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A Christian denomination is an identifiable religious body under a common name, structure, and doctrine within Christianity.
Worldwide, Christians are divided, often along ethnic and linguistic lines, into separate churches and traditions. Technically, divisions between one group and another are defined by doctrine and church authority. Issues such as the nature of Jesus, the authority of apostolic succession, and papal primacy separate one denomination from another.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination with over 1 billion members, comprising over half of all Christians worldwide making it the largest denomination for any religion worldwide. Protestant denominations comprise roughly 38-39% of Christians worldwide, and together the Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and other closely related denominations comprise Western Christianity. Eastern Orthodoxy, largely Greek and Russian, Oriental Orthodoxy, Mar Thoma Churches (India) and the Assyrian Church of the East are considered Eastern Christianity. Western Christian denominations prevail in Europe and its former colonies. Eastern Christian denominations are represented mostly in Eastern Europe (including all of Russia), and the Near East.
Christians have various doctrines about the Church, the body of faithful that they believe was established by Jesus Christ, and how the divine church corresponds to Christian denominations. Both the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox consider themselves to faithfully represent the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Protestants separated from the Catholic Church because of theologies and practices that they considered to be in violation of fundamental Christian doctrine. Generally, members of the various denominations acknowledge each other as Christians, at least to the extent that they acknowledge historically orthodox views including the deity of Jesus and doctrines of sin and salvation, even though some obstacles hinder full communion between churches.
Since the reforms surrounding Vatican II, the Catholic Church has referred to Protestant communities as denominations, while reserving the term "church" for apostolic churches, including the Eastern Orthodox (see subsistit in and branch theory).
Christianity has denominational families (or movements) and also has individual denominations (or communions). Within these denominational families and movements are (often further denominational families and) various individual denominations or communions. The difference between a denomination and a denominational family is sometimes unclear to outsiders. Some denominational families can be considered major branches.
Christianity is composed of, but not limited to, five major branches of Churches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant; some groupings include Anglicans amongst Protestants. The Assyrian Church of the East is also a distinct Christian body, but is much smaller in adherents and geographic scope. Each of these five branches has important subdivisions. Because the Protestant subdivisions do not maintain a common theology or earthly leadership, they are far more distinct than the subdivisions of the other four groupings. Denomination typically refers to one of the many Christian groupings including each of the multitude of Protestant subdivisions.
Denominationalism is an ideology which views some or all Christian groups as being, in some sense, versions of the same thing regardless of their distinguishing labels. Not all churches teach this. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not use this term as its implication of interchangeability does not agree with their theological teachings. There are some groups which practically all others would view as apostate or heretical, and not legitimate versions of Christianity.
There were some movements considered heresies by the early church which do not exist today and are not generally referred to as denominations. Examples include the Gnostics (who had believed in an esoteric dualism called gnosis), the Ebionites (who denied the divinity of Jesus), and the Arians (who believed Jesus said "My Father is greater than I"). The greatest divisions in Christianity today, however, are between Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and various denominations formed during and after the Protestant Reformation. There also exists in Protestantism and Orthodoxy various degrees of unity and division.
Comparisons between denominational churches must be approached with caution. For example, in some churches, congregations are part of a larger church organization, while in other groups, each congregation is an independent autonomous organization. This issue is further complicated by the existence of groups of congregations with a common heritage that are officially nondenominational and have no centralized authority or records, but which are identified as denominations by non-adherents. Study of such churches in denominational terms is therefore a more complex proposition.
Numerical comparisons are also problematic. Some groups count membership based on adult believers and baptized children of believers, while others only count adult baptized believers. Others may count membership based on those adult believers who have formally affiliated themselves with the congregation. In addition, there may be political motives of advocates or opponents of a particular group to inflate or deflate membership numbers through propaganda or outright deception.
Christianity has not been a monolithic faith since the first century or Apostolic Age, if ever, and today there exist a large variety of groups that share a common history and tradition within and without mainstream Christianity. Since Christianity is the largest religion in the world (making approximately one-third of the population), it is necessary to understand the various faith traditions in terms of commonalities and differences between tradition, theology, church government, doctrine, language, and so on.
The largest schism or division in many classification schemes is between the families of Eastern and Western Christianity. After these two larger families come distinct branches of Christianity. Most classification schemes list six (in order of size: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Church of the East, which was originally referred to as Nestorianism but in modern times is embodied by the Assyrian Church of the East).
Unlike Roman Catholicism, Protestantism is a general movement that has no universal governing authority. As such, diverse groups such as Adventists, Anabaptists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Pentecostals (depending on one's classification scheme) are all a part of the same family, and with further doctrinal variations within each group. From there come denominations, which in the West, have independence from the others in their doctrine. The Eastern and Roman Catholic churches, due to their hierarchical structures, are not said to be made up of denominations, rather, they include kinds of regional councils and individual congregations and church bodies.
The initial differences between the East and West traditions stem from socio-cultural and linguistic divisions in and between the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires. Since the West (that is, Western Europe) spoke Latin as its lingua franca and the East (Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and northern Africa) largely used Koine Greek to transmit writings, theological developments were difficult to translate from one branch to the other. In the course of ecumenical councils (large gatherings of Christian leaders), some church bodies split from the larger family of Christianity. Many earlier heretical groups either died off for lack of followers and/or suppression by the church at large (such as Apollinarians, Montanists, and Ebionites).
The first significant, lasting split in historic Christianity came from the Church of the East, who left following the Christological controversy over Nestorianism in 431 (the Assyrians in 1994 released a common Christological statement with the Roman Catholic Church). Today, the Assyrian and Roman Catholic Church view this schism as largely linguistic, due to problems of translating very delicate and precise terminology from Latin to Aramaic and vice-versa (see Council of Ephesus). Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the next large split came with the Syrian and Alexandrian (Egyptian or Coptic) churches dividing themselves, with the dissenting churches becoming today's Oriental Orthodoxy. (A similar Christological statement was made between Pope John Paul II and Syriac patriarch Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, as well as between representatives of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy).
There has been a claim that the Chalcedonian Creed restored Nestorianism, however this is refuted by maintaining the following distinctions associated with the person of Christ: two hypostases, two natures (Nestorian); one hypostasis, one nature (Monophysite); one hypostasis, two natures (Orthodox/Catholic).
Although the church as a whole didn't experience any major divisions for centuries afterward, the Eastern and Western groups drifted until the point where patriarchs from both families excommunicated one another in about 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism. The political and theological reasons for the schism are complex, but one major controversy was the inclusion and acceptance in the West of the filioque clause into the Nicene Creed, which the East viewed as erroneous. Another was the definition of papal primacy. Both West and East agreed that the patriarch of Rome was owed a "primacy of honour" by the other patriarchs (those of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem), but the West also contended that this primacy extended to jurisdiction, a position rejected by the Eastern patriarchs. Various attempts at dialogue between the two groups would occur, but it was only in the 1960s, under Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, that significant steps began to be made to mend the relationship between the two.
In Western Christianity, there were a handful of geographically isolated movements that preceded the spirit of the Protestant Reformation. The Cathars were a very strong movement in medieval southwestern France, but did not survive into modern times. In northern Italy and southeastern France, Peter Waldo founded the Waldensians in the 12th century. This movement has largely been absorbed by modern-day Protestant groups. In Bohemia, a movement in the early 15th century by Jan Hus called the Hussites defied Roman Catholic dogma and still exists to this day (alternately known as the Moravian Church).
The Protestant Reformation began with the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in Saxony on October 31, 1517, written as a set of grievances to reform the pre-Reformation Western Church. Luther's writings, combined with the work of Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli and French theologian and politician John Calvin sought to reform existing problems in doctrine and practice. However, due to the reactions of ecclesiastical office holders at the time of the reformers, the Roman Catholic Church separated from them, instigating a rift in Western Christianity. In England, Henry VIII of England declared himself to be supreme governor of the Church of England with the Act of Supremacy in 1531, founding the Church of England, repressing both Lutheran reformers and those loyal to the pope.
The Old Catholic Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1870s because of the promulgation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility as promoted by the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870. The term 'Old Catholic' was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht that were not under Papal authority. The Old Catholic movement grew in America but has not maintained ties with Utrecht, although talks are under way between independent Old Catholic bishops and Utrecht.
The Liberal Catholic Church started in 1916 via an Old Catholic bishop in London, bishop Matthew, who consecrated bishop James Wedgwood to the Episcopacy. This stream has in its relatively short existence known many splits, which operate worldwide under several names.
In the Eastern world, the largest body of believers in modern times is the Eastern Orthodox Church, sometimes imprecisely called "Greek Orthodox" because from the time of Christ through the Byzantine empire, Greek was the common language (Greek Orthodox actually refers to only one portion of the entire Orthodox Church). The Eastern Orthodox Church believes itself to be the continuation of the original Christian church established by Jesus Christ, and the Apostles. They consider themselves to be spiritually one body while administratively they are grouped into several autocephalous councils. They do not recognize any single bishop as universal church leader, but rather each bishop governs only his own diocese. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, and holds the title "first among equals" meaning only that if a great council is called, the Patriarch sits as president of the council. He has no more power than any other bishop. Currently, the largest synod with the most members is the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches are organized in a similar manner, with six national autocephalous groups and two autonomous bodies. Although the region of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea has had a strong body of believers since the infancy of Christianity, these regions only gained autocephaly in 1963 and 1994 respectively. Since these groups are relatively obscure in the West, literature on them has sometimes included the Assyrian Church of the East as a part of the Oriental Orthodox Communion, but the Assyrians have maintained theological, cultural, and ecclesiastical independence from all other Christian bodies since 431. It is administered in a hierarchical model not entirely unlike the Catholics, with the head of the church being the Patriarch Catholicos of the Assyrian Church of the East, since 1976 HH Mar Dinkha IV. Due to oppression, the church's headquarters is in Chicago, Illinois, rather than the Middle East, though some believers remain there. Even within this small group, there was another split to the Ancient Church of the East, and a rival Catholicos (Patriarch) in California.
in English-speaking countries
Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Protestantism are the three major divisions of Christianity in the Western world. However, Roman Catholics do not describe themselves as a denomination but rather as the original Holy and Universal Church; which all others branched off from, as do some Anglicans. The Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are generally considered to be Protestant denominations, although strictly speaking, of these three, the Lutheran denomination is the only one of these founded as a "protest" against Roman Catholicism. Anglicanism was generally classified as Protestant, but since the "Tractarian" or Oxford Movement of the 19th century, led by John Henry Newman, Anglican writers emphasize a more catholic understanding of the church and characterize it as more properly understood as its own tradition—a via media ("middle way"), both Protestant and Catholic. A case is sometimes also made to regard Lutheranism in a similar way, considering the catholic character of its foundational documents (the Augsburg Confession and other documents contained in the Book of Concord) and its existence prior to the Anglican, Anabaptist, and Reformed churches, from which nearly all other Protestant denominations derive.
One central tenet of Catholicism (whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and some other denominations), is its practice of Apostolic Succession. "Apostle" means "one who is sent out." Jesus commissioned the first twelve apostles (see Biblical Figures for the list of the Twelve), and they, in turn laid hands on subsequent church leaders to ordain (commission) them for ministry. In this manner, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans trace their ordained ministers all the way back to the original Twelve. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope has authority which can be traced directly to the apostle Peter whom they hold to be the original head of and first Pope of the Christian Church. There are smaller churches, such as the Old Catholic Church which rejected the definition of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, and Anglo-Catholics, Anglicans who believe that Anglicanism is a continuation of historical Catholicism and who incorporate many Catholic beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church refers to itself simply by the terms Catholic and Catholicism (which mean universal). The Catholic Church has traditionally rejected any notion that those outside its communion can be regarded as part of any true Catholic Christian faith. Catholicism has a hierarchical structure in which supreme authority for matters of faith and practice are the exclusive domain of the Pope, who sits on the Throne of Peter, and the bishops when acting in union with him. Most Catholics are unaware of the existence of Old Catholicism which represents a relatively recent split from the Catholic Church and is particularly vocal in rejecting their use of the term Catholic.
Each Protestant movement has developed freely, and many have split over theological issues. For instance, a number of movements grew out of spiritual revivals, like Methodism and Pentecostalism. Doctrinal issues and matters of conscience have also divided Protestants. The Anabaptist tradition, made up of the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, rejected the Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of infant baptism; this tradition is also noted for its belief in pacifism. Many churches with roots in the Restoration Movement reject being identified as Protestant or even as denominations, as they use only the Bible not creeds, and model the church after what the feel is the first century church found in scripture; the Churches of Christ are one example; African Initiated Churches, like Kimbanguism, mostly fall within Protestantism, with a varying degree of syncretism. The measure of mutual acceptance between the denominations and movements varies, but is growing largely due to the ecumenical movement in the 20th century and overarching Christian bodies such as the World Council of Churches.
One group which has maintained its Jewish identity alongside an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and the New Testament as authoritative are Messianic Jews, also called Hebrew Christians. Since the founding of the church, there have been Jewish elements retained by particular groups that wanted to retain their national heritage alongside the Gospel message. In fact, the first council was called in Jerusalem to address just this issue, and the deciding opinion was written by Jesus's relative James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem and a pivotal figure in the Christian movement. Due to the entirely different history of such movements and groups, they defy any simple classification scheme.
The Nasrani or Syrian Malabar Nasrani community in Kerala, India is conscious of their Jewish origins. However, they have lost many of their Jewish traditions due to western influences. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. This is because they follow the traditions of Syriac Christianity and are descendants of the early converts by St. Thomas the Apostle. Today, they belong to various denominations of Christianity but they have kept their unique identity within each of these denominations.
An existing community that still maintain their Jewish traditions is the Knanaya. They are an endogamous sub-ethnic group among the Syrian Malabar Nasrani and are the descendants of early Jewish Christian settlers who arrived in Kerala in A.D 345. Although affiliated with a variety of Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox denominations, they have remained a cohesive community, shunning intermarriage with outsiders (but not with fellow-Knanaya of other denominations).
Some denominations which arose alongside the Western Christian tradition consider themselves Christian, but neither Roman Catholic nor wholly Protestant, such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Quakerism began as an evangelical Christian movement in 17th century England, eschewing priests and all formal Anglican or Roman Catholic sacraments in their worship, including many of those practices that remained among the stridently Protestant Puritans such as baptism with water. They were known in America for helping with the Underground Railroad and, like the Mennonites, Quakers traditionally refrain from participation in war. The Salvation Army is often, albeit incorrectly, understood to be a social relief organization. It is, in fact, a denomination that does extensive social relief work.
Other faith traditions claim not to be descended from any of these groups directly. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for instance, is often grouped with the Protestant churches, but does not characterize itself as Protestant. Its origination during the Second Great Awakening parallels the founding of numerous other indigenous American religions, especially in the Burned-over district of western New York state, and in the western territories of the United States, including the Adventist movement, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science (which had roots in Congregationalism but regarded itself as restorative), and the Restoration Movement (sometimes called the "Stone-Campbell Movement", which include the Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Church of Christ). Each of these groups, founded within fifty years of one another, originally claimed to be an unprecedented, late restoration of the primitive Christian church.
Another group of churches are known under the banner of "New Thought,". These churches share a spiritual, metaphysical and mystical predisposition and understanding of the Bible and were strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement particularly the work of Emerson. Another antecedent of this movement was Swedenborgianism, founded on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg in 1787. The New Thought concept was named by Emma Curtis Hopkins ("teacher of teachers") after Hopkins broke off from Mary Baker Eddy's Church of Christ, Scientist the movement had been perviously known as the Mental Sciences. The New Thought movement includes Religious Science founded by Ernest Holmes; Divine Science, founded by Malinda Cramer and the Brook sisters; and Unity founded by Charles Fillmore and Myrtle Fillmore. The founders of these denominations all studied with Emma Curts Hopkins. Each of one these New Thought Churches has been influenced by a wide variety of ancient spiritual ideas. Each of these churches identify to different degrees with Christianity, Unity and Divine Science being the more explicit in the use of the Bible then Religious Science.
The Christian Community (German: Die Christengemeinschaft) is a worldwide Movement for Religious Renewal. It was founded in 1922 in Switzerland by the Lutheran theologian and minister Friedrich Rittlemeyer, inspired by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian mystic and founder of Anthroposophy. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics took part in the initial development of this movement, which combines a "high church" regard for the spiritual significance of the mass with rational theology and freedom of thought.
Two movements which are entirely unrelated in their founding share a common element of an additional Messiah or incarnation of Christ: the Unification Church and the Rastafari movement. These groups would also fall outside of traditional taxonomies of Christian groups.
While a precise definition of what constitutes Christianity is difficult at best, there are some groups worshipping Christ that accuse other groups worshipping Christ of not being Christians because of theological differences. The majority of Christians belong to denominations that express their faith in a creed derived from the Council of Nicea, including the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran churches.
Considering this diversity, it may be impossible to define what Christianity is without either rejecting all definitions, or adopting a particular definition as authoritative and thus excluding others. In terms of the modern aim of scientific and objective definition, both options are considered problematic.
Christianity, even in its infancy as a Jewish sect, rejected ethnic definition. It was conceived and grew as an international religion with global ambitions, spreading rapidly from Jerusalem to nations and people all over the world (following the Great Commission). Doctrines, rather than ethnicity, define essential Christianity—even where ethnic groups have been Christian for generations. The multiplicity of communities of faith may be partly accounted for by the definition of Christianity according to specific points of indispensable doctrine, the denial of which sets the heretic, or apostate, outside of "the Church", where perhaps he is accepted by another church holding doctrines compatible with his own.
Points of distinctive doctrine may be a very small number of simple propositions, or very numerous and difficult to explain, depending on the group. Some groups are defined relatively statically, and others have changed their definitions dramatically over time. As an example, sometime after the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 established the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and before the Enlightenment, Christian teachers who denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity would be cast out of their churches, and at times exiled or otherwise deprived of the protection of law. In later times, some points of the doctrine of the Trinity are considered false doctrines according to groups such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christadelphians, and the Jehovah's Witnesses (representing tens of millions of believers combined). The Iglesia ni Cristo, for its part believe the Trinity dogma is a totally unchristian doctrine. These groups believe that their religious view of the Godhead comes from Christian teachings prior to the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity AD 325. For example, Latter-day Saints teach that God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct beings that are one in purpose forming the Godhead. Some groups have their roots in the Latter Day Saint Movement, like Community of Christ, but have reformed to such an extent that they are now more trinitarian and are striving to be recognized as mainstream Christianity.
Other movements coalesced to form today's Unitarian Universalism, whose member congregations recognize to varying degrees and in different ways their Christian origins. Unitarians and Universalists have historically been non-creedal and congregations have been self-governing, such that when the denominations consolidated in 1961, some congregations and individual Unitarian Universalists continued to identify themselves broadly as Christian, even more as "followers of Jesus" while other Unitarian Universalist congregations simultaneously embrace agnostics and atheists as well as "followers of Jesus".
There are also some Christians that reject organized religion altogether. Christian anarchists believe that the original teachings of Jesus were corrupted by Roman statism (see early Christianity), and that earthly authority such as government, or indeed the established Church, do not and should not have power over them. Following "The Golden Rule", many oppose the use of physical force in any circumstance, and advocate nonviolence. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote The Kingdom of God Is Within You,  and was a Christian anarchist.