Christian Denominations

Posted on Apr 10, 2011 in Bible Studies, Frequently/Commonly Asked Questions

Why are there so many different denominations and churches? 

Jesus prayed that all believers should be one (see John 17) so the world would be convinced that He was all that He claimed to be; and it is very true the differences put people off and so they can claim, “ If you cannot agree, how can we be sure what you say is right and reliable?”

Complete unity is a great blessing; and, generally speaking, genuine believers – those born of the Spirit – share far more than the things that divide them. Nevertheless we should strive and pray for closer unity; and knowing why differences have arisen may well help us towards that aim. That in mind, we look briefly at the differences and why they have happened. Answers can be found in doctrinal and organisational/ecclesiastical differences.

  • Eastern Orthodox churches: The split happened long ago because the churches in the Eastern Mediterranean felt the Pope, bishop of Rome, was too dictatorial and also because they refused to accept that the Spirit was given through Jesus rather than from the Father initially (see filioque This happened in 1054 and still is not healed between Catholics and Orthodox. Orthodoxy rejects the notion of original sin as taught by Augustine.
  • Roman Catholics: Are loyal to the Pope (strong in Poland, Ukraine, Belgium, Iberia and Latin America). It was Luther’s conversion which led him to reject unbiblical doctrines and practices in the early decades of the sixteenth century. He was the first of Protestants.
  • Lutheranism: A church set up by Martin Luther challenging Catholic doctrines and Papacy. By 1550 most of Europe became Protestant of one sort or another (Lutheran, Calvinist or Anglican). A variety of Protestant churches exist so that one Catholic theologian could claim: “You all have the Bible but none of you agree about it!”.
  • Reformed/Presbyterian: Reformed churches are based on the doctrines and practices of John Calvin, a French reformer who worked in Geneva with Guillaume Farel and set up, supposedly, an ideal Christian city. Presbyterian comes from the Greek word presbuteros (an elder). They reject bishops and so govern through elders. The Kirk is Presbyterian and Calvinistic.
  • Anglicans: They are Episcopalian, derived from Greek for episkopos. Set up originally because Henry VIII broke with Rome; his daughter, Elizabeth I, laid the doctrinal and ecclesiastical basis of Anglicanism – supposedly a middle way between Rome and Geneva. The hierarchy is similar to that of Rome (bishops, priests etc). Some Anglicans are evangelical whilst others are close to Catholicism (High Church).
  • Methodism: A church set up following a great revival mainly through the evangelistic labours and organisational genius of John Wesley. One of the largest Dissenting bodies in the world. The Wesley brothers were Anglicans!
  • Baptists: They originate from radical Protestants and were wrongly called Anabaptists (“second baptizers”). They rejected christening or infant baptism and only baptised believers. Mennonites are an offshoot from the Anabaptists and were founded by Menno Simons (1496-1561). Preaching was open to men and women from the beginning. The Greek word for baptize means to dip or emerge, not to sprinkle.
  • Protestant churches: Churches going back to the Great Reformation of the seventeenth century and leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Knox and Cranmer. Methodism was, in fact, a re-affirmation of its main doctrines.
  • Evangelical: A term meaning a Christian who derives doctrine and practice from the Bible only. The Cross is central as is a personal experience of the new birth.
  • Sacramentarian: A person or church believing in the need for rites and sacraments for salvation. Baptism and Communion are means of Grace but salvation is sola fide (through faith alone).

Comparison of Facts & Stats
Comparison of Beliefs
Comparison of Practices
Comparison of Ethical Issues
Comparison of Catholic vs Protestant

Catholic Protestant
Authority Scripture and tradition Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone
Bible Includes apocrypha Excludes apocrypha
Results of Fall Corruption and tendency to sin Total depravity and guilt
Free will Free to do good or evil Free only to do evil
Predestination Related to God’s foreknowledge Related to God’s decrees
Atonement Death of Christ created merit that is shared with sinners through sacraments Death of Christ was a substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied God’s justice
Divine grace Prevenient grace helps one believe; efficacious grace cooperates with the human will to do good Common grace enabling good works given to all; sufficient grace for salvation given to elect only
Good works Meritorious Results of divine grace and unworthy of merit
Salvation Received at baptism; may be lost by mortal sin; regained by penance. Those who have never heard of Christ may be saved. (Catech 847) Result of divine grace; unconditional. Those who have never heard of Christ may be saved.
The Church The Catholic Church is “the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation” (Catech 845) but those baptized in other Christian denominations are in communion with the Church (Catech 838). There is a distinction between the visible and invisible church. God saves anyone he chooses, or anyone with proper faith, regardless of church membership.
Sacraments Convey grace by their operation (ex opere operato). Means of grace only if received with faith.
Priests A special vocation for some believers; mediators between God and man Priesthood of all believers.
Transubstantiation Affirmed Rejected
Purgatory Affirmed Denied
Prayer to saints Accepted Rejected

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