What are the differences between the Christian churches?

The Major Families of Christian Churches

Thank you to the Rev. Bob Hart.

The Orthodox Church 

The Orthodox Church also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church has its roots in the earliest Christian communities established after the death and resurrection of Jesus throughout the eastern Mediterranean region of the Roman Empire, especially Palestine, Syria, Anatolia and Greece.  Eastern Orthodoxy then spread throughout Eastern Europe including Russia and later through emigration across the world.  Each national Church is independent in its administration, but all share the same teachings concerning the nature of God as Trinity, of Christ as truly human and truly God, and the same form of worship or liturgy.  The Orthodox churches are in communion with each other. The Orthodox Church and the western or Latin Church that we now know as the Roman Catholic Church split from one another in 1054 AD.  The Orthodox Church acknowledges the honorary primacy of the Patriarch (Bishop) of Constantinople (Istanbul) who is also called the Ecumenical Patriarch.  Orthodox worship is highly structured and centered on the Holy Communion or Eucharist (known to Roman Catholics as the Mass).  Orthodox worship is characterized by its beautiful music, elaborate ceremonial and the veneration of icons, i.e. images of Christ, Mary and the saints.  The icons are considered windows into eternity and aids to prayer. Every individual, national Orthodox Church worships in its native language and is colored by the culture of its people.  The clergy of the Church are bishops, priests and deacons. Priests and deacons may marry but bishops are celibate. Monks and nuns have historically exerted a profound influence on Orthodox spirituality. Eastern Orthodoxy represents about 12% of the total Christian population worldwide.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are those churches of Armenia, Ethiopia, the Egyptian Copts and eastern Syria and Iraq that rejected certain aspects of the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD concerning the human and divine nature of Christ.  In most other aspects of faith and practice they resemble the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Through migration these churches are found in many other parts of the globe.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church is that faith and practice of Christianity that is in communion with the Pope (Bishop) of Rome.  Roman Catholicism confesses all the classic doctrines of Christianity – God as Holy Trinity, Jesus as the Christ – the Incarnation of God the Word, Mary as heavenly intercessor and first among the saints, the seven sacraments as means of grace with the Mass, also known as the Eucharist, as the center of the Church’s life of worship.  (Sacraments are outward signs like the water of baptism or the wine and bread of the Mass that convey God’s presence.) Roman Catholicism was shaped by its original growth and development in Western Europe. Over the centuries Roman Catholicism has spread throughout the world.  It is now the largest body of Christians (50%) with strong centers in Latin America and Africa as well parts of Asia and Europe and North America.  Though the worship of the Catholic Church was for many centuries exclusively in Latin, the liturgy is now celebrated in the local language.  The clergy of the Catholic Church are bishops, priests and deacons. While deacons may marry, priests and bishops take vows of celibacy with certain exceptions for some priests. Religious orders of monks, nuns, friars and many other types of the religious life have profoundly shaped the mission of the Roman Catholicism.  The Catholic Church is enormously diverse in terms of cultural expressions of Christianity while maintaining unity in doctrine and through obedience to the universal jurisdiction of the Papacy.

The Protestant Churches

The Protestant Churches began as a reform movement within Western European Catholic Christianity in the early 16th century. The Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, by protesting some aspects of late medieval Catholic practice in the year 1517 ignited a movement that grew rapidly and later shaped itself into what we now call the Lutheran churches, the Reformed (Presbyterian) churches, the Baptist churches, the Anglican (Episcopal) churches to a certain degree, the Methodist churches and a wide array of other denominations and independent church groups.  Other prominent reformers were John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. The hallmark teachings of Protestant Christianity are salvation solely through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the grace that flows from Christ through faith, and the Bible as the sole guide to faith and practice.  Most Protestants recognize only two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion even though they may also practice other practices such as, confirmation, marriage and ordination.  Ordained clergy may marry. Some Protestant churches are liturgical in worship and many are not. Protestant churches are organized in widely different manners. Some are governed at the local, congregation level and some have a larger national, connected organization.  All have regional, national and international bodies that support Christian education and mission.  The nineteenth century revival movement gave rise to forms of evangelical Protestantism with a heavy emphasis on emotional preaching and worship and personal conversion.  Biblical fundamentalism among some Protestants is largely a twentieth century phenomenon, a response to certain discoveries of modern science, especially the age of the earth and the theory of the evolution of the species.  Protestantism is very diverse and difficult to categorize.  The missionary efforts of the various denominations have led to the spread of the Protestant churches across the world.   A little over of a third of all Christians are Protestants.

The Anglican Churches

The Anglican Churches are daughter churches of the Church of England in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the United States the Anglican Church is known as the Episcopal Church. When the Church of England separated itself from the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome in the mid 16th century it retained all the classic doctrines of Christianity and many aspects of Western Catholicism such as the three orders of bishop, priest and deacon, sacramental liturgical worship, organization by diocese and parish and respect for tradition and ceremonial.  The Church of England also adopted certain Protestant emphases – the Bible and liturgy in the vernacular (the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer), the married clergy, reception of Holy Communion by the laity in both kinds – both the consecrated bread and the wine, and the importance of salvation through faith in Christ.  Monastic orders were abolished in the 16th century and later revived in the 19th century.  The Anglican Churches see themselves as a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and as an expression of the larger Church Catholic.  Each Anglican Church such as the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the U.S., is jurisdictionally independent while maintaining its unity through a common tradition and participation in certain world wide Anglican bodies that are designed to aid mission and understanding.  There are some sixty to seventy million Anglicans worldwide.

The Pentecostal Churches

The Pentecostal Churches are characterized by their belief in and practice of the spiritual gifts of God the Holy Spirit as did many of the early Christians.  These are reflected in such New Testament passages as Acts 2: 1-4 and I Corinthians 12 and 14.  Pentecostal worship involves the entire congregation and is often spontaneous with a stress on the practice of speaking in tongues or glossolalia, divine healing, exorcism and the ability of every believer to possess these gifts of the Spirit.  These gifts are given by the Spirit to aid a Christian’s spiritual growth in grace and personal holiness. Although modern Pentecostalism began in the early 20th century out of a movement within Protestantism that stressed personal holiness, Pentecostals often distinguish themselves from all other forms of Christianity.  The Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.  Around the world Pentecostalism is represented by independent congregations and groups as well as a variety of denominations.  Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity experiencing rapid growth in Latin America.