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Divisions within Protestantism:


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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 liberal, and vice-versa.

"...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." 1 Of 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 the 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 to speak "in tongues."

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Grouping denominations:

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.

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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":

bullet Adventists
bullet Baptists
bullet Christian Science - Metaphysical
bullet Communal
bullet European Free Church
bullet Holiness
bullet Independent Fundamentalist
bullet Latter-day Saints
bullet Liberal
bullet Lutheran
bullet Messianic Judaism
bullet Pentecostal
bullet Pietism - Methodist
bullet Reformed - Presbyterian
bullet Spiritualist, Psychic, New Age
bullet Anglican communion 2

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Grouping Christians: A three mode model:

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 religious beliefs.

The Time Almanac 2002 quotes the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, who divide Protestant Christian denominations into three groups: Liberal, Moderate and Evangelical.

bullet 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.
bullet 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 well.
bullet 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 many non-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 guide: 

bullet Conservative wing: (e.g. Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God). They generally believe in historical Christian doctrines, such as:
bullet The inerrancy of the Bible.
bullet The Bible not only contains the Word of God, it is the Word of God; God inspired the individual authors to prevent them from expressing error.
bullet The virgin conception of Jesus (often referred to as the virgin birth).
bullet Jesus led a sinless life while on earth. 
bullet Satan exists as a very powerful and all-evil presence in the world. He possesses many supernatural powers.
bullet Salvation is not achieved by doing good works. Only those who have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior will be "born again," be saved and go to heaven after death. 
bullet Hell exists as a place of eternal punishment for the unsaved.
bullet The return of Christ, and the rapture -- where believers will rise through the air to meet Jesus in the sky -- is imminent.
bullet Creation science: the belief that the universe was created by God less than 10,000 years ago.
bullet They reject the "quest for the historical Jesus" which has been a focus of liberal and mainline theologians. All one needs to know about Jesus is found in the New Testament.

In terms of social policies, most:
bullet Are political conservatives.
bullet Feel a strong obligation to evangelize: to share their religious beliefs with those who are not saved, in order to bring them to a saving knowledge of Jesus. 
bullet Are strongly opposed to women having access to abortion
bullet 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.

bullet 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:
bullet "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."
bullet "To uphold evangelism as an agent of justice and peace."
bullet "To give a strong voice both in the churches and the public arena to the advocates of progressive Christianity. "
bullet "To support those who embrace the search, not certainty." 2

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:
bullet They see such stories as the Genesis creation sequence, the virgin conception of Jesus,  and world-wide Noachian flood, etc. as religious myths or folklore: stories of immense spiritual power, but unrelated to actual historical events.
bullet They see that many Bible passages and themes must interpreted as evil and as contradicting the will of God (e.g. passages which regulate slavery, advocate genocide, assign an inferior role to women, promote religious intolerance, condemn homosexuality, etc.) 
bullet They regard Hell in symbolic terms, not as a place of eternal torment. 
bullet 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 spiritual beliefs.
bullet They generally believe in the theory of evolution (either theistic evolution or naturalistic evolution).
bullet They are keen to learn from theological studies into the historical Jesus in order to better understand what his precise teachings were.

On social matters, they rely heavily on the findings of social and natural sciences. Most:
bullet Are political liberals, independents, or moderates.
bullet Give a high priority to combating racism, sexism, poverty, and homophobia. 
bullet Are supportive of abortion access and educational programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies. 
bullet 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.

bullet 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:
bullet They look upon the Bible as containing the Word of God but do not necessarily view all passages being the inerrant word of God. 
bullet The concept of Hell as a place of eternal punishment, and individual salvation are not stressed.
bullet They are divided about belief in the origins of life and the universe.

Most mainline denominations have experienced long-standing, serious internal conflicts because their membership is largely split 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 local level.

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Another way of grouping Christians: A simplistic two mode model -- "us and them":

Many people 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 Christian 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.

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  1. "America’s Christian Commitment Has Remained Relatively Stable for the Past Decade," Barna Research Online, at:
  2. J. Gordon Melton, Ed, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions: A Comprehensive Study of the Major Religious Groups in the United States and Canada," 3 volume set, Triumph Books, New York, NY, (1989)
  3. Borgna Brunner, Editor, "Time Almanac 2002 with Information Please®," Page 436.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2008-APR-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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