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Christian Denominations —
Christian Denominations
3 min read • original
Christianity has divided into three major branches over the centuries. Over the
centuries, Christianity has divided into numerous denominations. Each denomination
has its own distinctive beliefs or practices, but they are generally considered a branch
of mainstream Christianity if they agree on core doctrines like the divinity of Jesus
Christ and the authority of the Bible. Relationships between denominations range
from mutual respect and cooperation to denial that the other group is really
The three main branches of Christianity are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy
and Protestant. Some regard Anglicanism as a fourth branch that fits in none of these
categories, while others categorize it as Protestant.
Roman Catholicism represents the continuation of the historical organized church as
it developed in Western Europe, and is headed by the Pope. Distinctive beliefs of
Catholics include the doctrines of Transubstantiation and Purgatory, and distinctive
practices include devotion to the saints and Mary and use of the rosary.
Eastern Orthodoxy (which includes the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and
several others) is the continuation of the historical organized church as it developed in
Eastern Europe. It differs from Catholicism in its refusal of allegiance to the Pope, its
emphasis on the use of icons in worship, and the date it celebrates Easter. Other
cultural, political, and religious differences exist as well. Eastern Orthodoxy and
Roman Catholicism separated in 1054 AD, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and
the Pope excommunicated each other.
Christian Denominations —
Protestantism arose in the 16th century during the Reformation, which took place
mainly in Germany, Swi㌘Ჸerland, and Britain. Protestants do not acknowledge the
authority of the Pope, reject many traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church,
emphasize the importance of reading the Bible and hold to the doctrine of salvation
by faith alone. Protestantism encompasses numerous denominational groups,
including Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians (or Anglicanism),
Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Evangelicals.
Most of the denominations that exist today developed in the 500 years since the
Protestant Reformation and fall under the ʺProtestantʺ branch. This section provides
information on some of the major denominations that exist today, along with a brief
history of how there came to be so many.
History of Christian Denominations
For the first thousand years of Christianity, there were no ʺdenominationsʺ within the
Christian church as there are today.
Various offshoot groups certainly existed, but they were considered ʺheresiesʺ and not
part of the Christian church. Most were small and, until the 16th century, were never
very influential. From the beginnings of Christianity through the Middle Ages, there
was only one the catholic (ʺuniversalʺ) church. Basically, if you did not belong to the
Church, you were not considered a Christian.
The first division within Christendom came in 1054 with the ʺGreat Schismʺ between
the Western Church and the Eastern Church. (More on this in the article on Orthodox
Christianity.) From that point forward, there were two large branches of Christianity,
which came to be known as the Catholic Church (in the West) and the Orthodox
Church (in the East).
The next major division occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation was famously sparked when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in
1517, but ʺProtestantismʺ as a movement officially began in 1529. That year marked
the publication of the Protestation, directed at the imperial government. The authors,
Christian Denominations —
German princes who wanted the freedom to choose the faith of their territory,
protested that ʺin ma엧ers which concern Godʹs honor and salvation and the eternal
life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God for himself.ʺ {1}
With its emphasis on individual interpretation of scripture and a measure of religious
freedom, the Reformation marked not only a break between Protestantism and
Catholicism, but the beginning of denominationalism as we know it today. This
historical perspective is perhaps the best way to make sense of the initially astounding
variety of Christian denominations.
Those who remained within the fold of Roman Catholicism argued that central
regulation of doctrine is necessary to prevent confusion and division within the
church and corruption of its beliefs. Those who broke from the church, on the other
hand, insisted that it was precisely this policy of control that had already led to
corruption of the true faith. They demanded that believers be allowed to read the
Scriptures for themselves (it was previously available only in Latin) and act in
accordance with their conscience. This issue of religious authority continues to be a
fundamental difference in perspective between Catholic and Orthodox Christians on
one hand, and Protestant Christians on the other.
As the Reformation developed in Germany, various groups in other parts of Europe
also began to break away from the Catholic Church. Reformed Christianity developed
in Swi㌘Ჸerland based on the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. When it
spread to Scotland under John Knox, the Reformed faith became Presbyterianism.
Swi㌘Ჸerland was also the birthplace of the Anabaptists, spiritual ancestors of todayʹs
Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Baptists. Anglicanism was established in 1534
when Englandʹs King Henry VIII broke from the authority of the Pope, and became
Episcopalianism in America. Methodism, based on the teachings of John Wesley, also
has its roots in Anglicanism.
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