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Sorting Christian groups by denomination,
meta-group, wing, family, & theological belief system

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What is a Christian?

To avoid confusion, we repeat here our site's simple definition of "Christian:"

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ's) teachings as they understand them to be. "

Other individuals and groups have much narrower definitions of the term. They often believe that their faith group is the "true" Christian religion, and that all others are in error. That is certainly their right, but it does cause a great deal of confusion, frustration, anger, and conflict.

Sorting Christian faith groups:

Except perhaps for a few years between the execution of Yeshua of Nazareth (circa 30 CE) and the start of Paul's ministry (circa 36 CE), the Christian religion has never been unified.

bullet

Throughout the second half of the first century CE,  the Christian religion was divided into three main main religious movements: the Gnostics, Jewish Christians, and Pauline Christians.

  • Gnostic Christians still survive today as a small but growing group.

  • The original followers of Christ who formed the Jewish Christian movement centered in Jerusalem were essentially wiped out by the occupying Roman Army circa 70 CE.

  • All of the rest of today's Christian faith groups trace their history back to the Pauline Christian movement.

bullet Currently, there are over 1,200 Christian denominations in North America. 1

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. 2

Sorting them into categories is a difficult task. Six ways of classifying them are into:

  1. By individual denomination:
    bullet There are on the order of 1,200 Christian organizations in North America, and over 30,000 in the world.

    bullet Their names range from the Amish to The Way.

    bullet We have essays describing a few dozen of them.
     
  2. By meta-group: Christian denominations and sects in the world can be sorted into about eight segments or branches:
    bullet Roman Catholicism,

    bullet Eastern Orthodoxy,

    bullet Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches,

    bullet Protestantism

    bullet Restorationists

    bullet Anglican Communion

    bullet Pentecostals

    bullet Others

    Unfortunately, there is no consensus about which faith groups should be embraced by the term "Protestantism." For example:
    bullet Some theologians split out the Anglican Communion from Protestantism.

    bullet Others consider Pentecostalism to be separate from Protestantism.

    bullet Others separate the European Free-Church Family out as a separate group.

    bullet Some include the Restorationist denominations, which includes the Mormon church (a.k.a. LDS) within Protestantism. Some consider them to be a separate Christian group. Still others consider them to be non-Christian.

    The organization Christian Churches Together (CCT), a broadly based, inclusive, Christian ecumenical movement, suggests still another classification of U.S. faith groups. They group Christian denominations into five families" Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Historic Racial/Ethnic, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.
     

  3. By "Wing": Like in the area of politics, Christians and Christian groups can be divided into conservative and liberal wings, according to their belief systems. Their teachings on abortion access, origins of the species of life, the earth and the rest of the universe, equal rights for gays and lesbians, equal rights for transgender individuals and transsexuals, and same-sex marriage, are four indicators of their location on the liberal- conservative continuum.

    bullet Fundamentalists, other Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodoxy, and such varied groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Unification Church, etc. generally form the conservative wing;

    bullet The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Progressive Christianity, Evolutionary Christianity, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada and others form the liberal wing.

    bullet Often, a third, mainline wing is added, composed of such denominations as: American Baptist Churches in the USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, etc.
     
  4. By religious families:
    bullet Denominations can be sorted into 15 families, according to their historical roots. 1

    bullet Examples are the Adventist, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian families.
     
  5. By theological beliefs:
    bullet There are many systems of theological beliefs within Christianity.

    bullet They often cut across denominational boundaries.

    bullet Members of an single congregation may hold conflicting belief systems.

    bullet Examples are Arminianism, British Israelism, Calvinism, Christian Identity, Universalism, etc.

    bullet Perhaps the most striking range of beliefs concerns the nature of God. A survey by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion has identified four very different concepts of God which they call: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. Believers in each version can provide multiple biblical texts supporting their beliefs.

    bullet The Barna Research Group, arguably the most important polling group working in the religious and spiritual area, sorts individuals into five faith segments according to their theological beliefs.
     
  6. Five religious groupings:

Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT) recognizes six families of Christian faith groups:

bullet Evangelical,
bullet Pentecostal,
bullet Historic Protestant,
bullet Historic Racial/Ethnic,
bullet Eastern Orthodox, and
bullet Roman Catholic 3

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Additional information:

bullet Which is the "true" Christian denomination?
 
bullet Denominations:
bullet Origins of denominations (their founders, starting date, and initial location)
 
bullet Umbrella organizations
bullet U.S. national organizations
bullet Worldwide organizations
 
bullet Other church groups:
bullet Para-church organizations: Promise Keepers, P-FOX, Boy Scouts, etc.
bullet Cell churches
bullet House churches
 
bullet Conflicts:
bullet How religions established, changed, and continue to change their teachings on slavery, the role of women, sexual orientation, etc.
bullet Religious friction within mainline denominations
bullet Religious differences among denominations
bullet Destructive, dangerous, doomsday Cults
bullet Disagreement over which is the "true" church.
bullet Which do some Mormons believe is the true church?

bullet Off-site material:
bullet The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) has created a series of denominational family tree graphs of the Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian/Reformed, Restoration movement and other families. See: http://www.thearda.com/

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J. Gordon Melton, Ed, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," 6th edition, Gale Group, (2009). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store We were amazed to see the range of prices for this book as listed by Amazon.co, On 2012-SEP-07. a new hardcover edition costs $415.00. A used copy costs $0.01 plus postage!

  2. David B. Barrett, et al., "World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World," Oxford University Press, 2 volume set, (2001). Read reviews or order this book The prices are equally insane on this two volume set: New copies are $326; used at $1,861.

  3. "Christian Churches Together in the USA," at: http://www.christianchurchestogether.org/

Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 1998-JUL
Last updated 2012-SEP-07
Author: Bruce A Robinson

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