Christianity is among the most important religions in human history and is one of the most common religions today, along with others, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, holding the most members out of all the others with 2.4 billion believers. This means that approximately one-third of the world’s total populations are Christians. Despite this fact, Christianity is still divided into many different denominations.
The Christian denomination is a distinct religious body within Christianity, identified by features such as name, organization, and doctrine. However, individual bodies may use alternative terms to describe themselves, such as Church, communion, convention, assembly, house, union, network, or sometimes fellowship. Divisions between one denomination and another are mainly defined by authority and doctrine. Issues concerning the nature of Jesus, the Trinitarians, salvation, the authority of apostolic succession, eschatology, conciliarity, and papal primacy, among others, may separate one denomination from another. Groups of denominations that often share broadly similar values, traditions, and historical ties — can be referred to as “branches of Christianity” or “denominational families” (e.g., Eastern or Western Christianity and its sub-branches). These “denominational families” are often imprecisely referred to as denominations.
Since the 20th century, Christian denominations have often been involved in ecumenism. Ecumenism refers to the efforts of Christian bodies to develop a better understanding and a closer relationship. It also refers to efforts towards visible unity in the Christian Church, although the terms of visible unity vary for each Christian denomination; both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church teach that visible unity may only be achieved by converting to their denominational beliefs and structure, citing claims to be the one true Church. The World Council of Churches is the largest ecumenical organization in Christianity.
The difference in belief is attributed to the long and tumultuous history of Christianity. For example, various events, such as the Protestant Reformation, often caused the Church to divide. This led to different denominations of faith, each of which had a slightly different interpretation of the Holy Bible. Out of the 2.4 billion Christians in the world, about 1.1 billion are Catholic, with another 800 million being Protestant. There are another 300 million or so other forms of Christianity, such as Orthodox.
To better understand Christianity’s denominations, it is first and foremost important to know the basic history of the religion. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the Middle East for the first time in the mid-1st century. It started in the century after the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who was the foundation of religion. Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, and by the 4th century, it became the official religion of the empire.
The Roman Catholic Church developed out of early Christianity and became the main religion in Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. At the period, Catholicism was the only denomination of faith and was commonly recognized simply as Christianity. So, most Christians of the time had believed in several similar aspects of faith. Christian faith and belief are centered on a few key factors, known as creeds. The best definition of a creed is a formal statement of belief. The most commonly held creed of Christianity is the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, which began in the 4th century. The Apostle’s Creed (and Christian faith) contains many different points, but three main ones are generally universally held by Christians. First, the Apostle’s Creed affirmed belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Trinity). Second, it affirmed belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Third, it affirmed belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ and the Day of Judgment.
The Renaissance in Europe started in the 14th century and, at that time, had a profound impact on Christianity. The introduction of Renaissance humanism was a major feature of the Renaissance. In general, Renaissance Humanism was a study of ancient Greek and Roman texts to promote new values and norms in society. These norms and views differed from those of this time because they focused less on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists such as Petrararch used ancient texts to advocate a worldview focused on logic and reason. This was a major challenge for the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation began at the beginning of the 16th century. Historians consider that it began with the publication of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” in 1517. Martin Luther (lived between 1483 and 1546) was a German professor and monk. In his work “Ninety-five Theses,” Luther challenged several different teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. For example, he argued against the notion that salvation was achieved through good deeds and instead suggested that salvation could be achieved simply by believing in Jesus Christ. He also argued that the Scriptures in the Bible themselves were the only valid method of teaching and that all other teachings of the Catholic Church were not actually in line with Christianity. Also, he translated the Bible into his native German language, which allowed many more people to access it and understand it for themselves. These views resonated with many Europeans, as their worldview was changed by the development of Renaissance humanists. Ultimately, his views were in contrast with those of the Catholic Church and then with Pope Leo X. He was expelled from the Church and forced to hide. His acts, however, encouraged others to advance the cause of the reformation of the Church, including John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. As a result, the Reformation of Dissent took place, and there was a major division in Christianity. Those who remained based on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome were Catholics, and those who practiced Christianity in another church and did not obey the authority of the Pope were Protestants. It is known as the Protestant Reformation because of the earlier protesting against change within the Church.
As a result of this violent history, the Christian religion was divided into several different denominations. For example, some people reported that there are as many as 30,000 different Christian denominations today. Despite this, most Christians today identify with just a few denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox.
The Catholic Church (also called the Roman Catholic Church) is considered one of the oldest religious bodies in the world and today has some 1.1 billion members. It is headed by the Bishop of Rome (more commonly known as the Pope), and its central administration is headquartered in Vatican City, Rome, Italy. The Catholic Church’s central faith is based on the Nicene Creed, which originated in 325 CE of the Council of Nicaea. The council was appointed by the Roman Emperor Constantine I and led to the first Christian doctrine. The Catholic Church teaches that it is only Church founded by Jesus Christ, that its bishops are the successors of Christ’s apostles, and that the Pope is the head of the organization. This maintains that it has followed the original Christian faith since it originated from the early history of Christianity. The Catholic faith is based on the seven sacraments that were started by Jesus Christ and continued by the Church. These seven sacraments include the Sacraments of Initiation, which includes the Baptism, the Eucharist and the Confirmation; the Sacraments of Healing, consisting of the Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick; and the Sacraments of Service: the Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony.
Protestantism is the next largest denomination of Christianity. There are nearly 800 million Protestants in the world today, making it the largest denomination behind Catholicism. Protestantism is not a single group and consists of several different denominations within itself, such as Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Methodist, and many more. This makes Protestantism a diverse ideology, each of which shares similar beliefs and practices, but also differs on some. As previously mentioned, Protestantism originated from the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. As a consequence, Protestantism is believed to have originated from the Catholic Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church (Orthodox Catholic Church) is primarily based in Eastern Europe. It has 250 million members today. The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest religious institutions globally and has many similarities with the Roman Catholic Church. For example, while it does not have a central figure similar to that of the Pope, the Eastern Orthodox Church also operates in that its churches are linked by bishops referred to as the Holy Synod. Similar to the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church is founded on the Nicene Creed, and the Church teaches that it is the one Church founded by Jesus Christ that its bishops are the successors of Christ’s apostles. Also, like the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church has seven sacraments, the most significant of which is the Eucharist. It is also important to understand its history to understand the Eastern Orthodox Church better. The Eastern Orthodox Church established and existed alongside the Roman Catholic Church. Their main difference was their location within the Roman Empire and their basic organizational structure. For example, the two churches shared communion until the East-West Schism of 1054 CE. The schism divided the two churches between Rome and Constantinople. The churches in the west fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, while those in the east fell under the jurisdiction of the Western Byzantine Church (now known as the Eastern Orthodox Church). The schism or division between the two churches arose from disputes about the doctrine and authority of the Pope. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church is based in Eastern Europe, it has churches worldwide due to the migration of believers and missionaries.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS?
During the ministry of Jesus, he prayed that his future followers would show a special kind of unity that would become a testimony to the world. So, what’s happened? Instead of unity, harmony, and cooperation, Christians are often known for their quarrels and divisions. When they even appear to get along, they break up into hundreds of separate groups, sects, and denominations. This appears frustrating to those who are not Christians. Why can’t they consent to anything? Why are there four different churches on the same street? The question arises for Christians as well: why are there so many Christian denominations? Before we explore this issue, let’s survey the landscape. There are three main branches within Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy (mainly practiced in Russia and Eastern European countries), Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism. In the United States, they are most familiar with Roman Catholic churches and Lutheran sects. While virtually all Roman Catholic churches have the same faith, form, and structure, Protestant denominations can vary. These include Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and many other groups. Some churches also find themselves within the Protestant stream but are not affiliated with any particular denomination (such as Bible churches or community churches).
So, why are there so several different denominations and different types of churches? There are several reasons. For example, let’s not forget that denominations are made up of Churches, and Churches are made up of people, and at times people don’t get along. After all, just because people are Christians does not mean they are always in agreement. Also, Christians often struggle with arrogance, selfishness, and stubbornness, which mean that they sometimes respond poorly to a relational dispute. This has also led to debates and disagreements within denominations and churches, which results in the creation of different churches and denominations. It is an unfortunate situation, but it’s a reality of human nature. Perhaps this is why Jesus concentrated so much on unconditional love and forgiveness as an example of the type of people he wants us to be.
Another reason why Christians are sometimes divided is legitimate disputes about secondary areas of belief or practice. How should local churches be structured? What does baptism entail, and who is to be baptized? Who’s supposed to fill leadership roles? How often should communion be practiced? How should certain passages in the Bible to be interpreted? These are good questions, and the answers are not always clear in the Bible. Maybe this is why the Bible asks us to exercise wisdom and humility when it comes to secondary issues where there are genuine differences (5).
The second reason that so many different denominations of Christianity exist is that there are variations in personality, zeal, and talents. Many people are more likely to praise God through the exercise of their minds. Therefore, they focus on critical analysis and biblical understanding. Others are more artistically or creatively programmed, and the way they express their faith is very different. Others are even more active in their relationship with God as they serve others. They are most happy when they can work with their hands or actively support people with special needs in their communities. Although all these aspects are significant, it is no surprise that various churches and even entire denominations would emerge in light of their adherents’ unique personalities.
Another example is the position of tradition. Some groups of people value the structure and heritage of worshiping God in keeping with traditions passed down over generations. Thus, a more traditional church in the Lutheran or Episcopal denomination might feel more comfortable with them. However, other people tend to try new, creative ways to develop in their relationship with God and sometimes feel stuck in long-standing traditions or rituals. Therefore, another denominational Church might best suit them. Of course, these aren’t the only reasons for the existence of various churches and denominations, but these practical issues, like the role of tradition in a worship service, can also play a significant role. The lesson we can draw from this diversity is that various denominations and churches can learn from each other and make up the greater community of faith known as the People of God.
In the end, people from various backgrounds will express their faith and worship God in their distinctive ways. This should not surprise us if Churches in the middle-class Midwest American city are completely different from those in the war-torn, poverty-stricken village of Africa. As a result, various religions and denominations can vary widely based on the geographical location and cultural beliefs of the people themselves.
Despite these differences, some central tenets bind all Christians together, irrespective of their particular denomination, culture, or geographical location. Christians believe in God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), they believe that all human beings are sinful and need grace and that only Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to have a relationship with God through his death and resurrection. Christians also believe that the Bible most clearly shows who God is, how we can have a relationship with him, and how we can spread God’s love to others. Although other values and practices are important and sometimes cause disagreements, they are secondary. The plan of God is bigger than our differences, and if we continue to seek Him by longing and to desire Him, we will all begin to find our places in His great plan.