There are Christians all over the world, and many are in the United States of America. However, the term “Christian” is applied to anyone who believes in the God of the Bible, and, as such, there are many different denominations. This is because different groups interpret the Bible differently, so there are doctrines and church hierarchies that are specific to each denomination.
There were approximately 43,000 Christian denominations worldwide as of 2012, and thousands of denominations just in America. These are often grouped into “families” or “branches” of Christianity. The most common branches are Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Independent, though these are very broad categorizations and there are always some outliers that do not fit into the established groups.
Some of the denominations listed below do not consider themselves “denominations,” as they see themselves as the only option (such as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox). These two historically appear to have been the same at one time, with the divide occurring at some point during the Crusades, probably from political division more than doctrinal.
In some cases, denominations join forces with one another, or movements can encompass people of several denominations, and those are not examined here. Also, there are some denominations that have only a few adherents. This list is not comprehensive, but covers most of the most common denominations in the United States.
For the purposes of this look at denominations, the four branches above will be the starting place, and other denominations will be examined based on how they fit into those categories.
Orthodox Christianity is a branch that is very similar to Catholicism, and they likely were both the same at some point with one being an offshoot of the other. In general, the Orthodox believe that salvation comes through faith receiving God’s grace and participating in the on-going work of salvation. Worship is in a liturgical style. Churches are governed by Bishops and the Pope is not recognized as authority.
Also called the Orthodox Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox is the second-largest Christian church. The theology is based on the Nicene Creed and the belief that it is a continuation of the church begun by Jesus Christ Himself and His apostles. Originated in the Middle East, immigrants brought the belief system to the United States.
These often conduct liturgy in koine Greek – or used to – and include Greek traditions in their fellowship and worship.
Brought to Alaska by Russian traders who settled there, the Russian Orthodox church sent missionaries to spread throughout the state, and later, the country. This branch is best known for the painted icons.
One of the oldest denominations in the world, Catholicism also believe that the Church’s roots go directly to Jesus and the apostles. The Catholic belief is that salvation is by God’s grace, which is received by observing the sacraments and through faith. The sacraments include baptism, the eucharist, penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing the sick. They use a liturgical format for worship and are governed by the Pope.
The most common form of Catholic, the Roman Catholic Church is based strongly on tradition, referencing both the Bible and the early leaders of the church (the apostles and their successors).
Anglican / Episcopalian
Anglican is also known as the Church of England, but Anglican and Episcopalian churches are all over the world. A known split off from the Catholic church, the main difference from Roman Catholic is that they have an Archbishop who is not an ultimate authority, and do not recognize the Pope as any authority at all. They began as a form of reformation.
This branch is so named because it is viewed as branches that protested against the Catholic Church doctrine and therefore went a different route for doctrine and worship. It is sometimes split into two subgroups – evangelical and mainline – in which the evangelical are focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ and spreading that gospel, and mainline does not.
Lutherans, who took their name from the great reformer Martin Luther, are one of the largest groups in the protestant branch. The Lutheran faith believes that salvation is 100% the work of Jesus Christ and is often known by the phrase “Grace alone!” which is a companion to two other common Lutheran phrases: “Faith alone!” and “Scripture alone!” While this seems contradictory, it is not when examining the statement of faith.
The key Anabaptist doctrine is the baptism or professing believers, rather than infants, due to the belief that baptism does not save, but is done in obedience after salvation. They reject the Calvinist doctrine of election, the Lutheran doctrine of salvation as a one-time thing with nothing further expected of the believer, and spiritual gifts as a current thing. They also believe in nonviolence, usually referring to it as “non-resistant.” There are several branches of Anabaptist, but there are two most well known.
Amish people are known to dress very plainly, eschew electricity and technology, including telephones and cars.
Beachy Amish (named after Bishop Moses Beachy) dress plain, but allow cars and computers as well as some other technology. Some consider them more Mennonite than Amish.
Old Order Mennonites dress plain and women wear headcoverings. They use horse and buggy to get around, and also tend to use Pennsylvania Dutch for general speech. They do, however, allow electricity and telephones and tractors.
Conservative Mennonites accept most technology and will use cars; they do still dress plain and women cover their heads.
Modern Mennonites appear like any other average person in dress, use of technology, etc.
Reformed / Calvinist
- The Calvinist beliefs are often summed up with the acronym TULIP. The summary goes as follows:
- Total Depravity (mankind does not have a desire for God).
- Unconditional Election (whoever God chooses must follow Him; He has chosen, before the world began).
- Limited Atonement (only those chosen were atoned for on the cross).
- Irresistible Grace (those elected by God can do nothing but accept His grace that draws them)
- Perseverance of the Saints (the elect must do good works for God as long as they live; no elected person can be lost).
Some Calvinists hold only to the T, U, I, and P points, believing that the cross was meant for all.
Part of the reformed church, the Presbyterian church takes its name from the form of church government it follows – the presbytery, which is made up of elders who represent the assemblies. The capitalized word generally refers to those whose roots are in Scotland. The worship Is liturgical, and they observe the sacraments of baptism (including infants) and the Lord’s Supper.
The Congregational church traces its roots to the Pilgrims and Puritans that left the Church of England. Some of their specific doctrines include the independence of local churches (self-government), priesthood of all believers, association with other congregations for fellowship and cooperation, and democratic decision-making through representative committees.
The term Baptist is applied to one of the largest branches of Protestantism, though many Baptist refuse the term, believing their denomination is not protesting the Catholic church, as is often stated, but rather a continuation of the church set up by Jesus Christ with His apostles. Baptist churches practice believer’s baptism (not infant baptism), observe the Lord’s Supper, and self-government of local churches, though some have associations or conventions that offer support to one other.
General beliefs include salvation by accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior, with baptism by immersion as a first act of obedience.
The defining points of doctrine for Free Will Baptists are free will, free grace, and free salvation. However, rather than believing, as most Baptist do, that salvation is eternal, Free Will Baptists believe that it can be lost.
Like other Baptists, this branch believes that baptism is for believers. The key difference of this branch is that they believe the church is a local body, meant to carry out the Great Commission (to teach others and baptize them).
Fundamental Baptists are so called because they hold to the fundamentals of the faith. These include the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, born to a virgin. Most of the time, they prefer more formal wear for church services (men generally wear collared shirts, if not suits, and women wear dresses), and the music usually does not include drums. Many use only the King James Version of the Bible.
Also called the Southern Baptist Convention, this branch has over 42,000 churches in the United States that hold to this doctrine. It is not unusual to find more modern worship practices in these churches, including praise bands, and less formal clothing during service times.
Also known as American Baptist, these churches may have beliefs differing from one another; however, they cooperate with others in their denomination. The doctrine followed is more conservative and includes evangelism and missionaries.
Primitive Baptists began around 1814, when they resisted the missionary emphasis that was being put forth by the first national Baptist organization, the General Missionary Convention.
Quakers / Friends
The core doctrines of Quakers are that humans can directly communicate with God (immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit), and that one must commit to living outwardly in a way that shows the experience inside. Some groups worship silently, where each adherent waits upon a message from God, while others have services similar to other non-liturgical denominations. Despite the lack of a specified set of beliefs, Quakers do not lack doctrine. Rather, they expect each Friend to be personally responsible for understanding, reflection, prayer, and service.
Developed from a movement of revival and reform led by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, the Methodist tradition expects believers to stay away from any type of wickedness, do as much kindness as possible, and abide by God’s rules and laws. They practice baptism by any manner (immersion, sprinkling, or pouring) and Communion. Salvation is by grace through faith, and works have no part in redemption.
This branch believe that Christians are given the ability to life an obedient life of devotion to God. It is also believed that the baptism of the Holy Spirit destroys the sin nature, allowing believers to be sinless; this baptism is said to take place after conversion. Salvation is gained by a personal conversion experience. Believers separate themselves from worldly influences and view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Baptism by immersion and the Lord’s supper are observed.
While non-denominational churches do not affiliate themselves with any particular denomination, that does not mean they do not hold to specific doctrines. Each church has its own specific set of beliefs and practices that may largely align with established doctrines, but with difference that might not be accepted by that denomination.
Also known as the “Stone-Campbell Movement,” restoration refers to reform from within that begin in the early 19th century. Most of the churches use the name Church of Christ or Christian Church. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Lord’s Supper should be observed on the first day of every week, and that baptism by immersion is required of adult believers in order to be saved.
Latter Day Saints (Mormons)
The Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, believe that the Bible is the word of God, but that there is a newer revelation called the Book of Mormon. They worship weekly at local chapels, reserving the temples for weddings, posthumous baptisms, and ceremonies of endowment. Well known for acceptance of plural marriage, this practice was disavowed in 1890, but still continues among some groups.
Seventh Day Adventist
The Bible is the sole source of the Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs. The 28 Fundamental Beliefs include the sole authority of the Scriptures, the Trinity of the Godhead, literal 7-day creation, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as atonement for all, salvation through faith by grace resulting in abiding in Him, the church as the community of believers headed by Christ, and more. Baptism after affirmation of faith by immersion is practiced, as well as the Lord’s Supper. Spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy, are expected and practiced, and worship is on the seventh day (Sabbath) as God instituted in the beginning.
Evangelical refers to the practice of sharing beliefs with others. While there are some above that include evangelical aspects, the following identify themselves with the evangelical mindset.
A specifically peaceful denomination, the Brethren are against war in any situation. Doctrine is based on the New Testament and people can be added to the church by affirming belief in Christ as Savior and promising to be faithful to God and turn from sin.
Those who follow the doctrines of the Pentecostal church believe that sins can be forgiven through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, resulting in regeneration and salvation. While speaking in tongues and water baptism are not always required, they are encouraged.
The Apostolic doctrine has its basis in literal interpretation of Scripture. It focuses on New Testament teachings with the Old Testament consulted for further information. Biblical repentance including Godly sorrow for wrongs, restitution, and commitment to living right thereafter is the basis for conversion, followed by baptism by immersion in water. The elders then lay hands on the convert and an elder prays to welcome the new member into the church.
Assembly of God
Assembly of God churches believe that the inspired Word of God teaches proper faith and conduct, and that God revealed Himself through it. Salvation is through Christ’s shed blood and resurrection, resulting in an outward life of righteousness. Baptism through immersion and the Lord’s Supper are also observed, and believers are expected to seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which results in spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues.
Church of God
Founded in 1886 based on Biblical principles, the Church of God stands for justification by faith, Biblical authority, the priesthood of all believers, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. It decries abuses, ritualism, and dogmatism. They are evangelistic, charismatic, and Pentecostal in that they believe in spiritual gifts, including that of tongues. The Church of God has a wide variety of outreach ministries in which they offer assistance to children, widows, youth, unwed mothers, and the military.
Similar to Pentecostal, the Charismatic church goes beyond just tongues and have healing crusades and similar ministries. Otherwise, the beliefs are the same as Pentecostal.
Unitarian / Universalist
Unlike most of the above, the Unitarian view of God is that He is one single entity rather than three in one. It is their belief that Jesus was a prophet, but not God himself, but was the ultimate model for proper living. They believe that reason, philosophy, and science mesh with belief in God and that human nature is not inherently wicked, but capable of either good or evil. They do not believe in hell or atonement.
A sort of cross between Jewish practice and Christianity, those who follow Messianic Judaism believe that Jesus (Yeshua) is the promised Messiah but continue to live a Jewish lifestyle. While Jews tend to only use the Old Testament, adherents to Messianic Judaism use the New Testament as well, recognizing all of it as the Word of God. Communion is not generally observed as a part of worship. Holidays observed are the Jewish feasts and observances rather than the common ones such as Easter and Christmas.
There are many other denominations in the United States, but most can be included in one of the above descriptions.