Denominations

SOURCES OF DENOMINATIONS

From the first century up to the Reformation (1500’s).  Click  here for printable blank diagram (keyed to the numbers below) 

During the first few centuries after Christ, most Christians lived in the Roman empire, in areas that used one of these two main languages: Greek or Latin.  The 1.  Greek speaking Christians lived in Greece and the part of the Roman Empire to the east of it, that included Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. They continue today as 2.  Orthodox churches.  Each church is named after its country, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.  The number of orthodox Christians was reduced when much of their land was taken over by 3.  Arab Muslims, who conquered most of the Middle East starting in the 600’s.  

There were also 4.  Latin Speaking Christians.  They lived in Europe, first under the Roman Empire. After the European part of the empire was over-run by Germanic tribes, the leadership of the European Christians was taken up by the bishop who lived in Rome.  Today, he is called the pope, and the Christians who look for him for leadership today make up the 5.  Roman Catholic Church.  

With few exceptions, most Christians were united during the first thousand years after Christ.  The Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church then split from each other, around the year 1000.  Here are three reasons: (1) language differences led to misunderstandings about theology and practice (2)  The European church (also called the “western” church) added a phrase to the Creed; (3)   The Orthodox Church (also called the “eastern orthodox” church) did not accept that the pope should be over all Christians.  See orthodox/catholic chart. for details.

 In the 1500’s, a number of leaders left the Roman Catholic Church. This event is called the (6) Reformation. The slogan of the Reformation is called the “three onlies:” “Bible only, Grace only, Faith only.”  The Roman Catholics did not accept the views expressed by the Reformers, so the Roman Catholic church removed them from the church, starting with Martin Luther in 1521.The expelled leaders went on to form the new denominations which we call  (7) “Protestant” churches.  The Roman Catholic church responded to the Reformation with the “Counter-Reformation”, during which they dealt with some abuses which the Protestants had criticized, such as allowing church offices to be sold for money.  At the same time, the Roman Catholics clarified that their teaching was different from the teaching expressed in the reformation slogan.  For more details, see Reformation chart..  

Major Groups formed at the Time of the Reformation    

 Most churches that developed at the time of the Reformation follow the teachings of one of these two men: Luther or Calvin.  8.  Martin Luther.  His followers were called Lutherans.  The Lutheran church began in Germany, and later became the primary church in the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland). More about Lutherans

 9.  John Calvin.  Most of the other Protestant churches have adopted his views.  Calvin agreed with Luther about the “three onlies” and the importance of justification by grace through faith. The differences between Luther and Calvin include views in these three areas:

a) Purpose of Bible. Luther’s emphasis was on the Bible as a place to find forgiveness through Christ.  Calvin’s emphasis was on the Bible as a place to find God’s will — what laws should be followed by people to show they are true Christians. 

b) theme of Bible: For Calvin, the main theme in the Bible was “the sovereignty of God;” for Luther, it was “the cradle in which we find Christ.”

c)  Approach to Bible.  Calvin, with his background as a lawyer, devised explanations for some Bible teachings that differ from Luther’s views.  Scroll down Reformation chart to the chart comparing Luther and Calvin.

In Europe, Calvin’s followers formed churches which are called 10. “reformed” churches, and many of these followers were found in Switzerland and Holland. Therefore a well-known Calvinist church of European origin is called the Dutch Reformed church (immigrants who brought that church to America have renamed it the Christian Reformed Church.)   See more people from the Reformation era

Non-Lutheran Protestant churches today can be divided into groups that insist on “double predestination” and others that in reaction stress man’s free will.  (Those that stress free will are called “Arminian,” after a Dutch Calvinist theologian named Arminius who around 1600 wrote against the ideas of “double predestination.”)  Scroll down reformation chart for more detail about Calvinism and Arminianism: look for the title TULIP.

 Most of the other major Protestant denominations were formed in one country: 11.  England.  12.  The Church of England was formed when the King of England took control of the English churches away from the pope, appointing the bishop at a city called Canterbury as church leader.  At first, the teachings of the church in England continued to be similar to Catholic teachings, but as the years went by the teachings came closer to Calvin’s.   Another name for this church is “Anglican.” After the American revolution, Americans in this church changed its name to “Episcopal.”  This term means “church organization in which authority is in the hands of  appointed leaders called “bishops.”  (The word “bishop” is a shortened version of the Greek word “episcopos” which means “supervisor.”)  Roman Catholic and Anglican churches both use an “Episcopal” system.

 English Christians who did not want to accept either the king or the pope as head of the church had to meet illegally, and are called 13. Dissenters.  Some of them remained in the Church of England in order to “purify” it from within, and are called 12a.  Puritans.  By “purify,” they meant making the church less Roman Catholic and more Calvinistic.  Those who did not remain in the Church of England are called 14. Separatists.  Many of today’s denominations trace their roots to these Calvinist-influenced separatists.  One clear difference among these churches is in the way they are organized.  Some of them felt that decisions for groups of churches should be made by elected representatives.  This system is called 15. Presbyterian.  This term comes from the Greek word “presbyter” which means “elder,” that is, mature church leader.  Scotland  adopted this system for its churches. (Presbyterian churches and Reformed churches are two names for the same understanding of Christianity).

 Some Dissenters and Puritans left England to seek religious freedom in America.  These immigrants are known as 16.  Pilgrims.  Many of them rejected both the “Episcopal” system and the “Presbyterian” system.  They felt each congregation should be independent.  Because of  this “congregational” system, their churches are called   Congregational Churches.  (The congregational approach held the upper hand in England for a while; they defeated the king militarily and executed him; but when their government ran into difficulties, and the English returned to the system of having kings, the Church of England again became the dominant church in England).  In 1954, most of the congregational churches in America took the name “United Church of Christ.” (UCC).  (Other well-known groups of dissenters who found freedom in America are the Friends (also called Quakers) and the Plymouth Brethren.)

 Meanwhile, there were some Christians in Europe who felt that there needed to be more separation between government and church.  They also taught that infant baptism was not effectual, and that those who professed faith as adults needed to be baptized again. They  were rejected by Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, who called them 17. Anabaptists.  (The Greek term “ana” means “again.”)  Mennonites and Amish are two groups of today who traced their origins to the Anabaptists.  Some English dissenters who fled to Europe adopted the Anabaptist teachings, and formed the church we call  18  Baptist.  Most of these churches use the “congregational” method of organization.  These churches see baptism and communion not so much as something God does to us, but more as something we are doing for God, as an act of obedience.  That view is reflected in calling these activities “ordinances” rather than “sacraments.”  Some Baptist churches today have adopted the “double predestination” approach, and others the Arminian (free-will) approach.

Churches Formed Since the Time of the Reformation 

 In the 1700’s, an important church figure was 19. John Wesley.  He was an Anglican priest who preached to the needy and formed them into Bible study groups. His followers created the 20. Methodist church.  This church got its name from the fact that Wesley was very methodical in putting believers into small Bible study groups.  The Methodist church exemplifies the “Arminian” (free-will) approach.Also in the mid-1800’s, some Methodists who hoped to recapture Wesley’s emphasis on striving for maturity in the Christian life founded the 21. Holiness churches.  The Holiness Churches teach that after God’s work of grace in Justification (God pronouncing that believers are not guilty in his sight), God means to do a second work to bring the believer to “entire sanctification.” (achieving a life of love and obedience). The “Church of the Nazarene” is a Holiness church.  
A group that wanted to recapture Wesley’s emphasis on reaching people who are down and out  is the Salvation Army.”  Also during the 1800’s, Christians among the Calvinistic groups who felt that the denominations should not be divided from one another withdrew and formed new groups, some of which are called “Disciples of Christ” and “Churches of Christ.” 

 Many people during the 1800’s were concerned with the second coming of Christ that would happen at the end of the world.  Churches that stressed this theme are called “Adventist” churches, since the word “advent” is a Latin word that means “coming.”   One church combined this emphasis with another idea: that Christians should obey the Old Testament directive to regard Saturday as the day dedicated to God.  This group is called the “Seventh Day Adventists.”

In 1900, some members of the Holiness church who wanted to recreate the activities found in the Book of Acts such as speaking in tongues and praying for miracles founded the 22. Pentecostal churches. They felt they had received a “third work” of grace, and gave it the label “Baptism in the Holy spirit.”  One well-known group is the “Assembly of God.”  By the 21st century, Pentecostal churches were the fastest growing of the Protestant churches, and had reached half a billion members worldwide, second only to the Catholic church in membership size. Starting in the 1960’s, some church members in the major historic churches adopted Pentecostal teachings that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for today, beginning the “charismatic” movement (charisma is the Greek work for “gifts).

 In the twentieth century, individual Christians who felt that their churches were moving away from the traditional view of the Bible broke away to form new churches.  Churches with names such as “Bible Church” and “Community Church” sometimes can be traced back to this movement.  To understand the church today, it is important to see how denominational differences are overshadowed by the differences in all the large, historic churches between liberals and conservatives. 

More links

See the 40-chapter presentation on church history on this website..

For a chart of how the church spread through the world, go to Spread of Christianity

For more details on the formation of denominations, see your library for a copy of the reference book Encyclopedia of American Religions, edited by J. Gordon Melton. If has several pages of background information on each of the church “families,” and then has descriptions of 1285 different church groups. For an online reference, see the Christian Cyclopedia