History of 7 Denominational Streams

This is a personal way of looking at things, but I would identify seven fundamental streams of Christian denominations. Some would argue variations on this list, but for the sake of this post, I’ll refer to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal. Then of course there are all kinds of denominations within the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist streams, and Pentecostals are not just their own denominations but also heavily influenced other denominations and inspired many charismatic non-denominational churches. But for simplicity, this post will give a bit of a whirlwind tour of how each of those 7 streams came to be.

Denominations Family Tree

A slightly different breakdown from truthforsaints.com

The church didn’t really have a whole lot of institutionalization until its legalization under Constantine in the fourth century. He comes up a lot in discussions of church history, especially those of us who lament the connection of Christianity with violence and with unhealthy connections with the state. The church institution was slowly developing before that, really as early as 100 which is around when the last of the New Testament was written down. For example, female leadership in the early church was completely accepted, and about half of the church’s leadership in those first couple generations were women, but it faded as more education became required to lead, and as the church simply became more established within its patriarchal culture. There became more layers of hierarchy between the lay people right up to the bishop, of which there was initially one for each city.  Three cities had particular influence, which eventually became one city, Rome, and its bishop became the Pope.

This is where we get the name Roman Catholic Church from. Catholic simply means universal, which it still was at this point. It wasn’t long after the legalization of Christianity that the Western Empire began to fall apart. After the sack of Rome, the Empire was split in two with the Eastern Empire still strong, based in Constantinople. The church basically split in two at this time, although not officially for a while (1054 CE). The Church in the East remained strongly tied to the Emperor whereas the Church in the West basically became the political power itself with no Emperor around anymore. The official split came between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox a while later over the theological issue of the filioque, the West’s addition into the Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father, but it was a peaceful split that had basically been true because of politics for a long time anyway. In the West we tend to forget about the Eastern Church, but there are some parts of the church that have been practicing the same worship liturgy since the 2nd or 3rd century – they are grounded in the history of the church even more than Roman Catholicism.

Fast-forward to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Lots of leadup here that mostly boil down to a series of bad Popes, and bad leadership in general, who had a lot of bad policies for the church. Yes, lots of theological issues as well but I would argue they were actually secondary to the corruption of the church and not fixing them in time. This is where we get the next four streams within a small time frame (and also the Catholic Reformation which fixed a lot of stuff from within, instead of leaving).

Martin Luther

The Lutheran church arose first, led by Martin Luther, who is generally credited as the initiator of the Protestant Reformation in general. The emphasis for him was salvation by grace through faith, not through works, including religious works like the sacraments (7 in Catholicism, 2 in the groups that arose in this time). He was initially pretty sympathetic to the Catholic Church – at first he wrote a letter to the Pope explaining the problems in the leadership there, assuming the Pope must not know about it since he wasn’t fixing it. He held to a lot of Catholic tradition in terms of forms of worship, and was closer to Catholicism in theology than the Reformed church, like still seeing the Eucharist as a particularly holy act with Jesus spiritually present in a special way, even though he also dismissed the Catholic belief that Jesus literally became the bread and wine at each mass. The other big question was one of authority, which Luther insisted belonged only to Scripture, although he didn’t reject the traditional church’s interpretation unless he directly saw a conflict.

The Reformed church began with Ulrich Zwingli but is more well known for John Calvin who came right after him. They took a much more radical approach, stating that if it wasn’t in the Bible than they weren’t going to do it even if it wasn’t contrary to the Bible either (e.g. having organ music). They also claimed that the Eucharist is purely symbolic and Zwingli said that it didn’t need to be practiced more than a couple of times a year. The biggest theological emphasis for them, especially Calvin, is not far from Luther’s – the sovereignty of God – which is why people refer to predestination theology as Calvinism even though Luther taught the same thing. Reformed and Lutheran were pretty close in a lot of ways, and are collectively referred to as Protestants, but did not join forces because of a few major theological differences. But they also didn’t really fight each other. Side note: now we usually divide Protestant as mainline or evangelical and don’t care much about the Lutheran/Reformed divide, but the evangelical movement as we understand it today didn’t start for a while still.

The Anglican church could be said to have come more from political motivations than spiritual. Henry VIII wasn’t allowed to divorce within the Catholic Church.  More importantly I would argue, England was rising as the world power but was still answerable to the Pope, who happened to reside in an enemy country. It made a lot of sense to start his own church with himself as its head to avoid those issues. To this day some Anglicans would call themselves Protestant and some would not, which is why I leave them separately. Anglicans are still a very diverse group, some very close in belief and practice to Catholicism, others to evangelicals, others to mainline Protestants, and others to Pentecostals.

The early Anabaptist were killed by Protestants and Catholics for their “heresy”

The Anabaptists are usually the forgotten ones when speaking of this time period. One big thing that set them apart is that they didn’t start with one leader whose influence spread – they began with several leaders around Europe coming to similar conclusions who then found each other. Their viewpoint was essentially that the Protestants had a lot of things right, but that they were clearly ignoring some of Jesus’ blatant teachings, such as a separation of church and state and non-violence. The Schleitheim Confession I mentioned in the “What Is An Anabaptist?” post summarized their views.  Like Anglicans, sometimes they are grouped with Protestants and sometimes are considered a separate group (and they wouldn’t have been considered Protestants at the time).

Pentecostals deserve special mention as another stream of Christianity, although there are lots of complications. The movement began in the early 1900’s with a revival in California. Speaking in tongues was an early sign, still expected in some Pentecostal circles today. They were also radically inclusive, with minority ethnicities and women in leadership from the beginning, in a time when this was not allowed elsewhere. Pentecostalism came in three waves: the Pentecostal denominations starting from the early 1900’s, Pentecostal groups within other denominations starting around the 1970’s, and non-denominational charismatic churches beginning around the 1980’s. Today, about 1/4 of the world’s Christians are in one of these categories, especially in the developing world.

That’s a really broad overview so please comment if you would like me to expand on any of that in future posts.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.