Our editors assembled this list of different Christian doctrines and theologies so you can have the denominations explained.
There have grown to be a multitude of different Christian doctrines and theologies throughout church history. With various Christian denominations claiming to be the truest form of the church, it can be confusing to know all the different perspectives of each. In order to gain a well-rounded view of the faith, and ultimately grow your faith in Jesus Christ, it can be a great exercise to know all the types of theologies in Christianity.
There are subtle but extremely important differences between different Christian doctrines, especially within the Protestant Church. This different Christian denominations list aims to explore all the relevant Christian worldviews with an eye on exploring rituals, interpretations, and divisions that take place within each church. It aims to help you understand the different Christian theologies through six key points of comparison, as well as a description of each church’s values.
To obtain a broader perspective, this resource begins with a comparison of the main three different Christian doctrines that all the others fit under: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
The Different Christian Doctrines, Theologies, and Denominations Explained
The earliest document that mentions the “Catholic” Church goes back to the year 107 in a letter written by Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch. The word Catholic means “universal.” So, it must be understood that the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today is not what was being referenced all these years ago. This early letter was just the origin of what the modern Catholic Church would become.
The basis of Catholic doctrine comes from what the Church calls “Apostolic Succession.” They believe that Jesus appointed the first bishops, who then appointed bishops themselves, and so on and so forth until the bishops present today. This tradition is invaluable to them as they are able to trace their leadership all the way back to Jesus Himself. That’s precisely why this Apostolic tradition, alongside the Bible, forms the basis of their doctrine. Also noteworthy is that the Catholic Bible contains 73 books instead of the typical 66 that Protestants are accustomed to.
What are some of the main differences you’ll see between Catholics and Protestant denominations? First, the recognition of the Pope leading the church. The Catholic Church believes that the Pope is an infallible stand-in for Christ. The Protestant Church believes that none but Jesus Himself heads the Church.
The Catholic Church also have two very strong beliefs about Mary, Jesus’ mother, that Protestants don’t hold. First, Catholics believe that Mary was conceived without original sin. They also believe that Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. While they don’t worship Mary as divine, the doctrine of the Catholic Church often comes so close that it makes Protestants uncomfortable.
Another interesting difference is that the Catholic Church believes only the Roman Catholic Church has the authority to interpret the Bible. Protestants believe that each individual can interpret the Bible for themselves. The Catholic Church has seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. Protestant Churches will vary in their sacraments, as this resource will explore more deeply, but most only practice the Eucharist (communion), baptism, and matrimony.
The idea of the Priest or Pastor role is also very different in the Catholic Church. Catholic priests are called “Father” and live nearly monastic lifestyles of celibacy. In the Protestant Church, Pastors are always allowed, and even encouraged, to be married and have families.
A major difference between Catholic Church procedure when compared to the Protestants (that is also a belief of the Orthodox Church) is the belief in transubstantiation. That doctrine says, in a completely mystical way, that when the Priest blesses the bread and wine used in the Eucharist, it becomes the actual body and blood of Christ Himself. They hold the communal elements in such reverence in light of this that every one of their church services is centered around the Eucharist.
From the time of the Apostles to the year 1054, the church was largely united. But in that fateful year, an event called The Great Schism occurred. The Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope, sent a notice of excommunication to the church in Constantinople because they would not recognize his authority over the other bishops. This split more clearly developed the difference between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of today.
Without proper study and perspective, it may seem as if the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are largely the same, they are actually quite different and have many major distinctions between them. These differences are based upon a fundamental disagreement in theology. The Roman Catholic Church was built upon a foundation of western culture and theology while the Orthodox Church retained the eastern theology of the ancient church.
The Orthodox Church does not recognize the Pope as having authority over the Church. For all matters of governance in the church, a council of bishops comes together and must agree unanimously in order to enact any changes. While the Orthodox Church does have priests, their priests are allowed to marry and have children.
Another way the Orthodox and Catholic Churches differ is in their view of Apostolic Succession, the teaching that bishops represent a direct, uninterrupted line of continuity from the Apostles. This difference occurs because of the office of the Pope. Since the Orthodox do not recognize his authority, they have traced their idea of Apostolic Succession in a different way.
The term “Protestant” covers a lot of ground. There are many different Protestant denominations that we will profile in this resource. But first, it’s important to have an understanding of what it means to be a part of the Protestant Church in the first place, especially when compared to Catholicism or Orthodoxy.
This movement has its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. At the time, the church was made up largely of Catholic and Orthodox denominations. A Catholic monk named Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses in an attempt to bring reformation to the Catholic Church. This happened during a time when the Catholic Church practiced many traditions, like the sale of indulgences, that made even those within the denomination uncomfortable.
Such a strong move toward reforming the Church was bold for its time and Martin Luther’s actions inspired many others to follow in his footsteps. Lutheranism (the beliefs of those who followed the ideas and teachings of Martin Luther) spread from Germany into Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Iceland. Calvinism (the beliefs of those who followed the ideas and teachings of theologian and Pastor John Calvin) spread in Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Scotland, Switzerland, and France. Additionally, the Church of England politically separated from the Pope under King Henry VIII. That event gave birth to the rise of the Anglican/Episcopal Church.
Today, Protestantism (in its many forms) makes up the second largest number of Christians behind Catholicism. Protestantism is the most diverse of the three main branches of Christianity, and there are roughly 200 major Protestant Christian denominations in the world, with thousands of smaller ones in tow. While there are small differences between the Protestant denominations, they were all born out of the Protestant Reformation and the desire to see change come to a church that to some was deviating too far from Biblical doctrine.
The following chart shows how the main splits occurred. Here we can clearly trace the origins of the different Christian churches in the world.
Points of Comparison
Before delving deeply into the differences between Christian denominations, it’s helpful to take a birds-eye view of their beliefs on the main tenants of Christian doctrine. As you take a look at the chart below, will see that most of these denominations are actually quite similar in all of the major aspects of the Christian faith. This makes sense, as most will consider the other denominations to be Christian as well. What we learn from this is that the differences between denominations isn’t that all that significant, but rather matters of history, practice, and interpretation:
|.||Basis for Doctrine||The Trinity||The Divinity of Christ||
Salvation: Faith or Works?
|Sin and Atonement||Free Will|
|Catholic||Creeds, Bible +
|One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith and Works||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Confession.
|Orthodox||Creeds, Bible + Tradition||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith and works||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Confession.
|Lutheran||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Baptist||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Methodist||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Presbyterian||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Reformed||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Pentecostal||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Evangelical Free||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Anglican||Ecumenical Creeds, Bible, + Tradition||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Church of Christ||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Salvation Army||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
Amish and Mennonite
|Bible + Tradition (The Ordnung)||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith, Works, and Separation||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Seventh Day Adventists||Scripture Alone||One nature in three persons||Christ is God Incarnate||Faith Alone||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Latter-Day Saints||Scripture + Book of Mormon||Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are SEPARATE Gods||Christ is Divine but a Distinct Being from God||Faith + Works||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
|Jehovah’s Witnesses||Scripture + Jehovah’s Witnesses Tradition||No Trinity. Jesus is Inferior to God||Jesus was a Perfect Man, but not God in the Flesh.||Faith + Works||Humanity= Inherently Sinful.
Atonement through Faith in Christ.
The nature of Satan, angels, and demons is be another major point of comparison between various Christian creeds. However, the Scriptures are clear on these doctrines and thus, all the different Christian denominations share similar beliefs regarding the spiritual realm. The question isn’t whether or not they exist, but rather how much emphasis is placed on their existence.
For example, many churches emphasize the utilization of one’s spiritual gifts for use in spiritual warfare against Satan and his evil forces. Other Christian theologies emphasize personal holiness and adherence to God’s ways for the betterment of self. As for the presence of angels, most churches don’t speak much to their nature as they are left quite mysterious in the Bible. Opinions and teachings on angels tend more to be matters of personal belief among different Christian faiths.
Next it’s imperative to explore the sixteen most prominent Protestant Christian denominations in-depth. As a result, one will be able to see the main differences in practice and doctrine that separate these different bodies of believers from one another. There are many more than appear on this list, but these are the most prominent Protestant denominations in our modern world.
Though this denomination is named after Martin Luther, it’s essential to remember that he did not start this church himself. Rather, it operates according to his theology and teachings. Martin Luther was not necessarily trying to create a multitude of denominations during the Protestant Reformation, he was merely attempting to bring needed reform to the Catholic Church.
That’s why you’ll see a lot of similarities between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. The Lutheran Church is a very liturgical faith. Oftentimes you’ll even see deacons up-front alongside the Pastors to help with the liturgical rites during service.
The Lutheran Church has a board of elected councils that are the head of the church. They do not recognize the authority of the Pope. Also, they do not hold to the tradition of Apostolic Succession. In the Lutheran Church, the Bible alone is the only source of truth. Instead of having seven sacraments, the Lutheran Church only has two: Baptism and Communion.
Lutheranism is one of the largest branches of Protestantism with an estimated 80 million adherents in all corners of the globe. There are many different branches of Lutheranism, but with only slight differences. The main variances seen between the churches come in terms of missionary focus. For example, the Global Confessional and Missional Lutheran Forum is a branch of Lutheranism that emphasizes missional discipleship as the focal point of their ministry.
The Baptists are another major branch of Evangelical Christianity with a focus on Baptism by full immersion to professing believers only. While the Baptist tradition can vary with many different sub-groups around the world, they typically subscribe to the following beliefs:
- Soul Competency: The responsibility and accountability of every person before God.
- Sola Fide: Salvation by faith alone.
- Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone as the rule of faith and practice.
- Congregationalist Church Government: The independence of local church bodies.
- Two Ordinances: Baptism and Communion.
Diverse from their beginning, those identifying as Baptists today differ widely from one another in what they believe, how they worship, their attitudes toward other Christians, and their understanding of what is important in Christian discipleship.
Historians trace the earliest “Baptist” Church to 1609 in Amsterdam, Dutch Republic with English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In accordance with his reading of the New Testament, he rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. Baptist practice spread to England, where the General Baptists considered Christ’s atonement to extend to all people, while the Particular Baptists believed that it extended only to the elect. Thomas Helwys formulated a distinctively Baptist request that the church and the state be kept separate in matters of law, so that individuals might have freedom of religion. Helwys died in prison as a consequence of the religious conflict with English dissenters under James I. In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the First and Second Great Awakening increased church membership in the United States. Baptist missionaries have now spread their faith to every continent.
Because there is no hierarchical authority in the Baptist Church and each local body remains autonomous, there is no one set version of Baptist beliefs. Some areas of difference in beliefs occur in the following areas:
- The end-times
- Speaking in tongues and the use of charismatic gifts
- How the Bible should be interpreted
- If or if not non-members can participate in Communion
- Which translation Scriptures is appropriate (King James Bible only Baptists)
- Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology
- The ordinance of women as deacons or pastors
The roots of the Methodist Church go back to England in the 1730s. John and Charles Wesley were missionaries from the Church of England, and after facing discouragement from their missionary journeys, they sought spiritual renewal. This led to a broad movement within the Church of England that was brought to America by colonists. As a result, the Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in Baltimore in 1784.
Now, the United Methodist Church is one of the largest mainline American denominations with roughly 12 million members in 42,000 congregations. The United Methodist Church is the designation you’ll see on most Methodist churches, and was formed in 1968 as a result of the merger between the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church.
Methodist belief emphasizes personal holiness and the need for an experience of salvation. The Methodist Church largely follows Wesleyan theology. This theology has a focus on the sinfulness of man, the holiness of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, as well as the literal death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the basis for the salvation of humanity.
While it has those things in common with most of the other mainline Christian denominations, it does have a unique and notable difference. The Methodist Church has a book called The Methodist Book of Discipline. This book details the plan by which the United Methodist Church governs themselves. It includes the church’s constitution, history, and doctrinal standards as well.
Presbyterianism is a part of the Calvinist tradition that traces its origin to the Church of Scotland. The Calvinist movement follows the theology and teachings of Reformation-era theologian John Calvin. That theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible.
Calvinists differ from Lutherans on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, liturgical practice, the meaning and purpose of Baptism, and the use of God’s law for believers. Another doctrine that is heavily tied to Calvinism is the doctrine of predestination; that God has chosen some to for eternal salvation and others for eternal damnation.
There is much focus on the “Five Points of Calvinism.” They are as follows:
- Human Will: Humanity possesses free will but it is in bondage to sin until it is transformed. This is known as “total depravity.”
- Election: Unconditional election, also known as predestination.
- Justification and Atonement: Justification by faith alone.
- Conversion: Grace through faith and predetermined by God.
- Perseverance and Apostasy: The perseverance of the Saints is the belief that the eternally elect in Christ will persevere in the faith until the end of their lives.
Presbyterians and Calvinists at large are supporters of Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology describes the way that God enters into relationship with humanity throughout history. The framework of this theology revolves around two covenants that God has made with mankind throughout history: first, the Covenant of Works, and later, the Covenant of Grace.
The Covenant of Works was made with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This covenant dictated that Adam and Eve would obey God’s laws and He would provide them with a blessed life free of pain, sickness, and death. Sadly, Adam and Eve broke that covenant and ate of the forbidden fruit. As a result, they became subject to death and lost access to the garden. Adam and Eve passed down their sinful nature to all of humanity. Their disobedience toward God would mean all of humanity would be born inherently sinful (original sin).
The Covenant of Grace was made immediately following Adam and Eve’s sin. Through this covenant, God offers salvation on the basis of faithful and genuine belief in Him. This covenant is expressed in different ways throughout the Old and New Testament, but it always centers around not having a requirement of perfect obedience, since no man outside of Jesus has ever lived such a life.
The Presbyterian Church uses what they call a “Book of Order” to regulate common practice among member churches. They practice Baptism and Communion, believing in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist in the spiritual sense but not the physical one.
There are many different branches within the Presbyterian Church. Covering them all would require a resource at least this length, so our editors decided to briefly explore the four major Presbyterian Churches that exist in the United States today:
- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (often abbreviated as PCUSA) was established by the 1983 merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were located mainly in the South and in border states, with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every state.
- Because of a perceived drift away from the orthodox faith by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members, such as a denial by some leaders that the Bible was without error and belief that such doctrines like Christ’s substitutionary atonement were not essential, a group of 34 ministers, 17 ruling elders, and 79 laymen met in 1936 to constitute the Presbyterian Church of America. Because of a lawsuit brought by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the name of the new church was changed in 1939 to The Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
- In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America separated from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in opposition to long-developing theological liberalism, which denied the deity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. In 1982, the Reformed Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Synod joined the Presbyterian Church in America.
- The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) formed in 1981 when leaders from both branches of mainline Presbyterianism became increasingly distressed by theological liberalism and institutional resistance to change in their denominations. The split occurred primarily because of differing views on women’s ordination (which they considered non-essential) and orthodox teachings on the nature of Christ (which they considered essential).
The Reformed Church
The Reformed Church is similar to the Presbyterian branch as they are adherents of Calvinism. There are two main branches within the Reformed Church family tree in America: Dutch Reformed and German Reformed. Both represent denominations that separated from the Roman Catholic Church as part of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The Dutch Reformed branch can be traced back to the Dutch settlers who gathered in New Amsterdam in 1628 while the German Reformed branch was started by German immigrants who settled around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. These two branches have much in common yet have remained distinct throughout history.
The Dutch Reformed Church maintained ecclesiastical ties to Holland until 1819, when they were incorporated as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. In 1867, the name was changed to the Reformed Church in America which now has over 300,000 members and is a founding member of the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. According to their website, the branch seeks “to strike a balance between accepting people the way they are and encouraging them to live by Christian standards of fidelity, forgiveness, and growth.”
With 268,000 current members, the Christian Reformed Church was formed in 1857 when several congregations in Michigan split from the Dutch Reformed Church over a perceived lack of solid doctrine and Biblical practice. Abraham Kuyper was a key leader in building the new denomination, helping it focus on the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life as written in Ephesians 1:22. A key distinctive of the denomination is to “take on the world for Christ”—using Christian schools, institutions, and organizations to make God’s redemptive and recreating work a reality in the marketplace, city hall, and factory. Cornelius Plantinga, Reformed theologian and president of Calvin Theological Seminary, once wrote: “Our accents lie more on the sovereignty of God, on the authority of Scripture, on the need for disciplined holiness in personal Christian life, and finally, on Christianity as a religion of the Kingdom.”
The German Reformed Church was formed in 1725 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and eventually took the name Reformed Church in the US (RCUS). One of the great leaders of this church was Philip Schaff, who was a highly respected writer and editor. His works on church history and the Apostolic Fathers are still widely regarded today, more than 100 years after his death. In 1934, the RCUS merged with the Evangelical Synod of North America to form the United Church of Christ. A sizable group of churches rejected that merger and formed a reorganized church retaining the name RCUS.
Reformed Theology is a doctrine that is taught by many different denominations, including Presbyterian and some Baptist congregations. This doctrine reflects the teachings of Protestant reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and is also referred to as Calvinism. The Synod of Dort (1618) was called to answer the teachings of Arminianism and summarized Calvinist doctrine in five points:
- Total Depravity of Man
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
These five points are often referred to by the acronym “TULIP.” Reformed theologians have added a great deal of knowledge to the church at large and are generally respected for their scholarship.
Pentecostalism is a fairly modern denomination that can be traced back to the Holiness Movement in the Methodist Church. A major focus of Pentecostal churches is Holy Spirit baptism as evidenced by speaking in tongues. There are approximately 170 different denominations that identify themselves as Pentecostal.
Toward the end of the 19th century, there was a dramatic rise in religious fervor as various groups anticipated the end of history and the return of Christ in 1900. Much of this fervor was driven by the revival meetings held by those in the Holiness Movement, and there were occasional reports of people speaking in tongues.
Many new churches and missions were founded across America which carried the new emphasis on seeking the baptism of the Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues. Today, there are millions of denominational Pentecostals and millions more who identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic in mainline churches.
There are three main divisions within the Pentecostal Church. The original group which came out of the Holiness churches sees three progressive steps in the life of a believer which indicate growth and blessing. The first step is justification, which is the forgiveness of sins that comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ. The second step is sanctification, or the second blessing. The essence of this doctrine is an inner purity of heart and an infusion of power, whereby the believer no longer practices sin. This is sometimes followed by a third step, the “baptism of the Spirit,” as evidenced by speaking in tongues or other signs.
The second division is comprised of those who came out of a Baptist background but were heavily influenced by the Holiness revivals of the late 1800s. The key difference in doctrine for this group is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is available for anyone, regardless of attaining sanctification.
The third division is the Oneness Pentecostals. At the meeting which formed the Church of God in Christ in 1914, there was intense debate over Trinitarian Doctrine. While the majority of Holiness believers held to the traditional belief in the Trinity, there was a growing group which held to a modalist belief and affirmed that baptism should be done in Jesus’ name only. Another tenet of this group is the necessity of speaking in tongues as evidence of salvation. This group went on to form the United Pentecostal Church and the Apostolic Pentecostal Churches, among others.
In 1950, the Evangelical Free Church of America (Swedish) and the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church Association combined to form the Evangelical Free Church of America. Churches of this tradition often shorten their affiliation to “EvFree” or “E-Free.”
The “evangelical” of Evangelical Free reflects the assertions that the scriptures are the inerrant word of God, people are born into a sinful condition, and salvation comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as a commitment to spreading these beliefs. They also believe in the glorious return of Christ, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the celebration of water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
The “free” means that EFCA churches are congregational in governance. Each church is governed and financially supported by its own members. This is as opposed to being ruled by a presbyter, board of elders, or an episcopate, which is a central leader over several churches. Although EFCA churches typically have a senior pastor and a board of elders, the pastors and elders receive their authority by the vote of the congregation.
The EFCA only ordains men to be pastors. Baptism is generally not required for communion or membership into the church. Although the EFCA supports many ministries, they do not emphasize secular political involvement. Personal responsibility and holiness are stressed over adherence to strict behavioral guidelines. The church is inclusive; that is, salvation is through faith in Christ alone, and church membership is not dependent on acceptance of minor issues.
The roots of the Anglican, or English Church go back as far as the 2nd century, but the church traces its current structure and status back to the time of King Henry VIII (who ruled from 1509 to 1547). A political conflict between King Henry VIII and the Pope, as well as other intricate matters, brought about a split between King Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church. King Henry VIII then helped give birth to the Church of England.
The doctrine of the Anglican Church is a mix of Catholicism and Protestant Reformation theology. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed are authoritative declarations of belief for the Anglican Church and are typically recited in worship services. Interestingly, the church does not require individuals to agree with or accept all the statements of those creeds but encourages its members to join in the process of discovery. The Thirty-Nine Articles, developed in the time of Elizabeth I, laid out the Protestant doctrine and practice of the Anglican Church, but were deliberately written to be so vague that they were open to various interpretations by Protestants and Catholics alike. As in the Catholic Church, the celebration of the Eucharist is central to the worship service, along with the communal offering of prayer and praise through the recitation of the liturgy.
The Anglican Communion has 80 million members worldwide in 38 different church organizations, including the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the recognized spiritual head of the church, though each church organization is self-governing under its own archbishop. In addition to those churches, the Continuing Anglican Communion, established in 1977, is composed of churches which share the historic Anglican faith but reject the changes in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as well as the ordination of women and homosexuals to the clergy. The Anglican Church in North America, formed in 2009, has broken ties with the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality and does not recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as their leader. Joining the Anglican Church in North America are the Church of Nigeria, the Church of Uganda, the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, the Sudan Episcopal Church, and others.
Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ (UCC) was formed when the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches were united in 1957. Historically, the United Church of Christ is a continuation of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches founded under the influence of New England Puritanism.
As a national body, the United Church of Christ officially subscribes to the theology of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Kansas City Statement of Faith, the Evangelical Catechism, and the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ. However, the UCC’s constitution states that the “autonomy of the Local Church is inherent and modifiable only by its own action,” meaning that each local congregation determines its own doctrine and practice. The result is a liberal theology.
The national body of the United Church of Christ is active in traditionally liberal social causes such as the legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage, and LGBT welcoming programs. The 2005 General Synod’s decision to solemnize same-sex unions was supported by an estimated 80 percent of the delegates. The UCC’s “Open and Affirming” movement claims to be the largest church program in the world to welcome and support “marriage equality” for all people, regardless of gender.
The Salvation Army describes itself as an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church with its own distinctive governance and practices. Most people recognize the red-and-white shield of the Salvation Army as representing a social services organization that responds to disasters, feeds the homeless, and runs thrift stores for charity. Many do not realize the underlying purpose of those efforts is rooted in The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 by William Booth, who saw a great need for reaching the poor and destitute in England with The Gospel. He began an evangelistic ministry on the streets, and as these people responded to it, Booth directed them to the various churches and chapels in their neighborhoods. As these individuals came into the very proper Victorian churches, they were often rejected because of their unorthodox dress and habits. To provide a place for them to worship and be discipled, William Booth founded the East London Christian Mission. When Booth was dictating a letter referencing believers as God’s army, the name “Salvation Army” was coined, and Booth began forming his mission in a military structure.
Booth named himself General while his wife Catherine, was named “Mother of the Salvation Army.” From the beginning, women were given the same authority as men, and Catherine was an ordained minister in the organization. Ministers were given military officer ranks in keeping with their duties and experience, and church members were called soldiers. One reason for the military identification was a reminder that as Christians, they were in permanent mission to the lost. William Booth identified the approach to his work in “three S’s” – Soup, Soap, and Salvation. In order to offer the message of salvation, the physical needs of the people were met. That method is still kept today.
The basic doctrines of the Salvation Army are akin to most other Evangelical Churches: a belief in the Trinity, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the full depravity of man at birth, the atoning death of Jesus Christ for man’s sin, and the essential need of repentance and faith for salvation. Following Arminian Theology, the Army teaches that continued salvation depends on continued obedience to the Word of God.
A non-denominational church is any church which is not part of a larger network of believers. Non-denominational churches go by many different names and can hold a wide variety of beliefs. Why do some churches choose to be non-denominational? Though the answers will vary, a major consideration is the freedom to direct the ministry and teaching without centralized oversight.
Scripture points to each church as self-governing and answerable directly to God Himself. The book of Acts speaks of the first missionary journeys and the establishment of many churches, and there does not appear to be an indication of hierarchy beyond local elders. Some point to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 as a pattern for denominational structure while others disagree. The Gentiles had been given The Gospel under the ministry of Paul and Barnabas by the direct authority of the Holy Spirit (as written in Acts 13:2 and 15:7(. The churches established in that first journey were left under the care of elders (as written in Acts 14:23) from their own ranks. When the council was called at Jerusalem, it was not due to the question of organizational structure or control, but to discuss doctrinal matters about what constitutes salvation (Acts 15:5-6). The Apostles (who had been directly commissioned by Jesus) were the only people who could properly address the question authoritatively.
Do non-denominational churches go our of their way to avoid communication with other branches? On the contrary, the book of Acts and the New Testament Epistles make it clear that churches communicated regularly with one another. As Paul and his companions made their missionary journeys, it was not uncommon for the believers to send letters to the other churches (Acts 18:27), or to greet one another through his letters (Romans 16:16). Likewise, when there was a great need, the churches worked interdependently to meet that need—the collection for the famine in Jerusalem (Acts 11:29; 2 Corinthians 8:4) is a great example. The churches of the New Testament, though independent, self-governing bodies, were certainly connected in fellowship and cooperative ministry, perhaps giving us an example to follow today.
Unique Christian Churches
This section explores the churches that veer far enough away from traditional Protestant practice and belief as to not be considered part of a mainline grouping.
The Amish are a group of Protestant Christians who follow the teachings of Jacob Ammann, a 17th-century citizen of Switzerland. Similar in doctrine and practice to the Mennonites, most of the Amish live in the United States, follow simple customs, refuse to take oaths, and don’t take part in voting or military service. They also shun technology and anything seen as an overtly modern convenience. For example, the Amish use horse and buggy as their main means of transportation, and the traditionally conservative sects don’t have telephones or electricity inside their homes. While Amish men usually wear beards and pants with buttons instead of zippers, the women wear white head coverings and plain dresses, usually without buttons (they commonly use straight pins to fasten clothing).
The Amish believe that James 1:27 “…and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” commands Christians to stay away from “things the world does”—like driving autos, having a TV, going to movies, wearing make-up, and enjoying the conveniences of modern technology. They often use generators to create power to run their equipment employ horses instead of tractors to do heavy farm work. The leader of an Amish community sets up the rules of conduct allowed for his district, The Amish have church services in their own homes, taking turns hosting on Sundays, and do not have church buildings. Amish children typically only go to a formal school until age 15.
Amish groups have problems, just like other Christian denominations, though they do an excellent job of keeping their internal affairs concealed from the outside world. Amish youth are given the opportunity to “taste the world” in their teenage users as a test of faith and family connection, and while many fall into vices usually reserved for secular society, a large proportion do remain with the church after their worldly experimentation.
Amish doctrine is very similar to traditional Jews that keep the Old Testament Law. Their long list of do’s and don’ts means that if they fail to keep an item, they run the risk of alienation with the church, which can ultimately lead to them being shunned. In general, partaking in worldly things can result in an Amish person being exiled by their church community.
The Amish believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that He died for their sins, and that He is the way to salvation. However, many Amish also think practicing a works-based religion will help them earn favor. That is, some believe their good works (or deeds) can outweigh their bad works and enable them to enter Heaven. On the whole, Amish communities are made up of faithful Christian people that choose to live a simple life so they can spend more time focusing on family and community.
The official stance of the Amish is not one of secure salvation. They believe a person can lose their salvation if they stray. They do not believe in infant Baptism, but do “sprinkle” for adult Baptism rather than immerse in water.
Seventh Day Adventists
Seventh-day Adventism is a sect of Christianity that believes worship services should be conducted on the Sabbath, or the “seventh-day”, instead of on Sunday. There appear to be different “degrees” of Seventh-day Adventism as well. Some denominations believe identically to Orthodox Christians with the exception of the Saturday Sabbath.
Seventh-day Adventism has its roots in Adventism, a 19th-century movement that anticipated the imminent appearance (or advent) of Jesus Christ. The Adventists were also called Millerites because their group was founded by William Miller, a false prophet who predicted Jesus would return in either 1843 or 1844. When Miller’s prediction of Christ’s second coming failed, the Millerites disbanded in dismay; an event became known as the “Great Disappointment.” But then several of Miller’s followers claimed to have visions of their own to account for the failed prophecy: that instead of coming to earth, Jesus had entered the heavenly temple—thus, Miller was right, they said, except his prophecy had a spiritual fulfillment instead of a physical one.
In 1855, the Seventh-day Adventists settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, and in May 1863 the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists was officially incorporated. It’s important to understand that Seventh-Day Adventism is a diverse movement, and not all SDA groups hold to all the doctrines mentioned above.
Church of the Latter-Day Saints
The Mormon religion, whose followers are known as Mormons and Latter-day Saints (LDS), was founded less than two hundred years ago by a man named Joseph Smith. He claimed to have received a personal visit from God, the Father and Jesus Christ, who apparently told him that all churches and their creeds were an abomination. Joseph Smith then set out to what he called “restore true Christianity” and claimed his church to be the “only true church on Earth.” Many Christians are concerned that Mormonism contradicts, modifies, and expands the Bible. To truly believe in and trust God means to believe in His Word, and all Scripture is inspired by God, which means it comes from Him (according to Timothy 3:16).
Mormons believe that there are four sources of divinely inspired words:
- The Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” (8th Article of Faith). Which verses are considered incorrectly translated is not always made clear.
- The Book of Mormon, which was “translated” by Smith and published in 1830. Smith claimed it is the “most correct book” on earth and that a person can get closer to God by following its precepts “than by any other book.”
- 3) Doctrine and Covenants, containing a collection of modern revelations regarding the “Church of Jesus Christ as it has been restored.”
- 4) The Pearl of Great Price, which is considered by Mormons to “clarify” doctrines and teachings that were lost from the Bible and adds its own information about the Earth’s creation.
Mormons believe the following about God: He has not always been the Supreme Being of the universe (according to Mormon Doctrine) but attained that status through righteous living and persistent effort (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith). They believe God the Father has a “body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (The Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price).
Mormons believe that there are different levels (or kingdoms) in the afterlife: the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, the telestial kingdom, and outer darkness. Where each person will end up depends on what they believe and do in this life (2 Nephi 25:23; Articles of Faith, p.79).
Mormon leaders have taught that Jesus’ incarnation was the result of a physical relationship between God the Father and Mary (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 115; Mormon Doctrine, p. 547). Mormons believe Jesus is a god, but that any human can also become a god (Doctrine and Covenants 132:20; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345–354). Mormonism teaches that salvation can be earned by a combination of faith and good works (LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 697).
The sect known today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses started out in Pennsylvania in 1870 as a Bible class led by Charles Taze Russell. Russell named his group the “Millennial Dawn Bible Study,” and those who followed him were called “Bible students.” Charles T. Russell began writing a series of books he called “The Millennial Dawn,” which stretched to six volumes before his death and contained much of the theology Jehovah’s Witnesses now hold. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society was founded in 1886 and quickly became the vehicle through which the “Millennial Dawn” movement began distributing their views. Group members were sometimes disparagingly called “Russellites.” After Russell’s death in 1916, Judge J. F. Rutherford, Russell’s successor, wrote the seventh and final volume of the “Millennial Dawn” series, “The Finished Mystery,” in 1917. That was also the year that the organization split. Those who followed Rutherford began calling themselves “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
What do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe? Close scrutiny of their doctrinal position on such subjects as the deity of Christ, salvation, the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, and the atonement shows beyond a doubt that they do not hold to Orthodox Christian positions on these subjects. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Jesus is Michael the Archangel, the highest created being. This contradicts many Scriptures which clearly declare Jesus to be God (John 1:1,14, 8:58, 10:30). Jehovah’s Witnesses believe salvation is obtained by a combination of faith, good works, and obedience. This contradicts countless scriptures which declare salvation to be received by grace through faith (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the Trinity, believing Jesus to be a created being and the Holy Spirit to essentially be the inanimate power of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the concept of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and instead hold to a ransom theory, that Jesus’ death was a ransom payment for Adam’s sin.
How do the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify these unbiblical doctrines? First, they claim that the church has corrupted the Bible over centuries. Thus, they have re-translated the Bible into what they call the New World Translation. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society altered the text of the Bible to make it fit their doctrine, rather than basing it on what the Bible actually says. The New World Translation has gone through numerous editions, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses discover more and more Scriptures that contradict their religious beliefs.
The Watchtower bases its beliefs and doctrines on the original and expanded teachings of Charles Taze Russell, Judge Joseph Franklin Rutherford, and their successors. The governing body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the only body within it that claims authority to interpret Scripture. In other words, what the governing body says concerning any scriptural passage is viewed as the last word, and independent thinking is strongly discouraged. This is in direct opposition to Paul’s admonition to Timothy (and to us as well) to study to be approved by God, so that we need not be ashamed. This admonition, found in 2 Timothy 2:15, is a clear instruction from God to each of His children to be like the Berean Christians, who searched the Scriptures daily to see if the things they were being taught lined up with the Word.
Christians have a broad, rich, and diverse history. All of the different Christian denominations present today have stories of their own. It’s essential that Christians gain a perspective about these differing backgrounds as a way to enhance their own understanding and ultimately grow their faith in Jesus Christ.
No doubt there are distinct differences between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. However, it is easy to see that the divide between different Protestant faiths are minor and largely have to do with interpretation. The essential doctrines of the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, salvation through Jesus Christ, and our eternal destiny are held thorough. Any church discussed within this resource that does not adhere to these principles are widely seen to be heretical.
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