the thousands of Christian
denominations into meta-groups:
Note about terminology:
There are many conflicting definitions about exactly which people and
which faith groups are Christian, and which are quasi-Christian,
sub-Christian or non-Christian. Many people hold tenaciously to the belief
that their own definition is the only true one. The end result is that,
depending on the definition of "Christian" used,
the percentage of Christians in the U.S. and Canada rages between less than
1% and 75%.
This site accepts as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously,
and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. Included are: the Roman Catholic
church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative, mainline, and liberal Christian faith groups; The
Restorationist churches (including the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah's Witnesses and a
thousand or so other religious organizations who view
themselves as Christian in North America.
Disunity within Christianity:
When Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) was executed, in approximately 30 CE, his message continued to be spread by some of his
followers. They formed the Jewish Christian movement -- a reform Judaism group
-- which was centered in Jerusalem. A few years later, Paul founded a competing
Pauline Christian group, which was aimed primarily at converting Gentiles.
Finally, a Gnostic Christian movement was formed.
Jewish Christians were killed or
scattered by the Roman Army when they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Pauline
Christianity was legalized in the 313 CE and became the official
religion of the Empire circa 380 CE. The Gnostics were exterminated by or absorbed
into the Church -- the successor to Pauline Christianity.
Strains between the surviving eastern and western regions of the Church reached the breaking point in 1054 CE when the
leaders of the two groups excommunicated each other. This formally separated the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Although
discussions are currently underway to bring them into unity, little progress
has being made.
In 1517, Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, set out to reform the Roman
Catholic church by eliminating some of its abuses -- largely involving the
church sacraments and the sale of indulgences. A split followed, producing the
Protestant Reformation and a series of religious wars which decimated Western
Europe. Protestantism subsequently split into many movements which themselves
split into families of denominations. The result was the the thousands of
individual Protestant denominations and sects that we observe today.
In 1534, the British Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy which declared the country independent of foreign
powers, including the pope. This separated the English Church from the pope's
authority. The Church of England was created under Edward VI when the
Book of Common Prayer was authorized in 1549. Mary I restored the connection to
Rome in 1553. But during the reign of Elizabeth I, her successor, a second Act of Supremacy was passed and the Book of Common Prayer reissued. The Church of England has since evolved into a worldwide movement, composed of the Anglican Communion divided int Provinces, Dioceses, and individual congregations.
In 1830 CE. Joseph Smith taught that the true Christian church died out early in the 2nd Century CE, when he believed that religious leaders abandoned many of the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Paul, and the other
apostles. Smith founded The Church of Christ. This faith group subsequently divided into over
100 separate denominations and sects which form the LDS Restorationist movement.
Christianity remains in a state of flux today, with new faith groups being
created, ceasing to exist, and merging with others. Other denominations have
difficulty adapting to change. They have experienced
schism over matters like literal interpretation of the
Bible, inerrancy of the Bible, criteria for salvation, the morality of human slavery, the roles of women within the family
and church, etc. More schisms are expected in the future over equal rights for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage.
Sorting Christian denominations today:
Today, there are over 30,000 separate Christian groups in the world. 1
||There is a small but growing Gnostic Christian movement who trace their beliefs back to the early Gnostics. They believe that
salvation comes from possessing esoteric knowledge.
||The vast majority of Christian groups trace their ancestry back to Pauline Christianity
as founded by
Paul in the 1st century CE and refined through various
early church councils and creeds. Most regard Yeshua as a man-god, a member of
the Trinity along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. A few Christians in the liberal wing of the religion view Yeshua as
a prophet, not a deity, and definitely not conceived by a virgin.
of sorting them is into eight "meta-groups."
||Roman Catholicism, This has the largest
membership of any meta-group in Christianity. It is headed by the Pope in
Rome, whose rulings are considered infallible in certain cases. The church is
coordinated by the Curia, which is composed of one Secretariat, and 27
agencies, each headed by a Cardinal. Local administration is by Bishops and
Archbishops who control activity in their Dioceses and Archdioceses.
||Eastern Orthodox Churches: a communion of autocephalous, (ecclesiastically
independent) Christian faith groups which forms the dominant religious bodies
in Bulgaria, Belarus, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and
Ukraine. They play a significant role in eleven other countries, including the
U.S. and Canada, and have a
scattered presence elsewhere in the world. They and the Roman Catholic Church
formally separated from each other in 1054 CE,
although they had been functioning nearly independently long before that date.
||Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches: This grouping consists of five churches in the Middle East and South
India. The Catholic Assyrian Church of the East and the Roman
Catholic church separated from each other after the Council of Ephesus in
431 CE. The four Oriental Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church separated from each other
after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, when the Oriental
Orthodox churches rejected the Council's concept of Christ as one person "in
two natures." The four Oriental Orthodox churches are:
||The Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia
||The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt;
||The Ethiopian Orthodox Church; and
||The Syrian Orthodox Churches which
include the See of Antioch and the Syrian Thomas Christians of South
A fifth church is often grouped with the Oriental Orthodox churches:
||The Catholic Assyrian Church of the East 4
||Protestantism: This is composed of a group of independent denominations, sects, and independent
churches numbering in excess of 30,000 worldwide. They trace their history
back to the Reformation which was triggered when Martin Luther circulated
95 theses in which he listed what he considered to be faults in the Roman
Catholic Church -- both theological and in its policies. Protestant
denominations have been grouped into 13 families, according to their
historical roots. There are over 1,000 Protestant denominations in North
America, ranging from extreme Fundamentalist to very
Liberal. Included are such diverse groups as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah's
Witnesses and Christian Scientists. 2 Most are democratically organized.
||The Anglican Communion: This consists of 38
Provinces and a small number of extra-provincial dioceses. It includes the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in Canada, and the Church of England in the UK. As noted above, the Church of England was created
under Edward VI when the Book of Common Prayer was authorized in 1549. Its bishops meet in the Lambeth
Conference every ten years, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury
who is considered “first among equals.” The Communion is "bound
together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual
loyalty sustained through common counsel of the Bishops in conference" 3 Ultimate decision making power in a given province is
controlled by three groups, consisting of the Bishops, the Priests, and a
group of laity. Individual Anglicans range from very
conservative to very liberal in beliefs.
||Pentecostals:One source lists 177
separate Pentecostal denominations. In the early 1900s CE, it grew out of the
Holiness movement which in turn had roots in Methodism, a Protestant
denomination. A major
defining feature of Pentecostalism is their belief in Glossolalia, or the ability to
speak "in tongues".
Another is the unusual freedom and spontaneity exhibited during their
religious services. They are theologically very conservative.
||The Restorationist faith groups share the belief
that the "true" Christian church died out as the church abandoned many of the
teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ), Paul, and other apostles --
perhaps early in the 2nd Century CE. This group includes the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints as founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. Almost a hundred
denominations trace their history back to that faith group. Other restorationist groups include the Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists,
etc. Their beliefs and practices differ greatly. However, all believe that their
group, alone, has
restored the original beliefs and practices of Yeshua and the apostles. Most
regard themselves as the true Christian church. Most
or all are obviously wrong.
||Other groups: There
are probably many hundreds of faith groups which do not neatly fit into any of the above five
Three of the more interesting are:
Progressive Christianity, a
very liberal Christian group which does not look upon itself as a
denomination. Rather they are building a network of affiliated
congregations, informal groups and individual members.
A group called the Two by Twos, The Black Stockings, The Church Without a Name, Cooneyites, etc. teach that their group has been in continuous but secret existence since the 1st century. They believe that their faith group was founded by Jesus, and is the only
"true" Christian church.
Gnostic Christians This movement and its literature were essentially wiped out by the end of the
5th century CE by heresy hunters from mainline Christianity. They believe that
salvation comes through Gnosis (knowledge.) They are
currently experiencing a rebirth throughout the world.
Disagreements over classification of faith groups:
||Many theologians combine the Anglican Communion and Protestant faith
groups as a single grouping.
||Others consider Pentecostalism as being part of Protestantism.
||Some in the anti-cult movement and counter-cult movement classify some of the smaller
denominations as "cults," "sub-Christians," or "none-Christian."
and not as a part of Christianity.
||Some Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals do not consider liberal/progressive
Christian denominations to be part of Christianity.
||The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. LDS & The
Mormons) and other LDS restorationist denominations are
not considered to be Christian by most conservative and some mainline
There are probably other disagreements not listed above. From the extensive
Emails that we receive, it is obvious that many individuals and groups regard
their own classification of faith groups to be the only valid one.
Related essay on this web site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A
comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford
University Press, (2001). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
- 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)
- Statement by the 1930 Lambeth Conference.
- Henry Hill, "Light from the East: A symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and
Assyrian Churches," Anglican Book Centre, (1988).
Copyright © 2003 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2003-APR-
Latest update: 2007-AUG-10
Author: B.A. Robinson