Christianity began life as an apparently harmless sect within a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. It spread with a speed and tenacity which few anticipated. The idea that a God could have a human son wasn’t new among Romans – Roman emperors had been making that precise claim for a long time. And the concept of an afterlife in the Elysian Fields or in the depths of Hades were well entrenched, but Christianity arrived at just the right time, when Romans were experimenting with numerous other cults (Zoroaster and Mithras for example) and were responsive to new ideas. Droves of Romans abandoned Jupiter, Venus and the other old Gods for the new religion and Christianity spread throughout Europe.
For a thousand years or so after those early years, Christianity proceeded– with a few refinements here and there – as one homogenous, indivisible block. You either believed that Jesus was the Son of God or you didn’t.
But now, there are many, many different denominations. The differences between them are sometimes subtle. So, where did they all come from?
To attempt to summarise a faith with anything approaching concision is to invite the scorn of its adherents. It is, after all, almost impossible to distil Catholicism into only a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief journey through Christian thought – so that perhaps, the next time you are introduced to a seventh-day Adventist, you’ll at least have the vaguest notion of what that means. A short summary is preferable to ignorance of the rich tapestry of religious belief that exists in our modern society.
Although there were many divisions and secessions in the early church, such as the creation of the Egyptian Coptic church, the first and most significant divergence in Christian history occurred in the 11th century, during a period modern historians refer to as the Great Schism. During this period, Western Catholicism broke away from Eastern Orthodoxy – a geographical separation which endures to this day. It is best to examine these two categories first.
The Catholic Church is an organisation with an extremely rich and varied history with the largest membership at around 1.2 billion people. Its laws and doctrines are hugely convoluted – to attempt to describe them in detail would be foolhardy; it is sufficient to say that it is generally more authoritarian and socially conservative than its cousins. It does, however, hold several key features which distinguish it from other faiths:
Catholic doctrine holds that, when founding his church, Christ appointed St. Peter as its head. Today, the bishop of Rome – or, as he’s more commonly referred to, The Pope – is viewed as St. Peter’s successor. The structure of the church is therefore hugely hierarchical: The Pope sits at the head, and beneath him sit a handful of cardinals and beneath them sit archbishops, deacons, bishops and priests. Unlike those of other Christian denominations, the catholic priesthood is composed entirely of celibate men – largely because Jesus was a celibate man.
This is the belief held by Catholics that, when a bishop repeats the words attributed to Jesus at the last supper, bread and wine can literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ – though without exhibiting any outward change in appearance. Catholics would certainly hesitate to term this effect as ‘magical’.
Opposition to Contraception
The Catholic Church opposes artificial methods of contraception, such as condoms. This is in order to prevent sex being solely a means of pleasure – which is viewed as inherently sinful.
Opposition to Abortion
The Catholic Church also vehemently opposes abortion. They consider human life sacred from the moment of conception. Catholic opposition to Stem Cell research is based on the same reasoning.
Unlike Catholics, Orthodox Christians do not hold St. Peter to be foremost among the apostles. They believe that that the scriptures have been misinterpreted on this point and that Jesus was not talking specifically about Peter, but rather every one of the disciples.
This seemingly minor change has profound impacts of the way a church is organised. While the Catholic Church conforms to an extremely rigid hierarchy, Orthodox churches are instead ruled separately – through a series of national institutions. However, unlike protestant churches, they are all closely bound together and virtually all of them share the same communion.
Baptists, unlike most other Christians, believe that only professing believers should be baptised, rather than unwitting infants. They therefore only baptise willing adults. They do not, however, consider baptism a sacrament (something which is necessary to get into heaven). Baptists believe in religious freedom, as they believe that religion should be between the believer and God. The Baptist Church and associated congregations boast over 100 million members worldwide.
During the 16th century came a series of events which utterly transformed Christian thought in Europe. This change became known as the Protestant Reformation. Unlike Catholics, Protestants defer to no central authority – other than scripture, and, by extension, God. This freedom has led, as one might expect, to the growth of many different branches within Protestant Christianity – more so than any other religion.
Martin Luther was a German friar and theologian who, among others, prompted the protestant reformation. Luther had a number of problems with the Vatican’s modus operandi – among them its practice of selling salvation in the form of ‘indulgences’, with which any sins could be disregarded and the indulgent permitted to heaven.
He elucidated these complaints in 1517, in a writing called ‘the ninety-five theses’ – which he nailed to the front of his local church and disseminated copies, which spread quickly throughout Europe. This incident is now regarded by most historians as the beginning of the protestant reformation.
Luther held that scripture was the sole basis for Christian faith and that no huge church was necessary. The Catholic Church took exception to this and responded by banning his work throughout the Holy Roman Empire and threatening him with excommunication if he did not recant his beliefs.
Luther was placed under arrest and ultimately forced into hiding. He would make good use of the time, however. Up until that point, the Bible had only been made available in Greek and Latin – languages which hardly anyone spoke. Luther translated the Bible into German so that everyone could read it. Luther’s Bible quickly spread throughout Europe and the result is modern Lutheranism.
Christianity arrived in England following the Roman occupation. Although culturally it had absorbed some local Celtic custom, the church in England adopted the Catholic faith controlled by Rome following Augustine’s mission in the 6th Century. The break from Rome came nearly 1,000 years later in 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself supreme leader of the Church of England – an act that enabled him to divorce his wife and appropriate the church’s great wealth.
The Anglican Communion represents over 85 million Christians worldwide – some see it as offering egalitarian Protestantism, for others it provides non-papal Catholicism – a diverse group.
Presbyterianism is heavily influenced by the work of John Calvin, a French theologian. In Presbyterianism, churches are run in a democratic manner, with elected elders holding authority alongside ordained ministers. The movement can, for the most part, trace its origins back to Scotland during the reformation.
Presbyterian beliefs are similar to those of other groups within the protestant movement: that God is sovereign over everything, that scripture is his word, in the power of faith and in the priesthood of all believers.
The First Pentecost is described in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. The account holds that the Apostles were attending a gathering in celebration of the Jewish festival of Shavuot, when the Holy Spirit descended and entered the body of everyone present, causing them to speak in other languages – or at least, that was the explanation proffered by St. Peter.
Pentecostal Christians believe the Holy Spirit acts largely as it did then and can enter the body at any time. They also believe that Jesus:
- Can save people from hell.
- Baptises you from the Holy Spirit.
- Can heal wounds.
- Will one day return.
Pentecostalism is an evangelical tradition, or one whose adherents actively try to persuade nonbelievers to join them.
Methodism was created much later than other protestant movements. It was founded in the eighteenth century by John Wesley and later curated by his brother Charles. Methodists believe that everyone can be saved and – more distinctly – that everyone must be saved. The religion’s emphasis lies largely with helping others, especially the poor and needy, which explains the prevalence of schools and hospitals said to be Methodist.
Quakers (or ‘friends’) are a family of different movements who each believe in a ‘priesthood of all believers’. They believe that God’s revelation is ongoing and that believers need only liaise with Him directly to experience it. Quaker gatherings are, relative to those of other faiths, hugely informal – emphasis is placed on caring for one another and sharing goals for the world.
Church of Latter-Day Saints
The denominations thus far discussed have been broadly similar – but the Church of Latter Day Saints is certainly unique. While the supernatural origins of Christianity are shrouded in mystery a great deal is known about the origins of Mormonism. It was founded in 1820 by Joseph Smith, who, with the help of the angel Moroni, found and translated some golden plates which describe Jesus’s visit to North America.
Mormons believe, contrary to most of Christian tradition, that there was no ‘creation’ at the beginning of everything and that God and human beings are essentially similar – though at different stages of development.
The term ‘Mormon’ stems from one of the sect’s holy books, The Book of Mormon and was initially employed as a pejorative – though Mormons are now, generally speaking, happy to accept the label.
Non-denominational Christians are, as one might expect, those who do not associate themselves with any particular group, this makes up around 2.5 million people.
These are just a few of the vast amount of Denominations around the world, do you belong to any of these or one that has not been described, or something completely different?