Over 2 billion people around the world follow Jesus. However, this global Christian population is divided into over a thousand denominations, including Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Apostolic. As per the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are more than 45,000 Christian denominations throughout the globe and over 200 denominations in the US alone.
So, why are there so many Christian denominations? One could argue that belief differences, corruption, and power grabs all contributed to the creation of these branches. Or, perhaps variety and differentiation have been the characteristics of Christianity right from the very beginning. According to an Oxford University church history professor emeritus, Diarmaid MacCulloch, “There has never been a united Christianity”.
The Early Divisions:
The early church, which came about in AD 27 and lasted until AD 325, was divided largely on the basis of geography. Worship methods and religious interpretations varied according to regional customs and cultures.
However, this period also saw a number of divisions on the basis of Christian theologies. One of these early divisions (also known as schisms) was based on Jesus’ relationship with God. According to Arius, an Alexandrian priest, Jesus was ‘begotten’ from God and could therefore not be considered God’s equal. Athanasius, an Alexandrian theologian, argued that Jesus was God Himself in human form (an incarnate).
This led to massive upheavals throughout the Roman Empire, splitting the Christian community into two sects. The Council of Nicea (a body of scholars and theologians assembled by Emperor Augustine in AD 325), officially sided with Arius’s perspective. However, this decision did not do much to remedy the divide, and Christians continued to remain split on this subject for more than a hundred years.
1054 was the year of the Great Schism, where the Eastern Orthodox Christians separated themselves from their Western Roman Catholic counterparts. This schism was brought about as a result of disagreements regarding the sacraments (sacraments are religious symbols that are believed to provide divine grace to the believers). In addition, the Encyclopedia Britannia says that the Eastern Orthodox Christians did not believe in the idea that priests needed to remain celibate, nor were they happy with the decision that the Roman pope would head the Eastern Church.
Another temporary schism – known as the Western Schism – occurred in 1378. This schism came about when two – and later, three – men claimed to be the true heirs to the papal. This split lasted close to half-a-decade and, by the time it was resolved in 1417, the credibility of the papal office had been significantly impaired.
In spite of these divisions, the Christian church was largely able to stifle any other potential branches of Christianity. This stifling often involved persecution – including official military expeditions against alleged heretics. The Christian Church could also conduct inquisitions, which were official enquiries into peoples’ beliefs. The backing of the secular rulers meant that the Christian Church could force heretics to renounce their beliefs, or burn them at the stake.
An Upsurge in Denominations:
The true increase in Christian denominations really came about after the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
This Reformation was triggered by a number of events, the most crucial of which was Martin Luther’s book called the 95 Theses. The Reformation was a protest against the fact that the Catholic priests mediated the entry into heaven, absolution of sins, the granting of grace (spontaneously given mercy and grace from God), and the interpretations of the Bible. Luther claimed that the Bible was the ultimate source of authority for all Christians including priests and popes. In addition, he asserted that the granting of indulgences (the Church receiving money in order to absolve people of their sins) was a corrupt practice.
Initially, there was only a small bunch of Protestant groups. However, with time, the Reformation led to a large increase in the number of Christian branches.
In the 17th century, the word ‘denomination’ was being used to refer to religious branches. Protestants used the scripture to criticize the Catholic Church, claiming that any Christian capable of reading the scripture was also capable of establishing a connection with God. The next issue, of course, was determining the correct scripture interpretation. As believers argued the sacraments and scriptures, churches formed and divided based on numerous biblical interpretations, methods of worship, and even organizational structures. These debates are what led to the numerous Christian denominations, some of which were mentioned at the start of this article.
Yet, other denominations emerged out of power plays – such as when Henry VIII initiated the Church of England in the year 1534. Henry VIII desired to establish the English political autonomy, and he tried to fulfill that purpose by gaining religious independence from Rome. Henry VIII famously asked the Pope Clement VII to allow him to divorce Catherine, claiming that since Catherine had been briefly married to Arthur (Henry VIII’s late brother), their marriage was against the will of God – a request that was denied by the Pope.
Our Final Thoughts:
Even though schisms come across as divisive and might even cause violent conflicts between the denominations, these divisions do have an upside. By offering agency to people belonging to lower social groups, religious schisms serve as anti-corruption machines. For instance, after the papal authority was challenged by the Reformists, people were able to question the religious authorities about other questionable or corrupt practices.
Also, despite the denominations and occasional disagreements, the main focus of Christianity is on following Jesus and the Bible. As long as the community is united on the important fronts, it is best to not worry too much about the things that are not very significant. Finally, regardless of your denomination, your attitude towards other fellow Christians should always be ruled by love.