In my experience, many people both inside and outside of churches in North America have an overly simplistic view of Christian denominations and their lineages. The two main categories I often hear used are “Catholic” and “Protestant.” According this thinking, there are those who are Catholic, and then everyone else, whom we lump together a Protestants. But the catch-all label of Protestant both misunderstands the historical record, and doesn’t respect how Christians in various denominations understand their place in the midst of this history. To my mind, there are actually seven distinct/major branches of Christian faith, none of which can be collapsed into any other. Let me explain.
First, there was simply the Church. There really was only one entity that claimed to represent Christ in the world. Some may not have agreed with official church doctrine, and there were small groups 0f people who were branded heretics, but from an “official” standpoint, there was the one, holy, catholic (read: universal), apostolic church.
Then, in 431, at the third ecumenical church council at Ephesus, there was a significant disagreement among those represented, and some Christians would leave the fold and establish an independent church which still exists today as the Assyrian Church of the East and claims 400,000-500,000 modern-day adherents.
20 years later, the scene was to be repeated. At the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon (451), there was again enough theological controversy to create another division. What is now called the Oriental Orthodox Church still exists today in places like Egypt, Eritrea, Armenia, and Ethiopia.
The next division to occur was far larger. For quite some time, tensions had been simmering between Catholics in Western Europe and Catholics in the East (Eastern Europe, Turkey, Palestine, and parts of the Near East). Eventually this came to a head in 1054 when the Pope (who was mostly regarded as the spiritual leader in the West) and the Patriarch of Constantinople (the spiritual leader in the East), excommunicated each other. There were some attempts over the next hundred years to bring reconciliation, but the divide only seemed to widen, leaving the Roman Catholic Church much as we think of it today, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The next big change came during the Reformation era in Europe (1520s and onward). The most famous Reformation was the Protestant Reformation: think Martin Luther (Lutheranism), John Calvin (Reformed Church), and John Knox (Presbyterianism). These men departed from Catholic teaching but still valued the role that the government could play in the church and society, and so they stuck with the idea of a state-sponsored church. So if the ruler of your certain country was Protestant, so were you, and don’t cry about it.
There were those who liked some of the theological innovations of the Protestant reformers, but didn’t think these went far enough. In particular, they valued the role of conscience and didn’t want to force their faith on anyone through the conformism of a state church. They believed churches should communities of people who intentionally and willingly followed Jesus Christ as the Lord of their lives. As such, they also believed in baptism for those who chose to pursue it and understood that it meant a voluntary surrender to a life of following Christ, whereas in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, baptism was largely practiced on infants. These people were known as the Anabaptists. Modern versions of Anabaptism include the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ. They borrowed elements from both Catholicism and Protestantism, mixed with their own theological ideas.
Also around this same time, King Henry of England had a disagreement with the Pope over whether Henry could obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine, on the grounds that Henry believed his marriage was cursed (the proof being they could not have a child). The Pope forbade such a move, so Henry took things into his own hands, declaring himself as the head of the Church in England instead of the Pope. But really this was the only issue the King had with the Catholic Church. He was still a staunch defender of Catholic theology and most of its practice. And throughout the history of Anglicanism it has often resembled Catholicism very closely in belief and practice. So it is not Catholic, because the Pope doesn’t command leadership, but neither does it share the theological emphases of Protestantism. And Anglicans themselves don’t see themselves as Catholic or Protestant, so it requires its own category.
Finally, we have what we call Evangelicalism, or sometimes Restorationism, which by far captures the greatest diversity of denominations and movement. These denominations began separating themselves from the Anglican and Protestant churches in the mid-18th century. They sought to recapture the enthusiasm, theological purity, and emphasis on personal holiness that had, they believed, been lost between the time of the early church and their own time. This category includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, Evangelical Free, Vineyard, and Methodists, among others. Most “non-denominational” churches also embrace the Evangelical ethos. A scholar man named David Bebbington, in a highly influential 1989 book called Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, identifies four main criteria of an evangelical church (see below). All evangelical churches will share these.
(1) Bible — an emphasis on the Bible alone (as opposed to “Tradition”) as the final and authoritative source of all spiritual truth and matters of Christian and Church life.
(2) Cross — an emphasis on the all-sufficient atoning work of Jesus on the cross.
(3) Conversion — an emphasis on the fundamental importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus as one’s Lord and Saviour, and the necessity of having a personal conversion experience.
(4) Activism — an emphasis on expressing the good news of Jesus to others through sharing one’s faith and social action.
So the major branches are (1) Roman Catholicism, (2) Oriental Orthodoxy, (3) the Assyrian Church of the East, (4) the Eastern Orthodox Church, (5) Anglicanism, (6) Protestantism, (7) Anabaptism, and (8) Evangelicalism/Restorationist. Thinking in terms of these several major categories of Christian faith can help us understand the diversity of perspectives within the universal Church and put the brakes on any simplistic reduction of faith to an unhelpful dichotomy between Catholic and everyone else (i.e. Protestant).