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Which, if any, is the "true" Christian church?

The fragmentation of Christianity,
from 1 to thousands of faith groups

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The fragmentation of Christianity:

Note: The following is a brief outline from a historical perspective. Many Christian faith groups have quite different stories, that are too diverse to describe here.

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When Christianity was unified:

Christianity was once a unified movement. From about 30 CE -- the approximate year of Yeshua of Nazareth's (Jesus Christ) execution -- to about 36 CE -- the approximate year of Paul's return to Judea as a teacher of Pauline theology -- Christianity was centered in Jerusalem.

bullet Many liberal Christians and historians believe that the movement was led by James, the brother of Jesus. 1 These followers of Jesus regarded themselves as a reform movement within Judaism -- one of about two dozen Jewish sects that existed in the middle of the first century CE. They believed that Jesus was a prophet, and fully human. Concepts such as the virgin-birth and Trinity and the deity of Christ had not yet surfaced. The members observed the Jewish holy days, circumcised their male children, followed Jewish dietary rules, and sacrificed in the Temple. With the return of Paul to Judea after a three-year absence, Jesus' followers between divided between Jewish Christianity (primarily among Jews) and Pauline Christianity (primarily among ex-Pagans and other Gentiles. Both competing faith groups seriously, devoutly, thoughtfully and prayerfully believed themselves to be true Christianity.
bullet Conservative Christians generally believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. They view the Bible as describing a unified Christianity with minor conflicts between Paul and the Jerusalem Church. However, there are many references in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) to a serious split in the Christian movement. There are mention of Judaizers and to false Christian teachers. Galatians 2 and Acts 15 are perhaps the clearest descriptions of the conflict between James and Paul and their groups.

Later during the first century CE, multiple versions of Christianity surfaced. There were often Christian leaders teaching very different versions of Christianity in the larger cities. Most could be grouped into three movements: Pauline Christianity, Jewish Christianity, and Gnostic Christianity. (Gnostics believed that salvation came through secret knowledge). Each believed that they were teaching the true message of Jesus. Only one of them, if any, would have been the "true" Church.

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A broad overview of Christian history -- a series of schisms:

A Christian timeline:

bullet 1st century CE: The three main divisions within the Christian movement -- the Jewish Christians, Pauline Christians, and Gnostic Christians -- continued. Many of the Jewish Christians were killed during the attack on Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 CE. The rest apparently scattered. Each believed themselves to be the true church, and were highly critical of the other two. More information on the first three centuries of Christian history
bullet 4th century CE: The Roman Emperor Theodosian issued a series of decrees to "suppress all rival religions, order the closing of the temples, and impose fines, confiscation, imprisonment or death upon any who cling to the older [Pagan] religions." 2 The church used the power of the state to begin programs to oppress, exile or exterminate both Pagans and Gnostic Christians. Church authority had became concentrated in the five bishops or patriarchs located in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Although they were officially given equal status, the Bishop of Rome was considered the first among the equals because he was located in the administrative capitol of the Roman Empire. 3 
bullet 6th century CE: Only the successor to Pauline Christianity had survived in the Mediterranean area, in the form of a deeply divided Catholic church. Gnostic Christianity had been suppressed; Jewish Christianity had died out. There were independent Christian groups in Egypt, India and elsewhere which were not part of Catholicism.
bullet 1054 CE: The great schism formally divided Christianity into two main groups: Roman Catholicism in western Europe, and the Eastern Orthodox churches in the east.
bullet 1412 CE: Jan Huss, a Czech religious thinker, philosopher and reformer, condemned the sale of indulgences and the Crusades, both features of the Catholic Church. He was one of the earliest reformers and generated considerable agitation in the church.
bullet 1517 CE: Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation.
bullet 1525 CE: A small group of Christians in Switzerland formed a study group that would later grow into a group of free churches -- the predecessors to the Mennonites, Amish and other Anabaptist groups.
bullet 16th century to the 20th century: Protestantism fragmented into more than a dozen families of denominations, and thousands of individual faith groups -- over 1,000 in North America and tens of thousands word-wide. 4

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Present status:

There are tens of thousands of faith groups that consider themselves to be Christian. Many -- perhaps most -- believe that they, alone, are the "true" Christian Church. A few examples are:

bullet The Roman Catholic Church teaches that it alone is the church created by Jesus.
bullet Landmarkism is the belief by some Baptists that theirs are the only true Christian churches.
bullet Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Restoration movement, was troubled by the multiplicity of Christian sects. He received a vision at the age of 14 in which God and Jesus Christ appeared separately before him and explained that all of the Christian sects and denominations were in error and that he should not join any of them. He founded the Church of Christ in 1830. It teaches that its beliefs and practices are a restoration of the very early Christian church. Today, the movement has grown to include almost 100 denominations and sects of which the largest is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- commonly referred to as the Mormons.
bullet Jehovah's Witnesses teach that theirs is the only true religion. They believe that in the near future, at the Battle of Armageddon, many people (particularly those who are not Jehovah's Witnesses in good standing) will be destroyed for all eternity in a terrible slaughter.
bullet Some members of The Church with no name (a.k.a. "Two by Twos") believe that only members of their group can be saved.

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  1. Some Christians regard James as the actual brother of Yeshua. Others believe that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Thus they believe that the  "brothers" of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels are either step brothers, cousins or friends of Jesus.
  2. Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971). Excerpts appear at:
  3. David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary," Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism.  
  4. J.G. Melton, Ed., "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," Triumph Books, (1991). A 3 volume set.

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Copyright 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-JAN-13
Latest update: 2007-JUL-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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