Our oldest son recently asked us some good questions about different kinds of churches.
- What’s the difference between the Methodists and Presbyterians?
- What about Lutherans and Catholics and Anglicans?
- Baptists are Protestants, right?
- Are Episcopalians the same as Anglicans?
In our conversation, I fielded a number of questions like this and helped him distinguish the three major branches of the Christian church and the distinctives of some of the subbranches.
In case it’s helpful to you as well, here’s a quick guide to Christian groups that differ by name, polity, and doctrines. I plan to update this guide in the weeks to come, so feel free to let me know what changes or improvements you’d suggest.
THE THREE BIG BRANCHES
Name: The Eastern Orthodox churches are often just called “orthodox” or described by nationality or geography, such as the Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox.
History: In 1054, the Eastern and Western churches divided over the inclusion of a new phrase in the Nicene Creed (the Western churches said the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son), but there were many cultural, political, and ecclesiastical reasons for the split. Ecumenical overtures between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics have seen a measure of success in recent times.
What Church Is Like: The Eastern Orthodox Churches place a high priority on the particulars of liturgical worship (called The Divine Liturgy). Sanctuaries include various icons for veneration. The Orthodox believe there is a place for praying to saints and to Mary. A worship service engages all the senses, with incense, chanting, Scripture-reading, and a homily, culminating with the celebration of the Eucharist.
Polity: Bishops, following in the succession of the apostles, appoint male priests (also known as elders or presbyters) to pastor the people. Deacons serve the material needs of the congregation and play a key role in liturgical life. Synods (teams of bishops) lead the church, not a single bishop or pope.
- The Orthodox hold to a high view of tradition as the proper means for understanding Scripture, but without the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.
- The Orthodox canon of Scripture includes the intertestamental books found in the Roman Catholic canon, with several additions: 1 Ezra, 3 Maccabees, Psalm 151, a prayer of Manasseh in Chronicles, and additions to the book of Daniel.
- Celibacy is the norm for bishops, but both married and unmarried men can be priests.
- Doctrinal emphases on the incarnation and the resurrection.
- Within Orthodox theology, theosis (or deification, union with God) is stressed as the ultimate point of salvation.
Name: Roman Catholic churches are often just called “Catholic,” which means “universal” or “all-encompassing.” The “Roman” refers to the primacy placed on the pope, or bishop of Rome.
History: Before the split between East and West in 1054, there were seven ecumenical councils accepted by most churches in the world as correctly defining Scriptural teaching on the nature of the triune God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Augustine of Hippo is the most influential theologian in the Western tradition. The Western church (Roman Catholics) continued to develop theologically in the years following the division with the East, with historical figures such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi leading schools and movements. Disputes over the papacy, theology, and various practices prompted the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Here is a brief essay on Roman Catholic theology.
What Church Is Like: The Roman Catholic Church places a high priority on the particulars of liturgical worship. Sanctuaries include various statues and images for veneration. Catholics believe there is precedent for praying to saints and to Mary. A worship service engages all the senses, with incense, singing, Scripture reading, and a homily, culminating with the celebration of the Eucharist.
Polity: Authority rests with the bishops who follow in the succession of the apostles. Bishops are helped by male priests (also known as elders or presbyters) to pastor the people. Deacons serve the material needs of the congregation. The pope, the bishop of Rome, is the key human authority over the church, who is infallible when speaking ex cathedra (from the full seat of authority on issues of faith or morals).
- There are seven sacraments (means of grace): baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination.
- The Roman Catholic Church has developed a specific view of the Eucharist (“transubstantiation”), which describes the bread and wine as being changed at consecration—in substance (though not outward form)—into the physical body and blood of Christ.
- The Roman Catholic canon contains intertestamental books not included in the Protestant canon: Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, and additions to Esther.
- Celibacy is the rule for all bishops and priests (with a few exceptions).
- Doctrinal emphasis on the atonement.
- Within Catholic theology, justification is seen as encompassing the whole of salvation, whereby the righteousness of Christ is infused into the believer, which aids a person in doing good works.
THE PROTESTANT TRADITION
Here’s where we will devote most of our attention, as many denominations stem from the Reformational branch.
History: During the Reformation in the 1500s, Protestants leaders such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli opposed corruption in the medieval Catholic Church and sought to correct what they believed to be aberrant, extrabiblical theological positions that did not align with Scripture or with Augustine and other church fathers.
- Scripture Alone: The Bible is the supreme and final authority, not the magisterium or traditions of the Catholic Church.
- Christ Alone: Sinners are justified in God’s sight only on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross and through his resurrection.
- Faith Alone: God’s pardon to sinners is granted to and received by faith alone, apart from works.
- Grace Alone: All of salvation, from beginning to end, is only by the grace of God.
- To the Glory of God Alone: God alone receives glory for our salvation.
The Anglican Communion
Name: The Anglican Communion is the third-largest international Christian family of churches, with congregations in more than 165 countries.
History: As part of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. The expansion of Anglicanism coincided with the spread of the British Empire in subsequent centuries. The Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) define the Reformational beliefs of the Church of England. Here is a brief essay on Anglican theology.
What Is Church Like: Services are formal, following a liturgical pattern and valuing historic traditions, culminating in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Book of Common Prayer guides Anglican worship services and personal devotion. Some churches include statues and paintings, incense and candles, while others do not.
Polity: Anglicanism resembles Catholicism in organizational structure, with an archbishop presiding over other bishops, who preside over priests and deacons in local congregations. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and symbolic head, as a first among equals.
- The Book of Common Prayer has been used for centuries and is acknowledged as a tie that binds the Communion together liturgically.
- There are two sacraments (means of grace): baptism and the Eucharist. The other five Catholic sacraments are seen as important religious rites.
- Anglicans believe that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper but reject the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation. Some Anglicans believe that a specific change in the elements takes place at the moment of consecration, but official Anglican teaching holds that there is no change to the elements: the presence of Christ is present in the heart of the one who partakes through faith.
- The Protestant canon contains 66 books. Although not recognized as inspired, the intertestamental literature is recommended reading for historical and devotional purposes.
- Bishops and priests can be married, and many provinces in the Anglican Communion ordain women as priests and bishops. Many provinces and dioceses do not.
- Anglicans often adopt a posture of via media (or middle/moderate path), originally due to early Reformers navigating between Lutheranism and Calvinism.
- The Episcopal Church (USA) is a mainline Protestant denomination based in the United States, known in many cases for its theologically and politically liberal positions. It is currently under censure for “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching” by the rest of the Anglican Communion regarding marriage and sexuality.
- The Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) has developed in response to recent controversies over sexuality within Episcopal churches.
Name: “Lutheran” started as a negative title for those criticizing Martin Luther’s teaching, but Martin Luther later agreed it was an acceptable title only because it identified one who was teaching the truth of the gospel.
History: Lutheranism finds its first expression in its namesake, Martin Luther, who taught in Wittenberg, Germany, in the early 1500s. Initially viewing his teachings as a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church, he was later excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of his teachings. Philip Melanchthon continued his teachings in Germany, and it expanded into Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Lutheranism spread to America initially through Swedish immigrants in the 17th century. Here is a brief essay on Lutheran theology.
What Church Is Like: Lutheran churches are more liturgical than some of the other Protestant denominations, with the pastor wearing vestments and leading in a set order of worship like the one followed in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. This includes confessions and absolution, offertory, sermon or homily, recitation of the creed (normally the Nicene Creed), and other prayers.
Polity: Lutheran Churches can vary between a more episcopal form of government and a more congregational form of government. Lutheran churches in America tend to be more congregational, though with some authority given to synods at different levels.
- Many of the distinctive of Protestantism started as doctrines taught by Martin Luther (see Protestant distinctives mentioned above) including justification by faith alone.
- The Book of Concord contains the key historic confessions of the Lutheran tradition.
- Luther emphasized the need to read Scripture through the lens of the law/gospel distinction. The law condemns the conscience through the law’s commands and our inability to keep it perfectly, while the gospel consoles the conscience through the promise of forgiveness if a person receives Christ’s righteousness by faith (justification).
- Luther and the Lutheran Tradition have taught the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in contrast to the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation and John Calvin’s spiritual-presence view.
- Luther developed Augustine’s two kingdoms doctrine. God ordained two kingdoms on earth, the temporal and the spiritual kingdom. They are guided by different principles and must not be confused. Civil law guides the temporal kingdom, while the Word of God guides the spiritual kingdom. Christians will find that they have responsibilities in both kingdoms.
- There are three main denominations of Lutherans in America: the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS; est. 1847); the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS; est. 1850); and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA, est. 1988).
- The oldest Lutheran denomination, the LCMS, represents a more conservative theological approach to Lutheranism.
- The ELCA started as a merger with the American Lutheran Church (est. 1930) and the Lutheran Church in America (est. 1962). It represents a more liberal version of Lutheranism on theology and social issues.
- The WELS is more conservative like the LCMS and is the smallest of the three main Lutheran denominations in America.
Name: The word “Presbyterian” comes from the Greek word for “elder” (presbuteros).
History: During the Reformation, churches influenced by the French theologian John Calvin and/or the work of Scottish priest John Knox came to agree on particular doctrinal issues related to salvation and the sovereignty of God, while also developing different ecclesiastical districts (presbyteries). Two streams flowed from Geneva, the city where Calvin ministered. The Presbyterian stream is known for the Westminster Confession of Faith (1640s), which summarizes the distinctive beliefs of this branch of Protestantism. The Continental stream (Dutch and German) is known for the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Here is a brief essay on Presbyterian theology.
What Church Is Like: Presbyterian services tend to be more formal, following a liturgical pattern and placing emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word. Some churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, while most do not. Presbyterian sanctuaries tend to be more austere than those of Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox.
Polity: Local congregations are governed by teams of elders (teaching and ruling elders), who take part in a larger assembly of elders (presbyteries), which take part in an even larger assembly (synod or a general assembly).
- Presbyterians believe in the spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table, as the Spirit lifts us up to Christ when partaking of the elements.
- Presbyterians hold to a Calvinist view of salvation: humans left in their natural state are totally unable to come to faith apart from the grace of God, exercised through God’s unconditional election to salvation of only those for whom Christ died and to whom God calls and then preserves in faith, evidenced in a transformed life.
- Like all the other denominations we’ve looked at so far, Presbyterians practice baptism through sprinkling, and they see the baptism of infants as the New Testament sign of the covenant, similar to circumcision in the Old Testament.
- Presbyterian elders can be married, and some Presbyterian denominations ordain women as pastors.
- The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a mainline Protestant denomination based in the United States, known in many cases for its theologically and politically liberal positions.
- The Presbyterian Church of America launched in 1973 as a more conservative counterpart to the PC(USA).
- The Evangelical Presbyterian Church launched in 1981 as a more conservative counterpart to the PC(USA), though allowing freedom across congregations to ordain women or come to different conclusions on the charismatic movement.
- The Reformed Church in America is a mainline Reformed Protestant denomination in Canada and the United States.
Name: “Methodists” started as a derogatory term to describe the Holy Club, started around 1729 by Oxford students John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. The term was used to describe their focus on how Christians should live holy lives.
History: Several groups in the Wesleyan tradition trace their roots back to John Wesley and his teachings. Wesley initially served as a priest and missionary with the Church of England to the American colonies in the 1700s. Methodism spread rapidly through the American Colonies due to the evangelistic efforts of ministers and laypeople. Wesley named his successors in 1784, which created Methodist groups as a separate legal group from the Church of England. The final break between the Methodist Church and the Church of England occurred in 1797 after several failed attempts to bring the two groups together. Here is a brief essay on Methodist theology.
What Church Is Like: While they may not follow a scripted model for reciting various prayers, Methodist churches still follow a common and consistent structure to their worship. One common order includes a musical prelude, singing at various points, Scripture readings from the Revised Lectionary, congregational prayer, a sermon, offering, benediction, and musical postlude.
Polity: The Methodist system follows the polity of connexionalism, which teaches the importance of connection among believers at various levels. Methodism uses conferences at different levels composed of both elected laypeople and ordained ministers to govern the needs and concerns of local churches up through the entire denomination.
- The most prominent denomination in America, the United Methodist Church, acknowledges the Confession of Faith from the Evangelical United Brethren Church along with the early Christian creeds and key writings of John Wesley as foundational statements of doctrine.
- Wesley taught the Arminian view of the human will. Through “prevenient grace,” God shows grace to all humans by repairing their will, which was damaged by the fall, to freely receive or reject Christ. In this way, human choice is still an act of God’s grace.
- Wesley taught that a Christian could become fully mature (sometimes called entire sanctification or Christian perfection). While Christians would not become fully sinless in this life, they could become fully mature in Christ, wholly devoted to loving God and neighbor.
- The United Methodist Church is a mainline Protestant denomination in America and was formally established in 1968 when the Evangelical United Brethren Church (est. 1946) merged with the Methodist Church (est. 1939).
- The new Methodist conservative breakaway wants to join the Global Methodist Church, as more liberal clergy and laypeople push the United Methodist Church to break away from the traditional church teachings on sexuality.
- Several African American streams of Methodism were started by former slaves and include the African Methodist Episcopal Church (est. 1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (est. 1821), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (est. 1870).
Name: “Baptist” comes from the Greek term baptizō, meaning “to baptize.”
History: Baptists originally started in the early 1600s as a separatist movement from the Church of England. Two streams of Baptists appeared early on in England: the General Baptists, who leaned more Arminian in their views of grace, sin, and salvation, and the Particular Baptists, who were more Calvinistic in their understanding of these doctrines. Due to increasing persecution by the Church of England, Baptists began to flee England for the American colonies where they also were persecuted. Baptist churches continued to grow as the U.S. enshrined religious liberty into its newly formed constitution and has branched out into many American denominations. Here is a brief essay on Baptist theology.
What Church Is Like: Baptists can have a variety of worship practices, but most commonly, Baptists will worship through singing, prayer, receiving tithes and offerings, listening to the Word preached, and giving a time for response. New believers may be baptized during or at the end of the service, while the Lord’s Supper may be celebrated as well. Baptist churches differ on how frequently they should observe the Lord’s Supper.
Polity: Baptist churches believe that Christ is the head of the church and that Christ guides every local church through the Spirit living within the members of each church. While Baptists may voluntarily join associations, each individual church is autonomous. Most Baptist churches are congregation-ruled, but some are led by single pastors while others are led by a plurality of elders, selected by church members.
- Baptists in general teach the autonomy of the local church, that each local church should govern its own affairs.
- Baptists reject infant baptism and believe a person must make a profession of faith before being baptized (believer’s baptism).
- Relatedly, Baptists stress the importance of regenerate church membership, that someone must not be included into membership of a local church without professing to be a Christian.
- Early American Baptists emphasized the importance of religious liberty for all faiths based on their belief that genuine decisions to follow Christ cannot be coerced.
Famous Figures: Thomas Helwys, John Leland, John Gill, Andrew Fuller, John Bunyan, William Carey, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lottie Moon, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, David Dockery, Timothy George, Millard Erickson.
- Converge is a Baptist denomination, once known as the Baptist General Conference (until 2008) and then Converge Worldwide (until 2015). Its heritage traces back to Swedish Baptists in the 19th century.
- The Southern Baptist Convention split from northern Baptists (now American Baptists) in 1845 and is one of the largest religious groups in America. It is conservative theologically and socially.
- The National Baptist Convention is an African American Baptist denomination that merged in 1895 from three separate conventions.
- The American Baptist Convention is the new name (est. in 1950) for the Northern Baptist Convention (formally created in 1907), which traces its heritage most directly to the split between Northern and Southern Baptists in 1845.
- Cooperative Baptist Fellowship split from the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention in 1991. It tends to be more moderate to liberal theologically and socially than the SBC.
- Free Will Baptists are a more Arminian strand of Baptists that trace their heritage back to Baptist churches started in the colonies in New Durham, New Hampshire, and Chowan, North Carolina.
Evangelical Free Church
Name: The term “evangelical” signifies associations of churches that trace their heritage to the birth of evangelicalism in the modern era, while “free” identifies it as part of the “free church” heritage that sought to separate church doctrine and practice from government control.
History: In 1950 the Swedish Evangelical Free Church and the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church Association merged to form the Evangelical Free Church of America. Both groups were started by immigrants in the 1880s.
What Church Is Like: Worship services are much more in line with Baptist churches than high church liturgies like Roman Catholic and Anglican.
Polity: Evangelical Free churches follow a congregational model of church governance.
- The Evangelical Free Church of America allows for some diversity of belief in doctrine within the confines of their statement of faith. For instance, they have pastors and congregations that lean more toward a Calvinist understanding of salvation and others that lean more toward an Arminian understanding of salvation.
- Based on a 2018 doctrinal survey, a majority of churches associated with the Evangelical Free Church of America practice elder-led congregational rule.
- In 2019, the Evangelical Free Church of America removed “premillennial” from its statement of faith on the end times, confirming it was a nonessential belief in the denomination.
- The Evangelical Free Church of America’s headquarters is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has 1,600 churches in association based upon the EFCA Statement of Faith.
- Evangelical Free Church of Canada (est. 1917) is based in Langley, British Columbia, and has over 140 churches across Canada.
Name: The name “restorationist” refers to the focus on recovering the pure faith of the early church as described in the New Testament.
History: Sometimes referred to as the Stone-Campbell movement, the Restorationist movement started in the Second Great Awakening and focuses on restoring the local churches in their faith and practices to what the Bible teaches in the New Testament.
What Church Is Like: Many Churches of Christ do not use musical instruments since these aren’t mentioned in the New Testament, singing unaccompanied by music (a cappella). Some, however, do include musical instruments in worship. The Lord’s Supper is observed every Sunday.
Polity: Churches of Christ are independent congregations with elders, deacons, and ministers leading the congregation.
- Baptism by immersion is essential to salvation.
- The New Testament alone is the guide for worship.
- Many within the tradition are against formalizing beliefs in creeds and confessions, even if they agree with many key teachings of the Christian faith.
- The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the mainline denomination within this movement.
- Southern congregations called Churches of Christ split from the Disciples of Christ after the Civil War, over using instruments in worship among other reasons.
- Another group called Christian Churches/Churches of Christ began to separate in 1926 from the Disciples of Christ for several reasons including their concern over theological liberalism in the Disciples of Christ denomination. This strand is more broadly evangelical than the other two strands (for example, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky).
Pentecostal and Charismatic Traditions
Name: The term “pentecostal” highlights the focus on the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 at Pentecost. “Charismatic” derives from the Greek word charisma, which means “gift” and most relevantly refers to the gifts given by the Spirit (see Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12).
History: Pentecostal themes can be traced back to early-19th-century movements like the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and the Higher Life movements. However, the two most prominent events identified as the beginning of modern Pentecostalism are revivals in the early 1900s: one at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, and another at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles. Here is a brief essay on Pentecostal theology.
What Church Is Like: While Pentecostal churches will share some common church practices like singing, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and receiving offerings, these churches may include times for giving prophecies along with those who speak in tongues and interpret them.
Polity: Pentecostal churches are congregationalists. They may be independent congregations or local congregations that associate with other like-minded churches (“cooperative fellowships”). However, the Charismatic movement will adapt to the specific church polity of its denomination.
- Pentecostals tend to follow the Wesleyan tradition, though some versions may hold to a more Calvinistic view of salvation.
- Due to its rapid growth in the Global South (South America, Africa, and Asia), Pentecostalism is one of the most ethnically diverse Christian traditions in the modern era.
- One key distinctive of Pentecostals is the doctrine of baptism in the Holy Spirit that occurs after conversion. A person who has already been born again should seek to receive empowerment by the Spirit for ministry.
- Pentecostals believe all the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Paul’s letters continue, including the miraculous gifts like healings and speaking in tongues.
- Pentecostals can tend to downplay reason and tradition while focusing on Scripture and experience when doing theology.
Related Groups: Pentecostalism has grown rapidly and adapted to its environment, so not all can be listed in such a brief guide. Here are a few representative groups.
- Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination globally.
- Church of God in Christ is a historically black denomination within Pentecostalism.
- United Pentecostal Church International is one of several “Oneness Pentecostal” denominations that reject the Trinity as traditionally defined.
- The Charismatic movement seeks to bring renewal with Pentecostal distinctives to various denominations and churches mentioned above.
- The Calvary Chapel movement was started by Chuck Smith and is evangelical and moderately Pentecostal. Chuck Smith was one of several leaders associated with the rise of the Jesus movement.
Name: The name identifies that the church has no affiliation with any specific Christian denomination.
History: In the 20th century, more and more churches began to identify as “independent” or “non-denominational,” with no historic ties to other denominations.
What Church Is Like: Non-denominational churches tend to be more low church in their worship like Baptist and Evangelical Free churches, though a non-denominational church can have as much or as little liturgy as the individual church decides. Most non-denominational churches are more like Baptists than other denominations.
Polity: Non-denominational churches will be congregational since they have no commitment to any specific denomination.
- Non-denominational churches have no connection to any denomination, although they may partner with like-minded churches on various mission projects.
- Based on the first distinctive, non-denominational churches will be congregational in their form of government.
- Since they are truly independent, non-denominational churches can freely write their doctrinal statements and church practices, though they tend to be broadly evangelical and Baptistic in their main beliefs.
- Fellowship Bible Churches (founded by Gene Getz) started as a movement of churches that emphasized Bible teaching, fellowship, and outreach as key components of the church. Not all churches with this name are associated with the movement.
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