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Divisions of Christianity

There are literally hundreds of distinct divisions (denominations) of Christianity, thousands of subdivisions and sects not to mention untold numbers of independent "non-denominational" churches.

Suffice it to say: there are three main divisions of Christianity: Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic split from each other in the year 1054. Protestant churches broke away from the Roman Catholic beginning in the 16th century.

In addition, there are a number of ancient churches that developed independently of the above (e.g. the Coptic church in Egypt) and newer, American born churches that seem to have started almost from scratch (e.g., the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science). The founders of most of these newer churches had invariably grown up within one or another Protestant church, so we could argue that the churches they founded were breakaway churches from the mainstream Protestant. As such, these churches are often referred to as "sects" or "sectarian" churches. Europe saw it's own development of sectarian churches in the 17th century. Many of these came to America to escape the persecution they faced from the mainstream Protestant churches they broke away from.

Making any semblance of order out of this "chaos" is much like categorizing the species of animals on earth. It is a matter of placing them in family groups based more or less on the historical evolution (development) of various denominations out of parent denominations. But, invariably, there are a few groups that are so unique as to be a category unto themselves.

What distinguishes these churches from one another may be major or minor differences of opinion regarding theology and/or liturgical practice. In addition, the last generation or two has seen an increasing distinction being made between morally conservative and morally liberal churches. 

Remember, no matter how complex the following sounds, it is an attempt to simplify the issue of divisions within Christianity. I dare say it is beyond anyone's ability to make total sense of it all with any accuracy and without leaving anything out. Indeed, I have not even discussed here churches with such ancient roots (e.g. the Coptic church in Egypt) that don't even relate historically to any of the others discussed here.

Webpages of interest at


The first 1000 years:

To make a complex subject a bit too simple we can begin with the first major division to take place: the division between the Eastern and Western churches of the "Holy Roman Empire". The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split from each other in the year 1054. Interestingly, each claims to be the "original" Christian church and that the other broke away from it. It's all a matter of perspective. It might be more accurate to say that for the first 1000 years of Christian history there was one Christian church or that where were many regional churches, each headed by its own bishop but more or less in "communion" (and communication) with one another. It was only gradually, over many centuries, that the bishops of Rome (a.k.a., the Pope) in the West and Constantinople in the East became more politically influential than the other bishops (because Rome and Constantinople happened to be the two major political seats of the Roman Empire). 

The official split between the Roman Catholic (Western) church and the Eastern Orthodox church occurred in the year 1054 when, essentially, the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Constantinople excommunicated each other from "The Church" - cutting each other off from participating in the communion meal (and in communion with each other) in their respective churches. But this break was the "last straw". The gaps between east and west had been growing for many centuries and were based on cultural, political and liturgical as well as theological differences of opinion.


The Eastern Orthodox churches:

The Eastern churches are nationally and ethnically based - so we have the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, Rumanian Orthodox, etc. Upwards of 15 national churches run more or less independently of one another, each with it's own hierarchy of leadership under their own archbishops. This is called "autocephalous" - self-ruling (literally, self-headed). They do maintain friendly relations and periodic communication with each other. In contrast to the more familiar Roman Catholic church, the Eastern churches have developed the liturgy into an art form and a feast for the senses (the liturgy is chanted, there is much use of incense and iconic art work) and for the spirit - mystical experience is encouraged within this church so as to "divinize" the human experience through encounter with the divine.


The Catholic Church:

The Roman Catholic church has maintained the most unity of all Christian denominations - claiming almost 1 billion followers (approximately half of all Christians in the world) under a hierarchical leadership headed by the Pope in Rome. The very name "catholic" means "universal" - this is seen as a universal religion. As such, maintaining unity of theology, morality and practice is extremely important. If such was not maintained the unity and universality would be destroyed. There is, officially, only one Catholic church. A church cannot be "Catholic" and, at the same time, not follow the dictates of Rome. Although that has not stopped renegade priests and bishops who take off on their own. These are considered "heresies" by the Church in Rome and are threatened with excommunication - to be cut off from Rome - if they continue to go their own way. Over the centuries, while the Eastern church was developing the liturgy, the Catholic church was developing a more and more complex theology. Contrary to the image the Catholic church projects to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, this church has gone through many changes. It was less than two centuries ago that the Pope was officially declared "infallible" (when speaking on matters of faith and morals). It was also less than two centuries ago that the doctrine of the "immaculate conception" of Mary was declared. The doctrine of purgatory has not always existed and practices such as the "sale" of indulgences have ceased. But, when changes do take place, they do so across the board - universally within the Catholic faith.


Contrasting Roman Catholic and Protestant churches:

For the Catholic church, "Church teaching" (or "tradition") is just as important as the scripture upon which this teaching is based. It was the "doctors" of the church, well versed in the Bible, who proceeded to interpret it for the people. Remember, at this point in history, Bibles were handwritten by scribes (usually monks), there were few to go around and few people could read (since there were not a lot of books there was no need to read). If the people wanted to know what scripture said they had to rely on the priests to tell them.

In contrast to the Roman Catholic focus on Church teachings, Protestant churches are much more focused on scripture as the only primary source. Remember the time frame when the Protestant churches developed: in the Age of Reason with the advent of the printing press and subsequent mass production of Bibles and increasing literacy amongst the common man. All this coalesced in followers of the Christian faith taking a close look at the Bible for themselves. In doing so, they often found that they had their own take on what various passages of scripture meant and how they were to be applied in everyday life, in worship and in church organization. If these people's ideas conflicted with Catholic teachings (or, as time went on, with the teachings of their own mainstream Protestant church) the people felt motivated to begin their own church based on what they perceived to be a more correct understanding and application of scripture.

The Protestant churches owe their existence to Guttenberg's invention - the printing press - and the way that invention changed the intellectual life of Europe from the 16th century on.


The Protestant churches:

Believe it or not, all of the thousands of Protestant churches can be grouped under four main headings:

The Lutherans:

The Protestant movement is actually a breakaway from the Roman Catholic church. Although in the making for a century or more, the official date for the start of this version of Christianity is October 31, 1517 - the day Martin Luther, a monk and priest in the Roman Catholic church, nailed his famous "95 Thesis" to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was a decade or so later, after much deliberation and determination on Luther's part, that Luther was declared a "heretic" and officially excommunicated from the Church. This did not stop him as he proceeded to found his own church - the Lutheran Church. Luther likely owes his success to the timing of his work - he had access to that "new" invention, the printing press, with which to publish his writings and spread them quickly far and wide - thus was he a strong influence in 16th century Europe. Today there are a number of different "synods" of Lutheran churches around the world more or less in communion with one another - some more some less - but each running essentially independently of each other.

The Anglicans:

The Lutheran church was not the only Protestant denomination to develop. Also in the 16th century, in England, the Anglican church (Church of England) began as the King of England rejected leadership from Rome. For the most part, the Anglican or, as it is known in America, the Episcopal Church remains the closest to the Roman Catholic in practice and organizational structure (sans Pope). There are "high" and "low" Anglican churches - "high" being most like the Catholics, "low" being more like any other Protestant church. 

A number of breakaway groups evolved from the Anglican church including Methodists and the Puritans and some sectarian groups such as the Quakers. (A "sectarian" group tends to be smaller and more critical of the larger society, sometimes even physically separated from it. The Amish are a good example of such a group.) Each of these groups have spawned subgroups. Thus there are different kinds of Methodist churches, different kinds of Quakers and the Puritans in America divided into the Congregationalists and Unitarians.

Calvinist/Reformed churches:

Another 16th century leader of another "family" of Protestant churches was John Calvin. Various churches developed from his teachings including the Presbyterian church (best known for it's adoption of Calvin's teaching regarding "double predestination" and a rejection of freewill - since that would mean that a human being could override the will of God) and the family of Reformed churches including the "Church of Christ". These "reformed" churches reformed both the theology as well as the practice of the church.

Sectarian churches:

In the centuries that followed the initial Protestant developments, a number of independent breakaway churches developed from these "parent" Protestant groups. These are often referred to as "sectarian" (see above) or "Anabaptist" churches. Called Anabaptist (meaning "second baptizers") because they believed a Christian should be baptized as an adult, not an infant. People who joined these churches from other established "mainstream" churches had already been baptized as infants in the other church. In joining these Anabaptist churches, they were baptized again. These breakaway sects often met with persecution from the more mainstream Protestants they broke away from.


American born churches:

America was founded by both the mainstream as well as sectarian based Christians. The sectarians were the first to settle here seeking freedom from the religious persecution they met with in Europe (the Pilgrims were sectarian Puritans from England seeking to escape the hold the Church of England had over them).

In addition to the earlier European based Protestant churches, there are others that developed right here in the New World - mostly in the 19th century. These include seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science and others that more or less "wiped the slate clean" and "started from scratch". These newer churches or "sects" used scripture and personal spiritual experience as the basis for building a new vision of Christian faith and practice.

The founders of most of these newer churches had invariably grown up within one or another Protestant church, so we could argue that the churches they founded were breakaway churches from the mainstream Protestant groups. It is interesting to note that many of these younger, American born churches are looked at with suspicion by the more mainstream, European based Christian groups. America, of course, has most of these churches - mainstream, sectarian and "home grown" American denominations in addition to Roman Catholic and a smattering of Eastern Orthodox and others. 


Ecumenism & inter(non)-denominationalism:

In the last century there has been a move to reunite these countless church denominations if not bringing two or more back together under one organization (four previously independent churches - Reformed, Evangelical, Congregationalist and Church of Christ - are now one in the "United Church of Christ") then at least to work together in cooperation through umbrella "ecumenical" organizations such as the "Council of Churches" which brings together many Protestant denominations. 

Yet, another twentieth century development has been the growing number of independent, non-denominational churches. As individual churches, they bring together individual Christians from many backgrounds. But, as individual churches, they have little if any organizational relationship with other church groups.

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Created by Laura Ellen Shulman 
Last updated: October 2002