Who Are Christians?
An Overview of the Main Branches, Churches, Denominations, Religious Orders,
and other identifiable Groups within Christianity of the Past and Present
compiled by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
At the most basic level, a “Christian” is anyone who professes that Jesus of Nazareth is the “Christ” (the "Messiah," the "anointed one" of God).
This sounds simple! Yet what does it mean? And what else
do Christians believe about Jesus (and about God)?
“Christ” is a title derived from the Greek word Christos (lit. “anointed one”), which in turn comes from the verb chrio (“to anoint; to smear or pour oil over someone”). It has exactly the same meaning as “Messiah,” which is derived from the Hebrew Mashiah (also “anointed one”; see Christological Titles). According to Acts 11:26, the first time those who believed in Jesus were called “Christians” was in Antioch, a Greek-speaking city of ancient Syria (about 300 miles north of Jerusalem), about the year 35 or 40 CE. Before that time, in the Aramaic-speaking environment of Judea, the followers of Jesus may have been called Nazarenes, or Messianists, or Followers of the Way, or by some other designation (see Jewish Groups of the Second Temple Period).
Furthermore, most Christians of the past and present believe much more about Jesus: that he was not just a great prophet, miracle-worker, teacher, or religious reformer, but that his relationship with God was so intimate and unique that he could rightly be called the Son of God, the Lord, the Savior of the world, and given many other titles, some of which make him “equal to God,” in dignity or even in his nature. Yet how can Jesus be both human and divine? And how can Christians continue to profess “monotheism” (belief in only one God), when they proclaim Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) to be just as “divine” as the Father? (see Early Christian Beliefs & Creeds).
Sadly, Christians have debated, disagreed, and divided themselves over these questions for most of the past 2000 years. Thus, there is a bewildering number of different Christian groups, churches, sects, and denominations in the world today. How can one begin to organize or understand the relationships of so many different branches and sub-branches of Christianity?
Several different organizational schemes are possible, none of which is perfect, and all of which have their advantages and disadvantages. One can look historically at the dates when groups divided or new groups were founded. One can group churches and denominations by their current institutional associations and affiliations. One can organize them systematically by various theological emphases or sociological characteristics.
Main Branches of Christianity:
Many organizational schemes divide Christians into several main “branches” (each of which can be further subdivided, of course). Yet how many “main” branches are there? Who gets grouped together? Where do smaller groups belong? And does arranging the divisions in certain ways reflect any bias?
Three (or Four) Main Branches: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant (and Anglican, "Anglo-Catholic"; half-way between Catholic & Protestant)
Some schemes suggest five, six, or more "main" branches, possibly including: Nestorian, Monophysite, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Restorationist, Independent, Marginal, etc.?
Subdivisions of the Main Branches (here in overview; see the next section for more details):
Eastern Christians are mostly "Eastern Orthodox," but some are Nestorians ("Church of the East") or Monophysites ("Oriental Orthodox").
The divisions among these Eastern Churches go back almost 1500 years, stemming from disagreements in the fifth century CE.
Long after the East/West divisions of 1054, some Eastern Churches reunited with the Roman Catholic Church (thus called "Uniate" Churches).
Catholic Christians are mostly "Roman Catholic"; yet some groups still call themselves "Catholic," but are no longer united with Rome.
The "Old Catholic Church" broke away in 1870, disagreeing with the decrees from the First Vatican Council about "papal infallibility."
Various groups of "Traditionalist Catholics" or "Tridentine Catholics" broke after 1965, disagreeing with reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Other groups of "Progressive Catholics" broke since 1965, thinking the reforms instituted by Vatican II did not go far enough.
Protestant Christians are subdivided into thousands of different denominations, as well as "independent" or "non-denominational" groups.
The historically earliest were founded in the 16th century by Martin Luther ("Lutherans") and by John Calvin ("Reformed" or "Calvinist" Christians).
The Anglicans, or "Church of England," separated from the Roman Catholic Church for political, not theological reasons; thus, "Anglo-Catholic" beliefs and practices are similar to Roman Catholics, but Anglicans don't acknowledge the leadership role of the Bishop of Rome (the "Pope").
For some schematic diagrams, see the following online:
Many Christians would claim that their branch or brand of the religion goes all the way back to Jesus Christ himself, and thus was “founded” already in the first century, rather than some time later. For scholarly purposes, however, one can organize the billions of Christians based on when a particular church, denomination, or group first attained an identity separate from “the rest” of Christianity. In the early Christian centuries, distinct groups sometimes formed because some Christians did not accept the decisions agreed upon by the majority of bishops at a particular Ecumenical Council. A major division between Eastern and Western Christianity occurred in 1054 CE. Since the early modern period (16th century Protestant Reformation), more and more new groups formed in the West as reform movements and/or offshoots of previously established churches.
Nestorians (who do not accept the decrees of the Council of Ephesus, 431 AD) – only about 200,000 adherents today
“Assyrian Apostolic Church of the East” – in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey
“Nestorian Malabar Christians” – in India
Nestorians are named after Nestorius (c. 386 - c. 451), Archbishop of Constantinople from 428 to 431, who argued that Mary should not be called "Mother of God," but regarded only as the Mother of the human part of Jesus.
Monophysites, or Oriental Orthodox (who do not accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD) – about 30 million
Coptic Orthodox – mostly in Egypt
Abyssinian Orthodox – mostly in Ethiopia
Armenian Orthodox – in Armenia, also in Cilicia, Jerusalem, and USA
Jacobites or Syrian Orthodox – just one of several Christian groups in Syria
Jacobite Malabar Christians – mostly in India
"Monophysites" are so-named because they believe Jesus had only "one nature"; i.e. that his "divine nature" had completely supplanted his "human nature."
[Eastern] Orthodox (who accept only the first eight Ecumenical Councils; E/W division 1054 AD) – about 250 million
Orthodox Christians stress that they are one church with about 15 independent jurisdictions, autonomous or autocephalous ("own head") units:
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox; considered "first in honor" of all Orthodox; with direct jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in Turkey, parts of Greece, N&W Europe, N&S America, Australia & New Zealand)
Four Ancient Patriarchates: Jerusalem (southern Middle East), Antioch (Syria & northern Middle East), Alexandria (Egypt & Africa), and Constantinople (above)
Patriarchate of Moscow (Russia, but jurisdiction also over Ukraine & other states of the former Soviet Union; largest Orthodox Church today; became most prominent after the fall of Constantinople to the Muslims; considered the "fifth Patriarchate")
Smaller autocephalous Orthodox churches in Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Finland
Orthodox Church in America not yet fully autonomous (caution: many other "Orthodox" groups in the USA are not recognized by or united with Constantinople).
[Roman] Catholics (who accept a total of twenty-one Ecumenical Councils; E/W division 1054 AD) – over 1 billion
Roman Catholics (under the Pope, the Bishop of Rome; mostly "Latin Rite," but also "Byzantine" and other “rites”)
Eastern “Uniate” Churches: Maronite, Melkite, Rumanian, Ukrainian, etc.
[some “high-church” Anglicans stress that they are “Anglo-Catholics”]
[some recent offshoots not united with Rome: Old Catholics, Traditionalist Catholics, Independent Catholics, American Catholics, etc.]
[Western] Protestants (who separated from Rome and/or from each other, as of 1517 AD) – about 500 million
16th Century Divisions (Central & North Europe):
Lutherans (Martin Luther; esp. in Germany & Scandinavia)
Anglicans (England; started under King Henry VIII)
Anabaptists (Germany & Switzerland; rejected infant baptism and “rebaptized” adults)
Unitarians (wanted to “unify” everyone, but ended up as yet another group)
17th – 18th Century Divisions (esp. in England & America):
Congregationalists; Baptists; Quakers; Amish; Methodists; etc.
19th – 21st Century Divisions (world-wide):
Disciples of Christ; Seventh-Day Adventists; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Christian Scientists; Mormons; etc.
NB: Some of these are considered “Restorationist” or “Marginal” Christians
There are also more and more “Independent” or “Non-denominational” Christians today.
Names of Christian Groups:
One can also consider the wide variety of names by which Christian groups are called (some of which began as self-designations, while others were attributed by outsiders), and the meanings or derivations of these names. Some of the following are the names of early Christian sects, some are separate (mostly Protestant) denominations, and some are religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church (here's a longer list of Catholic Religious Orders).
Named for general characteristics: Orthodox (“right teaching”), Catholic (“universal”), Protestant (“protesting”), Gnostic (“knowledge”), Reformed, etc.
Named after founding figures:
Early Christian Sects: Valentinians, Montanists, Marcionites, Manicheans, Novatians, Arians, Nestorians, Donatists, Pelagians
Catholic Religious Orders: Benedictines (St. Benedict of Nursia), Franciscans (St. Francis of Assisi), Dominicans (St. Dominic Guzman), Viatorians (St. Viator), etc.