A Denomination in the Christian sense is an identifiable religious body, organization under a common name, structure, and/or theology.
Christianity, in modern times, exists under diverse names. These variously named groups, Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, etc. are called denominations.
Denominationalism is an ideology, which views some or all Christian groups as being, in some sense, versions of the same thing regardless of their distinguishing labels. Not all denominations teach this, however; and there are some groups which practically all others would view as apostate or heretical: that is, not legitimate versions of Christianity.
There were some denominations in the past which do not exist today. Examples include the Gnostics (who had written many more gospels than are included in the Bible), and the Arians (who believed that Jesus was a created being rather than coeternal with God the Father, and who outnumbered the non-Arians for a long time within the makeup of the institutional church). It is a matter of debate as to if these groups were heresies (new doctrines that were against the doctrines that were the true original ones), or if those beliefs were simply not defined up until that point. The greatest divisions in Christianity today however are between the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and various denominations formed during and after the Protestant Reformation. There also exists in Protestantism various degrees of unity and division.
Comparisons between denominational groups must be approached with caution. For example, in some groups, congregations are part of one monotholic church organization, while in other groups, each congregation is an independent autonomous organization. Numerical comparisons are also problematic. Some groups count membership based on adult believers and baptized children of believers, while others only count adult baptized believers.
Catholicism and Protestantism are the two major divisions of Christianity in the Western world. For example, the Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are generally considered to be Protestant faiths, although strictly speaking, of these three the Lutheran denomination is the only one of these founded as a "protest" against Catholicism. The Anglican (Church of England) is generally classified as Protestant, but since the "Tractarian" or Oxford Movement of the 19th century, led by John Henry Newman, Anglican writers sometimes characterize the church as more properly understood as its own tradition — a via media ("middle way"), both Protestant and Catholic. The Moravian Church is usually considered Protestant, though sometimes it is considered Orthodox, especially because of its geographic roots.
One central tenet of Catholicism is its literal adherence to apostolic succession. "Apostle" means "one who is sent out." Jesus commissioned the first twelve apostles (see Biblical Figures for the list of the Twelve), and they, in turn laid hands on subsequent church leaders to ordain (commission) them for ministry. In this manner, Catholics trace their ordained ministers all the way back to the original Twelve. Roman Catholics are distinct in their belief that the Pope has authority which can be traced directly to the apostle Peter. Other Catholic groupings include the Old Catholic Church which rejected the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, and Anglo-Catholics, Anglicans who believe that Anglicanism is a continuation of historical Catholicism and who incorporate many Catholic beliefs and practices.
Protestantism may be traced in terms of intellectual history, to a development during a period of over three hundred years, beginning with the work of John Wyclif, then Jan Hus, and finally Martin Luther and the other Magisterial Reformers. Wyclif was a professor at the University of Oxford. Hus taught at the University of Prague. This area had been Orthodox, and had been forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism. Hus tried to return the Church in Bohemia and Moravia to classical orthodoxy by having the liturgy in the language of the people, married priests, communion in both kinds (bread and wine) for lay people, and the abolition of indulgences and the idea of purgatory. Hus's work resulted in the formation of the Moravian Church . Later Protestants' occasional rediscovery of the Moravian brethren was important at critical times, in the development of Protestantism.
Most Protestants trace their roots to the work of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who believed that the Catholic church had deviated too far from the practices and beliefs of the original churches described in the New Testament. They attempted to reform the Roman Catholic Church but failed. The Protestant reformation resulted instead. Protestantism as a whole has never been led by a pope or other institution having such an over-all authority. Each Protestant movement has developed freely, and many have split over theological issues. That is how over the centuries it has developed into a great number of independent denominations. A number of movements that grew out of spiritual revivals, like Methodism and Pentecostalism, also consider themselves Protestant. The Anabaptist tradition, made up of the Amish and Mennonites, is another significant branch of Protestantism that rejected the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of infant baptism; this tradition is also noted for its belief in pacifism. The measure of mutual acceptance between the denominations and movements varies, but is growing. Protestant theology for each denomination is usually guarded by church councils.
Some denominations which arose alongside the Western Christian tradition consider themselves Christian, but neither Catholic nor wholly Protestant, namely The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Quakerism began as a mystical and evangelical Christian movement in 17th century England, eschewing priests and all formal Anglican or Catholic sacraments in their worship, including many of those practices that remained among the stridently Protestant Puritans such as baptism with water. Like the Mennonites, Quakers traditionally refrain from participation in war. The Latter-day Saints believe that apostolic succession was broken during the Great Apostasy and that authority was restored to an American prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. in the 19th century in personal visitations by resurrected apostles and prophets.
In the Eastern world (Eastern Europe, Asia) the primary representative of Christianity is Eastern Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox Church also believes it is the continuation of the original Christian church established by Jesus. Originally there were five main centers of Christianity in the ancient world: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. According to the Eastern Churches' understanding of Papal primacy, the bishop of Rome was first in honor among the bishops, but possessed no direct authority over dioceses other than his own. In the Great Schism, conventionally dated to 1054, the Eastern Churches severed communion with Rome over a number of issues centered on the differing understanding of Papal primacy. The four other Churches remained in communion with each other and still exist today along with less prestigious, but often more populous, self-governing or "autocephalous" Churches organized more or less along national lines. The largest of these, and the largest Orthodox Church overall, is the Russian Orthodox Church. Many of these groups are represented as independent ecclesiastical bodies in America who, for the most part, are still in full Communion with each other. There exist significant theological differences between the Orthodox Church and Western Christianity.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches accepted the Chalcedonian dogma on the nature of Jesus, which was also accepted by the Western branch of the church; while the Oriental Orthodox rejected it. The Oriental Orthodox, as the term is sometimes used in the West, comprise chiefly the Monophysites (e.g. the Coptic church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Jacobites, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), the Nestorians (e.g. the Assyrian Church of the East), and several others. However, the Assyrians and those who share their doctrine are not accepted as part of the Oriental Orthodox Communion.
Several other faiths, which also believe in Jesus, claim not to be descended from any of these groups directly. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, is often grouped with the Protestant churches, but does not characterize itself as Protestant. Its origination during the Second Great Awakening parallels the founding of numerous other indigenous American religions, especially in the Burned-over district of western New York state, and in the western territories of the United States, including the Adventist movement and the Restoration Movement (sometimes called "Campbellites" or "Stone-Campbell churches", which include the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Church of Christ). Each of these groups, founded within fifty years of one another, originally claimed to be an unprecedented, late restoration of the primitive Christian church.
Christianity, even in its infancy as a Jewish sect, rejected ethnic definition. It was conceived and grew as an international religion with global ambitions, spreading rapidly from Judea to nations and people all over the world. Doctrines, rather than ethnicity, define essential Christianity - even where ethnic groups have been Christian for generations. The multiplicity of communities of faith may be partly accounted for by the definition of Christianity according to specific points of indispensable doctrine, the denial of which sets the heretic, or apostate, outside of the "Church", where perhaps he is accepted by another "Church" holding doctrines compatible with his own.
Points of distinctive doctrine may be a very small number of simple propositions, or very numerous and difficult to explain, depending on the group. Some groups are defined relatively statically, and others have changed their definitions dramatically over time. As an example, before the Enlightenment, Christian teachers who denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (a widely held doctrine about the nature of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit determined in A.D. 325), would be cast out of their churches, and at times exiled or otherwise deprived of the protection of law - so universally was the doctrine held essential to Christianity; and Protestantism was founded solely on the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures. In later times, the doctrine of the Trinity is considered a false doctrine according to groups such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Jehovah's Witnesses (representing tens of millions of believers combined); and the doctrine of infallible, inspired Scripture is derisively labelled as fundamentalism by many of the most highly respected scholars and clergy especially of Protestant churches. Some find it also indefensible to exclude groups from Christianity that follow another messiah in addition to Jesus, such as the Unification Church.
Others, such as some Unitarian Universalists, only consider themselves as borderline Christians, since Jesus is not pivotal to their belief system. Quakerism, which does not consider itself to belong to any of the above groupings, began as a Christian movement, and many branches within this denomination remain strongly Christian, while others branches have become borderline Christian and may even include people who do not consider themselves Christian. In addition, Christianity has partly inspired other religions, like early Islam and later Bahá'is, whose adherents do not consider themselves Christians but do consider Jesus to be a prophet (and in the case of Islam, the Messiah as well).
Considering this diversity, it may be impossible to define what Christianity is without either rejecting all definitions, or adopting a particular definition as authoritative and thus excluding others. In terms of the modern aim of scientific and objective definition, both options are considered problematic.
Last updated: 05-22-2005 15:53:19