Christianity is one of the most significant religions in human history and is one of the most common religions today along with others, including: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Christianity is by far the largest religion in the world, holding the most members out of all the others with 2.4 billion believers. This means that nearly one third of the world’s total population is Christian. Despite this fact, Christianity is also divided into several different denominations. The variation in belief is due to the long and turbulent history of Christianity. For example, different events such as the Protest Reformation caused the Church to divide at times. This has led to several different denominations of faith with each having a slightly different interpretation of the Holy Bible. Of the 2.4 billion total Christians in the world, approximately 1.1 billion of them are Catholic, with another 800 million identifying as Protestant. There is another 300 million or so that are other forms of Christianity such as Orthodox.
In order to better understand the denominations of Christianity its first important to have knowledge of the basic history of the religion. (Click here for a more in-depth article on the history of Christianity). Christianity first emerged from Judaism in the Middle East in the mid-1st century. It began in the century after the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom the religion is based around. Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and by the 4th century was the official religion of the empire.
The Roman Catholic Church (Catholicism) developed out of early Christianity and established itself as the main religion in Europe and sections of the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. At the time, Catholicism was the only denomination of the religion and was generally known simply as Christianity. As a result, most Christians of the time period believed in several similar aspects of faith. Christian faith and belief centers on a few main factors, known as creeds. A creed is best defined as a formal statement of belief. The most widely held creed in Christianity is the Apostle’s Creed (as well as the Nicene Creed) which dates from the 4th century. The Apostle’s Creed (and Christian faith) contains several different points but there are three main one’s that are generally universally held by Christians. First, the Apostle’s Creed stated belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Trinity). Second, it stated belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Third, it stated belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ and Judgement Day.
The Renaissance in Europe began in the 14th century and it had a profound impact on Christianity at the time. A major feature of the Renaissance was the introduction of Renaissance Humanism. In general, Renaissance Humanism was the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts with the goal of promoting new norms and values in society. These norms and views varied from those at the time because they focused less heavily on a religious worldview. Instead, Renaissance humanists such as Petrarch used ancient texts to promote a worldview based on logic and reason. This was a major challenge to the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.
The Protest Reformation began at the start of the 16th century. Historians consider it have started with the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. Martin Luther (who lived from 1483 to 1546) was a German professor and monk. In his work ‘Ninety-five Theses’, Luther challenged several different teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. For instance, he argued against the notion that salvation was gained through good deeds and instead suggested that it could be attained simply through belief in Jesus Christ. As well, he argued that the scriptures themselves were the only true form of teachings and any other directives from the Catholic Church were not necessarily in line with Christianity. Furthermore, he translated the Bible into his native language of German which allowed many more people to access it and understand it for themselves. These ideas resonated with many Europeans as their worldview had been altered due to the development of humanism and the overall Renaissance. Ultimately, his ideas clashed with those of the Catholic Church and then Pope Leo X. In fact, he was excommunicated from the Church and was forced into hiding. Regardless, his actions inspired others to further the cause of reforming the Church, including: John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. As a result, the Protest Reformation took hold and a major divide occurred in Christianity. Those that remained focused on the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome were Catholics while those that practiced Christianity in a different church that did not follow the authority of the Pope were Protestants. It became known as the Protest Reformation due to the former's ‘protesting’ for change within the Church.
As a result of this tumultuous history, Christian faith has been divided into many different denominations. For instance, some people report that there are as many as 30,000 different denominations of Christianity today. Regardless, most Christians today identify as one of just a few denominations, including: Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox.
The Catholic Church (also known as the Roman Catholic Church) is considered to be one of the oldest religious institutions in the world and has approximately 1.1 billion followers today. At its head is the Bishop of Rome (more commonly known as the Pope) and its central administration is headed in Vatican City in Rome, Italy. The central faith of the Catholic Church is based on the Nicene Creed which originates from the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The Council was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine I and led to the first agreed upon Christian doctrine. The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one church founded by Jesus Christ, that its bishops are the successors of Christ's apostles, and that the Pope is the head of the organization. It maintains that it practices the original Christian faith since it developed out of the earliest history of Christianity. The Catholic faith is based on seven sacraments which was started by Jesus Christ and continued by the Church. These seven sacraments include: the sacraments of initiation, including: Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation; the sacraments of healing, consisting of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick; and the sacraments of service: Holy Orders and Matrimony.
The next largest denomination in Christianity is Protestantism. Today there is approximately 800 million Protestants in the world, making it the largest denomination behind Catholicism. In reality, Protestantism is not one single group and actually consists of several different denominations within itself, such as: Anglican, Baptists, Evangelical, Lutherans, Methodists, and more. This makes Protestantism a diverse ideology with each denomination sharing similar beliefs and practices but also differing on some. As stated previously Protestantism first emerged from the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’ in 1517. As a result, Protestantism is considered to have developed from the Catholic Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church (which is also known as the Orthodox Catholic Church) is primarily based out of Eastern Europe. Today it contains 250 million members. The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world and shares many similarities with the Roman Catholic Church. For example, while it has no central figure similar to the Pope, the Eastern Orthodox Church operates similarly in that its churches are linked by Bishops which are referred to as a Holy Synod. Also similar to the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church is based on the Nicene Creed, and the Church teaches that it is the one church founded by Jesus Christ, that its bishops are the successors of Christ's apostles. Also similar to the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church has seven sacraments with the Eucharist being the most significant. To better understand the Eastern Orthodox Church its also important to understand its history. Essentially, the Eastern Orthodox Church developed and existed alongside the Roman Catholic Church. Their principal difference was their location within the Roman Empire and basic structure of organization. For example, the two churches shared communion until the East–West Schism in 1054 CE. This schism divided the two churches between Rome and Constantinople. The churches in the west came under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, while those in the east came under the authority of the Eastern Byzantine Church (which is today known as the Eastern Orthodox Church). This schism or divide between the two churches emerged from disagreements over doctrine and the authority of the Pope. While the Eastern Orthodox Church is based out of Eastern Europe it has churches worldwide today due to migration of believers and missionaries.