Divisions are so extreme within Christianity that sincerely and devoutly held beliefs
by the most conservative Christians may well be considered blasphemy by the most
"...research shows that the population at-large
rejects many beliefs that are embraced by evangelical Christians. For instance,
most Americans do not believe in salvation by grace, alone; that the Bible is
totally accurate in all that it teaches; that they have a personal
responsibility for evangelism; that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; or that
Satan is a real being who can influence people’s lives." 1Of course,
the opposite is true: most Evangelical Christians do not accept the beliefs of
mainline and liberal Christian churches and of the majority of American
Christians. In fact, some conservative Christians do
not regard mainline and liberal churches to be fully Christian.
In the past, when a person said that they were a Presbyterian, or Methodist or United
Church member, that this statement by itself meant a great deal about that individual's
theological beliefs. But recently, some denominations are finding themselves internally
divided. Liberal members of all faith groups are finding that they have much more in common
with religious liberals from other denominations than with conservative members of their
own faith group -- and vice-versa. These differences show up over matters of religious research on
historical Jesus, whether Jesus is the only path to salvation, how they should interpret the Bible, and what approach should be taken
over controversial social debates such as equal rights for gays and
lesbians, same-sex marriage, female ordination, and women's access to abortion.
In our essays, we largely ignore denominational boundaries. We group
Christians by their individual beliefs. Thus terms such as Fundamentalist,
Conservative, Evangelical, Mainline and Liberal can refer to
individual Roman Catholic
Christians, Orthodox Christians, as well as to Protestants. However, when a specific
denomination has unique beliefs that are not found elsewhere in Christendom, we will
highlight them by name. One example is the Roman Catholic Church's unique beliefs about Purgatory, salvation, and the Virgin Mary. Another is the belief by Pentecostals
that religious conversion, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, normally leads the believer
There are over 1,500 Christian religious organizations in North America
alone. Each has their own set of beliefs, policies and practices. When
discussing such topics as the divinity of Christ, salvation, heaven, etc., it
would be hopelessly unwieldy to explain the beliefs of each faith group.
Religious authors often divide Christian denominations by family or into a three
or two mode model.
Grouping Christians by family: A 16 mode model:
One method of sorting faith groups is by family. Within each family,
individual denominations share a common belief system, and/or a common heritage.
The following is an example of one of many such models, It was largely patterned
after J. Gordon Melton's "The Encyclopedia of American Religions":
Like individual politicians, Christians can be classified as conservative,
mainline and liberal. Individual denominations can also
be sorted along similar lines. Within each faith group, there
can also exists a wide range of opinion; individual members can hold quite different
The Time Almanac 2002 quotes the Hartford Institute for Religious
Research, who divide Protestant Christian denominations into three groups:
Liberal, Moderate and Evangelical.
Liberal Protestant:Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church
(USA), Unitarian-Universalist, and the United
Church of Christ. Some would disagree with this list, because recent
polls indicate that only about 10% of the members of congregations
affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association consider
themselves to be Christians.
Moderate Protestant: American Baptist, Disciples of Christ,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite, Reformed Church in
America, and the United Methodist Church. Some individual
congregations of these denominations range over the full range from
liberal to evangelical. Individual members within congregations do as
Evangelical Protestant: Assemblies of God, Christian
Reformed Church, Church of the Nazarene, Churches of Christ, Independent
Christian Churches (Instrumenal), Seventh Day Adventist and the
Southern Baptist Convention. Added to this group are manynon-denominational conservative churches. 3
Many religious writers and theologians use the terms conservative, mainline and liberal - both at the denominational
and individual believer levels. It is difficult to give
precise definitions of these three groups. Everybody's criteria are different. The following is a very general
Conservative wing: (e.g. Southern Baptists and
Assemblies of God). They generally believe in historical Christian doctrines, such
Regard homosexuality as a chosen,
changeable, sinful behavior, condemned by God. They often reject
sexually- active homosexuals as church members, and
certainly as clergy. They actively oppose and condemn
any action to give gays and lesbians equal human
rights to heterosexuals -- particularly the right to marry. Conservative
faith groups and para-church organizations often recommend that their
members vote for political candidates on the basis of their rejection
of abortion access and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Liberal wing: (e.g.
Progressive Christianity). The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) 1 is a network of affiliated congregations, informal groups, and individuals.
Their mission is:
"To reach out to those for whom organized religion has proved
ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive, as well as to those who have given up
on or are unacquainted with it."
"To uphold evangelism as an agent of justice and peace."
"To give a strong voice both in the churches and the public arena to
the advocates of progressive Christianity. "
"To support those who embrace the search, not certainty."
Most see major parts of the
Bible as reflecting God's will. But they generally reject other portions of
the Bible as being no longer valid:
They regard Hell in symbolic terms, not as a place of eternal
They regard the Bible as errant, having been written by
individuals without the direct inspiration of
God, whose motivation was to promote their own theological and
They generally believe in the theory of evolution (either
theistic evolution or naturalistic evolution).
They are keen to learn from theological studies into the
historical Jesus in order to better understand what his precise teachings
On social matters, they rely heavily on the
findings of social and natural sciences. Most:
Are political liberals, independents, or moderates.
Give a high priority to combating racism, sexism, poverty, and
Are supportive of abortion access and educational programs to
prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Believe that a person's sexual orientation is largely
genetically pre-determined, is not chosen, is
fixed, natural, normal for a minority of humans, and is morally neutral.
Relationships should be evaluated by their quality, not by the gender(s)
of the couple. Many
liberal denominations will
conduct union services for gays and lesbians and will ordain homosexuals who are
celibate or in committed relationships. Some support same-sex marriage for
loving, committed same-sex couples.
There is no denomination whose beliefs
officially match those of the TCPC. However, some of the more liberal
members of the United Church of Christ do.
Mainline wing: (e.g. the United Methodist Church). As the name implies, these are faith groups whose beliefs,
priorities and policies lie between the conservatives and liberals:
look upon the Bible as containing the Word of
God but do not necessarily view all passages being the inerrant word of God.
The concept of Hell as a place of eternal punishment, and individual salvation
are not stressed.
They are divided about belief in the origins of life and the
mainline denominations have experienced long-standing, serious internal conflicts because their membership is
into two wings: conservative and liberal. The
administrative leadership of the denomination is
typically liberal. However,
renewal ministries within these denomination are pressing for a return towards
more conservative beliefs.
Mainline denominations have gradually become more inclusive.
Decades ago, they fought over the issue of equality of women. This was
settled by allowing women to be ordained, and to hold positions of
power in the denomination. Current conflicts deal mainly with human
sexuality -- particularly sexual orientation. Many mainline
denominations may be faced with two future paths: going through a schism,
or developing some sort of local option plan to allow individual
congregations or groups of congregations to decide independently
whether to conduct union ceremonies and ordain homosexuals. The latter
would preserve the denomination, while transferring conflict to the
Another way of grouping Christians: A simplistic two mode model --
"us and them":
tend to view the Christian world in terms of "us ". e.g.
"there is my denomination, and then there are all the other faith
groups that only consider themselves to be Christian ." For example, a
Fundamentalist or other Evangelical Christian might
believe that his/her faith group represents true
Christianity. She/he might consider non-conservative denominations,
grouped together, as non-Christian, heretical Christian, quasi-Christian, false
etc. Similarly, a liberal Christian might lump together Fundamentalists,
Pentecostals, Charismatics and other Evangelicals as a single group
without differentiating among them. Contributing to this view of
Christianity is the
public's general lack of knowledge of other denominations within their religion,
and a common inability to differentiate among those faith groups which are very
different from their own.