In the last article (see here) we talked about how some statistics say that up to 60% of those 43 and younger who grew up in the church or were converted to the church as a teenager or young adult end up leaving. However, half of those who leave and virtually all who stay (the other 40%) still love Jesus and want Jesus community. They just don’t feel like they can have disagreements, doubts, questions, and room to grow in the institutionalized version of the church.
We went on to acknowledge that there are reasons why people don’t want to go to an institutional (or “organized”) church for their Jesus community. For whatever reason, they felt like the environment they grew up in was not healthy. Maybe they are atheists/agnostics, maybe they need some emotional space for a while, or maybe they can’t go anywhere new (or anywhere at all) because of some type of barriers such as a relationship, a job, or a geographical location.
Still, many people would like to try another denomination to see if there are less toxic churches to find Jesus community. The problem is that they don’t know where to start. This article will be a short overview of some of the major denominations, their history, and their doctrine (teaching). Now, it should be noted that there are always nuances and exceptions. I will be speaking very broadly. For better or for worse. I would encourage you to use this as a starting place. Not a place to get all of the information needed to draw a conclusion about these places. Also, please note that I will likely go into more depth regarding history and doctrine in future articles. This article will be very surface-level. Finally, note that I’m using the word “denomination” here to mean “a part of the whole.” In other words, a denomination here means a particular group with a particular background, movement, jargon, title, and doctrine. Some of these groups might not consider themselves denominations, but I am using that language anyways.
First, Some History (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches)
Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD, but it was not the official Roman religion until about ten years later. Until then, there were common threads and traditions in Christianity, but there was also a lot of diversity in thought. There were no denominations. They were human and often divisive, but what unity they had was not through uniformity. It was through a common relationship and devotion to the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. The Bible as we know it did not yet exist, but the letters were written and reasonably well established as inspired during this time. The idea of a regional bishop seemed to be relatively new until Constantine, and, in my opinion, it is implied that the congregations were led by a plurality of local shepherds and the occasional traveling minister. They met primarily in homes. Christians were highly persecuted in many places. So, some congregations had to meet in environments that were more secretive. The Christians usually met around tables, made communion (aka: Eucharist and Lord’s Supper) the central point of the gathering, publicly read inspired letters as they had them, commented on Scripture, encouraged one another, ate together, helped one another, and prayed together. Baptism and entrance into the Christian community went hand-in-hand. There seem to be some exceptions to this principle, but they were few and far between as far as we can tell. Eventually, the new converts would quote something similar to what we now call the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. The word “creed” means “I believe,” and the creeds mentioned were officially adopted by the church during and after Constantine. That is also the rough timeline of when the Scriptures were generally agreed upon in any kind of official stance. The church was usually called catholic (little “c”), meaning “universal.”
But here is where things get really divisive really quickly (if they haven’t already). Depending on what you believe and what background you subscribe to, from Constantine forward, Christian history is on a spectrum of imperial influence (for better or for worse). In other words, if you are Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, you think that the true church was the Catholic (big “C”) church. They think that the official councils and decisions and bishops post-Constantine were inspired by the Spirit and ordained by God. That doesn’t mean that they don’t see the potential for imperfection, but these traditions and teaching from that time period hold as much (or at least nearly as much) inspiration and authority as Scripture does.
In year 1054, the Catholic (big “C”) church of the eastern empire and those of the west split. There are different opinions on why. Some say it was because the bishop of Rome (who we call the Pope) took too much authority; others say that the Pope has always had that authority and that the real reason was that the eastern churches were acting out of line. The west was then known as the Roman Catholic Church and was ruled and unified by the Pope. They keep many of their traditions but are able to make adjustments because of their governmental structure. They became increasingly corrupt (broadly speaking) until the Reformation Movement of the 1500s. The eastern churches were called the Orthodox Church. They had their corruption as well, but the system was less organized because of how the leadership was structured. Also, they had constant attacks from the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The Orthodox Church finds most of its authority and unity in its traditions. So essentially, they pride themselves on unity by uniformity. Both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches consider themselves the one true Church built by Jesus Himself. If you grew up the way I did, our denomination would make the same claim. I think the argument falls apart for them as well, but at least they can make some type of seemingly meaningful historical argument.
The Reformation Movement
In the 1500s, we see the protestants. The Protestants got their name from protesting against the Roman Catholic Church. This is where we start to see fully developed English Translations of the Bible, the idea that the Church became increasingly less reliable the more it colluded with the Empire, and the names like Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli. The Roman Catholics have changed some of their toxic teachings and are more open to the idea of salvation for seekers outside of the Catholic church. However, they still consider themselves the one true church. They do not buy the idea that the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church are a less ideal version of what Jesus had in mind. Or that maybe (just maybe) they could have abused their power along the way, so much so that perhaps there are other groups of Christians throughout history who they called heretics, but God called His children. I don’t have time to mention all of those groups I have in mind, but they are not super accessible in America anyways. Feel free to ask if you are curious.
The One True Church….???
From the 1500s on, there have been many denominations that have developed. Most of these denominations now see each other as family and part of the one true catholic (little “c”) church. In other words, Jesus built one church, but it is spiritual. Anyone who belongs to Him belongs to the spiritual family of God. The church is a spiritual reality that manifests itself in many physical locations. Some of those locations happen to have signs and movements associated with them. Some of these denominations give greater emphasis to the traditions and teachings of post-Constantine Christianity than others. Other denominations see anything Constantine forward as inherently corrupt. And other denominations are somewhere in the middle. My thought is that 313 AD is a lonnnnggggg time from 33 AD. Think about it. That’s a longer period of time than the time between now and the beginning of the USA. The way I look at it is that Jesus is my ultimate revelation, then Scripture (read contextually), then pre-Nicene (aka: pre-Constantine) Christian writers, and then everyone after that has no more or less authority in my mind than any other living person today. I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I respect history. Just like I respect the opinions of some people I know today. However, I’m doubtful and suspicious of anything too influenced my imperial collusion. Anyone who is committed to the personhood, will, divinity, and heart of the risen Jesus is my brother or my sister. That means Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Church of Christ, and any other group that might not accept me…I accept them. We are all part of the one true church.
So, What About the Mainline and Evangelical Protestants?
Let’s talk about “Mainline Protestants” and “Evangelical Protestants.” Mainline Protestant denominations have a few general identifiers. First, they tend to be denominations that have been around longer. For example, the Episcopal Church is the American version of the “Church of England” (aka: Anglican Church), the Presbyterians are closely related to John Calvin, and the Lutherans are closely related to Luther (surprising, I know!). These are older denominations. The United Methodist Church is less than 100 years old, but the movement goes back to the 1700s, and it is directly associated with the Anglican Church. There are, however, relatively newer “Mainline” denominations. So, what else helps us understand who they are? Well, they tend to be “high church.” That means that they generally keep the traditions of the Catholic church when it comes to holidays, calendars, devotionals, hymns, rituals, and so on. They are high in formality. This is a spectrum, so it really depends on which denomination, but we will get into that more in a bit. Mainline denominations also tend to be called liberal by their Evangelical friends to the right. Sometimes, they do have individual people or denominations that say, do, or believe things that are generally outside of what Jesus and His Apostles have explicitly said are core teachings of the Gospel of Christ. However, all Mainline denominations officially hold to the core teachings of Jesus. Mainline churches do tend to be more open to nuanced and context-based interpretations of Scripture. Therefore, they tend to be more accepting and less legalistic. So, they are high in formality but open with regard to nuance. Again, this is a spectrum. Some other Mainline denominations are the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church, American Restoration Movement, associated loosely with the Churches of Christ), the United Church of Christ, and the American Baptist Churches. Their philosophy is usually communal. As in, the center of worship and even biblical interpretation involves the entire community.
Evangelical churches tend to be younger. They are also “low church.” By that, I mean low in formality. They see baptism and the communion as a sign (aka: ordinance) as opposed to a Sacrament (a sign but also a means of grace). They tend to be less concerned with church tradition, traditionally Catholic holidays, and liturgical calendars. Evangelicals lean highly into biblical literalism when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. The Bible never said that there was going to be a Bible, and it most certainly never said to interpret it almost completely literally. Interpret it seriously, sure! But that doesn’t usually mean literally in an eastern context (the context in which Scripture was written). Politically, it is hard to ignore that evangelicals tend to be republicans, and their philosophy tends to be very individualistic. In other words, we went from one Pope to 8 billion popes (not much better), and worship is about “me and God” instead of primarily being a gathering devoted to edification where worship naturally happens as well (1 Cor. 14:26). Again, this is a spectrum, and it is also very general. Some examples of Evangelicals are non-denominational churches (from the Pentecostal and Baptist movements), Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Churches of Christ, Churches of God, Pentecostal, (the new) Global Methodist Church lean that direction, and some Reformed (Calvinist/Presbyterian) churches.
So, What’s the Difference Between these Denominations?
- Anglican/Episcopal – The Anglican Church is the Church of England. It is essentially the Roman Catholic Church minus the Pope. It is about as “High Church” as one can get in Mainline Protestantism. Much of the doctrine and traditions are identical to the modern Catholic Church. The Episcopal Church is the American version of the Anglican Church. They have the same types of rituals as the Anglicans. However, they do tend to be considered more “liberal” by their friends to the right. This is especially the case regarding things like LGBTQ issues and women leaders, for instance. They do not say that one has to be affirming of same-sex relationships, but that is the general view in most congregations. Baptism is usually by pouring, and communion is taken weekly in most denominations from the wider tradition.
- Lutheran – This movement comes from Martin Luther, a Reformation leader. They believe people can choose to leave God but that it is a conscious decision that they can repent of. They are more like the Anglicans than most realize (probably more than they themselves realize). They tend to see themselves as the true church, or at least the best expression of the true church. However, they do not necessarily think they are the only Christians. They tend to believe in Christ’s real presence in baptism and in the communion. They also tend to be high church. They practice private confession, and they baptize by pouring. Most Lutheran denominations lean in a conservative direction.
- Reformed/Presbyterian – Most of these denominations are evangelical. This movement came from the tradition of the Reformation Movement leader, John Calvin. He believed in something called predestination. Scripture teaches the idea of predestination, but it is arguable whether or not it means what Calvin and modern Presbyterians and Reformed Christians think it does. For them, it meant that God is fully sovereign (has full power over everything), which any Christian would agree with. But it also meant that He predetermined certain people to be saved (the elect/chosen) and others to be lost. There is a spectrum concerning how truly that defines the teaching of denominations in this movement, but that is the general idea. The denomination called PCUSA is more open about interpretation and also LGBTQ issues, but most of the other denominations in this movement are more conservative (mostly evangelical in nature). They baptize by sprinkling but are open to baptism by immersion. Also, they baptize their infants. Their leadership are local elders. They usually believe that Jesus is literally present when communion is taken. Not just symbolically. Women preachers vary depending on which denomination you choose within the wider Calvinist movement.
- Baptist – Almost all Baptist members are considered to be on some spectrum of evangelicalism. They tend to be biblical literalists, frown on the idea of women preachers, and oppose practicing homosexual relationships. However, most Baptist denominations are relatively progressive. The Southern Baptists are the most conservative Baptist denomination and also the largest. They baptize believers by immersion and take communion in different ways at different times. Communion and baptism are ordinances for them (symbols only), not sacraments of grace. Leadership is usually congregational, with the denominational relationship being primarily for the purpose of association.
- Methodists – The Methodists get their name from the holiness methods of Charles and John Wesley. They were Anglican priests in the 1700s and put a high emphasis on intentionally being led by the Spirit, practicing spirituality, and loving regardless of disagreements. There are more charismatic (emotional and “Spirit-driven,” think Pentecostal-like) branches of Wesleyan/Methodist denominations, and there are more evangelical-leaning branches as well. However, the United Methodist Church is the largest, most open-minded, most diverse, and most mainline of the denominations in this tradition. The UMC varies regarding how formal or informal they are regarding worship rituals. They are about as “down the middle” as one can get when it comes to the high-church/informal spectrum and the progressive/literalist spectrum. Virtually all of the UMC believes that women can and should be leaders. There is currently some tension in the UMC because the more conservative branch is splitting. They see the rest of the UMC as too liberal (its pretty relative, but I would say for an evangelicalthats probablytrue but for a mainline thinker this assertion is rarelythe case). The conservative group calls themself the Global Methodist Church (GMC). Other Methodist churches vary tremendously. They are Arminian, which basically means the opposite of the Calvinist churches. They believe God is sovereign as well, and they believe that the “predestination” passages in Scripture refer to a predetermined group rather than individuals. Salvation is a process that starts now. The Christian walk is about becoming like Jesus now, and it is a process that, at least in a loving and spiritual sense, is achievable over time.
- Charismatic – This movement includes Pentecostals, non-denominational, Church of God, and many other denominations. Some are high church, and some are low formality. Some are progressive, and others are highly conservative. Charismatic denominations put a high emphasis on Spiritual gifts, emotions led by the Spirit, and God working in visible ways. Non-denominational churches are independent but often come from charismatic churches or Baptist churches. Usually, the theology is that of a charismatic-leaning Southern Baptist church. Most charismatic denominations are run locally. They vary on particular doctrines regarding salvation, ordinances, and social issues. Some charismatic churches are unitarian, so they don’t believe in the Trinity.
- Congregationalist/Anabaptist – This is a broad category regarding the Anabaptists (which means those who baptize again. I’ll write more on that in the future) and the Congregationalists. Along with those movements, I also include independent and non-denominational churches here. All of these groups lean towards the low formality side of the spectrum. The Anabaptists include the Mennonites and the Amish. The Amish are highly conservative, as are the Mennonites. However, there are some more open-minded Mennonites. Most denominations (and non-denominations) that come from the Congregationalists and Anabaptist traditions are led by local leaders, and many are non-credal (no list of official doctrines aside from Scripture itself). Non-denominational in this sense does not mean the same as the non-denominational churches in the charismatic movement. It just means that they are independent and have no outside central government. Because of this, these types of churches vary. The United Church of Christ, one of the more progressive churches in mainline Protestantism, is also associated with the Congregationalists.
- Restoration Movement – This movement was started by leaders from the early 1800s who wanted to step away from denominational titles, creeds, and divisions. They did not consider themselves to be the only Christians, but they wanted to be identified as Christians only. There are three major branches of this movement left today. The largest is the Church of Christ. They consider themselves non-denominational. However, they act and think like a denomination. They consider themselves to be non-credal. However, they act and think like they are. Again, this is broad. The Church of Christ is technically independent. Therefore, each one can (and sometimes does) have nuanced differences. However, as a whole, they are a sectarian group of people who believe they are the one true church. The second branch is the independent Christian Church. They have been more true to the non-denominational goals of the Restoration Movement. However, many of them have also forgotten the central principles of the movement when it comes to unity in diversity. They tend to look like modern non-denominational churches. Both of these branches lean in the low formality evangelical direction. Last, the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) is a denomination that still functions in a “hands-off” kind of way when it comes to denominational leadership. They have elders and practice baptism by immersion, and weekly communion just like the previous branches do. However, they tend to be considered mainline protestants because they lean in the high church direction. They also tend to be more progressive. The DofC has a close relationship with the United Church of Christ from the Congregationalist movement.
There’s much more that could be said, but my hope is that this helps get you started if you are looking for something better than what you come from. It might be that something that is toxic for me is fresh air for you. If so, glory to God! I’m genuinely happy for you, even if we disagree on some things. My goal is for you to find the Jesus community that you are looking for so that you can feel safe, loved, valued, and meaningful as you walk hand-in-hand with Jesus and His people. If there are more specific questions you have regarding any of this, let me know. I’d be glad to help! God bless! – Jesse
See Also: How We Get the Bible (New Testament): The Bible Fell from the Sky…Right? , “We are the One True Church” ….I’ve heard that before…