It can be perplexing to see the plethora of Christian denominations. Sometimes you see two different churches right opposite each other – it seems scandalous! Surely Jesus called us to be united?
Although most denominational divisions originated in disagreement – some of it quite bitter – the kaleidoscope we now see is best understood as an expression of diversity within unity. Even the process of a church dividing can represent the common desire of different individuals and groups to serve God faithfully. The tragic thing is that often there has not been enough opportunity for mediatorial leaders to bring a working agreement and process of going forward together.
Nonetheless, it is also observable that a few decades (in some cases centuries!) after all the fighting, the descendants of those churches find a longing in Christ to overcome their differences and work together. This does not mean abandoning the cultural, political, or theological differences we have, but the Spirit of Christ has put into our hearts and minds the bigger issue of being equally members of his body.
The rest of this page will describe some of the main denominations and how they came into being.
A bit of history
Two movements were the main causes of the divisions that exist today. The first is known as the ‘Great Schism’ between East and West – usually dated around 1054, though the debates between Greek and Latin Christianity had been going for centuries previous. The second is known as the Reformation, and took place in the 16th Century. This was the beginning of the Protestant churches.
One of the main causes of the Great Schism was a rejection of the Pope’s claim to have supreme authority over the church. Another immediate cause was that the Western church added a clause to the Nicene Creed, saying that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son” instead of just the Father.
The best known members of the Orthodox Church are the Greek and Russian, but there are several others, mainly in Eastern Europe the Eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. Authority does not belong to any individual, but to a Council, with each church having its own Patriarch.
The Roman Catholic Church
The largest single Christian grouping, Roman Catholics are those who acknowledge the primacy and authority of the pope. When said to be speaking with full authority and defining matters of faith or morals, the pope’s utterances are regarded as infallible and binding upon all Catholics. At the centre of Roman Catholic life and worship is the Mass – ie, the communion service.
Anglicans & Church of England
The Anglican Church or ‘Anglican Communion’ is a worldwide’ family of Churches in fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose status amongst the heads of other Anglican Churches is ‘first among equals’. Despite being a Protestant Church, rooted in the Reformation, Anglicanism retained a Catholic type of ministry and a liturgy heavily indebted to her Catholic past, but rejecting the pope’s authority, and the Catholic understanding of the mass.
The Lutheran Church, embodying the teaching of the German Reformer, Martin Luther, represents the chief Protestant presence in Germany and Scandinavia, from where it has found adherents across the world. The normal form of government is by an assembly (synod) presided over by a general superintendent. Lutheranism has a largely conservative attitude towards liturgy, although the preaching of the sermon has always been central.
The Presbyterian Churches followed the principles of the Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and like the Lutherans stressed the authority of the Bible. Calvinism also had a strong influence of the foundational doctrine of the Anglican Church. Like other Reformed Churches, Presbyterians have a simple approach to worship, in which the reading and preaching of Scripture, extempore prayers and the singing of psalms and hymns are basic.
Congregationalists beginning in the 17th Century, stress the independence of the local Church over against any involvement with the national Anglican Church. The United Reformed Church is a merger of Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
Baptist Churches, now to be found across the world, reject the baptism of infants, claiming that baptism was given as a sign of an adult’s declaration of faith. Baptist Churches are essentially independent, and like the other Reformed Churches, they stress the importance of scripture.
Methodist Churches owe their origin to the ‘evangelical revivals’ of the eighteenth century, and the evangelistic activity of John Wesley. Methodist Churches are organized into ‘circuits’ and ‘districts’. Styles of worship include both the highly sacramental and less formal. Methodists have a significant tradition of social awareness and action.
Pentecostal & Charismatic Churches
Pentecostal and “New” or “House” Churches emphasise the role of the Holy Spirit. The churches are fast-growing, particularly in South America. Services are often characterized an emphasis on music in worship, and the exercise of spiritual gifts within the congregation. Although there have always been Christians who have exercised spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing, even speaking in tongues, Pentecostalism as we know it today only really began at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and the “House” church movement took root in the 1960s – 70s. Many New Churches today call themselves “Non-Denominational”.
The Salvation Army
The Salvationists started in the 19th century under William Booth, to bring the gospel and social action to the poor, especially in inner-city areas. Members reject the sacraments and are tee-total.
The Quakers, or Society of Friends, meet for mainly silent worship and inner guidance, and also stress social action. They reject the sacraments and definitions of the faith.
Christian Brethren are independent groups without hierarchy stressing the different ministries of every member. They also stress the primacy of the Bible and are active in missionary work.
Part of the material contained within this page is copyright © 2003 Richard Dormandy