The number of Christian denominations around the world is huge – and growing. They have different histories, different traditions and a huge variety in the styles of their church services. Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, have hundreds of millions of members. Others, such as the Pentecostal Church, are seeing rapid growth all over the world.
The core of any genuine Christian denomination is the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that anyone putting their trust and faith in him is forgiven by God.
Christian denominations don’t always agree on all aspects of doctrine – Christian belief and practice – but the core of any genuine Christian denomination is the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that anyone putting their trust and faith in him is forgiven by God. The Bible book, John, says ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’. One example of difference is the understanding of Eucharist, or Holy Communion, where Christians eat bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death. For Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus during the Communion service. But for other denominations, the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ body and blood.
How one Church became many denominations
The Christian church began in around 30AD, after Jesus Christ had died and risen back to life. Jesus then ascended to heaven and God, in the form of the Holy Spirit, came on a group of his followers in a spectacular way on a day known as Pentecost. Supernaturally inspired by this, they began to travel around the Middle East, telling people about Jesus and performing miracles just as he had. More people became Christians. The new believers met together regularly to pray and worship God. They pooled their resources to give money to the poor. In the 4th century Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. It continued to spread around the world even after Rome fell.
But as the Church grew, variations emerged. The first big split happened in the 11th century, forming the (eastern) Orthodox and (western) Roman Catholic churches. Another hugely significant event was the Reformation in the 16th century, which saw the Protestant Church break away from the Roman Catholic Church. These Protestant churches included Lutherans, Presbyterians and the Anglicans/Episcopalians. Later some Protestants broke away from the Anglican Church of England because they would not conform to its governance and practices. These Christians became known as non-conformists. They included the Baptists and Methodists.
Areas of difference
Denominations vary in a number of ways. These include systems of governance; traditions; styles of service and statements of faith and teaching. In many Christian traditions, authority rests solely with trained professional clergy and there is a clear hierarchy. For example, the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and has spiritual authority over the world’s Catholics. TheAnglican/Episcopalian Church is organised into provinces each led by an archbishop or primate. The Archbishop of Canterbury, as Primate of All England, is regarded the first among equals within the primates. Each primate is responsible for bishops and each bishop for priests. All Roman Catholic priests must be male, unmarried and therefore celibate. Some parts of the Anglican Church allow only male clergy but most areas have male and female ministers. Anglican clergy are allowed to marry.
But governance is very different in a non-conformist church such as the Baptists. Here there is no global hierarchy – individual churches choose their ministers. Decisions on how churches are run are often taken through votes by the membership. Some non-conformist churches have stipended staff; in others the leaders are unstipended.
In the past 100 years, there has been a significant growth in ecumenism – which comes from the Greek word for community.
Church services are another area of difference. In some churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, only trained priests can preside over Holy Communion. But many non-conformist churches point to the Bible book, 1 Peter, which speaks of all Christians being a ‘royal priesthood’ – and they allow greater involvement by the church members. Styles of service vary enormously within denominations – for example, services in some Anglican churches might be very similar to ones in a RomanCatholic church; in others they might feel more like a high-energyPentecostal gathering. By contrast, Quaker meetings begin with silence and there are no prayers, hymns or readings at all.
Churches also have different attitudes to baptism. This is a significant event for a Christian, symbolising a decision to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ and leaving behind their ‘old life’. The Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches will baptise young children at the request of their parents. But Baptists believe the individual needs to make the decision for themselves and don’t baptise infants.
In the UK, the Church of England is embedded into political and everyday life. Bishops sit in the upper house of parliament, the Lords, and are involved in considering legislation. The Church also has responsibility for thousands of schools around the country. Other denominations are involved in education too around the world. They help to set up and run schools and colleges and ensure they are run according to a Christian ethos.
Churches working together
Jesus Christ prayed about Christian unity on the night he was arrested. Speaking about believers in the Bible book, John, he says‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. …. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them…’
Sadly over the centuries, schisms between different denominations have led to violence and persecution. Thousands of Christians have been put to death by the followers of another denomination. But in the past 100 years, there has been a significant growth in ecumenism – which comes from the Greek word for community. Different denominations have been working to develop closer relationships and abetter understanding of each other’s traditions. This is happening at a local level where different churches work together on projects such as helping the homeless. It is also taking place at an international level where leaders of the Christian traditions now meet regularly to discuss greater unity and also how Christianity can respond to global issues such as climate change, conflict and migration.