Christian Denominations

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 "Christian."

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.

Protestantism arose in the 16th century during the Reformation, which took place mainly in Germany, Switzerland, 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 "Protestant" 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 "denominations" within the Christian church as there are today.

Various offshoot groups certainly existed, but they were considered "heresies" 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 ("universal") 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 "Great Schism" 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 "Protestantism" as a movement officially began in 1529. That year marked the publication of the Protestation, directed at the imperial government. The authors, German princes who wanted the freedom to choose the faith of their territory, protested that "in matters which concern God's honor and salvation and the eternal life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God for himself." {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 Switzerland based on the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. When it spread to Scotland under John Knox, the Reformed faith became Presbyterianism. Switzerland was also the birthplace of the Anabaptists, spiritual ancestors of today's Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Baptists. Anglicanism was established in 1534 when England's 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.

Article Info

TitleChristian Denominations
UpdatedNovember 10, 2015
MLA Citation“Christian Denominations.” 10 Nov. 2015. Web. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016. <>