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Christianity FAQ


  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What are the main subgroups within the religion?
by Kendra Hotz

Approximately one-third of the world’s population, nearly two billion people, regard themselves as Christian, and their faith traditions are almost innumerably diverse.

In 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.

Eastern 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.

The 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 without equal.

The 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.

Beyond 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 systems!

The 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.

An 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.

This 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.

In 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.

In 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.

They 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 priests.

Instead 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 independent congregations.

Copyright ©2007 Kendra Hotz

Kendra 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).

What Do Our Neighbors Believe?
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 purchase a copy of WHAT DO OUR NEIGHBORS BELIEVE? visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.



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