23,000 or More Protestant Denominations: a Myth of Catholic Apologists or a Documented Fact?

Dave Armstrong and Al Kresta

A Protestant on the "RCC-Evangelical Discussion List commented (about someone else, as it was):

Look, please cease from these false stats - you are LYING about your "separated brethren." Until you can demonstrate this, you are a liar. I asked for such once before, and you referred me to the yellow pages - where I didn't find 33,000 Protestant denoms. I assure you that I won't find 23,000 either.

I want to know if we as Christians are justified in inflating information to combat those we disagree with? Here is the deal on the denominations. I know what Catholics are trying to say. But I keep hearing these numbers thrown around - "33,000" and now "23,000." I must have heard this claim more times than I can count, and one day I suddenly thought to myself, "WHERE DO THEY GET THIS NUMBER FROM?????"

According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America [Protestant] (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990):

I have this book, so I have seen this with my own eyes. Barrett "classified them into seven major blocs and 156 ecclesiastical traditions." This is from Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982, of which he is the editor.

Also, according to United Nations there were over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations world-wide (World Census of Religious Activities [U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989]). This was cited in Frank Schaeffer's book Dancing Alone (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press, 1994), p. 4.

The 1999 Encyclopedia of Christianity has this to say:

Citing the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982: At this projected rate, there would be some 26,240 denominations by the end of 2000.

{information from Not by Faith Alone, Robert A. Sungenis, Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Pub. Co., 1997, p. xxx}

I've heard many times that this was "Roman apologist myth." Now that "lie" can be safely put out to pasture, having been exploded by reputable non-Catholic reference sources. I've been meaning to document this for some time now. I know that Catholic apologists are trustworthy, but of course that's not enough in controversy, so it was good to locate this documentation.

For website documentation (David Barrett's Global Evangelization Movement), see:

Here is a statement by an expert from the last-mentioned site above: Some opinions about the World Christian Encyclopedia:
The following material is a series of exchanges on the bulletin board (http://www.catholicfamilyradio.com) of Catholic Family Radio, Al Kresta's section. Al is a talk show host (Kresta in the Morning), my former pastor, and one of the eleven converts or "reverts" to the Church (including myself) who wrote their stories in the bestseller Surprised by Truth (edited by Patrick Madrid, San Diego: Basilica Press, 1994). Words of Protestants will be in blue, those of other Catholics in brown, and Al's words in plain black. My occasional comments will be bracketed ( [xyz] ).

From time to time I hear Catholic apologists demonstrate the degree of Protestant disagreement on Biblical issues by alleging that there are "28,000" different Protestant denominations out there. The number varies from person to person but seems breathtakingly large.

I'm wondering: Are they counting individual and independent Protestant churches when they come up with this figure? If so, it seems this is a bit misleading. My dictionary defines a denomination as: "a number of local congregations uniting in a single legal and administrative body." An independent church wouldn't fit this definition in my judgment.

Has anyone ever seen a list of 28,000, or however many denominations they say there are? Even if there are only a few--which I readily concede there are--this makes the point the apologists seek to drive home. But if they are exaggerating--kind of like the Park Service estimating the number of folks at a pro-choice rally--I think it's doing a disservice.

What I'm really trying to find out is how many denominations there really are by what means of counting? I frankly cannot imagine that there are really 28,000 different denominations (groups of churches) in the Protestant world. I suppose anything is possible, but what I am asking is where is the evidence of this or a list of some kind. Here's a typical quote from a typical apologetics web site: "The Protestant denominations, living in unhappy schism, 30,000 factions and sects and growing, are a scandal that gives Jesus a bad name and defames the Gospel." This is the website of a noted Catholic author. No doubt he has something to back this up, but what?


The Catholic Answers site claims 21,000 in 1986 and cites its source as The 1986 edition of the well-known Protestant reference work, The Christian Source Book {New York: Ballantine Books}:

[That same source asserted that 270 new groups arise every year, bringing the total to 24,780 by the end of 2000]

The claim that there are 28,000 Protestant denominations is absurd on its face. It is one of the favorite red herrings of pop Catholic apologists, yet has neither basis in fact, nor acceptance by serious theologians of either the Catholic or Protestant persuasion. I have yet to meet anyone who can back this claim by an even partial enumeration of the supposedly 28,000 different denominations. Inasmuch as the standard reference work, Handbook of Denominations In the United States, enumerates less than 240 Protestant denominations, (and, presumably, the US has more Protestant denominations than any other country in the world), one can only wonder where the other 27,760 are located.

Furthermore, if the determination of a distinct denomination is based upon the existence of a separate corporate entity, then every Roman Catholic diocese and Archdiocese in America is a separate denomination. Every Jesuit community, every Catholic hospital, every Catholic university: all are distinct denominations, by this corporate entity standard. So, how many Roman Catholic DENOMINATIONS, by this standard, exist? Frankly, I have no idea, but with a grant of a million or so bucks, I am sure I can hire a research team, and eventually come up with a plausable figure.

My point is, the defense of the Roman Catholic faith is not advanced by fallacies of logic: be they red herring, or reductio ad absurdum, they fail in any dialogue on religion. A religious tradition that claims Augustine and Aquinas deserves nothing less than a logical defense; a believer in Christ, no matter where he worships, should not embarrass his Lord, and offer less.


Can someone tell us exactly which criteria we should use to define "Denomination" so we can all get to the point? A loose definition would render the word denomination almost useless in these discussions. Obviously we need to know what we are talking about here.

Frank Mead's Handbook on Denominations has long been superceded as an authority of any consequence in the field. David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia which is considered the standard reference on the subject counted 22,150 distinct denominations in the world in 1985. Knowing Protestantism's tendency to try and preserve orthodoxy and zeal through the strategy of separation and division, I'm sure that number has grown in the last fifteen years. By the way, a revision of WCE is scheduled to be published in May, 2000. For about $400 you can be the proud owner. For my part, I'll try to sneak a review copy.

The definition Barrett worked with was that a denomination was "an organized Christian Church or tradition or religious group or community of believers or aggregate of worship centers or congregations, usually within a specific country, whose component congregations and members are called by the same name in different areas, regarding themselves as an autonomous Christian church distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions."

The reason your comparison with Catholic orders like Jesuits or Dominicans doesn't work is because these orders are not autonomous but are in union with the Holy See. The Catholic strategy has been to recognize great diversity in spirituality, mission and strategy but to maintain the true oneness that Christ said would characterise His Church. And that is one reason you should become a Catholic.

Al, I am not absolutely sure that I understand clearly the definition. Is it a single "church" or only two or more that are somehow banded together? A single church definition gets into counting every single unaffiliated church which seems unfair. It sounds like they mean two or more, but that phrase "an organized Christian Church" leaves room perhaps for counting the independents. As I have said before, I think the presence of even a few denominations makes the point argued, but still I want to be conservatively accurate should I ever publicly want to argue this point. That's a good point you make about the churches dividing to keep orthodoxy and zeal going. That really is at the core of nearly every church split or church fight isn't it?

To be clear: I don't know. Barrett's definition could include denominations of two or more assemblies in any given country that do not claim any juridical worldwide communion. For instance if Mead claims 240 bodies, how many of those have non-juridically connected bodies in other lands? Are the Assemblies of God in Madagascar formally and juridically united with the Assemblies of God in Springfield, MO? If not then we have two, not one Assembly of God. Multiply that by national conferences of Protestant groups that don't claim anything like a Lutheran World Federation and you have pretty fast geometric expansion from 240.

Think of the Lutheran World Federation: it can't even claim the Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Synod in the U.S. I know of dozens of other Lutheran splinter groups here in the U.S. and I haven't even spent time cataloging them; little Swedish Lutheran shootoffs who believe in some form of apostolic succession but can't agree on the succession. Norwegian bachelor farmers might even have a specific form of Lutheranism. Don't forget the role that ethnicity and nationalism has played in dividing Christian communities after the Reformation.

On the other hand, Barrett may include autonomous local churches who have no governing authority than their own. They are a denomination unto themselves. The key to the definition is juridical oversight and autonomy. I'm not sure that is unfair since these Christian bodies have no established juridical or doctrinal basis for communion with another formal body. They may practice open communion as we did when I pastored Shalom Ministry but we did not juridically affiliate with any of the Baptist or Assembly of God bodies that were ecclesiastically most similar to us because we wanted to remain autonomous and reform our doctrine and practices as we saw fit without interference from authoritative bodies not part of our daily community life.

A shorter definition than Barrett's used by the New Catholic Encyclopedia describes denominations as "juridically self governing, doctrinally autonomous and legally erected bodies." I like the simplicity of the definition.

There is another way of arguing the case which doesn't exaggerate the competition among non-Catholic Christians and that is to talk in terms of broad "confessions" and forget the juridical and governing aspect of Church life. In other words, forget the importance of practical church government and think in terms of broad creeds, theological systems, liturgical practices and confessional statements.

The Evangelisches Kirchenlexicon, first published in Germany in 1986 and now published in English (1999) by Eerdmans in American and Brill in the Netherlands, quoting Barrett, identifies over 40 confessions including Anglicanism, Greek Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Methodism, Roman Catholicism, and forty or so others.

This approach, while still failing to fully appreciate the necessity of visible oneness among God's people and the role that juridical authority plays in maintaining that oneness, at least has the virtue of appearing more charitable and focusing on confessional concepts rather than institutional unity.

For Catholics, however, institutional unity is a corollary of the Incarnation. We believe in One Body that is actualized in the material world and is more than just a set of ideas that joins believers together in a vague voluntary movement with no visible living source of juridical authority.

If we were to start a denominational ticking clock or the denominational McDonald's hamburgers sold sign, I think evangelicals, given their creativity and robustness, would proudly say this is a sign of their vitality and tenacious outreach. Praise God for their intrepidness. They are a fire outside the fireplace, great wine outside the winekins and sheep without a shepherd. Let them enter the Catholic Church and we would see dynamite in the next millennium.

The very fact that the Catholics who have responded thus far (and I believe I am the only non-Roman Catholic who has posted) have expressed such divergent opinions as to both the numbers involved and the criteria to establish what in fact constitutes a denomination, underscores my point: the usage of the 28,000 number by Keating and other pop apologists is arbitrary and capricious at its onset, and is a red herring in any substantive dialogue of this nature.

Yes, let's talk about 28,000 denominations or didn't you read my posts on Barrett's work? Show me a more thorough or consistent statistical rendering. Barrett is, after all (though I didn't mention it), the statistical editor for this series Eerdmans and Brill is publishing. I think only one volume is out. Come on, you're not really saying Barrett is a shill of the United Nations. Go ahead and ask your own hierarchy of experts within evangelicalism.

And more: from the same person (I believe) cited at the top of this page (with my own response):

The 33,000 (or whatever it is today) denominations argument really ticks me off every time I hear it.  I could see some cradle Catholic sourcing a text and sticking with this, but to hear former evangelicals do it just [makes me very angry].  My point?  You know better.

I don't know any better than the Protestant researchers, statisticians, sociologists (whatever they are: academics) who came up with these figures, not us zealous Catholic apologists. I defer to them. I always defer to people who are experts in some area that I am not an expert in (statistics and demographics, in this case). You get mad at me for simply citing Protestants about their own situation . . . that is where the absurdity truly lies in this particular discussion. Once one documents a fact from "hostile witness" sources that ought to be the end of it. But it wasn't for you. Why? Why do you get mad at the messenger, rather than the promulgator? Are you the type that gets angry at the weatherman when they give you a lousy forecast?

You have a big, sharp axe to grind about this. But that's not my problem. I have a huge problem with people who want to ignore hard facts (even if they are somewhat subjective and debatable statistics and categorizations) and continue on with the rhetoric, as if the figures weren't even presented. It's fine to question the criteria upon which these researchers based their findings - that's one thing. But you want to make some sort of point that we are hypocrites and special pleaders who "know better," simply because we cite Protestant sources. That just won't fly. You go moan and groan to your fellow Protestants who came up with the figures that frost you so much. Go see what they say, and then report back to me and we'll talk more if you like. Until then, your "point" falls on deaf ears, and no objective logician or researcher in the world would buy it, in my opinion.

You know good and well that if you deduct all of the modernist/liberal groups and all of the
fringe/cult/sect groups - you are left with a few clearly definable streams of evangelicalism that agree on essentials and enjoy a level of fellowship/cooperation.

There are relatively few broad categories, yes. But I have already admitted that. Big wow. It all depends on how one defines a "sect." And that is where your beef lies with the people I cited. Remember, the original stink over this was your claim that Catholic apologists were simply pulling these figures out of the air, as if they had no documented or objective basis whatsoever.

So - not one to refuse a challenge - I went and got the documentation (all from Protestant or secular sources, and drawing upon some research from my friend Al Kresta), but that wasn't good enough for you. You blew your stack and now charge that we Catholics are hypocrites simply for citing solid, reputable Protestant sociological analysis. I find it quite amusing. I guess - in your total exasperation - you have forgotten your original charge, so now you have changed the focus of your ire, from arbitrariness to hypocrisy and (strongly implied) deliberate deceit. Neither is true, of course.

If you have ever had the immense privelege (that's a joke) of sitting through a research and statistics class, then you understand how figures can be skewed beyond recognition yet still be 'scientific'.  It is done all of the time.

Then make your argument against the research, for Pete's sake. All the more reason if you have some training in stats. Simply sitting there, fuming at us, and making blanket statements about how figures can be skewed (which no one would deny: dimpled ballots come to mind) doesn't prove that the figures under consideration are also skewed. It is no argument. And I am not interested in rhetoric to the exclusion of rational argument (nor do I care for the heightened emotionalism you have brought into this, to no good end that I see). Righteous indignation is too valuable a resource to be wasted on trifles and wrongheaded concerns. :-)

Main Index & Search | Protestantism

Compiled by Dave Armstrong: 19 March 2000. Addition: 29 November 2000.