Why are there denominations?
Where did denominations come from?
Should women be ordained? Who is the earthly head of the Church? Are Christians saved through faith, or faith and works?
There are so many questions which Christians have disagreed on over the past 2000 years, and when they have disagreed, they have sometimes split off to form their own distinct denominations (which are just another way of saying a self-sufficient Christian church). Denominations distinguish themselves from each other in a variety of ways, including having different structures (pastors, priests, vicars, bishops ect) and in having different sets of core beliefs (or “Creeds”). Christians often have put different emphasise on different parts of Christianity, and from it's earliest history the Church has seen divisions (read Corinthians 1-3 if you want to see how St Paul had to deal with the problem). There are now as many as 40,000 different denominations in the world and it makes us wonder where they all come from. This article hopes to cover a few of the major events that have seen shifts in Christian thinking, and the developments of some of the major denominations.
If you have ever heard Jesus described as "begotten not made" you hear an echo of an ancient puzzle that the church was trying to figure out in the fourth century AD. The church was wrestling with some big problems. Incarnation and Trinity. How can you have one God, in three parts? How can God (who is perfect) also be in human form (who is imperfect)? Was Jesus made of flesh or some mixture of flesh and God material? Did God (the Father) make Jesus (the Son)?
In an attempt to answer all of these questions and to avoid division, the Church came together in 325 AD to write the Nicene Creed (you may know it, it's the one that starts "We believe in God the Father Almighty" and is still used today in many churches). It is worth reading the Nicene Creed (link here), as it demonstrates how denominations can be unified as well as being differentiated. The major churches of today all adhere to the Nicene Creed and so it’s a pretty important key to unity in some of our divisions.
(It’s also worth saying that if you are interested in understanding a particular denomination, a good starting point is to read through a copy of their creed and doctrines, and compare it with the creed of whomever they split from)
East vs West
In the first five centuries AD the Roman Empire began to split between the east and west, and so was the Church. There were two key authorities, the Patriarch of Rome (now known as the Pope) and the Patriarch of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Unsurprisingly, due to different traditions, politics, and practices, these churches started to come into conflict on a range of issues. One of the chief bones of contention was “who had the greatest spiritual authority? Was it Rome? Or were the Patriarchs equal?”
In 1054 there were some problems caused by a bull of excommunication (to clarify, a bull here is a document, not a some sort of holy cow), some Christian Crusaders invading Constantinople, and tensions continued to grow between the East and West churches. As a result, both developed with radically different histories and sets of beliefs through the years. This time is often called the great schism (separation). Roman Catholic (West) thinkers were highly influenced by classical Greek philosophers, and put a great emphasis on the Church’s authority. The Byzantine Church (East) was conservative, and placed greater emphasis on the wisdom of spiritually mature individuals and on Monastic orders. Even the way that their churches are physically built are different (if you haven’t been to a Greek Orthodox Church, they are well worth a visit).
Jump forward by a few hundred years, and the Church in the West had a growing number of problems. Holding a high position in the church meant gaining prestige, wealth and power. Many people with worldly motives entered the church with some (even Popes!) having reputations for greed, gluttony or lust. This led to a growing chorus of voices criticising the status quo and the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Many people at this time believed that the church needed a radical rethinking and reforming. With the help of individuals such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, protestantism (those who split away from the Roman Catholics) was born with a fierce sense of independence. And key to its identity was that the Bible was the source of spiritual authority, not a system of clergy. The reformation acts as a pivotal moment in church history and it is impossible to say in what way church, or indeed global history would have progressed without it.
In England the reformation profoundly affected the Church. Henry VIII, who had previously won the title “Defender of the Faith” for his defence of Roman Catholicism, decided to split from Rome just so he could divorce his first wife. Henry made the Monarch (i.e. himself), the Head of the Church instead of the Pope. This decision paved the way for the modern day Church of England to develop.
From that branch, there have been a number of different denominations that have developed exponentially for a number of different reasons. Examples include the Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and many more. So it’s fair to say that the action of the Protestant reformers still has a big influence on how the Church looks today.
While this article has focused on how denominations are created through division, it is worth recognising the very positive motivations that can lead to their creation. Groups such as the Methodists and Salvation Army were started through practicing Christianity in a different way (for example, through an emphasis on siding with the poor and oppressed), and were not designed from the outset to be a separate denomination. Although many come from dispute, denominations do have the power to enable Christians to become more relevant to local communities and have inspired many of the churches greatest leaders.
But what do you think? Are they helpful today or do you think they hinder the growth and life of the Church?