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Religious Tolerance logo



Sorting Christian groups by denomination,
meta-group, wing, family, & theological belief system

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What is a Christian?

To avoid confusion, we repeat here our site's simple definition of "Christian:"

"We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ's) teachings as they understand them to be. "

Other individuals and groups have much narrower definitions of the term. They often believe that their faith group is the "true" Christian religion, and that all others are in error. That is certainly their right, but it does cause a great deal of confusion, frustration, anger, and conflict.

Sorting Christian faith groups:

Except perhaps for a few years between the execution of Yeshua of Nazareth (circa 30 CE) and the start of Paul's ministry (circa 36 CE), the Christian religion has never been unified.


Throughout the second half of the first century CE,  the Christian religion was divided into three main main religious movements: the Gnostics, Jewish Christians, and Pauline Christians.

  • Gnostic Christians still survive today as a small but growing group.

  • The original followers of Christ who formed the Jewish Christian movement centered in Jerusalem were essentially wiped out by the occupying Roman Army circa 70 CE.

  • All of the rest of today's Christian faith groups trace their history back to the Pauline Christian movement.

bulletCurrently, there are over 1,200 Christian denominations in North America. 1

bulletAccording to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world. 2

Sorting them into categories is a difficult task. Six ways of classifying them are into:

  1. By individual denomination:
    bulletThere are on the order of 1,200 Christian organizations in North America, and over 30,000 in the world.

    bulletTheir names range from the Amish to The Way.

    bullet We have essays describing a few dozen of them.
  2. By meta-group: Christian denominations and sects in the world can be sorted into about eight segments or branches:
    bulletRoman Catholicism,

    bulletEastern Orthodoxy,

    bulletOriental Orthodox and Assyrian Churches,



    bulletAnglican Communion



    Unfortunately, there is no consensus about which faith groups should be embraced by the term "Protestantism." For example:
    bullet Some theologians split out the Anglican Communion from Protestantism.

    bulletOthers consider Pentecostalism to be separate from Protestantism.

    bulletOthers separate the European Free-Church Family out as a separate group.

    bulletSome include the Restorationist denominations, which includes the Mormon church (a.k.a. LDS) within Protestantism. Some consider them to be a separate Christian group. Still others consider them to be non-Christian.

    The organization Christian Churches Together (CCT), a broadly based, inclusive, Christian ecumenical movement, suggests still another classification of U.S. faith groups. They group Christian denominations into five families" Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Historic Racial/Ethnic, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic.

  3. By "Wing": Like in the area of politics, Christians and Christian groups can be divided into conservative and liberal wings, according to their belief systems. Their teachings on abortion access, origins of the species of life, the earth and the rest of the universe, equal rights for gays and lesbians, equal rights for transgender individuals and transsexuals, and same-sex marriage, are four indicators of their location on the liberal- conservative continuum.

    bulletFundamentalists, other Evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodoxy, and such varied groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Unification Church, etc. generally form the conservative wing;

    bulletThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Progressive Christianity, Evolutionary Christianity, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada and others form the liberal wing.

    bulletOften, a third, mainline wing is added, composed of such denominations as: American Baptist Churches in the USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, etc.
  4. By religious families:
    bulletDenominations can be sorted into 15 families, according to their historical roots. 1

    bulletExamples are the Adventist, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian families.
  5. By theological beliefs:
    bulletThere are many systems of theological beliefs within Christianity.

    bulletThey often cut across denominational boundaries.

    bulletMembers of an single congregation may hold conflicting belief systems.

    bulletExamples are Arminianism, British Israelism, Calvinism, Christian Identity, Universalism, etc.

    bullet Perhaps the most striking range of beliefs concerns the nature of God. A survey by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion has identified four very different concepts of God which they call: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. Believers in each version can provide multiple biblical texts supporting their beliefs.

    bulletThe Barna Research Group, arguably the most important polling group working in the religious and spiritual area, sorts individuals into five faith segments according to their theological beliefs.
  6. Five religious groupings:

Christian Churches Together in the USA (CCT) recognizes six families of Christian faith groups:

bulletHistoric Protestant,
bulletHistoric Racial/Ethnic,
bulletEastern Orthodox, and
bulletRoman Catholic 3

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Additional information:

bulletWhich is the "true" Christian denomination?
bulletOrigins of denominations (their founders, starting date, and initial location)
bulletUmbrella organizations
bulletU.S. national organizations
bulletWorldwide organizations
bulletOther church groups:
bulletPara-church organizations: Promise Keepers, P-FOX, Boy Scouts, etc.
bulletCell churches
bulletHouse churches
bulletHow religions established, changed, and continue to change their teachings on slavery, the role of women, sexual orientation, etc.
bulletReligious friction within mainline denominations
bulletReligious differences among denominations
bulletDestructive, dangerous, doomsday Cults
bulletDisagreement over which is the "true" church.
bulletWhich do some Mormons believe is the true church?

bulletOff-site material:
bulletThe Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) has created a series of denominational family tree graphs of the Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian/Reformed, Restoration movement and other families. See:

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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. J. Gordon Melton, Ed, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," 6th edition, Gale Group, (2009). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store We were amazed to see the range of prices for this book as listed by, On 2012-SEP-07. a new hardcover edition costs $415.00. A used copy costs $0.01 plus postage!

  2. David B. Barrett, et al., "World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World," Oxford University Press, 2 volume set, (2001). Read reviews or order this book The prices are equally insane on this two volume set: New copies are $326; used at $1,861.

  3. "Christian Churches Together in the USA," at:

Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 1998-JUL
Last updated 2012-SEP-07
Author: Bruce A Robinson

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