I was once asked:
On alt.atheism we are always explaining the various kinds of atheists to outsiders. Would some Christians do us the favor of explaining the various divisions, official and unofficial, in their religion. I feel one Christian describes Christian belief one way and the next says something completely the opposite. Assume you are talking to very ignorant people. Don’t quote the Bible by numbers, I don’t have a bible and wouldn’t know how to use the numbers if I did.
[Note; This is not a FAQ quality reply. For a less subjective response, I would suggest consulting an encyclopedia. The Britannica has several fine articles. This is barely the tip of the iceberg.]
Unfortunate for the cause of explanation, there are more different kinds of Christians than there are kinds of atheists (in the FAQ). Indeed, there is an entire book just describing the different Christian (and other) denominations in the US4:
One might divide Christians in these official categories:
- Catholic (largest group)
- Other (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, Christian Scientists…)
There are also Christian agnostics2, and Christian humanists.
Many Christian groups have origins with a particular leader who had a specific insight or point of view or revelation, e.g. Lutherans – Martin Luther, Methodists – John Wesley, Presbyterians – John Calvin, Mormons – Joseph Smith, Adventists – Ellen G. White, Christian Scientists – Mary Baker Eddy, Jehovah’s Witnesses – Charles Taze Russell and others less well-known.
You will also see the phrase “mainstream” as a modifier to some churches like Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal, but of course “mainstream” is a highly subjective classification. The phrase “creedal” is used to denote those groups that confess the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.
You will also see the descriptive classes: Evangelical and Holiness. “Evangelical” is a poorly-defined term, but it usually denotes a conservative group. Holiness churches focus on ecstatic worship including ecstatic uttering (“speaking in tongues”).
Or one might divide Christians along a Conservative – Liberal axis. The most conservative are called “fundamentalists”. And there are liberal and conservative Catholics and liberal and conservative Mormons…
There was a historical event: the life of Jesus of Nazareth. From that event there has, from the very beginning, sprung different viewpoints on what the event means.
Those who are Christian view the event as the central event in history. However, the devil is in the details. I will lay out some of the major divisions, and at the end, I’ll give a list of True/False statements which different Christians would decide differently.
In the early days, Christians met in houses. As time went on, and the church grew, a loose organization developed, I think largely to keep the teaching of the apostles (the original 12 followers of Jesus minus Judas plus Matthias) pure and to administer budding social programs.
Over the years, power concentrated and there was a major division between the Western church (now the Roman Catholic Church) and the Eastern Church (the Orthodox Churches). The split was over doctrine and authority1.
In the 16th century there were several groups who objected to certain abuses in the Catholic Church, they “protested” and the result was the Protestant churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian…).
At various times in history, a religious leader would object to something in his church, or he would a find new insight (e.g. Wesley and the Methodists) and a new denomination would begin. And throughout, there have been “primitive gospel” movements which attempted to reconstitute the church based solely on the New Testament (e.g. Primitive Baptists).
So we have several groups with their own traditions and stories.
Who was Jesus?
For some, Jesus was God and never really human. This was part of the Gnostic view (thought to be heresy1 by most Christians). For others Jesus was purely human, but having a special understanding of God.
Conservatives tend to focus on the divinity of Jesus while liberals on his humanity.
The normative position on Jesus says that he was born as the result of a supernatural event: his mother, Mary, was made pregnant by the spirit of God and so Jesus was born both God and human. Jesus had divine wisdom, could do miracles and even walk on water. After Jesus’ execution, he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples (followers).
A second position, called Adoption, says that Jesus was a normal human who at the time of his Baptism (Baptism is a ritual washing practiced by a prophet named John the Baptist) was adopted by God as his son and through the power given him by God had divine wisdom, could do miracles and even walk on water. After Jesus’ execution God raised him from the dead and he appeared to his disciples.
A more liberal position would be that Jesus had a unique relationship with God and truly revealed what God is like. To validate this, God raised Jesus from the dead (in some sense) and his presence was real to his disciples (in some sense).
What is the Kingdom?
The New Testament (the Christian half of the Bible) says the Jesus came proclaiming “The Kingdom of God” (or “The Kingdom of Heaven”). There is a division among believers as to what the Kingdom is.
For some, it refers either to heaven (a blissful state after death).
For others it refers to a future time on earth after Jesus has returned to the earth in a highly visible event, ushering in a new world order of peace, justice and good.
For others, the Kingdom is a state of the heart where human relationships are built on compassion rather than law. The former group would be more interested in gaining converts (but not exclusively so) and the latter more focused on social issues (but not exclusively so).
What is Scripture?
One might well ask, given that all Christians follow the same book (the Bible), how so many divisions have come to be!
The answer stems both from the nature of the Bible itself and from the ways in which it is interpreted3.
The inspirational axis:
The Bible was written by many authors over roughly 1000 years. It is the product of an ancient middle-eastern culture. Many of the ideas, symbols, metaphors are unfamiliar to us. And quite frankly, the Bible says one thing in one place and something different in another.
In the most conservative view, the Bible was literally dictated, word for word, to the authors by God. That is, every word in the original language was inspired. And some would also say that every word in the King James translation into English is inspired. Those who hold this view are more likely to base a viewpoint on some doctrinal issue on a small part of the text.
A slightly less conservative view, is that the words are those of the authors, but the ideas came from God. Still, these persons would hold that the text is “inerrant”, that is, without any errors.
A still less conservative view is that the Bible is influenced by God and that its contents are true when taken in context.
A more liberal position is that the Bible is the record of how one particular ancient people viewed God — that it is special (sacred), but not magically error-free. This group would allow that contradictions exist — but that one can learn from them.
The literal – allegorical axis:
A major split between fundamentalists and other Christians deals with interpretation. The fundamentalist would say that everything in the Bible not labeled as “parable” is a literal, historical event told in the vein of modern historical writing — i.e., like it “really happened”. So the universe was created in 6 days, there was a flood that covered the entire earth and Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and survived three days in it.
A middle position, is that the events happened as stated in the Bible, but that some of the details are allegorical. For example, the word “days” in the creation story might refer to “eons” and not 24-hour periods.
Finally, there is the position that many stories in the Bible are myths from which one may draw valuable lessons about how one ancient people saw God. For example, an ancient Hebrew liturgist (a writer of texts for ritual use), contemplating that God created everything, dramatized his vision of the event in the Creation story in Genesis 1. The Noah saga was based on myths borrowed from surrounding cultures, but adapted them in accordance to how Hebrews saw God.
However, this is not a simple discussion, because there are many literary forms in the Bible and many stories. Finally there is the question of whether to introduce cultural factors into Biblical interpretation. For example, when St. Paul says that women should be silent in church — is this a rule for all time and for all places, or is it something only related to a particular situation and culture?
I should also point out that not all Christians call the same body of text “sacred scripture”. The Catholics have a larger Bible than the Protestants. The Mormons have three additional sacred books in addition to the Bible, the Christian Scientists have Science and Health…
What is authority?
Christians have differing views of authority and some are more authoritarian than others.
The Catholic Church holds that Jesus gave authority to the Church and in particular to a succession of individuals (the Popes). In the Catholic Church, authority comes from the Bible and the traditional teaching of the church.
Other groups place authority on Scripture alone. Others place authority in particular institutions within their denominations, doctrinal statements (creeds), the vote of some membership body, and some churches don’t much bother with authority.
Following is a list of statements about which Christians would disagree. It is by no means comprehensive.
- The Bible is the inspired word of God.
- Jesus was born of a virgin.
- Jesus was God
- Women may not serve as church leaders
- The Earth is only a few thousand years old
- Moses wrote the first 5 books of the Bible
- Moses was a historical figure.
- The books of the New Testament were written by the persons whose names appear in their titles.
- Nothing but the Bible is sacred scripture
- Jesus literally walked on water
- Jesus will literally descend from the clouds at some time in the future, the sky will be rolled back, and history as we know it will end.
- God is male
- The universe, as our senses reveal it, is real.
- People have a non-material part which is the seat of personality (i.e., a “soul”).
- There is a literal Satan.
- There is a literal hell.
- God can be understood as three persons in one being (Trinity).
- Christians can no longer sin.
- Every word in the Bible attributed to Jesus was actually spoken by Jesus.
- Homosexuality is inherently evil.
- Slavery is OK. Blacks are cursed by God.
- Jesus was an observant (followed the Torah law) Jew.
- Jesus was a social revolutionary.
- Jesus was an itinerant magician.
- Jesus was a Jungian psychologist.
- Jesus was raised from the dead bodily.
- Christianity is the only true religion.