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Churches and denominations

From dKosopedia


Overview of Christian churches and denominations

People adhering to the Christian faith are organized into various churches and denominations, most of which pay at least nominal allegiance to the ideal of the unity of the body of Christ. Some claim to be the true or authentic version of the faith from which others have deviated to a greater or lesser degree. There is no objective empirical test to determine which is true or authentic.

(NB: the Catholic term "sects" is technically accurate, since from the Catholic perspective most other groups split away from the Mother Church. However, the term also seems somewhat pejorative to Protestant ears, who are used to thinking of "sects" in terms of cults. Many Protestant organizations also claim to be restorations of the original church, not deviations from it.)

The number and subdivisions of the faith can quickly become confusing, but generally speaking, there are four broad streams in Christianity:

This last broad stream is a stream only by defintion because its various elements are unrelated. Their grouping is the error term in the equation.

Organization of Denominations

Cutting across these streams are two sets of common characteristics: ecclesial and political.

Ecclesial characteristics have to do with how the form and nature of the church is understood. Denominations tend fall into one of two ways of organizing themselves, or some variation thereof: episcopal and congregational.

Because of this desire for unity, episcopal churches are often the most "standardized" of denominations, with church rules applied across jurisdictions, and a familiar pattern of liturgy found in nearly all congregations. However, the diversity of worship and practice to be found in episcopal churches should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most hierarchical of these denominations is the Roman Catholic church, with many decisions being made in a "top-down" fashion. Lutheran and Methodist churches often maintain a strong executive role for the bishops, particularly in selection and credentialing of clergy, but balance this congregational autonomy on a number of issues.

Evangelical and fundamentalist characteristics are not organizational principles, but have to do with the theological positions of the churches in question.

Politics of Denominations

Political affiliations run across the "streams" of Christianity and organizational principles. Indeed, since the 1980's, political groupings have begun to bring together churches and even Jewish groups that previously would not have much in common. (For example, conservative evangelicals, orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics have formed coalitions in opposition to abortion.)

Use caution when assessing the politics of a denomination: while the Roman Catholic church is politically conservative on reproductive rights and matters of sexuality, for example, it has also traditionally been an advocate for the poor and working class, and opposes the dealth penalty. It is also true that the former "mainline" denominations (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, sometimes the Unitarian Universalist Association), as well as the Roman Catholic church, often have conservative and liberal wings.

That being said, the most reliably conservative churches are non-denominational evangelical and fundamentalist groups, Pentecostals and Charismatics, the Southern Baptists, the Salvation Army and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. Other groups might be called "traditionalist": the Orthodox communions, the Roman Catholic church, some elements of Methodism, Lutheranism and Presbyterianism. These last three groups also occupy a "broad middle" with the other former mainline denominations, with Episcopalians, Quakers, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association being the most reliably liberal denominations.

Standing outside of this spectrum to some extent are a number of denominations which are quite liberal on one or two issues, but otherwise have a conservative profile or none at all. For example, the Association of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) is a very gay-friendly denomination, but little is heard about its other political views. Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, Mennonites and Brethren are steadfast pacifists, but are generally otherwise conservatives denominations.

For more information, see Conservative Christianity and Liberal Christianity.

Taxonomy of Denominations

Here's where it gets complicated.

The Catholic/Orthodox Split

In the beginning was the "New Testament Church," which was composed of individual congregations, one to a city or town, spread across the Mediterranean basin. Between about 100 AD and 325 AD, a pattern emerged: in the western Roman empire, the churches emphasized their unity, and generally looked to the church in Rome for leadership. In the East, partly because no one central power emerged, the churches formed several regional coalitions.

In this timeframe, and up to about 550 AD, the church struggled for self-definition. This struggle particularly centered on the nature of Jesus Christ. Successively, the losers in this inter-family battle dropped away from mainstream Christianity. Some of these groups survive today: Nestorians, Copts, Armenian and Ethiopian Christians.

The unity of the Eastern and Western church survived the fall of the Roman Empire, but eventually the two sides split in 1054 AD. The Eastern churches, commonly referred to as the "Orthodox" communion, maintained their regional pattern, granting functional independence or autocephaly to regions as their countries matured and the numbers of believers seemed to warrant. Today, generally speaking, the Orthodox church is divided up along national lines: the Russian church, the Bulgarian church, etc. There are as always exceptions to this rule, however.

Most modern Orthodox denominations in the U.S. are immigrant churches that trace their roots to their founder's homelands. About 80% of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. are Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox, although the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which branched away from the rest of the Orthodox Church family early on) is growing. The exception is the Orthodox Church in America, which like its Lutheran and Reformed cousins, represent an attempt to form a multi-ethnic American church in the Orthodox tradition.

The Roman church provided the nursery for most of the denominations we know today in successive waves of reformation. Hopefully, the list below will make the history easier to follow. Note that this is a simplified list; a full accounting might run well over 2,000 entries!



In 1517, the Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandinavia split from the Catholic church.

Reformed Churches

In 1520, the Reformed churches of Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland and the United Kingdom began to separate from the Catholic church. Each of these branches took on its own characteristics.

In addition to these European streams, the Reformation has spawned some distinctly American churches. The most notable of these is the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, with roots in Kentucky and Ohio in the early 1800's.

Canada and Australia both had histories of Reformed (and Methodist) consolidation similar to the mergers that formed the United Church of Christ in the United States, but in those nations the merger went one step further including the local equivalent of the United Methodist Church with the local equivalent of the United Church of Christ to produce in the case of Canada, "the United Church of Canada" and in the case of Australia, "the Uniting Church".

Anglicans and their descendant denominations

In 1533, Henry VIII famously seized control of the Church of England after being denied a divorce by the Catholic leadership in Rome. Due to its unique history, the Anglican church differs in many respects from the Reformation denominations, and unlike many of the churches it has spawned it is not always considered Protestant. It has retained many traditionally Catholic worship elements (incense, Bishops in Apostolic succession, genuflection, an elaborate liturgy, infant baptism, the use of the term "priest" to describe parish level ministers, etc.) and has attempted to establish a studied ambiguity in regards to its relationship to Catholicism. Indeed the Puritians derive their name from their attempt to remove Catholic trappings from the Anglican church. Along with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, the Anglican denomination was an established church in the American colonies.

Footnote: The wedding ceremony you so often see on television has its roots in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, although more Americans have received this tradition through the Methodist family of churches than directly from the Episcopal Church.

Baptists and Anabaptists

The last group of denominations to emerge more or less directly from the Roman Catholic church are the Baptists and Anabaptists. Their roots and relationship to one another are difficult to trace. An oversimplified version is to say that Baptists and Anabaptists share a belief in adult, or "believer's" baptism, and both came from multiple sources in the reformation movements of the 1500 and 1600's.

Anabaptists and Quakers

The largest of these groups in Europe were the Mennonites, followers of Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest who left the church in 1536.

The Amish, Mennonite and Brethren (also known as German Baptist) churches share a commitment to pacifism, and more traditional believers do not participate in government. They do pay taxes, however, and most are allowed to vote. Most Mennonite and Brethren children attend public schools while Amish children, as a rule, attend private schools up until the eighth grade.

The Quakers (i.e. Society of Friends) who have been politically important in United States history as abolitionists, prison reform activists, peace activists and proponents of separation of church and state, are closely related in belief to the Anabaptists. The British-based pietest George Fox founded the Quaker church (or Society of Friends) in 1652. The exact source of the similarity in doctrines between the groups is obscure and may date to exposure of Quaker founder George Fox in the 1600s to the Anabaptist ideas of his uncle, although there has since been "cross-pollination" between the groups in the United States.


The Baptists grew out of separatist movements in the Church of England in the early 1600's. Although Roger Williams established a forerunner of the modern Baptist church in Rhode Island as early as 1619(?), the first formal Baptist denomination in American was founded in 1672. They've been dividing ever since. Their numbers were fairly small, however, until the early 1800s in a period called the Second Great Awakening when the Southeastern United States went from being the least religious part of the United States, to the most religious part of the United States, a revolutionary change that has endured to the present.

Baptists were considered Separatists from the Church of England. The founders of Plymouth, who later became known as the Pilgrims, started as groups of Separatists who contracted with merchants who enlisted other colonists. The Plymouth colony was considered to be predominantly Separatist, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded primarily by Puritans. Separatists had completely separated with the Church of England, while the Puritans sought to reform it. The Baptists were persecuted in Massachusetts by the Puritans and in Virginia by the Church of England.

After the First Great Awakening, the spread of Separatist groups and population growth in the colonies led to greater religious tolerance socially, but the rights of minority groups were still not protected. The Baptists were particularly persecuted for offences including refusing to pay taxes that supported establishment religions.

Isaac Backus and Amos Adams were two Baptists who influenced the Founding Fathers’ debate on the Separation of Church and State. The Baptists were prodigious pamphleteers, who railed against the injustices in both society and government caused by their minority views. Isaac Backus and the Quakers “ambushed” John Adams and the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress by inviting them to a “business meeting” and then attacking the hypocrisy of Massachusetts to talk about freedom while they persecuted religious minorities.

The account of this meeting was recorded in John Adams’ “Diary and Autobiography” and in Alvah Hovey’s “A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus”. These sources were used for Bernard Bailyn’s analysis in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

Baptists in the US are strongly associated with evangelical Christianity of the kind that characterizes "the religious right" and defines the American South. While having some roots abroad, this evangelicalism is a uniquely American phenomena that exists outside the United States almost exclusively by virtue of American missionary efforts. It has been virtually absent from Europe and Canada until quite recently (the past few decades). This form of Christianity, if not born then, certainly came into its prime in the early 1800s in the Southern United States.

Unlike the tremendous spread of Methodist preaching which came before it, as Methodist ministers brought the church to the American frontier, culminating in a very large but moderate, mainline United Methodist Church, the explosive transformation of the Baptist approach to Christianity into the predominant religious faith of the American South has not consolidated or lost evangelical fervor. Baptists in the United States remain as strongly evangelical, for the most part, as there were in the 1800s.

Today, there are four major predominantly white branches of Baptists in the US:

There are three large, predominantly black Baptist denominations, most of which share a common history and are divided over issues more administrative than ideological:

Other facts: like the Mennonites, the Baptists have a congregational polity, which means that the local church conducts its own affairs. Jimmy Carter is famously a Baptist, though he has renounced his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, as are Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

American Originals

Many of the remaining denominations in the United States were formed in the 1800 and 1900's not out of church splits, but through the vision of their founders.


Why Do Denominations Matter?

Principally for two reasons: one, denominations have a long tradition of shaping public discourse in the United States. Directly through the advocacy of their leaders and laymembers; indirectly through their teachings, and the effect of those teachings on their members. Second, because up until very recently, and to some extent still today, denominations, along with a host of other civic organizations, laid the groundwork for nearly all political activity in America. Without denominations, there would have been no abolitionist or prohibition movements, no Civil Rights movement, no anti-abortion movement.

Do Denominations Still Matter?

The short answer is yes, but not as much as they used to. Like nearly all voluntary/associative organizations, American denominations have been weakened since the 1960s.

The reasons for this decline are complex, but one thesis should definitely be ruled out: the former mainline denominations are not declining because of their liberal politics. It is true that much like American politics, which cycle between liberal and conservative phases, American religion has a pendulum that swings between evangelical and rationalist. The connections between the political and religious has never been explored in detail, however, and at this point, are speculative at best.

However, if Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis are correct in arguing that an "Emerging Democratic Majority" is building in American politics, it should be interesting to see if there is a corresponding shift in religious affiliation.

A number of changes over the past thirty to forty years have conspired to sap the mainline denominations of their strength. These include:

The result of these shifts has been an aging population in the mainline denominations, with fewer children and fewer converts entering the church. These changes have also led to considerable polarization along political and moral lines (most notably on social issues such as abortion and gay rights). Liberal churches have been hit the hardest since the 1960s, but "moderate" churches such as Catholics or Methodists continue to be pulled in separate directions by liberal and conservative constituencies.

Recently, there has been talk of schism within the Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, led by conservatives who no longer feel that they can remain in communion with their liberal counterparts.

While conservative denominations and independent, evangelical "megachurches" have been ascendant since the 1970s, there is anecdotal evidence that their rise may have peaked. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reports that it is losing members, and has seen a sharp decline in baptisms. Moody magazine, an evangelical magazine, has had to cease publication due to a faltering readership.

The overall picture seems to be this: conservative denominations will remain stronger than liberal ones, because they are better at erecting "high walls" that ensure commitment to the church. Liberal denominations, by contrast, lose members to involvement in the wider world. However, it is often noted that "no affiliation" is the fastest growing segment of Christianity. More and more, Christians are drifting away from the pews and into more-or-less secular lifestyles. Whether or not this will change in the coming decades is currently a matter of hot debate within the Christian community.

Sociological Uses For Denominational Identity

Sociologists trying to look at the demographic makeup of American society often face a problem that can seriously obscure meaningful analysis: One of the categories is just too big. In the United States, a vary large proportion of the population is classified by the census bureau and a host of other data sets as "non-Hispanic white". Census respondents are also asked to identify their national origins, but because that data allows multiple responses, because it is based solely upon self-identification and because many people simply respond "American", it is difficult to make meaningful use of this data to sort the "non-Hispanic white" population into subgroups, so it is hard to identify anything but the overall homogenized averages for the entire demographic.

But, the "non-Hispanic white" population of the United States is not as monolithic as it would appear. Religious denomination is often a good proxy for ethnic identity within this large homogeneous mass. Most people, most of the time attend the churches that their ancestors attended or the modern equivalent. Membership in a church is a relatively well defined objective fact that sociologists can determine. Churches survey themselves from time to time and can be persuaded to do so by researchers, which provides an institutional way to contact and/or sample members of the subgroups relatively efficiently. Denominations tend to be culturally and ethnically homogeneous, and even when they are not, this fact in and of itself makes interesting statements about the denominations that are more or less homogeneous.

As the United States becomes increasingly politically polarized, it is useful to know how much of the polarization goes beyond politics and represents better defined ethnic divisions in American culture (sometimes known as the Red Blue Divide), and how much of it is intraethnic conflict within non-Hispanic white subgroups. (Census data is only of limited usefulness in this regard because due to church-state seperation issues, the United States Census Bureau which is the most important collector of demographic statistics in the United States does not collect religion information in the way that census bureaus in many countries do).

Of course, religious denomination as a marker is not limited to non-Hispanic whites. For example, sociological studies have shown significant differences in political inclinations and demographic characteristics between Catholic and Non-Catholic Hispanics in the United States. And, the observation that immigrant communities from places like China, South Korea, and and Arab world have much high percentages of Christians than random chance in those parts of the world would indicate can illustrate the patterns of immigration that are shaping the American melting pot.

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This page was last modified 02:14, 1 September 2007 by Rev. Beth E. Nelson. Based on work by Apostle U Ruff and Andrew Oh-Willeke and dKosopedia user(s) Corncam, BartFraden, Allamakee Democrat, Kweberlit, Wclathe, Cjohnson, Pastordan, Demosthenes, Kwattles, Gryn, Aaron Gillies and IrishAlum. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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