Development of Christian Denominations

Learn the History and Evolution of Christian Branches and Faith Groups

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Christian Branches

Today in the U.S. alone, there are more than 1,000 different Christian branches professing many diverse and conflicting beliefs. It would be an understatement to say that Christianity is a severely divided faith.

Definition of a Denomination in Christianity

A denomination in Christianity is a religious organization (an association or fellowship) that unites local congregations in a single, legal and administrative body.

Members of a denominational family share the same beliefs or creed, participate in similar worship practices and cooperate together to develop and preserve shared enterprises.

The word denomination comes from the Latin denominare meaning "to name."

Initially, Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:5). Denominations began to develop as the history of Christianity progressed and adapted to the differences of race, nationality, and theological interpretation.

As of 1980, British statistical researcher David B Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations in the world. He classified them into seven major alliances and 156 ecclesiastical traditions.

Examples of Christian Denominations

Some of the oldest denominations in church history are the Coptic Orthodox Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. A few newer denominations, by comparison, are the Salvation Army, the Assemblies of God Church, and the Calvary Chapel Movement.

Many Denominations, One Body of Christ

There are many denominations, but one body of Christ. Ideally, the church on earth--the body of Christ--would be universally united in doctrine and organization. However, departures from Scripture in doctrine, revivals, reformations, and various spiritual movements have forced believers to form distinct and separate bodies.

Every believer today would benefit from reflecting on this sentiment found in Foundations of Pentecostal Theology: "Denominations may have been God's way of preserving revival and missionary fervor. The members of denominational churches, however, must keep in mind that the Church which is the Body of Christ is composed of all true believers, and that true believers must be united in spirit to carry forward the Gospel of Christ in the world, for all will be caught up together at the Coming of the Lord. That local churches should band together for fellowship and missions is certainly a Bible truth."

The Evolution of Christianity

75% of all North Americans identify themselves as Christian, with the United States being one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Most of the Christians in America belong to either a mainline denomination or the Roman Catholic Church.

There are numerous ways to dissect the many Christian faith groups. They can be separated into fundamentalist or conservative, mainline and liberal groups. They can be characterized by theological belief systems such as Calvinism and Arminianism. And lastly, Christians can be categorized into a vast number of denominations.

Fundamentalist / Conservative / Evangelical Christian groups can generally be characterized as believing that salvation is a free gift of God. It is received by repenting and asking for forgiveness of sin and trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior. They define Christianity as a personal and living relationship with Jesus Christ. They believe the Bible is God's inspired Word and is the basis of all truth. Most conservative Christians believe that hell is a real place that awaits anyone who does not repent of their sins and trust Jesus as Lord.

Mainline Christian groups are more accepting of other beliefs and faiths. They usually define a Christian as anyone who follows the teachings of and about Jesus Christ. Most mainline Christians will consider the contributions of non-Christian religions and give value or merit to their teaching.

For the most part, mainline Christians believe that salvation comes through faith in Jesus, however, they vary widely in their emphasis on good works and the effect of these good works on determining their eternal destination.

Liberal Christian groups agree with most mainline Christians and are even more accepting of other beliefs and faiths. Religious liberals generally interpret hell symbolically, not as an actual place. They reject the concept of a loving God who would create a place of eternal torment for unredeemed humans. Some liberal theologians have abandoned or completely reinterpreted most of the traditional Christian beliefs.

For a general definition, and to establish common ground, we will maintain that most members of Christian groups will agree on the following things:

  • Christians follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, who was born in Bethlehem and executed by Roman crucifixion (death on a cross).
  • Most Christians regard Jesus as the Son of God, and that He is God, the second person of the Trinity.
  • Most Christians believe the Trinity consists of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - three separate persons, all eternal, all present, all powerful, all knowing. They form a single, unified deity.
  • Most Christians believe that Jesus co-existed with God before the foundation of the world, that He was born to a virgin named Mary, that he was resurrected in bodily form three days after his death, and that he later ascended into heaven.

Brief History of the Church

To try to understand why and how so many different denominations developed, let's take a very brief look at the history of the church.

After Jesus died, Simon Peter, one of Jesus' disciples, became a strong leader in the Jewish Christian movement. Later James, most likely Jesus' brother, took over leadership. These followers of Christ viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism yet they continued to follow many of the Jewish laws.

At this time Saul, originally one of the strongest persecutors of the early Jewish Christians, had a blinding vision of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and became a Christian. Adopting the name Paul, he became the greatest evangelist of the early Christian church. Paul's ministry, also called Pauline Christianity, was directed mainly to Gentiles rather than Jews. In subtle ways, the early church was already becoming divided.

Another belief system at this time was Gnostic Christianity, which believed they had received a "higher knowledge" and taught that Jesus was a spirit being, sent by God to impart knowledge to humans so that they could escape the miseries of life on earth.

In addition to Gnostic, Jewish, and Pauline Christianity, there were already many other versions of Christianity being taught. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Jewish Christian movement was scattered. Pauline and Gnostic Christianity were left as the dominant groups.

The Roman Empire recognized Pauline Christianity as a valid religion in 313 AD. Later in that century, it became the official religion of the Empire, and during the following 1,000 years, Catholics were the only people recognized as Christians.

In 1054 AD, a formal split occurred between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This division remains in effect today. The 1054 split, also known as the Great East-West Schism marks an important date in the history of all Christian denominations because it designates the very first major division in Christianity and the beginning of "denominations." For more about the East-West division, visit Eastern Orthodox History.

The next major division occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was ignited in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, but the Protestant movement did not officially begin until 1529. It was during this year that the "Protestation" was published by German princes who wanted the freedom to choose the faith of their territory. They called for an individual interpretation of Scripture and religious freedom.

The Reformation marked the beginning of denominationalism as we see it today. Those who remained faithful to Roman Catholicism believed that the central regulation of doctrine by church leaders was necessary to prevent confusion and division within the church and corruption of its beliefs. On the contrary, those who broke away from the church believed this central control was what led to the corruption of the true faith.

Protestants insisted that believers be allowed to read the Word of God for themselves. Up until this time the Bible was only made available in Latin.

This look back at history is possibly the best way to make sense of the incredible volume and variety of Christian denominations today.

(Sources: ReligiousTolerance.org, ReligionFacts.com, AllRefer.com, and the Religious Movements Website of the University of Virginia. Dictionary of Christianity in America, Reid, D. G., Linder, R. D., Shelley, B. L., & Stout, H. S., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, Duffield, G. P., & Van Cleave, N. M., Los Angeles, CA: L.I.F.E. Bible College.)