Which, if any, is the "true" Christian church?
The fragmentation of Christianity,
from 1 to thousands of faith groups
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.
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.
||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
||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.
A broad overview of Christian history -- a series of schisms:
A Christian timeline:
||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
||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
||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.
||1054 CE: The great schism formally divided Christianity into two
Roman Catholicism in western Europe, and the
Eastern Orthodox churches in the east.
||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.
||1517 CE: Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation.
||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.
||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
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:
||The Roman Catholic Church teaches that it alone is
the church created by Jesus.
||Landmarkism is the belief by some Baptists that theirs are the only true Christian churches.
||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.
||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
||Some members of The Church with no name
(a.k.a. "Two by Twos") believe that only members of their group can be
- 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
Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference
on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971).
Excerpts appear at: http://www.christianism.com/articles/18.html
David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary,"
Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman
J.G. Melton, Ed., "The Encyclopedia of American Religions,"
Triumph Books, (1991). A 3 volume set.
Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 1999-JAN-13
Latest update: 2007-JUL-27
Author: B.A. Robinson