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Different Paths, One Destination | The Many Denominations of Christianity

There are so many denominations of Christianity, plus subsets of denominations (i.e. Lutheran Missouri synod, Wisconsin synod, etc.). It gets hard to keep up and understand what the differences are and why they exist.

The important thing: God is at the heart of each one of them.

The number of denominations is continually growing. Different histories, different traditions, different style church services. Some, like the Roman Catholic church, have hundreds of millions of members. Others, like the Pentecostal church, are smaller but seeing rapid increases in membership. 

While these Christian denominations don't agree on all aspects, the core is the same, with the genuine belief that Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior, the Son of God who died for our sins. Anyone who puts their faith in the Lord and repents will be forgiven.

How one Church turned to many denominations

Beginning around 30 AD after Jesus died, Christianity was born. One day, known as the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus Christ. Inspired by this, these disciples began to travel around the Middle East, spreading the Word of Jesus and performing miracles- just as He had. Together they pooled resources to give to the less fortunate. By the fourth century, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. This religion continued to spread even after the fall of Rome.

July 16, 1054, Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was excommunicated (excluded) from the Church. It was the breaking point of rising tensions between the Roman Church and the Byzantine Church. The result? A split, known as the Great Schism. This divided the Church into two branches, the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. 

The next big split is a familiar one: the Reformation. In the 16th century, in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther, a teacher and monk, published a paper titled "Disputation on the Power of Indulgences." You may know it as the 95 Theses.

It was a series of 95 ideas Luther had about Christianity that directly contradicted Catholic teachings. It challenged the indulgence system, which allowed people to purchase a certificate of pardon for their sins. Luther argued that forgiveness could not be purchased, and that it was a gift only given to those who had faith in Christ. Opposing the intention of Luther, a new religion was formed, today known as Lutheranism.

Not long after, the Baptist church was formed in Holland, breaking away from the Church of England because of their belief that membership should be voluntary. They also rejected the idea of baptism at birth, and that you had to be born again into Christ. 

John Wesley chartered the first Methodist church in 1784 in the United States. His goal was to reform the Church of England from within, and saw the need to provide structure for their church after being abandoned during the American Revolution. After his death, the movement became a separate body and its own autonomous church.

The differences

These are just the beginning of the different denominations of Christianity. They all vary in a number of ways, including traditions, styles of service, governance, and teachings. In some denominations like Roman Catholic, there lies a clear hierarchy with a Pope as leader. Anglican/Episcopalian is organized into provinces lead by an archbishop or primate. Each primate is then in charge of bishops, and each bishop for priests.

One tradition that has differences between denominations is Holy Communion. Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. For other denominations, the bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood. 

Roman Catholic priests must be male and unmarried. Marriage is allowed within the Lutheran church. Catholic and Lutheran churches will baptize young babies, while Baptists believe the individual needs to decide for themself.

In the UK, the Church of England is embedded both into political and everyday life. 

The night Jesus was arrested, He prayed for unity. "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John 17:22-26.

Over the centuries, schism between denominations has led to violence and persecution. Christians have been put to death by the followers of other denominations.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Over the past 100 years, we have seen huge growth in ecumenism, coming from the Greek word 'community.' Different denominations are working together to develop closer relationships and better understand each other's traditions. Churches are working together to better impact their communities and the world we live in. 

We are all on different paths getting to the same place.

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