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Divisions within Protestant Christianity

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Sorting individual Christian faith groups into categories like fundamentalist, evangelical, mainline, liberal progressive is fraught with danger. Consider some of the problems:

bullet It is impossible to reach a consensus on a good definition of "Christian."
bullet No consensus exists on a good definition for "evangelical Christian," or "liberal Christian" or "progressive Christian" or other important terms.
bullet According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world. 5 Sorting them into meta groups, wings, families, and other classifications is a subjective process.
bullet Denominations are internally divided on an rural/urban, young/old, north/south, and other bases.

Sorting faith groups into categories tends to overlook the wide diversity of beliefs by individual members within each faith group and within each local congregation. This diversity is causing major stresses in mainline denominations as they attempt to reach an accommodation over such divisive issues as abortion access, same-sex marriage, equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations and sexual identities. We expect this stress to migrate to more conservative denominations in the decades ahead.

Grouping Christians - Princeton Religion Research Center study:

The Princeton Religion Research Center (PRRC), using their own three mode criteria, estimated that 18% of American adults are religious conservatives, 47% moderates and 19% liberals. 1They commented:

bullet "Religious conservatives are sometimes viewed negatively as overly strict on moral issues, close-minded, intolerant of other religious views, fanatical about their beliefs, too harsh, and placing too much emphasis on guilt or sin, too concerned about their own salvation, and too rigid and simplistic. Many people would not like to have them as neighbors."
bullet "Liberals are sometimes viewed as substituting social concerns for the true Gospel, too compromising with the world, morally loose, having a shallow knowledge of the Bible and too much influenced by secular humanism."
bullet "Evangelicals and non-evangelicals hold sharply contrasting images of God. The former are far more likely than the latter to picture God as Father than as Mother, Master than Spouse, Judge than Lover, Creator than Healer, and Redeemer than Liberator."

Grouping Christians - another two mode model: law and love:

Some writers talk about the existence of two Christian religions. They are not referring to the past split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but rather a division between two groups of Protestant denominations. Literary critic, Bruce Bawer, 2,3 perceives American Protestantism as being divided into:

"...two nearly antithetical religions, both calling themselves Christianity...These two religions -- the Church of Law, based in the South, and the Church of Love, based in the North -- differ on almost every big theological point."

We believe that Bawer does not wish to imply that the Church of Law is without love, or that the Church of Love is lawless. He appears to use the terms to indicate the prime focus of the two groups. For example, the former may visualize God  lawgiver/creator/judge; the latter more as a loving parent/liberator/friend. The former typically believes that one must be "saved" before they can attain heaven; the latter often believe that everyone will go to heaven at death.

Differentiating between conservative and progressive Christians:

The following comparison is necessarily somewhat simplistic. Each cell in the table could easily be expanded into an entire essay. A typical Christian will hold some beliefs from the conservative column and some from the progressive column.

Item Conservative Christians Progressive/Liberal Christians

Theological Matters:

Concept of God Lawgiver. Father, Judge, Creator, Redeemer 1 Parent, Lover, Healer, Liberator, Friend.
Concept of Jesus Divine; co-eternal with God Various beliefs
Satan Profoundly powerful and important living entity, dedicated to evil. Symbol of evil. Does not exist as a living entity. 
Status of the Bible Inerrant; inspired by God; free of errors, except for a few isolated copying mistakes Some internal conflicts exist. Books are created by fallible human authors promoting their own beliefs
Interpreting the Bible Literally, unless otherwise indicated. Some literal, some symbolic; some as simple propaganda; some passages should be ignored; others are religious myths
How one can understand the Bible One must first be 'saved' before the Holy Spirit will help you understand the Bible. Otherwise, the Bible is totally confusing. By studying infusion of religious ideas from other cultures surrounding Palestine and the religious backgrounds of the authors.
Consistency of the Bible Totally consistent; presents an undeviating theological belief Major evolution in theological beliefs from Genesis to Revelation
Usefulness of Bible Passages All verses are useful Some passages should be rejected as advocating unethical behavior such as genocide, child spanking, and slavery.
Vision of Christian faith Essentially fixed In constant change
"Prime Directive" "Great commission" to evangelize the world "Great Commandment" to love God and one's fellow humans
Heaven With God; eternally joyous Various beliefs.
Hell Place of eternal punishment Temporary punishment, symbolic condition, or non-existent
Basis of salvation Repentance, trust in Jesus as savior A belief in universalism: all will be saved
Virgin birth Important belief Unimportant, or myth
The world and the rest of the universe Created by God Created by God or evolved due to purely natural forces
Evolution of the species Nonexistent. All "kinds" of animals were created during one week. Species evolved over hundreds of millions of years due either to natural forces, or intervention by God, or both.
Age of the universe Less than 10,000 years Approximately 13 billion years
Age of the earth Less than 10,000 years Approximately 4.5 billion years
Second Coming of Jesus Imminent Not expected
End of the world Imminent Far future, if ever
Rapture Imminent A beautiful myth, but not something that will ever happen.
Baptism By immersion. Given to believers only, after the age of accountability and after having been saved. By sprinkling, typically given to the very young, before the age of accountability.
Main sources for social policies, and beliefs The Bible, church tradition, findings of science Findings of science, the Bible, church tradition
Biblical basis for policies & beliefs  Selected Biblical verses Christ's message and biblical themes, coupled with modern knowledge and personal experience.
Book of Daniel Written by Daniel in the 6th century BCE. Predicts events in our immediate future. Author unknown. Written circa 165 BCE. Recorded prior events from the 6th to the 2nd century
How the books in the New Testament were selected from the many writings in circulation Under the inspiration of God. Fraudulent books rejected; only inerrant books accepted.. They selected mainly those writings which supported their 4th century theology, and which they thought were written by the apostles or those close to the apostles.
Converting Jews to Christianity Of vital importance; given a high priority. An arrogant, religiously intolerant activity.
Status of Jews and Judaism Abandoned by God, or of uncertain status. A parallel, great world religion.


Church Organization

Church membership Exclusive; must conform to standards of belief and practice Inclusive; minimal requirements.
Ordination of women Opposed or barely tolerated Supportive.
Growth in membership Positive. Little or negative.
Range of beliefs among members Small Wide


Social Policies

Under what conditions is an act sinful? Depends upon the act itself; e.g. all homosexual sex is sinful Depends upon the situation; e.g. all manipulative or unsafe sex is sinful
Legalization of slavery, circa 2005 CE Opposed Opposed
Legalization of slavery, circa 1860 CE Generally supportive Denomination did not exist
Racial segregation, circa 2005 CE Opposed Opposed
Racial segregation, circa 1960 CE Supportive, Neutral Opposed
Special rights & roles for males Supportive Opposed
Nature of homosexuality Chosen; unnatural, changeable; an addiction; something that people do. Genetic; natural for a minority of adults; fixed; an orientation; something that people are.
Special rights for heterosexuals; e.g. marriage Favor Various
Marriage, circa 2005 Restricted to heterosexuals Some  favor marriage for all committed couples
Marriage, circa 1960 Only  heterosexuals of same race. Only heterosexuals.
Corporal punishment of children Supportive, as needed Opposed
Access to physician assisted suicide Opposed; politically active Various
Access to abortion Pro-life; politically active Generally pro-choice
Capital Punishment Favor Many opposed
Schoolroom prayer Favor Many opposed
Sinful forms of sex Same sex activity, any sexual acts outside of opposite-sex marriage, and rape. Any heterosexual or homosexual coercive, manipulated or unsafe acts, or any sex acts outside a committed relationship

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Where do denominations fit into these models?

People have tried to arrange Christian denominations from the most conservative to the most liberal. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the specific order. Even worse, there is no agreement about which religious groups are Christian.

bullet Many religious conservatives do not consider liberal denominations to be part of historic Christianity. Also, some consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) to be neo-Gnostic, the Roman Catholic Church to be Pagan, the Jehovah's Witnesses to be heretical, etc.
bullet More liberal denominations consider as Christian the full range of faith groups which consider themselves to be Christian.

In 1979, D.R. Hodge had 25 religious experts sort denominations along a conservative to liberal continuum, and produced the following list: 4

bullet Assemblies of God (the most conservative)
bullet Seventh-Day Adventist
bullet Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
bullet Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
bullet Church of the Nazarene
bullet Southern Baptist Convention
bullet Churches of Christ
bullet Presbyterian Church in the United States *
bullet American Baptist Churches in the USA
bullet Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
bullet Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
bullet United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America *
bullet United Methodist Church
bullet Episcopal Church
bullet United Church of Christ. (the most liberal)

Since the late 1970s, some changes should probably be made to the above list:

bullet * These two denominations merged in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
bullet Following a lengthy conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) between fundamentalists and moderates, and the almost complete victory of the fundamentalist wing, the SBC has moved significantly upwards in the above list, perhaps to the first or second spot.
bullet The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) would have been considered the most liberal Christian denomination in past decades. However, it is no longer generally considered to be part of Protestant Christianity. The UUA currently recognizes many sources of beliefs among its members: e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Humanism, and Earth Centered traditions, including Neopaganism. According to a recent poll, only about 10% of UU members regard themselves to be Christian.
bullet The Progressive Christianity movement was founded in 1996. It is not a denomination but rather a network of supporting congregations, informal groups, and individual members. They can probably be considered the most liberal Christian group at this time.
bullet Most theologians would probably consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to now be among the more liberal Christian denominations.

Such lists are based on the overall culture of the denomination. As noted above, every denomination has members who adhere to a wide range of conservative / liberal beliefs.


  1. The Princeton Religion Research Center (PRRC), "Survey Trivia From The PRRC" (The PRRC is an inter-faith, non-denominational research organization founded in 1977 by George H. Gallup, Jr. It specializes in creative, practical research, utilizing worldwide Gallup survey facilities. See: This URL appears to be no longer valid. We have been unable to find the new one.
  2. Bruce Bawer, "Where Protestants Part Company", Opinion Column, The New York Times, 1997-APR-5.
  3. Bruce Bawer, "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity," Crown Publ. (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  4. D.R. Hodge, "A test of theories of denominational growth and decline," an essay in D.R. Hodge & D.A. Roozen, Eds., "Understanding church growth and decline," Pilgrim Press (1979) , (1979) Page 185. Cited in B. Spilka, et al., "The Psychology of Relgion: An empirical approach," Prentice-Hall, (1985), Page 41.
  5. David B. Barrett, et al., "World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book

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Copyright 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2009-SEP-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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