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?

Historical Divisions of Christianity:

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.

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).

The Four Main Branches of Christianity:  An Overview of Some Contrasts and Differences

Branch: Orthodox Catholic Anglican Protestant
Meaning/Origin of Name “right teaching; correct opinion” “universal; general; whole” Church of “England” “protesting” against Catholicism
Geographical Origins Eastern Roman Empire,
esp. Constantinople
Western Roman Empire,
esp. Rome
England Central Europe,
esp. Germany & Switzerland
Principal Languages Greek, Russian, etc. Latin, European, etc. English, etc. German, Dutch, English, etc.
Concentrations Today Eastern Europe S. America & W. Europe Great Britain & former Colonies N. Europe & N. America
Number of Members ca. 250 Million over 1 Billion ca. 75 Million ca. 400-500 Million
Top Leaders Patriarchs (esp. Constantinople & Moscow);
Autocephalous Bishops
Pope (Bishop of Rome);
Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops
Archbishop of Canterbury;
Presiding Bishops
varies greatly by denomination:
Bishops? Presidents? None?
Local Leaders Priests, Deacons, Monks Priests, Deacons, Lay Ministers Canons, Priests, Vestry Pastors, Ministers, Deacons, Elders, etc.
Titles for Worship Divine Liturgy Holy Eucharist, Mass Eucharist, Holy Communion Sunday Worship, Communion Service
# Books in Bible 53-56 OT + 27 NT 46 OT + 27 NT 39 OT + 27 NT 39 OT + 27 NT
Artistic Focus Painted Icons, lots of gold Statues, Paintings, Stained Glass Some art, esp. Stained Glass Little art; often plainer church decors
Distinctive Emphases Maintain Ancient Customs & Languages Papal Authority; Seven Sacraments Formal Liturgies; Organ Music Participatory Music; Biblical Preaching
Sacraments of Initiation Baptism, Chrismation, Communion -
all three together, usually for infants
Infant Baptism, Child First Communion,
Teen Confirmation;  all at once for Adults
Mostly use Catholic sequence,
for children or for adults
Infant Baptism in some denominations;
Adult Baptism more common


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