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|This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.|
"What religion are you?" asked my friend.
"Christian" I replied.
"Yes, but what are you? Anglican? Catholic? Lutheran?" he persisted.
"Simply Christian". But to satisfy him, I continued, "But I attend an Anglican church currently."
Have you ever wondered why people are so intent on knowing which particular "brand" of Christianity a person belongs to? Have you ever wondered why there are so many Christian denominations?
What are the main denominational categories?
Although there is only one universal Christian Church, it is clear that there are hundreds of Christian denominations or churches. These denominations have formed and divided since the time of Christ, because Christians have had differences in beliefs and practices. Today, they can be grouped into 6 main groups, with some amount of overlap
Eastern Orthodox churches - These include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. They trace their roots closely back to the apostles, and claim that their teaching has remained unchanged over time. There is a strong link between religion, culture and country in these churches. For example, Greek people that have migrated to Australia tend to remain within the Greek Orthodox Church because they feel this church is part of their culture.
Eastern Oriental churches - These include the Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. They, also like the Eastern Orthodox church, trace their roots closely back to the apostles and claim their teachings have not changed over the centuries. They split from the rest of the Church in the 5th century AD over the issue of the nature of Christ's divinity and humanity.
The Roman Catholic Church - This church is closely related to the Orthodox churches. It teaches that it was instituted by Christ through the apostle Peter and that the church leadership has been passed down through the popes, without error entering the church. It is the main denomination in southern Europe, especially Italy and Spain, and in South America.
Conservative Protestant churches - These churches, of which there are hundreds of denominations, are connected with Martin Luther and the Reformation in the 16th century, when the teachings of the Catholic Church were seriously questioned. They hold the Bible as the final authority and try to avoid additional teachings that are not directly found in the Bible.
Pentecostal churches - These churches have formed within the last 100 years. They are closely related to conservative Protestant churches, however, they have a special emphasis on talking in tongues and experiencing the Holy Spirit.
Liberal churches - These are churches (mostly Protestant) in which there has been a gradual decline in the importance of biblical teaching although they do tend to place a strong emphasis on social justice, gender equality and inclusion. All mainstream Protestant denominations have had some of their churches tend towards liberalism. Liberal churches of different denominations now have more in common than a liberal than a s conservative church within the same denomination.
An overview of the formation of different denominations - a brief Church history
The history of how these church denominations arose is told differently by different denominations. The Orthodox Church teach that their beliefs and practices have been handed down directly from the apostles of Jesus to the church leaders and have remained unchanged within their church, and that other churches have broken away from them. The Roman Catholic Church teaches the same. The conservative Protestant churches tend to teach that the Orthodox and Catholic churches slowly over centuries added layers of tradition and beliefs into their teachings with deviation from the Bible and words of Jesus, and that the Reformation marked the turning point when Christians returned to God's word.
The early Church
After Jesus was resurrected and appeared to His disciples, His believers began to live together in communities where their whole lives were dedicated to Christ. The apostles went as messengers of the Gospel to Jews and non-Jews throughout the known world. The book of the Acts describes this early evangelism, and the letters written by the apostles show us that the churches throughout the regions remained in contact with each other.
Persecution to state religion
In the early centuries, the Roman Empire ruled supreme, and great persecution of Christians occurred by its hand. Christians would not bow before the Emperor, nor sacrifice to him. Christians seemed secretive and cult-like to some. They were murdered by their thousands throughout the Empire, yet their numbers grew and missionaries continued to spread the Gospel. Many Christians would die before denying Christ. The message of Christianity had spread from Britain to India with 60 million becoming Christians within 300 years of Christ's birth.
In the year AD 324 the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and declared Christianity to be the official state religion. From this time onwards in Europe, the Christian religion became increasingly tied to the state.
Theological debate about the nature of Jesus and the Holy Spirit led to several councils (meetings) out of which core beliefs were stated - the creeds. It was at was one of these counils (The council of Chalcedon) that the Eastern Oriental churches split from the wider church community over a disagreement regarding the nature of Christ -
Western and eastern drift
Initially all the churches were considered equal, and tended to elect one elder in authority over all the other church members. This elder was called the ruling bishop. As the number of churches grew, local churches were grouped in divisions, and authority over the entire division was given to the bishop of the largest church in the largest city. Leaders began promoting the belief that the apostles had given special authority to certain churches and their leaders - a concept known as apostolic succession. In the fourth and fifth centuries the bishops of Rome began to claim primacy among all bishops - first among equals. They declared that the bishop of Rome was the successor of the apostle Simon Peter, who they believed was given a unique mandate from Christ. The churches of the East (in Greece and the Middle East) never recognized this claim. Leo I in the fifth century was the first bishop of Rome to be given the title pope, meaning father.
Around this time, beliefs about the seven sacraments, baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, purgatory, the veneration of saints, the observance of Christmas, and the naming of Mary as mother of God and queen of Heaven became widespread.
In the eighth and ninth century, Islam spread through the the Middle East and northern Africa. An Arabian man named Mohammad founded the new faith after he claimed to have been given the word of God by an angel of God. These words are now found in the Quran. His followers were known as Muslims, and they formed a powerful army that spread Islam with the sword. The rise of Islam greatly reduced numbers in the churches of the East.
Missionaries to Russia
In the late ninth century, two Greek Orthodox Christians were sent to Russia as missionaries upon the invitation of the prince of Moravia. They had a profound influence on the population, bringing writing and the alphabet along with Christianity. The Christians of Russia remain linked today within the union of the Orthodox churches.
The 1054 split
In AD 1054 the formal split (called the Great Schism) between the church of Rome (the Roman Catholic Church) and the eastern churches (the Greek and other Orthodox churches) occurred. A number of issues led to the split, where the Roman pope excommunicated the Orthodox patriarch, and vice-versa. The main issue causing the split was opposing views to the question Did the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone? Other issues included marriage of bishops, the requirement of bishop to have beards, the correct time to observe Easter, and the requirement of the bishop of Constantinople to recognize the pope as the highest authority.
In the years following this, the members of the Church turned their attention to the growing perceived threat of Islam. A series of bloody and futile wars were fought with Christian crusaders invading the newly acquired Muslim territory in the name of the Cross. In 1453, the city of Constantinople fell in battle to the Muslim Turkish army greatly weakening the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Inquisition and Reformation
During the Middle Ages, a group of Christians called the Waldenses arose. They rejected the final authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead they preached a personal faith in Jesus Christ was essential, with authority resting on the Bible, and encouraged each member of the Church to hear or read the Bible in his own language. This group was heavily persecuted by the Roman Church. In 1229, the Roman Synod forbid lay people to have Bibles in their native languages.
In the following centuries, their arose a terrible environment of fear and torture. The Inquisition was established in which thousands of Christians were tortured and executed for believing or practicing differently from the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
During this time, the practice of buying indulgences became prominent in the Roman Catholic Church. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century had taught that Christians could merit forgiveness of sins through penance or giving money to the Church. Through this the Christian could avoid some of the punishment awaiting him in purgatory. A number of prominent Christians questioned the teaching of purgatory and indulgences, culminating in 1517, when a German named Martin Luther circulated his 91 theses disputing indulgences. This marked the start of the Reformation and the Protestant Church, which was adopted in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The ideas behind the Reformation in Germany were quickly taken up by Christian leaders around Europe with the formation of the Swiss Presbyterian Church, the Church of England, and the Scottish Presbyterian Church. In the Netherlands, the Anabaptist Church predominated which advocated believer's baptism, pacifism and separation of Church and state and in France one-sixth of the population became Huguenot Protestants. The Protestant Churches taught that the Bible had sole absolute authority, that every believer could come to God the Father through Christ without the need for a priest, and that justification was through faith alone.
To counteract the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church called a council at Trent. Here it affirmed traditional Catholic beliefs, including Bible and tradition having equal authority, justification through faith plus works plus the sacraments administered by priests, and that the Roman Church had sole authority to interpret Scripture and matters of faith.
In the century following the Reformation, there was bloody persecution and wars between Protestant and Catholic Christians. With the peace treaty ending the 30 year war in 1648, most persecution ended. Northern Europe remained largely Protestant and southern Europe mostly Catholic. The Orthodox churches of South-East Europe and the Middle East had not been involved in this conflict.
Christianity came to America with its European colonization. Where the Spanish and Portuguese invaded and settled in South and central America, Roman Catholicism became predominant. A mixture of local superstitions blended into Catholic teaching producing a unique South American style of Catholicism with the veneration of Mary and saints particularly noticeable today. In North America, the British brought the Anglican and Baptist churches. Other Protestant Christians journeyed to Northern Europe forming Lutheran and Mennonite Anabaptist congregations.
In the nineteenth century, with this new religious freedom in northern Europe and North America, many new Christian movements developed. William Booth founded the Salvation Army in England, a Protestant denomination with an emphasis on social justice. The Gideon's were founded in 1899 and became a world-wide organization to distribute free Bibles.
Along with the development of these Christian organizations came a growing belief, especially in evangelical Christians in Britain, that it was their duty to call sinners throughout the world to Christ. A few generations previously, Christians had been calling for an end to slavery of Africans. Now they were calling for missionaries to go to the homes of those people who had been made slaves and to preach the Gospel. Missionaries went throughout the the colonies of the European powers and Christianity was adopted by large numbers of people in Africa, and smaller numbers of people in India and South East Asia.
The twentieth century
The start of the twentieth century was marked by the beginning of the charismatic or Pentecostal movement. On December 26 in 1900, a small group of Christians in the United States who had been praying and reading the Bible came away from their meeting saying they had been filled with the Holy Spirit and had spoken in tongues. This movement rapidly spread throughout both the United States and the developing world, spawning hundreds of Pentecostal denominations, the largest being the Assemblies of God. Though initially separate from the traditional churches, since the 1960's there has been an enthusiastic permeation of the charismatic movement into many Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches.
In Eastern Europe and Russia, Christians were heavily persecuted by communist dictatorships. With the fall of communism, the Eastern Orthodox churches have begun to openly flourish again. In Western Europe, interest in Christianity and personal faith with Christ has fallen and it has become perhaps the most secular region in the world, with most people Christian in name only. In the Third World the number of Christians has been growing exponentially. For the first time in history, there are more Christians in Africa and Asia than in traditionally Christian countries. Significant numbers of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches have all been established in these continents, and numerous independent churches also continue to be formed.
There has been a growing spirit of ecumenism within many mainstream denominations in the later half of the century. Numerous Protestant churches have joined together forming the Uniting Church, and the Catholic and Orthodox churches have been meeting and discussing the possibility of restoring their link. However, despite a growing hope of unity, the doctrinal differences have also been growing. In the nineteenth century various teachings have become official Roman Catholic dogma including papal infallibility and the immaculate conception and sinlessness of Mary extending the gulf between Rome, the Orthodox churches and the Protestant churches. Within the Protestant churches there is also growing gaps between liberal and conservative biblical beliefs.
In 1962, the pope called the Second Vatican Council. There were some sweeping changes brought about by this council including allowing and encouraging the laity to read the Bible and permitting the Mass to be conducted in the vernacular. However, much of the core teaching of the Catholic church was reaffirmed.
In the later half of the century, the Protestant churches began to divide on several issues causing a split into conservative evangelical congregations and liberal congregations. These issues have included allowing women to become church ministers, divorce, sexual immorality and homosexuality. Many Protestant churches have allowed women to become pastors. The most liberal churches have been emphasizing tolerance and some are now allowing sexual relations outside marriage and promoting homosexual priests. Many of these congregations are diminishing in size but becoming increasingly vocal. Conservative evangelical churches continue to grow rapidly, and emphasize biblical teaching and obedience to God's word. The gap between these two fields of thought widens yearly.
Sometimes when I look at the sheer number of denominations I feel sad. Can there be so much disagreement among Christians? If there was a unified organization could we spread the Gospel so much more? Do these divisions turn people away from Christ's love? If only all the denominations could fuse together for a single Church?
But then I remember, there is only a single Church! The Church is the body of believers redeemed by Christ. Do these partitions only cause division, or can they allow each Christian to examine his own beliefs and find a place to worship as truthfully as he can? Perhaps they lead to both. At their worst they allow people to form unnecessary allegiances that divide relationships and dull the mind. Sometimes a person is loyal to a denomination at the expense of considering the issues for himself. And sometimes too much focus on an issue distracts from the Gospel. However, at their best, denominations promote a greater understanding of our faith and allow us to explore what we believe and why - they encourage the pursuit of truth.
So it is true that the Christian churches have many divisions, but we are certainly all united in the one Church.