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38,000? (part 1)

According to research done by Christianity Today, there are roughly 38,000 Christian denominations or groups as of this past decade. There are 1500 different groups claiming to be Christian in the United States alone, with more being formed every year. In an age when many church leaders bemoan the lack of Christian culture, leadership, and the like, such numbers are both discouraging yet not surprising. Throughout the New Testament, the idea of Christian unity is preached quite frequently (I Corinthians), and it seems clear (on the surface at least), that the church (especially the western church) struggles mightily on this issue. However, after a little research, some historical study, and a look at the methodology by which such figures are arrived at, the picture is much less dire.

It is my contention that in reality there are less than 10 “denominations” or groups when it comes to historic, orthodox Christianity.  While lacking the expertise to fix an exact number, most people who study demographics identity three different Christian groups that roughly relate to each other, in theology, culture and history.  These three groups can be labeled Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical.  Some count Anglicanism as a fourth option, but Anglicanism either focuses on the Roman or Evangelical side of its “via media” (middle way), and so falls into two of the three groups.  Information is readily available for those who wish to research further. As one who has spent most of his time in the Evangelical/Protestant tradition, I will focus on some of the divisions there to demonstrate a “consensus” that many may be surprised to find.

As a caveat, this post is going to focus on conservative, historic Christianity, as many of the more “liberal” groups have so abandoned historic Christian teaching that they are virtually unrecognizable as Christian, and are so in name only (this refers to theological liberalism, not political, which can mean a variety of different things).  This also excludes non-Trinitarian groups, such as Unitarians or Jehovah’s Witnesses, as such groups are in actuality, heretical, or at best, heterodox.  For a good overview of what constitutes Orthodoxy, see this post and this post by C. Michael Patton at the Reclaiming the Mind blog (full disclosure-I am most likely paleo-orthodox by his definitions).  These groups alone account for a good portion of the thousands of denominations, meaning the number is demonstrably inflated.

After perusing the statements of faith and creeds by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God, and some evangelical Para-church groups, and borrowing from Patton’s site, the following would be considered the Evangelical/Protestant consensus:

* Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
All issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:
* Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
* Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
* Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
* Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)
* The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed at Nicea
* The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully man and fully God) as expressed at Chalcedon
* The belief in the future second coming of Christ
* A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
* A belief in eternal punishment for the wicked
* A belief in God’s timeless existence
* Christ is the only way to salvation
* God created the universe

* General belief in the major pronouncements of the first seven ecumenical councils (325-787 AD)
* Belief in the necessity for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
* Belief that justification is through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone
* Belief that Scripture alone has ultimate authority on all matters of faith and practice
* The canon of Scripture made up of 66 books (excluding the Deuterocanonical books)

The two sections are separated because the first group is roughly agreed to by Orthodox and Roman Catholics as well, with the second group becoming Evangelical/Protestant “distinctives.”  While it is true that some Evangelicals are notoriously “anti-creedal” (such as some Baptists), the general decisions of the 7 councils (especially the first four) are always agreed to as accurately representing scriptural teaching.  What seems to be the case then is that certain groups of Christians choose to worship together and exclude others on other “corollary” issues, such as worship practice, end-times theology, the mode of baptism, church government, and the like.  Even if there is general agreement on these issues, some groups still split because of issues such as bible translations, music, or cultural/ethnic problems.  The question of course then becomes, where does one draw the line when it comes to fellowship and cooperation? In our post-Enlightenment western world, the focus on “individual rights” and the primacy of the individual has led some to view the single man as able to define truth for himself, allowing him to justify schisms.  While it is a mistake to say that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are monolithic groups, this schismatic tendency is much more prevalent in the Evangelical/Protestant world.  So for those of you reading this, are there any thoughts or solutions? Any ideas as to where to draw the line in regards to fellowship? Is the idea of thousands of denominations troubling?

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5 Comments

  1. […] These three groups can be labeled Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical. Some count Anglicanism as a fourth option, but Anglicanism either focuses on the Roman or Evangelical side of its “via media” (middle way), … View full post on protestant – Google Blog Search […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    trying to follow you on twitter but cant find your name

  3. That’s because I’m not on twitter (yet).

  4. […] an earlier post (found here), the issue of the supposed existence of 38,000 different Christian denominations was addressed, […]

  5. James eviden says:

    Once again, I “get” that they really cannot advocate another theology without gutting their entire church history.

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