What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by Kendra Hotz
one-third of the world’s population, nearly two billion people,
regard themselves as Christian, and their faith traditions are almost
spite of that diversity, we can identify three main subgroups: Eastern
Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Each subgroup emerged and developed within a particular historical
and cultural setting that accounts in part for its cohesiveness.
Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism emerged from the experiences of
the earliest church, but they began to develop distinct emphases
very early. In spite of efforts to affirm and maintain
the unity of the Christian church, as Christianity spread across
the Roman Empire during its first thousand years, it developed a
division that fell along linguistic lines: Latin in the West, and
Greek in the East.
western church developed into Roman Catholicism, and the eastern
church developed into the Eastern Orthodox communions. In the East,
the cities of Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, Constantinople
in modern-day Turkey, and Jerusalem to a lesser extent rose to prominence,
and the bishops of those cities became known as Patriarchs. In the
West, however, the Bishop of Rome—later known as the Pope—stood
Bishop of Rome understood himself to hold primacy over all other
bishops, but the Patriarchs rejected this claim of primacy. The
question of the relative authority of the Bishop of Rome stood near
the center of every controversy between East and West,
and eventually became part of the reason that the Roman Catholic
Church and the churches of the East officially separated, each refusing
to recognize the authority of the other.
the dispute about the authority of the pope, this division between
the eastern and western churches was almost inevitable given cultural
differences characteristic of the Greek and Latin traditions as
well as political developments in the fourth and fifth centuries.
The traditions of the Latin-speaking portion of
the empire, even before Christianity, had always been more focused
on the practical and legal than had the Greek-speaking East, which
tended to be more philosophical and even mystical. It has sometimes
been noted that the Romans built roads, and the Greeks built philosophical
contours of belief in the East were essentially established through
a series of controversies that were addressed at councils in the
fourth and fifth centuries. These controversies focused on questions
about the Trinity and on the nature of the relationship between
humanity and divinity in Christ. Those emphases continue to characterize
Eastern Orthodoxy today. In the West, controversies tended to revolve
around questions about whether human beings contribute to their
salvation, the nature of church authority, and how the church and
state ought to be related to one another.
important political development also contributed to the different
ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism developed.
By the early fifth century the western half of the empire had begun
to disintegrate in the face of increasing “barbarian”
invasions. As the structures of civilization in the West began to
crumble, the church increasingly had to take on the role of governing
authority in both temporal and spiritual matters.
meant that the church based in Rome had to focus on practical and
even legal concerns as much as it did on the spiritual well-being
of those in its care. But in the East, the empire remained intact—as
did the basic infrastructure of civilization—all the way into
the modern period, even when it came under the governance of the
Muslims in the 15th century.
spite of these differences, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
have much in common that distinguishes them from Protestant Christianity.
For instance, they share an understanding of the church as the continuation
of apostolic tradition and especially value the authority of bishops
as the successors to the apostles. The tradition of faith, in both
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, carries enormous authority
in matters of belief and practice. Both traditions have developed
monastic communities whose members are devoted to striving for perfection
in Christian living. And both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
teach that salvation requires the grace of God to be met by human
effort and response.
the 16th century a further division developed in the church in Europe
when a series of reform movements led some—called the Protestants—to
reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and to form their
own church traditions and authority structures. The
Protestants wanted to reform both belief and practice in the church.
They rejected the authority of the pope and taught that individual
Christians did not require a priest to mediate between themselves
and God. They taught that no one could merit salvation,
which could be received only as a free gift from God. They insisted
that the Bible alone carried final authority for Christians.
also challenged long-established practices such as the veneration
of saints, the use of images and statuary in the worship space,
and the use of Latin in worship and as the language of the Bible—a
language that most 16th-century Europeans no longer understood.
They translated the Bible into local languages such as German and
English. They also permitted clergy to marry, something prohibited
in the Roman Catholic Church, but permitted of Eastern Orthodox
of founding a single, new church, Protestant communities developed
somewhat independently under the influence of different reformers
such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin and eventually
differentiated themselves into denominations such as Methodist,
Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran as well as into myriad
©2007 Kendra Hotz
G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis
Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz
is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor
(with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping
the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections
(2006) and coauthor of Transforming
Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).
This excerpt from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions
and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein,
Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner is used with permission from Westminster
John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. To
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