And What Are They?
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6
Welcome, Young Believer!
Perhaps even before you became a Christian you had this question, "Why are there so many different denominations, and what are they?" Now that you've become a Christian and are searching for a good church to attend or seeking to understand the difference between what your home church believes and what other churches believe... I can only guess that this question troubles you more. After all, we are called multiple times by Jesus and through the teaching of the Apostles to be One Church living in unity with one another.
The easiest answer to this question is simply that we are human beings who still sin, not being fully sanctified yet as we will be in heaven one day. Humans are a contentious lot that divides over all sorts of logical and illogical controversies. However, I believe the answer is slightly more complicated than that. To understand this a little bit better let's take a quick dive into history.
The Great Schism (1054 A.D.)
A little over a thousand years after Christ walked the earth, the Church had its first great divide known as a Schism. The Great Schism of 1054 A.D. also known as the East-West Schism divided the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church. While we have narrowed the division down to one year in time, this conflict had been growing for nearly 500 years.
Part of this division was simple geography that lent itself to cultural differences. The Eastern churches looked at Scripture through a lens or understanding of Greek Philosophy. The Western churches looked at Scripture through a lens or understanding of Roman Law. The Romans were also much more unified in their theology than the east was at the time, but they considered this a badge of supremacy and allowed their pride to divide them from the east.
The main disputes raised between the two branches were:
- Different understandings of the trinity expressed in the Nicene Creed
- Different understanding of whether church leaders should be celibate or could be married.
- Different understanding of who should have the authority of confirmation
(one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church meant as a sign of initiation or membership in the church is known as Chrismation in the Orthodox Church and serves basically the same function)
- Different understanding of what type of bread was acceptable for use in the Eucharist (Communion as Protestants would call it)
The final rift came when the leaders of both churches excommunicated the other. Over the next few centuries attempts would be made to heal the rift but the Schism remains to this day. Politically the relationship between the two churches has improved with the Roman Catholic Church recognizing the Sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox Church as valid and the renunciation of the mutual ex-communications.
At this point in history, we have two small "c" churches, but both would claim and likely now affirm that they are all a part of the big "C" Church.
The German Reformation (1483-1546)
The greatest divisions in the Church came around four hundred to five hundred years later when a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. His theses were meant to call out some of the biblical inconsistencies that Luther believed the Catholic Church was practicing. His initial intent wasn't to leave the Catholic Church but to reform it, pointing it back on a path to biblical accuracy. Eventually, he was excommunicated along with his followers who came to be known as Lutherans.
At a later date we'll dive deeper into the theological differences Luther brought against the Roman Catholic Church.
The Swiss Reformation (1509-1564)
The main two influential reformers in Sweden began near the mid to later end of Luther's movement were Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. Zwingli focused on the supremacy of Scripture and applied it in his understanding of all church doctrines and traditions. He agreed with Martin Luther on many of his points but disagreed with the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Communion). Zwingli believed the presence to be spiritual and the elements or bread and wine of the Eucharist to be symbolic. Luther believed that the physical presence of Christ was around the Eucharist as the believer participated in it. This rift was so great that wars were fought and political alliances were divided. Zwingli himself died while serving as a Chaplain in the Swiss Army.
John Calvin became a part of the student-led reformation in France as he studied to become a lawyer. They were seeking reformation of the Catholic Church and society to focus more accurately on the teachings of Scripture from their original languages. Over time France became more hostile to the reformers and Calvin found it wise to flee to the more tolerant Switzerland. Over the years as he grew in influence he took over leadership of Geneva Switzerland where he instituted a theocracy based upon his doctrinal understanding of Scripture. Government run by religious leadership was not uncommon at the time, Calvin was simply stepping into a role that the Roman Catholic Church was no longer being accepted in, in that region of the world. However, his laws to enforce "morality" proved widely unpopular. Unlike Zwingli, Calvin's departures from Luther were significant and stemmed from a different view of God, Christ, the World, Salvation, and the Church's role on earth. We will get deeper into the specifics of Calvinism at a later date.
The modern branches of the Calvinist tradition would be the Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church.
By the end of this second generation of reformers, we now have four to six small "c" churches depending on how seriously you take the differences between Zwingli and Luther and whether you count Calvin's branch as two churches or one.
Radical Reformation (1527-Unknown)
Speaking of government being run by religious leaders, the next great movement came from the Anabaptists who separated from Zwingli's movement. They were angry that Zwingli was not willing to reform as radically as they thought was merited by Scripture. The name Anabaptist comes from their opponents because the first generation of Anabaptists were being rebaptized as adults. However, the believers themselves did not see it as rebaptism because they rejected the validity of infant baptism. Instead, they claimed that baptism was only meant for those who were old enough to tell the difference between good and evil and be held accountable for it. They believed that once an adult made a free-will decision of faith then they would be baptized. Two other beliefs that brought them extreme persecution from the authorities at the time were: pacifism and the separation of the Church from the State. They believed that the role of government was only to punish the sinner. This near-revolutionary ideology resulted in the murder of thousands of Anabaptists.
From Anabaptists come our denominations today of Hutterites, Mennonites, and Baptists. Who all now have their own differences of theological opinion and the way in which we are to physically live our lives.
We're up to around nine small 'c' churches now.
English Reformation (1559-Unknown)
The origins of the English Reformation were not so deeply rooted in theological reform to get back to the accuracy of Scripture and the way in which the early Church put it into practice. Instead, it was motivated by politics and general corruption in the English monarchy. Henry VIII wished to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon to marry his mistress Anne Bolyn. The Catholic Church refused his request for divorce so Henry left the church declaring himself the head of the Church of England and gave himself permission to divorce Catherine anyway. Thus the Anglican Church was born. It has since developed more theologically but it is still an interesting mix of Catholic practices and Protestant understanding.
We will talk about different thought leaders in this movement at a later date as well.
Ten small 'c' churches...
The "Second" Reformation (The 1600s-1700s)
This last period of reformation was born from a greater emphasis on theology and a desire to live a spiritual life. The branches of Puritanism and Pietism were born during this period as well as the Methodist Church.
This period of focus on spirituality would also bring the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement and greater moves toward more liberal theology.
There you have it, the eleven to fourteen branches of the Christian Tradition. Divided by geography, politics, wars, doctrinal (core belief) disagreements, and differences in how Christianity ought to be practiced.
Now there are many more denominations that may adhere to one or more of these traditions. Perhaps you go to a church that agrees with Calvin's view of how the leadership of the Church is set up but they follow more of the Baptist view on theology.
I think this is just one more reason why it is important for Christians to learn their history so that they can recognize the doctrines and practices being taught in their churches and make informed decisions about the biblical accuracy of both. You may find that you can agree with many teachers about various doctrines regardless of their denomination because we have many of the important tenants of our faith in common. However, you may also find irreconcilable differences that will make you wary of attending certain churches.
Whatever our disagreements, those of us who have accepted the Gospel that Jesus is the Son of God, that He came to earth as both fully God and fully man to live a perfect sinless life and die on our behalf on the cross then was raised to life on the third day. That we come to Him for the forgiveness of our sin by faith alone through grace alone then we will find that Christians of the big "C" church come from all sorts of small "c" church backgrounds and will be together with us in heaven one day.
Still, I encourage you, whatever denomination you come from that you study Scripture faithfully and discard from your tradition what is not found in the Word of God and seek always to have an understanding of who God is and what your relationship should be to Him as both a sinner before salvation and a sinner saved by grace.
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!