Soundings

The origin of Christian denominations

Jul 2009    

We begin a new series on Christian denominations entitled, “So What’s the Difference?” This series, which alternates with “Now That’s A Good Question!”, will discuss the history, theology and practices of the main Protestant denominations. In the first instalment, we look briefly at the origin of Christian denominations

CHRISTIANITY today is divided into many different denominations, each with its own distinctive beliefs and practices although they share a set of core beliefs like the authority of the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity. Many Christian denomina-tions also embrace the teachings of the ecumenical creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

In relation to Christianity, a denomina-tion is defined as an organised church or community of believers which is called by a particular name and which sees itself as distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions. For instance, the Lutheran Church would consider itself distinct from the Methodist Church or the Pentecostal Church because of certain emphases and practices that shaped its identity.

Although there are a myriad of denominations today, they did not exist in the first thousand years of the history of the Christian Church. In the New Testament, the primitive Church is described as a community of believers gathered in the name of Christ. All believ-ers, regardless of race, language, gender and social status were regarded as one, in full fellowship with one another. The great epistles of the Apostle Paul were addressed to the Churches in the various cities – Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica – suggesting that there was only one Church in each city. Paul’s epistles emphasised that the unity of the Church must be preserved, and that steps must be taken to prevent schisms (1 Cor 1:10-13). The early Church remained united despite fierce persecution by the Jews and the Roman authorities. The Church’s unity was fortified politi-cally and institutionally when the Roman Emperor Constantine favoured it after his alleged conversion to the Christian faith in 312. Even the many heresies that emerged from within the Christian community did not destroy its unity, but strengthened it instead.

The first division within Christendom – described as the “Great Schism”– came in 1054 when the Eastern Churches parted ways with the Latin Churches. The issues that led to the schism are too complex to be discussed here. They have to do with theology, more specifically with an addi-tion of a clause to the Nicene Creed by the Western Church without the approval of the Eastern Church. The schism also has to do with worship, in particular with the use of icons. In 726, Leo III, the emperor of the East, forbade the use of icons in worship and issued a decree in 730 that all religious images except the cross be destroyed. This resulted in the iconoclastic controversies in the Eastern Church in the eighth and ninth centuries that in turn led to a rift between the Western and Eastern Churches, even though both traditions use religious images in worship. This split resulted in two branches of Christianity known as the Roman Catholic Church (in the West) and the Orthodox Church (in the East).

The second major division in the Church occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. This was a split in the Western Church and it was sparked by the famous 95 Theses posted by Martin Luther that opposed the theology and practice of the Church of his day. The Protestant Reformation, which officially began in 1529, was the result of a conflu-ence of many different factors – cultural, sociological, political, ecclesiastical and, of course, theological. From the 95 Theses,

it was clear that Luther merely wanted to address the abuses associated with some practices of the Church of his day, particularly in the system of indulgences. In other words, Luther was merely calling for the Church to reform itself by purging these abuses. But during the years 1518 to 1521, it became clear to the Reformers that the only way to reform the Church and return to the ideal set out in Scriptures was to break free from the Roman system. The Protestant Reformation critiqued the Roman Catholic theology of salvation, its understanding of the role of tradition and its understanding of the authority of the Pope.

The Reformation, which began in Germany, rapidly spread to many other parts of Europe as churches began to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant movement spawned a number of different expres-sions of Reformation theology and churches. Under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in Switzerland, Reformed Christianity emerged. This branch of Protestant Christianity became known as Presbyterianism when it spread to Scotland under the leadership of theologians like John Knox.

Meanwhile, in Germany and Scandinavia, Lutheran Churches continued to grow and in 1580, a defini-tive statement on Lutheran Orthodoxy was issued in the form of the Formula of Concord. Switzerland is also the birthplace of the Anabaptists, the theological and spiritual ancestors of the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers and Baptists. In 1534, when England’s King Henry VIII decisively broke away from the authority of the Pope, Anglicanism (known as Episcopalianism in America) came into being. Methodism has its theological and spiritual roots in Anglicanism.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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