The history of the Christian church spans over 2000 years and encompasses some splits that have developed into different sects over time. Carol Zaleski, a professor in the religion department, specializes in the philosophy of religion, world religions and Christian thought. Zaleski was gracious enough to point me to resources that have allowed me understand the divisions in the church with greater clarity and depth.
Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism are the three largest groups within the Christian church. Although these groups are found all over the world they can be characterized by where they emerged and are predominately practiced, by their languages (Greek, Latin, and Syriac being the main languages for classical Christianity, followed by the vernacular languages of different regions), and by their organizational structure. Eastern Orthodoxy is strongly associated with the former Soviet Union countries, the Middle East, and the Balkans. This tradition adheres to doctrine established by the first seven ecumenical councils starting in 325 AD. Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian church, and though its institutional center is in the Vatican in Rome, it is found all over the world in all churches that are in communion with the Pope). Though Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism share a similar general organizational structure and adhere to a hierarchy in the church, Roman Catholicism is unique in the role that the Pope plays. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Protestantism actually emerged in northern Europe in response to controversial Catholic doctrine and practice, including the idea of the Pope being infallible and the penitential system in the early 1500s.
In America, there are divisions, known as denominations within Protestantism, which is a division of the Christian church. Survey organizations like the Pew Research Center categorize the Protestant world according to three broad classifications: evangelical, mainline, and historically black; these classifications cut across denominational lines, including Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Restorationist, Episcopalian/Anglican, Holiness, Congregationalist, Adventist, and Nondenominational branches of Protestantism. As the Pew Center and other studies show, Christianity is growing the fastest in the global South, in Latin America, in African countries (where the number of Christians has tripled in recent year), and in Asian countries.
The World Council of Churches identifies nearly 19 different “church families” within Christianity that range from African Instituted church to United and Uniting churches. Of these different church families there is overlap with the Protestant denominations and the larger groups within Christianity aforementioned.
All of these divisions do have one common thread and that is Jesus of Nazareth. The life, teachings, and death of Jesus are central to Christianity and therefore central to each different sect. Most Christians agree with the affirmations of the Nicene Creed: that Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, that he died to save humanity, and that he rose again from the dead on the third day.
As a Christian, I have struggled to understand the nuanced differences between denominations within my community. In my experience, church history is often glossed over within the church which can often make intentional practices discussed and debated over many years feel almost second nature. There is immense meaning behind each tradition a church practices that members would do well to acknowledge. This, of course, is a lengthy subject that I cannot fully cover in this article. I hope to at the very least demonstrate that Christianity is a diverse religion and illuminate an area of research for believers to dig deeper, wrestle with where they stand on the issues that have divided the church, and emerge with a greater understanding of their faith.