Major Divisions and Interpretations

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Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant

  • The major Christian denominations can be grouped into three main branches – Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant
  • Roman Catholic – largest Christian denomination with over 1.1 billion members worldwide
  • Orthodox – approximately 500 million mainly around eastern Europe, Middle East, Russia and also a few around the world
  • Protestant – 430 million worldwide but mainly in Western Europe and North America

Spread of Christianity

  • Christianity has its origins in Judaism
  • The first Christians were Jews
  • Christianity quickly spread out from Jerusalem into the Roman Empire aided by the missionary work of St Paul
  • The Acts of the Apostles records the early history of the Church
  • Soon non-Jews (Gentiles) became converts to Christianity
  • The Council of Jerusalem in 49 CE decided that new converts to Christianity didn’t need to become Jews first – i.e. didn’t need to be circumcised
  • Tradition says that Peter and Paul were executed in Rome c. 68 CE during Nero’s persecution
  • Christians continued to be persecuted in the Roman Empire
  • Major centres of Christianity – Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria
  • The Bishop of Rome claimed to be the most important of all the Bishops as the successor to Peter
  • In 312 the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity Christianity became religio licita

Roman Catholic Church

  • The word ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal’
  • Catholics believe that the Pope, as the successor of St Peter, is the spiritual head of all Christians
  • The headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church is the Vatican where the Pope lives in Rome
  • Catholics believe that the Christian faith is passed down by not only in the Bible but also in the Tradition of the Church itself
  • The Roman Catholic Church is sacramental i.e. stressing the importance of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick
  • Great changes have taken place in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II (1962-65) – lay people are encouraged to take an active role in the Church, the mass is no longer said in Latin, people are encouraged to read the Bible for themselves

The Great Schism

  • By the 11th century there was a growing division between the Eastern and Western sides of the Church
  • The Western Church with its headquarters in Rome insisted that the Pope was the head of the whole Church
  • The Eastern Church insisted that the Bishop of Rome was only equal to the other bishops
  • The Eastern Church also complained that the Western Church had added a phrase to the Nicene Creed – the ‘filioque’ meaning ‘and the Son’
  • The two halves of the Church were unable to reconcile their differences and in 1054 they split
  • The Western Church became what is known today as the Roman Catholic Church The Eastern Church consists of the various Orthodox Churches e.g. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox

The Orthodox Church

  • The word ‘Orthodox’ comes from the Greek ‘orthos’ meaning ‘straight’ and ‘doxa’ meaning ‘belief’
  • Leaders in the Orthodox Church are known as patriarchs The Orthodox Church consists of a number of self-governing Churches – e.g. Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox

Comparison between Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches

    Authority and Organisation

    • Catholic – One head – the Pope
    • Orthodox – Several patriarchs


    • Both believe in the Trinity
    • Both honour Mary:
      • Catholic - the Mother of God
      • Orthodox – Theotokos (God bearer)
    • Othodox Christians object to the inclusion of the phrase ‘and the Son’ in the Nicene Creed


    • Different calendar dates for Easter and Christmas
    • Both now use the vernacular language for their services (Greek Orthodox uses the ancient Greek)
    • Catholic – use musical instruments in services
    • Othodox – choir leads the singing unaccompanied
    • Catholic – Church service is openly visible for the congregation to see
    • Orthodox – service is conducted behind the Iconostasis a screen covered in icons
    • Catholic – churches are often decorated with statues of the saints
    • Orthodox – churches are highly decorated with icons (pictures of the saints)


    • Both have virtual the same seven sacraments
    • Orthodox babies are baptized by standing in the font with water being poured over them
    • In the Orthodox Church immediately after baptism the baby is confirmed in a service called ‘Chrismation’
    • In the Orthodox Church wedding services the couple getting married wear crowns as a sign of martyrdom – the couple are dedicating their lives to each other in front of God in the same way the martyrs gave their lives for their faith

The Protestant Reformation

  • In the 16th century there was a growing feeling that the Church in the west needed to be reformed
  • Many people became critical about the way the Church raised money for its new building project in Rome
  • Friars travelled the country selling indulgences
  • Indulgences were pardons from the Pope
  • People believed that by buying an Indulgence they could get pardoned from sins in this life and so spend less time in purgatory and get to heaven quicker
  • In 1517 a German Augustinian monk called Martin Luther was so outraged by the way the Church was abusing its authority that he nailed his 95 theses for Church reform to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral
  • Luther was summoned to appear before a council at Augsburg.
  • Luther refused to recant his beliefs
  • Luther was excommunicated in 1521
  • Among growing dislike for papal authority among the northern German princes, Luther was protected by Prince Frederick of Saxony from being arrested and sent to Rome
  • Luther’s beliefs can be summarised in two ways:
    • sola scriptura – i.e. the Bible is sufficient for salvation without the need of the Church to interpret it
    • sola fides – i.e. a person is saved by faith alone – Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient to bring about salvation without the need of good works

The English Reformation

  • At first Henry VIII disagreed with the Protestant Reformation that he saw on the continent led by Martin Luther
  • With the help of Thomas More, Henry VIII wrote a thesis against Martin Luther
  • The Pope gave him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’
  • Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon
  • The Pope refused to give him an annulment
  • Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England
  • England became a protestant

Protestant Divisions

After the reformation over time the Protestant Churches fragmented into a number of different denominations. These denominations include:
  • Lutheran
  • Calvinist
  • Baptist
  • Methodist
  • Pentecostal
  • Salvation Army
  • Society of Friends (Quakers)
  • Presbyterian
  • Congregational
  • House Churches
In 1972 the Congregational and Presbyterian Church came together to form the United Reform Church



  • ‘Ecumenism’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘of the inhabited world’ and has come to mean the movement to unite the various Christian denominations
  • The World Council of Churches was founded in 1948
  • The WCC came about through a recognition that Christians work with each other especially in the developing world
  • The WCC believes in improving Church relations, study and promoting the Christian faith as well as giving aid and helping refugees
  • The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC
  • Within the Roman Catholic Church there has been a greater movement toward ecumenism ever since the Second Vatican Council
  • Catholics and protestants recognising each other and often hold joint ecumenical prayer services together


  • Taizé is a Christian community in a small village in France founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz
  • Brother Roger began his community by offering hospitality to refugees during WWII
  • After the war Brother Roger encouraged reconciliation between French and Germans as well as Protestants and Catholics
  • Today Taizé is an ecumenical centre for young people from all over Europe

The Charismatic Movement

  • ‘Charismatic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘gifts’
  • The modern Charismatic Movement began in America where Pentecostals believed they were given the same gifts of the Holy Spirit as the first Christians at the day of Pentecost e.g. ability to preach, teach, heal, prophesy and speak in tongues
  • The Charismatic Movement has spread into many of the traditional denominations including the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches

Liberation Theology

  • Liberation Theology has its origins in South America
  • It believes that the gospel message has special relevance for the poor of the world

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