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What are the Primary Differences Between the Common Christian Denominations?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Christianity as a world religion has been around for about 2,000 years. It has grown and changed over the centuries, but Christian churches with any kind of orthodox beliefs all affirm Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God. They believe He came to die and secure salvation for all who believe in Him. This is the basis of all Christian theology.

In the intervening centuries, however, Christian beliefs and churches have grown and changed. In the early days of the church, people met mostly in each other's homes. Communal living, in fact, was encouraged. As beliefs were further codified and the books of the New Testament finalized, the Catholic Church began to take shape. By 1100 A.D., Christendom was a major political and social force throughout the known world. Popes of the Church held great influence over world rulers, since they had the ability to put entire nations under interdict — that is, no one could receive the holy sacraments, which was tantamount to excommunication. It was the threat of interdict and excommunication that forced England's King Henry II to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas A'Becket after having ordered his murder.

Reform was bound to happen in such a large organization as the Catholic Church, and in 1517, it started when Martin Luther, a German priest, composed and published his "95 Theses." This was an indictment against the sale of indulgences. People were paying money to touch or otherwise venerate objects in the hope of buying their salvation. Luther abhorred this practice and preached against it. When he was excommunicated in 1521, those who followed his teachings were known as Lutherans and, later, as Protestants. By 1547, England's King Edward VI was the first Protestant ruler in Europe.

There are a significant number of differences among mainline Christian denominations, but they break down roughly along the lines of certain religious scholars. One of the first great Protestant scholars after Luther was John Calvin. He believed in the doctrine of predestination, that is, that humans were born to accept Christ, or born to be damned, and nothing they could do changed this. Although this particular belief has fallen out of popularity over the years, the Presbyterian and Baptist churches are the prominent Calvinist denominations.

When John Wesley began preaching in 1725, he was an ordained member of the Anglican Church, and remained so until the end of his life. His belief in salvation by faith alone, his repudiation of predestination, and his belief in entire sanctification started the Methodist denomination and its offshoots.

The Anglican and Episcopal churches themselves are the closest Protestant equivalents to the Catholic Church, although the Methodists do share some similarities, too. They differ from the Catholics mainly in that they do not recognize the authority of the sitting Pope as any other than a priest — no holier or better than others. There are other theological differences, as well, such as the ability of priests to marry and less emphasis on the veneration of saints.

The 1906-1909 Azusa Street Revival in California ushered in the charismatic movement. These churches, such as Assemblies of God, put great emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially speaking in tongues. They also focus on divine healing, prophecy, and other outward signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In basic theology, they are more Wesleyan, since they believe in salvation by faith alone.

Queen Elizabeth I of England faced great religious strife during her reign. Her take on the situation was that "There is but one Jesus Christ. The rest is a dispute over trifles." She was correct in that some of the main differences among mainline Christian denominations are over practice, rather than theology. Is one immersed completely at baptism, or will being "sprinkled" suffice? Arguments have spring up over this question.

Individual church traditions also dictate different worship styles. In fact, anyone who wishes to join a Christian congregation can probably find one with a worship style that suits him exactly. The message is often the same, but the manner of conducting the service differs.

This then, is at the heart of all differences among denominations: all Christians, regardless of denominations, confess Jesus Christ as Lord and worship Him. Regardless of how the worship styles and other theological beliefs may differ, this is what all members confess and believe.

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Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick , Former Writer
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

Discussion Comments

By anon992208 — On Aug 22, 2015

I wish there could be a simpler explanation of difference between various denominations.

By Kristee — On Dec 14, 2012

@kylee07drg – I recall that Church of Christ members wouldn't allow musical instruments to be played in church. They wouldn't even let the pianist accompany the song leader.

This is based on some scripture, but I have found many other scriptures that say to praise God with various instruments, so I don't follow their logic. How can they think that Christian music is evil or shouldn't be allowed in a worship service?

I don't think that any type of music is inherently evil. Lyrics can be evil, but notes from an instrument cannot.

By DylanB — On Dec 13, 2012

What do Nazarenes believe? I know that decades ago, they thought that things like going to movies and dancing were big sins. Do they still believe this way, or have things changed over the years?

By kylee07drg — On Dec 12, 2012

@JackWhack – It sounds like your church had found the heart of Christian worship. Churches like that are rare, indeed.

I went to a Church of Christ church for a few months, and there were so many disagreements in the church over how to do things or not to do them that I eventually got tired of it. The focus had shifted to something that didn't matter.

By JackWhack — On Dec 11, 2012

I had a lot of trouble finding a church as a Christian youth. I visited churches of all different denominations, but they all seemed either too stiff or too distant.

I found myself at a non-denominational church. Everyone there seemed open to different interpretations of scripture, though all agreed that Jesus is our Savior.

I liked the fact that there wasn't a lot of bickering and everyone could have their own opinion without starting a fight. We were all secure in our salvation, and that was all that mattered.

By anon27475 — On Mar 01, 2009

Just to clarify: Calvinism says salvation is through by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide). Wesleyanism (and Arminianism in general) agrees with faith alone but not grace alone.

By anon15989 — On Jul 26, 2008

Anon15712 - The evolution and development of Christian denominations or sects is *so* long and complex. Wesleyanism is the name for the movement within Christian theology that two brothers -- missionaries of Church of England, John Wesley and Charles Wesley, stressed when they came to the US in the early 1700's. The Pentecostal movement, which is said to have begun in the late 1800's, is considered to be borne out of the Wesleyan movement. And, the Azusa Street Revival is said to have helped spread Pentecostalism. But there are many forms of Pentecostalism. I think there are, in fact, two categories -- Trinitarian and Oneness -- one believing in salvation by faith alone (e.g., Trinitarian Pentecostals like the Assemblies of God) and salvation by deeds (e.g., Oneness Pentecostals like the UPC).

While Wesley is very closely associated with modern-day Methodism, a whole network of churches that today may seem very different from the Methodist beliefs, have *roots* in Wesleyanism. That is, they are more Wesleyan than Lutheran, Calvinist or Quaker. And while Wesleyanism and the UPC, for example, may be very different in how they view salvation, Pentecostalism is still rooted in Wesleyanism. That is, salvation is not the only, or perhaps even primary, distinction of a denomination.

By anon15712 — On Jul 19, 2008

Regarding your statements about the Azusa Street Revival:

I am a member of the United Pentecostal Church and have received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I do not agree with your statement that our basic theology is more Wesleyan because we do not believe in salvation by faith alone. We believe that faith without works is dead. We do believe that we will be judged by what we do on earth and we do not believe once saved always saved. We believe that one can backslide and fall from grace. That is why we must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Amy Pollick

Amy Pollick

Former Writer

Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at WiseGeek. With...
Learn more
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