The other day, I was watching Daystar which everyone knows is a bad thing. This particular church, which I will not name, was making a big deal about their series on prophecy. At the end of their show, they threw up this big graphic that said _________ Church: We teach the BIBLE!”
One of the obsessions of the church in the last four hundred years or so has been proving that this church or that church has a better understanding of the Bible than that church or this church. To be honest, it is an irritating example of immaturity. We might as well get together in a circle and demonstrate our manhood through various crude tests best left to the vacant lot behind the junior high.
(Guys, you know what I’m talking about. Ladies, ask your guys. If he makes an immature snicker and then blushes, he knows.)
But I digress…
At Heritage, we have these little things we call “While You Were Talking…” Cards. They are about the size of an index card, and during the service, anyone in the congregation is allowed to ask a question, make a comment or add to the discussion by filling one out and dropping it in the offering plate. Generally, we only get one or two a month; but we like to keep the channels open for further discussion.
This week, I made a comment about the various different Christian traditions and someone dropped a card asking what the differences were. I thought the best way to answer the question would be to present it here in print as well as a brief summary in this Sunday’s worship gathering.
The Origin of Denominations
At its core, denominationalism stems from a mentality of proving your own belief’s superiority to others. It is an inevitable byproduct of sinful people attempting to divine a single, authoritative interpretation to Scripture. It reached its peak in the post-Enlightenment age when human reason and systematic theology created competing theological world views within Christianity. Since debate was one of the forms of entertainment for this “intelligent” age, it became common for men to debate their positions both in person and through various media.
There were no denominations in the early church, although there were divisions. People chose not to follow the apostles’ teachings, adapting philosophy, Gnosticism, and even Roman imperialism to Christian forms. Paul and the other apostles rigorously attacked such activity, stating that it brings dissonance into the church and distracts from the mission of Jesus Christ.
That being said, denominational names did serve a purpose at one time. They allowed the educated Christian consumer to identify the general scope of a church’s beliefs. One knew what to expect if they walked into a Lutheran church or a Congregational church. Such is no longer the case, as many movements such as theological liberalism, postmodernism, the Charismatic movement and the Church Growth Movement have blurred the lines among denominational beliefs.
Some Basics About the Various Denominations
Here is a brief summary of some of the major American denominations:
Roman Catholicism essentially teaches that there is one authoritative church. It is governed by the bishops, overseen by the bishop of Rome – supposedly the successor of the apostle Peter. Catholicism is a wildly diverse group, including those who follow the Roman rite and those who do not. Essentially, Catholicism emphasizes the church as the mode of salvation and the sacraments as the only way to obtain grace.
Adherents: 65 million US, 1.5 billion worldwide
Founded: c. 400 AD, broke with Orthodox in 1054
Orthodoxy shares a common heritage with Catholicism but broke from the Catholics in 1054 over doctrinal issues and authority issues. The Orthodox generally recognize the authority of five Patriarchs, of whom the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) is first among equals. They share the same emphases as the Catholics although they generally worship in Greek and their rituals are more Hellenic.
Both orthodoxy and Catholicism have national churches in many countries, some of which vary widely from the summary statements made above.
Adherents: 5.9 million US, 225 million worldwide
Founded: 1054 AD, broke with Catholics
Protestants are the groups who broke from the Catholic church in the 16th and later centuries. Generally, they are grouped by their beliefs on the issue of salvation or their method of church government.
Lutherans are governed by synods of bishops. They nominally believe in the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith. They are often liturgical in their observance of worship. They baptize infants.
Adherents: 66 million worldwide
Founded: 1530, Augsburg Confession
Anglicans/Episcopalians are an English denomination overseen by the monarch of England (through the Archbishop of Canterbury). They generally hold to the view that the church is the mode of salvation and grace is obtained through the sacraments, like the Catholics. [Episcopalians are overseen by the Archbishop of New York]. They baptize infants.
Adherents: 2.3 million US, 70 million worldwide
Founded: 1534, King Henry’s Act of Supremacy
Presbyterians are Scottish in origin, following the teachings of John Calvin and subsequent “Calvinist” teachers. Their churches are governed by boards of presbyters or “elders.” They hold to the belief that salvation is for the “elect” or chosen. Outside of Presbyterian denominations, these beliefs are called Reformed doctrines. Some baptize infants.
Adherents: 2.5 million
Founded: 1560 and the 1640 Westminster Confession
Baptists are the largest protestant denomination in the USA. They are extremely diverse but primarily hold to local church government and the supremacy of Scriptures. They baptize only those old enough to make confession of faith, and do so by immersion.
Adherents: 105 million worldwide
Founded: Reformation? Other groups with similar beliefs occurred quite often throughout the ages.
Methodists were started as part by John and Charles Wesley based on John’s revivalist preaching in the 1700’s. Since then, Methodists have changed dramatically. They are largely liturgical and diverse in beliefs and practices.
Adherents: 75 millions worldwide
Pentecostalism began in 1901 when students at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, KS, were challenged to find in Scripture the evidence of salvation. They concluded that speaking in tongues was the sign of salvation. Pentecostals are both denominational and independent; their largest denomination is the Assemblies of God. They believe that salvation is confirmed by miraculous gifts, such as speaking in tongues.
Charismatic movement is a non-denominational movement that emphasized the Pentecostal gifts and often sought out additional revelation through signs, wonders, visions and other prophetic acts.
Estimating the number of Pentecostals and Charismatics is difficult because the two labels often denote the same groups. While there are an estimated 120 million Pentecostals worldwide, some are also considered Charismatics (such as the more extreme forms of the Vineyard movement). They are defined by their practices in relationship to the gifts of the spirit than by denominations.
- Restorationists is a catchword for a number of groups that attempted to “restore” the New Testament church. They include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Churches of Christ (Stone-Campbell). These groups vary from cultic to charismatic and everywhere in between. They are generally characterized by a complete rejection of any other Christian church in favor of their own.
This is far from an exhaustive list of Christian groups. There are an estimated 38,000 different Christian denominational groups, so listing all of them would take some time. Essentially, Christians fall into six megablocs or groups of affiliations (“Status of Global Mission 2008”, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary):
- Roman Catholics 1130.401 million,
- Independents 422.659 million,
- Protestants 386.644 million,
- Orthodox 252.891 million,
- Anglican 82.708 million,
- marginal Christians 36.001 million.
What I have presented is just a very brief summary that hopefully will clear up the major differences and the reasons we consider ourselves an independent church. Heritage is a Baptist church because we believe that the historical Baptist creed, which emphasized the supremacy of the Word of God and the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ is biblical in content. We do not, however, exclude other variations of the faith who also value God’s Word and faith in Christ alone.