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Sorting the thousands of Christian
denominations into meta-groups:

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Note about terminology:

There are many conflicting definitions about exactly which people and which faith groups are Christian, and which are quasi-Christian, sub-Christian or non-Christian. Many people hold tenaciously to the belief that their own definition is the only true one. The end result is that, depending on the definition of "Christian" used, the percentage of Christians in the U.S. and Canada rages between less than 1% and 75%.

This site accepts as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. Included are: the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative, mainline, and liberal Christian faith groups; The Restorationist churches (including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah's Witnesses and a thousand or so other religious organizations who view themselves as Christian in North America.

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Disunity within Christianity:

When Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) was executed, in approximately 30 CE, his message continued to be spread by some of his followers. They formed the Jewish Christian movement -- a reform Judaism group -- which was centered in Jerusalem. A few  years later, Paul founded a competing Pauline Christian group, which was aimed primarily at converting Gentiles. Finally, a Gnostic Christian movement was formed.

Jewish Christians were killed or scattered by the Roman Army when they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Pauline Christianity was legalized in the 313 CE and became the official religion of the Empire circa 380 CE. The Gnostics were exterminated by or absorbed into the Church -- the successor to Pauline Christianity.

Strains between the surviving eastern and western regions of the Church reached the breaking point in 1054 CE when the leaders of the two groups excommunicated each other. This formally separated the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Although discussions are currently underway to bring them into unity, little progress has being made.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, set out to reform the Roman Catholic church by eliminating some of its abuses -- largely involving the church sacraments and the sale of indulgences. A split followed, producing the Protestant Reformation and a series of religious wars which decimated Western Europe. Protestantism subsequently split into many movements which themselves split into families of denominations. The result was the the thousands of individual Protestant denominations and sects that we observe today.

In 1534, the British Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy which declared the country independent of foreign powers, including the pope. This separated the English Church from the pope's authority. The Church of England was created under Edward VI when the Book of Common Prayer was authorized in 1549. Mary I restored the connection to Rome in 1553. But during the reign of  Elizabeth I, her successor, a second Act of Supremacy was passed and the Book of Common Prayer reissued. The Church of England has since evolved into a worldwide movement, composed of the Anglican Communion divided int Provinces, Dioceses, and individual congregations.

In 1830 CE. Joseph Smith taught that the true Christian church died out early in the 2nd Century CE, when he believed that religious leaders abandoned many of the original teachings of Jesus Christ, Paul, and the other apostles. Smith founded  The Church of Christ. This faith group subsequently divided into over 100 separate denominations and sects which form the LDS Restorationist movement.

Christianity remains in a state of flux today, with new faith groups being created, ceasing to exist, and merging with others. Other denominations have difficulty adapting to change. They have experienced schism over matters like literal interpretation of the Bible, inerrancy of the Bible, criteria for salvation, the morality of human slavery, the roles of women within the family and church, etc. More schisms are expected in the future over equal rights for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage.

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Sorting Christian denominations today:

Today, there are over 30,000 separate Christian groups in the world. 1

bullet There is a small but growing Gnostic Christian movement who trace their beliefs back to the early Gnostics. They believe that salvation comes from possessing esoteric knowledge.

bullet The vast majority of Christian groups trace their ancestry back to Pauline Christianity as founded by Paul in the 1st century CE and refined through various early church councils and creeds. Most regard Yeshua as a man-god, a member of the Trinity along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. A few Christians in the liberal wing of the religion view Yeshua as a prophet, not a deity, and definitely not conceived by a virgin.

One way of sorting them is into eight "meta-groups."

bullet Roman Catholicism, This has the largest membership of any meta-group in Christianity. It is headed by the Pope in Rome, whose rulings are considered infallible in certain cases. The church is coordinated by the Curia, which is composed of one Secretariat, and 27 agencies, each headed by a Cardinal. Local administration is by Bishops and Archbishops who control activity in their Dioceses and Archdioceses.
bullet Eastern Orthodox Churches: a communion of autocephalous, (ecclesiastically independent) Christian faith groups which forms the dominant religious bodies in Bulgaria, Belarus, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine. They play a significant role in eleven other countries, including the U.S. and Canada, and have a scattered presence elsewhere in the world. They and the Roman Catholic Church formally separated from each other in 1054 CE, although they had been functioning nearly independently long before that date.
bullet Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches: This grouping consists of five churches in the Middle East and South India. The Catholic Assyrian Church of the East and the Roman Catholic church separated from each other after the Council of Ephesus in  431 CE. The four Oriental Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church separated from each other after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, when the Oriental Orthodox churches rejected the Council's concept of Christ as one person "in two natures." The four Oriental Orthodox churches are:
bullet The Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia and Lebanon;
bullet The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt;
bullet The Ethiopian Orthodox Church; and
bullet The Syrian Orthodox Churches which include the See of Antioch and the Syrian Thomas Christians of South India. 

A fifth church is often grouped with the Oriental Orthodox churches:
bullet The Catholic Assyrian Church of the East 4

bullet Protestantism: This is composed of a  group of independent denominations, sects, and independent churches numbering in excess of 30,000 worldwide. They trace their history back to the Reformation which was triggered when Martin Luther circulated 95 theses in which he listed what he considered to be faults in the Roman Catholic Church -- both theological and in its policies. Protestant denominations have been grouped into 13 families, according to their historical roots. There are over 1,000 Protestant denominations in North America, ranging from extreme Fundamentalist to very Liberal. Included are such diverse groups as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists. 2 Most are democratically organized.
bullet The Anglican Communion: This consists of 38 Provinces and a small number of extra-provincial dioceses. It includes the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in Canada, and the Church of England in the UK. As noted above, the Church of England was created under Edward VI when the Book of Common Prayer was authorized in 1549. Its bishops meet in the Lambeth Conference every ten years, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is considered “first among equals.” The Communion is "bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through common counsel of the Bishops in conference" 3 Ultimate decision making power in a given province is controlled by three groups, consisting of the Bishops, the Priests, and a group of laity. Individual Anglicans range from very conservative to very liberal in beliefs.
bullet Pentecostals:One source lists 177 separate Pentecostal denominations. In the early 1900s CE, it grew out of the Holiness movement which in turn had roots in Methodism, a Protestant denomination.  A major defining feature of Pentecostalism is their belief in Glossolalia, or the ability to speak "in tongues". Another is the unusual freedom and spontaneity exhibited during their religious services. They are theologically very conservative.
bullet The Restorationist faith groups share the belief that the "true" Christian church died out as the church abandoned many of the teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ), Paul, and other apostles -- perhaps early in the 2nd Century CE. This group includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. Almost a hundred denominations trace their history back to that faith group. Other restorationist groups include the Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, etc. Their beliefs and practices differ greatly. However, all believe that their group, alone, has restored the original beliefs and practices of Yeshua and the apostles. Most regard themselves as the true Christian church. Most or all are obviously wrong.
bullet Other groups: There are probably many hundreds of faith groups which do not neatly fit into any of the above five classifications. Three of the more interesting are:

Progressive Christianity, a very liberal Christian group which does not look upon itself as a denomination. Rather they are building a network of affiliated congregations, informal groups and individual members.


A group called the Two by Twos, The Black Stockings, The Church Without a Name, Cooneyites, etc. teach that their group has been in continuous but secret existence since the 1st century. They believe that their faith group was founded by Jesus, and is the only "true" Christian church.


Gnostic Christians This movement and its literature were essentially wiped out by the end of the 5th century CE by heresy hunters from mainline Christianity. They believe that salvation comes through Gnosis (knowledge.) They are currently experiencing a rebirth throughout the world.

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Disagreements over classification of faith groups:

bullet Many theologians combine the Anglican Communion and Protestant faith groups as a single grouping.

bullet Others consider Pentecostalism as being part of Protestantism.

bullet Some in the anti-cult movement and counter-cult movement classify some of the smaller denominations as "cults," "sub-Christians," or "none-Christian." and not as a part of Christianity.

bullet Some Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals do not consider liberal/progressive Christian denominations to be part of Christianity.

bullet The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. LDS & The Mormons) and other LDS restorationist denominations are not considered to be Christian by most conservative and some mainline denominations.

There are probably other disagreements not listed above. From the extensive Emails that we receive, it is obvious that many individuals and groups regard their own classification of faith groups to be the only valid one.

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Related essay on this web site:

bullet Comparison of Roman Catholicism with conservative Protestantism

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. J. Gordon Melton, Ed, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions: A Comprehensive Study of the Major Religious Groups in the United States and Canada," 3 volume set, Triumph Books, New York, NY, (1989)
  3. Statement by the 1930 Lambeth Conference.
  4. Henry Hill, "Light from the East: A symposium on the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches," Anglican Book Centre, (1988).

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Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Groups > here

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Copyright © 2003 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-APR-
Latest update: 2007-AUG-10
Author: B.A. Robinson

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