendered some controversy for the refusal of some of their followers to seek modern medical care for their children, opting instead for the possibility of healing through ‘faith and prayer’.
Mainstream LDS probably see fundamentalist mormons in much the same way that evangelical Christians view the West-borough Baptists… Speaking of which…
West-borough Baptists are a fascinating bunch, in a terrifying sort of way.
Browsing their surprisingly professional looking website you can find pictures of a guy holding a sign saying god hates fags, with a friendly smile on his face. They have a special page showcasing all their picketing signs… it’s really something.
They are, according to an ex-member, maintaining a surprisingly consistent (albeit small) congregation of about 40 people, the majority of which is made up of a single family, the Phelps.
The Church was started in 1955 by the late Fred Phelps.
West-borough Baptists are well known for their intense, literal hate-mongering of large numbers of people groups including especially anyone who identifies as, or sympathises with LGBT.
They also vociferously condemn Catholics, other Christians, Jews, the Military and basically everyone who is not a member of the West-borough Baptist Church.
A particularly notorious example is the story of Matthew Shepherd. Matt was a 21 year old homosexual and uni student who was brutally murdered in 1998.
Matt was beaten, tied to a pole and left to die. The WBC set up pickets and protested at his funeral, claiming that he was burning in hell.
They essentially regard almost every notable war or disaster since WWII as an act of God’s judgement against mankind and America (where they live in relative safety and pay taxes).
There’s no real reason I needed to include this one teeny aberrant Church in this rather broad overview of Christian Churches, except that they are considerably well-known for their infamous message of actual hate, and that they are self-described Christians with ‘baptist’ in their title.
However, it’s nothing if not obvious that West-borough Baptists are a cult that does not resemble traditional Christianity (or baptists) in any way.
They technically adhere to the fundamentals of the faith (they follow Calvinism).
But if all you know about Christianity came from a cereal box, then their bizarre message of the most extreme hatred of almost everyone makes it (hopefully really obviously) clear that they are not true Christians. They’re barely even false Christians.
And yet, in the midst of all this unpleasantness, there’s something respectable about the way a select few have taken the time to try to understand them.
I will leave this section by pointing you to this touching video about Megan Phelps-Roper, an ex-member who explains how and why she left the Church.
This video is moving, sensible, jarring, humbling and convicting… a must watch.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were founded in 1872, when Charles Taze Russel began the ‘student society’. Today this group has over 20 million attendee’s worldwide with over 8.5 million evangelists.
Charles Taze Russel sprung out of the ‘Adventist’ movement (see ‘Seventh Day Adventists’ above), already known for their controversial and failed messianic predictions of the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Russel’s teachings were even more obscure, moving away from the clear teaching of the Bible, denying most especially that Jesus was God, and denying the doctrine of the trinity.
Following the failed predictions of the adventists, Taze made his own new predictions that Christ was actually returning in 1914… unfortunately World War I started instead.
Charles died in 1916 and was succeeded by Joseph Rutherford in 1917 who was instrumental in the growth and institutionalisation of the Witnesses in the coming decades.
Rutherford introduced significant changes to the doctrines and teachings of Russel, including the additions of (bizarre?) predictions, such as that Abraham and Isaac would be resurrected in 1925.
In 1931 Rutherford Changed the name to “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a tight knit organisation that runs like a well oiled machine.
They have millions of publications in print including their famous, regularly published ‘Watchtower’.
They are probably most famous however, for their extremely dedicated door-to-door evangelisation efforts whereby, according to britannica.com:
Each congregation has an assigned territory and each Witness a particular neighbourhood to canvass. Great pains are taken to keep records of the number of visits, return calls, Bible classes, and books and magazines distributed.
A lot could be said about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There is a more distinctive ‘cult-y-ness’ about their organisation. This is seen in their long list of isolating behaviour and practices including, but not limited to:
- Meticulously efficient record keeping and organisational structure
- Their tendency towards exclusivism
- Disavowing secular government
- Strict code of ethics
- Refusing military service and
- Non-participation in all traditional Christian holiday’s such as Christmas and Easter
- Expectation of virtually total obedience to the teachings of the watch tower, and little to no tolerance for personal opinion on matters of biblical understanding, and watch tower publications, at least
- Publishing their own, exclusive, version of the Bible (with subtle, but crucial differences to the Christian Bible) and disregarding all other versions completely
There’s something very exclusive and overbearing how they practise their faith. More seriously however, what clearly identifies Jehovah’s Witnesses as a non-Christian sect is their denial of:
- The trinity
- Bodily return of Jesus Christ
- The divinity of Jesus Christ
- The divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit
For what it’s worth, Jehovah’s Witness do clearly teach their belief that “Jesus is not Almighty God”.
However they very cleverly word these beliefs with statements which may easily confuse or mislead the careless observer.
For example they state their belief that Jesus is “son of god”, and that “therefore”, they are Christians.
But this misses the key (and obvious) point that Christians believe Jesus is God, the second person of the trinity.
More Info: What JW’s believe (official website)
Christian Science has virtually nothing to do with actual science, or Christianity for that matter.
Despite the insistence that their teachings are “rooted in the Bible” (just ask them, they’ll tell you).
This belief system was founded by Mary Baker Eddy who allegedly experienced a healing event (although this is controversial) in 1866 based on her reading of the Bible. She then allegedly dedicated herself to Bible study and eventually…
“Christian Science flowed out of an inspired understanding of the Bible, which illumined the divine laws behind spiritual healing.” – Official Website
Eddy’s esoteric spirituality was initially very appealing, and the group gained significant adherents, finances and influence throughout the early 20th century but has been in sharp decline since the 80’s.
Throughout the 20th century Christian Scientists set up multiple buildings called “Church of Christ, Scientist” (that’s the actual name) beginning with the ‘mother Church’ called “The first Church of Christ, Scientist, Christian Science Centre” in Boston, Massachusetts which is still the headquarters for Christian Science today.
The central theme of Christian Science is a strong emphasis on healing through prayer.
Christian Science claims that sickness and ailments don’t really exist, but are actually just an illusion, the consequence of not being close to god.
Reality is God’s Kingdom (apparently the Bible tells us this).
The key to healing is in understanding this higher truth and blindly believing it regardless of any evidence to the contrary, no matter how plain and straightforward.
This healing is achieved through prayer, with the assistance of ‘qualified’ practitioners (who are not medically trained professionals), which brings us closer to ‘father-mother, and divine manhood’.
… I’m not making this up.
The only illusion here, is the feigned connection between the God of Christian Science and the God of the Bible, despite childishly elementary differences.
Christian Science smacks of new age mysticism. The way its adherents describe their faith has a characteristic vagueness to it, like their taking ordinary sentences, and then rearranging them like puzzles pieces.
More importantly though, Christian Science:
- Denies the trinity
- Denies the existence of matter despite their being absolutely no hint of this in the Bible (although it is a popular theory in metaphysics), and plenty of biblical evidence to the contrary like Genesis 1 – God made the world…
- Incorrectly believes that suffering is caused by ‘separation from God’, when in fact suffering and separation from God are both caused by original sin
- Has an extremely vague view of Jesus, and it’s unclear exactly what they believe about Him (although it’s quite clear that it is wrong)
- Mary’s Baker Eddy’s theology was heavily influenced and inspired by other non-Christian philosophies including homeopathy.
The insistence of prayer healing becomes a lot more serious when it comes to their historic practise of refusing any and all medical attention to the detriment, and death, of their followers… and their followers children.
Whilst the Church has no official mandate to refuse modern medical treatment on religious grounds, it is notoriously well known for its widespread practise of it.
Christian Science is involved in an ongoing situation that involves a significant and recent push to alter laws that have traditionally protected parents of children, who have died of preventable diseases, for refusing medical aid on religious grounds.
To my knowledge however, only religious cults, such as Christian Scientists and others, such as fundamentalist mormons have anything to lose by repealing these protections.
Not to mention, Christian Scientists were mostly responsible for the development of these laws in the 20th century.
I know of no historical, legitimate Christian denomination that refuses medical treatment on religious grounds, despite their belief that God can heal.
Christianity in general firmly acknowledges the existence of miracles (such as those recorded in the Bible), and the possibility of God healing by the power of prayer. Also pentecostals in particular are well-known for their beliefs about the gifts of healing and miracles.
Despite this there is no widespread, systematic practise of refusing medical care, in favour of ‘faith healing’ amongst any legitimate Christian denomination. Historically, Christians have been pioneers in many fields of science, and modern medicine, so refusing medical care on religious grounds would seem inherently self defeating.
Well that pretty much wraps it up.
I really hope you enjoyed reading this blog post/mini eBook.
Before you go, I just have a few closing thoughts that I’ve gathered over my time putting this information together that I’d like to share.
1. A Given Denomination’s Relationship with the Bible tells you a lot about it
Something I’ve hinted at is the risk associated with a given denominations penchant for ‘extra revelation’.
Most denominations exist because they sought to restore the Bible to it’s rightful place as the sole authority for Christian Faith and practise.
Whilst it is not considered a salvation issue (i.e. you can still be a Christian and believe in extra revelation) hopefully you notice a common theme that how closely a group or denomination holds to biblical authority often dictates whether they are considered a legit denomination, a fringe, or an outright cult.
At the heart of this issue is that, anything that does not come from the Bible runs the risk of becoming an authority unto itself. This often has serious consequences.
The real issue arises as the religious group (often gradually) comes to raise the level of authority of one or more individuals up to, and even over the authority of the Bible.
Generally speaking the more closely and exclusively a particular denomination stands on the infallibility and sufficiency of the bible, the more theologically and morally conservative that denomination tends to be.
Or to put it another way, the less emphasis placed on the bible as the sole authority of truth and practise for the Christian faith, the further the focus of the denomination shifts away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, towards something else.
“As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
Galatians 1:9 – via Bible Gateway
2. Beliefs vs People
One of the most challenging things when looking at denominations and especially the cults, is knowing how many probably perfectly well-meaning, and very kind and friendly people inhabit these various beliefs, no matter how barking mad some of them are.
It’s hard being so critical of belief systems full of very nice, friendly people.
But this is the nature of finding truth.
If something is not true, it doesn’t matter how nice it sounds, or how nice the people are who believe it, it’s still untrue.
In the end, what is most important is finding a Church that believes the Bible, teaches the Bible and has a passion to reach the lost.
3. Culture matters
The modern sensitivities of many Christians today lead many to view the Middle Ages as a less civilised time. They seem to have had a kind of primitive tendency toward violence, especially in the handling of The Reformation by both the Roman Catholics and the reformers.
Tensions were super high, and wars were fought over different theological view points. This might seem really strange to us in a more ‘civilised’ age.
Today we pride ourselves in our civilised government, and our ability to solve disputes in a more peaceful way.
It’s worth noting however, the reformers would’ve balked at this attitude. What we see today as a more civilised approach to discussion, the reformers would’ve seen us as nothing more than lukewarm and indifferent.
I make no excuses for some of the outrageous persecutions, especially towards groups such as the anabaptists. But we have to understand the culture of the day, and the implications of The Reformation.
Men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli were deeply passionate men. Their theology was their life.
More importantly, The Reformation almost certainly would not have gained traction in the way it did, if it were not for their passion and zeal.
The reformers believed with all their heart that they were rescuing the Western world from corruption and damnation.
They preached with a passion, and were willing to fight tooth and nail for what they saw as a purpose and goal so much greater than themselves.
Their enthusiasm and passion was infectious, and highly instrumental in winning souls to their cause.
Similarly, from the Catholic point of view, the reformers were riotous upstarts of the highest order. Their alarming rise in popularity posed a serious threat not only to their accumulated power and influence, but to the established orthodoxy of the Christian Church.
These ‘cult’ reformers were leading away entire towns from the ‘one true Church’ and straight into the fires of hell.
Churches today are haemorrhaging Christians, as every year millions of impressionable teens fall victim to selfish worldly philosophies and modern ideologies.
Evolution teaches them that they are nothing, and have no purpose, and nothing they do matters.
Social justice ideas teach them that they are broken, fragile, pathetic and that only the government has the power to save them.
One of the great challenges of Christianity in the 21st Century is lighting fires in the hearts of the Christian population to spread the message of Christianity.
Ask any pastor today anywhere in the world what they most desire of their congregation.
I guarantee for most the answer is a more passionate, zealous congregation, more willing to rise up and preach boldly the word of God.
4. Denominations are a Good Thing
In many evangelical circles today, especially in larger more populous Christian circles, there is an increasing emphasis on ecumenism, a push for a form of Christian unity.
The problem is this denies that Christianity is already united fully under Christ.
In an ideal world, all Christians everywhere (and all humans for that matter) would have a perfect understanding of scripture and its ordinances for the Christian life.
All Christians would be in complete agreement, and know the full truth of every doctrinal matter there is to know about, and there would be complete unity in faith.
Most importantly, everybody would know and trust that Jesus Christ is real, and He is our saviour.
Indeed, the Bible says:
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 – via Bible Gateway
But this is not an ideal world.
This is a fallen world, and the Church is run by human beings. So, inevitably, there is disagreement.
Denominations exist because truth is important, and no single human, or denomination is the gatekeeper of truth, only God.
Taking denominations away from Christianity is to make a Christianity for children.
The idea of all Christians the world over coming to a single, unified, orthodox catechism of beliefs is at best a total fantasy, at worst an extremely dangerous and terrifying notion.
This suggests that at some point mortal, imperfect Christians will have claim to the ultimate truth of Christianity and all discussion will hence be silenced.
I totally understand the sentiment (however shallow) that we just want all Christians to ‘get along’… but Christians with different theological opinions getting along and respecting one another is not the same as declaring a single universal denomination with a single set of beliefs.
If such a set of beliefs could exist, it would be nothing short of shallow, inclusive beyond recognition, and theologically worthless.
This is a Christianity where people no longer sit with each other, only next to each other; a Christianity where there are no arguments, because there is no talking.
It is a place where discussion dies, where individuality is not tolerated, where freedom of expression is marginalised, not in favour of group think, but something worse… no think.
As soon as we start putting all the focus of Christianity on some idealised form of ‘unity’, we are all implicitly agreeing to stop seeking the truth, and stop talking about the deeper issues.
Finally, I think many people today, especially many Christians view Christian denominations with cynicism, as something divisive that Christians should be ashamed of.
I see it as a something much more noble, with a noble history, and a noble cause…
The more I’ve looked in the Christian denominational landscape the more I’ve come to see that denominations, far from dividing Christianity, actually bring them together.
Denominations have created a platform that brings Christians together under a set of surprisingly clear, unified beliefs, like a blanket that spreads out and captures us all together under Christ.
Denominations are not the result of divisive Christians obstinately staking their claim to orthodoxy, to the exclusion of others, but instead are the natural and almost inevitable result of continued discussion and time itself.
Denominations are an expression of the massively trans-cultural, ethnic, geographical and ideological influence of Christianity.
The Christian denominational landscape is a celebration of the freedom that we have in Christ to study and understand the word of God for ourselves, and yet still remain ‘one in Christ’.
And that’s something I cannot be more grateful for.
Thanks for reading.
I relied on a multitude of sources to put this information together, including official websites for many major religions, online references such as britannica, Pew research, some reputable websites that I trust, also many other sources of information and yes, sometimes, a little bit of Wikipedia.
However, as a benchmark for quality I relied on a few core references which have provided the framework for major sections of this post, and the integrity of the information contained in it.
I have no affiliation with any of the authors and have no financial incentive to cite them.
Church History In Plain Language – Bruce Shelley
An extremely popular, thorough and readable introduction to the history of Christianity from the time of Jesus Christ through to the modern world. This book is a standout of Christian scholarship.
A Guide to Christian Denominations – Ron Rhodes
This book is the go to academic resource for Christian denominations.
Besides this blog post, I would regard this book as one of the few other comprehensive and reliable sources of information on the topic of Christian denominations, broadly speaking.
The real advantage my piece has over this is that it is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more, this book is a great next step.
A Spectators Guide to World Religions – John Dickson
The Christian section contains a nice short summary of the Christian Religion, and the three major groups within. This book has a more pragmatic, historical perspective and was a nice addition to my arsenal.