Denominations Explained

It is no secret that mainline denominational churches have been on a steady decline for decades. The non-denominational church has been “it” for the last 30 plus years. However, with a recent surge of new denominational-affiliated church plants, as well as a resurgence of reformed theology in recent years, some denominations are beginning to see growth for the first time in years.

If you have ever wondered what a particular Christian denomination actually emphasizes and teaches, then you’ve come to the right place. While far from comprehensive, the list below covers the main denominational groups and gives a few highlights of each:

Baptist

Origin:
Holland, 1600s
Key historical figures:
John Smyth

Key figures today:
Fred Luter (President of the Southern Baptist Convention), Al Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
Adult baptism by full immersion in water (no infant baptism).

At church you can expect:
A missions update and an altar call

In addition to the distinctive adult-only baptism by full immersion, Baptists use a Congregational system of church government in which members directly control the direction and decisions of the church through voting and committees. Baptists typically emphasize personal holiness through abstinence from drinking, smoking, dancing and the like. Baptists place a strong emphasis on domestic and international outreach and missions efforts, and have missionaries in nearly every nation on earth.
Episcopal (Anglican)

Origin:
England, 1500s

Key historical figures:
King Henry VIII

Key figures today:
Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church)

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
Holy Eucharist, acceptance of all lifestyles.

At church you can expect: 
A reading from the Book of Common Prayer

Episcopalianism is the American version of Anglicanism. The Anglican Church was founded by the storied King Henry VIII amidst his efforts to break away from Roman Catholic control. This spirit continues today, as the Episcopalian Church emphasizes free will and personal choice. As with many other mainline denominations, the Episcopalian Church has suffered much turmoil in recent years over the issue of homosexuality.

Roman Catholic

Origin:
Rome, 313

Key historical figures:
Constantine I

Key figures today:
Pope Francis

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
The authority of the church and the necessity of the sacraments.

At church you can expect: 
Robes, tradition and sacraments.

With 1.2 billion members worldwide, the Catholic Church is the world’s largest Christian denomination. With a well-established hierarchy of church government consisting of the Pope, cardinals, bishops and deacons, there is great unity of belief and practice found in Catholicism. Catholics believe and teach that the seven sacraments – Baptism, Penance/Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Extreme Unction/Anointing of the Sick – are all necessary for salvation.

Presbyterian

Origin:
France, 1500s

Key historical figures:
John Calvin

Key figures today:
Tim Keller (Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), R.C. Sproul (Founder of Ligonier Ministries and President of Reformation Bible College)

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
Calvinism, predestination.

At church you can expect:
Liturgy, intellectual preaching and a quote from John Calvin

It is important to note that the modern day Presbyterian Church consists of two main groups: the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (PC, USA), and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). The former has diverged from traditional Presbyterian doctrine to embrace a more Universalist worldview, while the latter holds to the traditional doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith written in 1646. PCA churches usually emphasize God’s grace and sovereignty, as well as a focus on social justice and community renewal efforts.

Pentecostal

Origin:
U.S., early 1900s

Key historical figures:
William Seymour, Charles Parham

Key figures today:
George Wood (General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God), Mark Williams (General Overseer of the Church of God International)

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
Baptism of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues.

At church you can expect:
Speaking in tongues and being “slain in the Spirit”

Pentecostals – which include Assemblies of God, Church of God, and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, among others – place a strong emphasis on charismatic worship and the power and work of the Holy Spirit. The BBC reports that Pentecostalism is the fastest growing denomination worldwide today, particularly in Asia, Africa and South America. This is perhaps due, in part, to the fact that Pentecostals strongly emphasize racial diversity in their congregations.

Lutheran

Origin:
Germany, 1500s

Key historical figures:
Martin Luther

Key figures today:
Mark Hanson (Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), John Bradosky (Bishop of the North American Lutheran Church)

Primary modern distinctive belief(s):
Justification by grace through faith, predestination.

At church you can expect:
A quote from Martin Luther

Just as with Presbyterians, the Lutheran church today consists primarily of a larger, more liberal group – the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) – and a smaller traditional, “Confessional” group that includes the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the Church of Lutheran Confession. Modern confessional Lutherans adhere to the Apostles Creed (5th century) and the Nicene Creed (4th century), and emphasize the sinfulness of man and salvation by grace alone apart from good works. Interestingly, although Lutherans embrace the doctrine of predestination to salvation, they reject the belief than men are predestined to hell.

Learning what others believe and why helps you see things from their point of view and understand how you can best partner with them to reach others for Jesus. From the Presbyterians who love to learn, to the Pentecostals who love to worship, we can embrace the beauty of denominational diversity under the uniting banner of Jesus Christ crucified.

Justin Young :Justin Young is a Staff Writer for the Good News. Justin can be reached at justiny@goodnewsfl.org or twitter.com/thejustinyoung.

View Comments (1)

  • "Baptists typically emphasize personal holiness through abstinence from drinking, smoking, dancing and the like." What is the basis for this? Last time I checked there is no centralized Baptist teaching except that Christians must be baptized to "fulfill all righteousness" Matthew 3:15. I have been to baptist churches and to non-denominational churches, and they are very similar. They claim the bible is the sole authority on God, they lecture on biblical passages that the pastor selects as he desires to convey some particular underlying message. They may or may not have bible study or Wednesday services, but they most certainly don't oppose "dancing and the like." Being bible advocates, certainly they came across this passage: "And David danced before the Lord with all his might." 2 Samuel 6:14
    Neither have I ever even been told not to drink or smoke. It's just not biblical at all!
    "Do not join those who drink too much wine," Proverbs 23:20
    And again,
    "He must not be a heavy drinker" 1 Timothy 3:3 When speaking about what Elders of a church must be like. So if even elders can drink, everyone can drink.
    To tell someone not to drink, I would dare say, is even unchristlike!
    "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her deeds." Matthew 11:19