Divisions within Protestant Christianity
Sorting individual Christian faith groups into categories like
fundamentalist, evangelical, mainline, liberal progressive is fraught with
danger. Consider some of the problems:
|It is impossible to reach a consensus on a good
definition of "Christian."|
|No consensus exists on a good definition for "evangelical
Christian," or "liberal Christian" or "progressive
Christian" or other important terms. |
|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.|
|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.
|"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."
|"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
|"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
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
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.
|Concept of God
||Lawgiver. Father, Judge, Creator, Redeemer 1
||Parent, Lover, Healer, Liberator,
|Concept of Jesus
||Divine; co-eternal with God
||Profoundly powerful and important
living entity, dedicated to evil.
||Symbol of evil. Does not exist as
a living entity.
|Status of the Bible
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
||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
||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
||In constant change
||"Great commission" to evangelize the
||"Great Commandment" to love God and
one's fellow humans
||With God; eternally joyous
||Place of eternal punishment
||Temporary punishment, symbolic condition, or
|Basis of salvation
||Repentance, trust in Jesus as savior
||A belief in universalism: all will be saved
||Unimportant, or myth
world and the rest of the universe
||Created by God
||Created by God or evolved due to purely natural
|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
||Less than 10,000 years
||Approximately 4.5 billion years
|Second Coming of Jesus
|End of the world
||Far future, if ever
||A beautiful myth, but not something
that will ever happen.
||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
||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
||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.
||Exclusive; must conform to standards of belief
||Inclusive; minimal requirements.
|Ordination of women
||Opposed or barely tolerated
|Growth in membership
||Little or negative.
|Range of beliefs among members
|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
|Legalization of slavery, circa 1860 CE
||Denomination did not exist
|Racial segregation, circa 2005 CE
|Racial segregation, circa 1960 CE
|Special rights & roles for males
|Nature of homosexuality
||Chosen; unnatural, changeable; an addiction; something
that people do.
||Genetic; natural for a minority of
adults; fixed; an orientation; something that
|Special rights for heterosexuals; e.g. marriage
||Restricted to heterosexuals
||Some favor marriage for all
|Marriage, circa 1960
||Only heterosexuals of same race.
||Supportive, as needed
|Access to physician
||Opposed; politically active
|Access to abortion
||Pro-life; politically active
|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
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
In 1979, D.R. Hodge had 25 religious experts sort denominations along a
conservative to liberal continuum, and produced the following list: 4
|Assemblies of God (the most conservative)|
|Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
|Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod|
|Church of the Nazarene|
|Southern Baptist Convention|
|Churches of Christ|
|Presbyterian Church in the United States * |
|American Baptist Churches in the USA|
|Evangelical Lutheran Church in America|
|Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)|
|United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America *
|United Methodist Church|
|United Church of Christ. (the most liberal)|
Since the late 1970s, some changes should probably be made to the above list:
|* These two denominations merged in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.
- 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
- Bruce Bawer, "Where Protestants Part Company", Opinion Column, The New
York Times, 1997-APR-5.
- Bruce Bawer, "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity,"
Crown Publ. (1997). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- 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.
- David B. Barrett, et al., "World Christian
Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern
World," Oxford University Press, (2001).
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Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2009-SEP-04
Author: B.A. Robinson