Denominations in Christianity

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • February 27, 2024
  • 683 views
  • Briefly know about the different denominations in Christianity. What distinguishes and what unites them. 

About two thousand years ago Jesus Christ, gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to St. Peter, fisherman who heeded the call of Christ and chose to become a fisher of men. Christ had declared that His religion will be built on the rock, so to say, that was St. Peter. Peter thus became the first leader of the Christian world.

In other words, Peter was chosen by Christ to be the first Pope within Christianity. In between leaders of this new religion, which Jesus began, decided in different Councils or meetings that only men can be priests and women cannot ever be priests. Further, all priests were to be celibates, or unmarried till their deaths. In due course of time, like all other monoliths, the Church became corrupt what with unlimited power with no checks and balances to the Pope and priests. Further, the Christian leadership had ruled that divorce under any circumstances were moral evils and were, therefore, sins. They also condemned men and women who were oriented towards their own sex. And, a very important teaching came to play a vital role in this Church: whatever the Pope declared as a leader of Christians, not as a private person, became dogma or infallible truth.

The Pope in his capacity as the leader of the Church could not err nor say anything wrong in his encyclicals in what came to be known as Papal Bulls. One needs to emphasise that the Pope then and now, as a private individual can hold erroneous or, heretical views. But as the Supreme Pontiff in collegiality with the College of Cardinals, the Pope simply cannot go wrong --- and no woman can ever be a Pope. Popes were and are elected by Cardinals who are all male priests who take lifelong vows of remaining unmarried as a sign of asceticism.

But the ground reality was that many Cardinals and Popes were serial women-abusers and child-abusers --- then and now. Their lives were far from saintly and therefore, naturally rebellion was growing against this patriarchal system. There are many powerful voices within the Roman Catholic Church who demand that the present Pope addresses such biases --- Pope Francis, the current Pope has indeed addressed such concerns and has recently allowed same-sex couples to be blessed; not married. Women too are awaiting Pope Francis’s decision to allow the ordination of women to sacerdotal, or priestly privileges. The Catholic Church is called Roman since the Pope lives at Vatican City which is an independent country within Italy.

A German priest, Martin Luther (1483-1546) protested publicly against the corruption of the Catholic Church of his times and left it with a 95 points’ detailed public declaration against the wrongs of the Roman Church. Thus, the older and undivided Church came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church and all those who protested against the Pope, or Papacy, came to be known as  Protestants.

Martin Luther led the public protest but there were many others like John Calvin (1509-1564) who rebelled against the Pope. For instance, the followers of Calvin, known as Calvinists, believe in predestination. That is, some are destined to heaven no matter what their actions are here on earth, and some are destined to hell no matter how good and faithful they are in their earthly lives. To be honest and factual, it was not Martin Luther who inaugurated the Protestant Movement. It was the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola’s (1463-1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) which contained the seeds of Mirandola’s 900 points against the repression of liberal voices within the Roman Church that would go on to influence the larger Protestant movement. Thus, Mirandola should be considered as the original Protestant. Without Mirandola’s writings against the Papacy, or Papal rule, there could have been no protest leading to Martin Luther’s revolt against Rome.  

In England King Henry VIII (1491-1547) who married six times in his life, wanted to divorce or annul his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1509-1533). Pope Clement VII refused to allow the annulment --- thus, King Henry VIII rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church and began his own sect --- the Church of England which is flourishing today. The Church of England along with other Protestant denominations rejected not only the concepts of a celibate priestly class but also rejected the primacy of the Virginity of Mary, the Mother of Christ.

All Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a Virgin and she was conceived without sin. All Protestants believe that Mary was never a Virgin and thus do not offer prayers (dulia) to Mary. Catholics tell the beads while praying to Mother Mary. Protestants of all denominations do no such ritual. All Catholic educational institutions and their churches have prominent statues of Mother Mary while Protestants have no such icons of Mary exhibited anywhere in their premises. This information will help a non-Christian understand whether a place is Roman Catholic or Protestant. Protestant priests are all married men and even women; they are called ministers, and they are anti-Rome. Protestants never pray in Catholic Churches and Catholics never pray in Protestant Churches. Efforts at reconciling these two Churches is known as ecumenism.

We will now discuss a few other sects of Protestants within the entire world. First, we begin with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses was begun in 1870 by Charles Taze Russell (1852 – 1916) and they have a unique belief --- under no circumstances do they allow blood transfusion and they do not consider anyone in any other sect, whether Protestant or Catholic to be a valid Christian. They do not agree with the Triune nature of the Godhead found within all Christianity --- both within Roman Catholicsm or within the Protestant denominations. Jehovah’s Witnesses are publicly identifiable by their religious zeal --- they distribute their literature on streets, public transports and go from house to house throughout the world, spreading their understanding of Christianity. 

The Seventh-day Adventists like the Jehovah’s Witnesses are Churches fuelled by apocalyptic beliefs. The Seventh-day Adventists believe that Christ’s Kingdom is imminent and only they will survive the coming apocalypse, or end times. The Seventh-day Adventists give a lot of importance to Friday night prayers, to vegetarianism and veganism. Interestingly they have once commonality with the Roman Catholic Church. Both of them believe that abortions are morally wrong and aborting a foetus is the same as killing a baby. They both consider abortion to be equal to murders; even if carrying on a pregnancy hurts the mother fatally or the embryo is found with birth defects; both prohibit abortions. But this is where their similarities end. Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-day Adventist Church began in the US. They are now spread throughout the world. 

The last American Church which is now international in its presence which we will discuss here are the Quakers. The Quakers get their name from their mystical shaking while praying. Quakers like Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists and unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sometimes polygamists. Though it must be said that various reform movements are underway to stop polygamy within this community. 

One American sect, which is only found in America need to be mentioned: the Amish. The Amish reject all modern facilities like cars, electricity, and the internet. They choose to isolate themselves from the entire world since they believe that Satan, or the father of demons, will corrupt them if they open themselves up to what we think as progressive science.

It is worth noting here that all Protestant denominations take the Bible literally --- each denomination and each member of these denominations interprets the Bible individually. Within the Roman Catholic Church, it is the Church which decides the meaning of the Bible and that particular meaning is taken as the truth by the Catholic faithful. The Amish do not want outside influences to disturb its centuries’ old customs and the hard-won freedom to interpret the Bible interfered with. To emphasise a point at the cost of repetition --- the Roman curia, or offices of the Catholic Church, control the faith of its followers and modulate how the Bible should be interpreted while all Protestants have the freedom to read the Bible on their own and act as far their own inner light, or intelligence, allows. 

These differences are not confined to theoretical differences. They had led to great fights and ruthless killings in the past. For instance, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) who was an Italian humanist was executed for agreeing with Calvinism by the Roman Catholic Church.

A sub-sect of the Church of England decided that the ways of the Church of England were too far from the original teachings of Christ --- they came to be known as Puritans and when the Puritans came to power in England, they shut all theatres, banned music, and started controlling the press. This period of terror in England is now known as the Puritan Interregnum (1649-1660). The Puritans began by executing King Charles I who they thought was too Catholic due to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria of France who was a Roman Catholic. Due to the infighting within the Puritans, many Puritans fled and settled at what today is known as the USA.

Much later, under the reign of Queen Victoria, the Anglicans, or members of the Church of England, tried to reconcile Roman Catholic rituals with their own. Those who did that came to be known as High Anglicans. High Anglicans were removed from professorships and other public offices they had occupied while being members of the Church of England. This was nothing new. Earlier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth or during what is known as the Elizabethan Age, Catholics were discriminated against and debarred from studying in any of the major English universities or occupying public offices. In the name of Christ, both Catholics and Protestants have fought bitter battles.

These battles can be understood if we read Graham Greene’s novels. Particularly in his novels, Brighton Rock (1938) and The Power and the Glory (1940), Greene who was a convert to Roman Catholicism shows how according to Catholics all other sects within Christianity did not lead to salvation. Only the Roman Catholic Church, according to Roman Catholics, could ensure salvation. In these novels Unitarianism and Lutheranism are attacked respectively. To discuss these and other powerful movements within Christianity like the Baptists, Anabaptists and Pentecostalism are beyond the scope of this essay. Then there are other evangelical movements and pastoral movements which should be discussed but then this essay would become nearly interminable.

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Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay  Ph.D. is a theologian.

 

Album Churches of Arunachal Pradesh

 

Also read

1. Why does Christianity have so many denominations

2. Guide to Christian denominations

3. Hindus cannot be governed by Christian concept of Religious denomination

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