Groupings Within the Christian Church

The New Testament church had nothing like today's 'denominations'. There was just 'the church', as distinct from 'the world' of non-Christian society.

The church, however, soon took on a style far removed from its early simplicity. In particular, it developed along two separate lines which came in time to be known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Roman Catholic Church

In the early centuries of the Christian era, Christianity quickly became unbalanced. This was in part through neglect of the Scriptures. Also, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine early in the 4th century made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire instead of a persecuted minority-faith. As a result, many embraced the religion in a loose way without having a personal experience of faith in Christ.


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The church soon modelled itself on the civil setup of the Empire, with Rome as its base and the leader of the church there assuming leadership of the church worldwide. As time passed, elements of pagan religion came on board. Altars were set up in church buildings, with a mediating priesthood to offer sacrifices on them.

This was an aberration from the simple Lord's Supper presented in the New Testament. The bread and wine were seen as magically transformed into Christ's very body and blood when the priest spoke the words, 'This is my body…blood.' The priest would then offer this 'sacrifice' on the altar.

Roman Catholic ChurchHaving in practice forsaken the Bible as the sole authority in matters of doctrine and practice, the church put tradition on an equal footing alongside it. On this basis, virtually any belief could be justified, given time, and the church promulgated such unbiblical doctrines as infant baptism, Mary's perpetual virginity, prayer to the saints, purgatory, indulgences and the infallibility of the Pope when speaking in his official capacity on matters of doctrine and practice.

This system persisted during the Mediaeval period (the 'Middle Ages') in Europe. Church and state were effectively one, with every person considered to be a Christian, and with religious failures punished in the civil courts. It was known as Christendom. The church was 'Roman' because its headquarters were in Rome, and 'Catholic' (meaning 'universal') because it embraced the whole of society.

Not until the 16th century was there a major reaction. This was the Reformation, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin. Many major RC doctrines were set aside as unscriptural and attempts were made to bring church life and doctrine more into line with the Bible's teaching. Christians who embraced this return to a more biblical faith became known as Protestants.

Since then, further subdivisions have appeared within Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church, however, has continued largely unchanged in its doctrine and practice. To this day it regards non-Catholics as an inferior type of Christian. At one time it labelled them 'heretics', though now it prefers the term 'separated brethren'.

The Eastern Orthodox Church

At the time when Roman Catholicism was establishing itself as the 'universal' church in Western Europe, Christians living further east adopted some differences of emphasis. They saw Constantinople (Istanbul), rather than Rome, as the church's base and the leader of the church there—the Patriarch—as their head.Eastern Orthodox icon (by Rublev) In due course this split became official, leaving the Roman Catholic Church in the west of Europe and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east.

The Eastern church followed the same route as the RC Church in adopting a high degree of ritual and many unbiblical doctrines. It took a similar line, too, in its joining with the state. This joining later became the buttress for 'national' churches like the Greek Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In more recent times, churches of other types have gained a foothold in those countries, but there has never been any major challenge to Eastern Orthodox Christianity matching the scale of the Reformation in the west.

Other 'state churches'

At the Reformation, while there was a welcome return to more scriptural church standards, no-one thought to abolish the link between church and state. In western Europe, for instance, Germany severed its link with Catholicism and simply joined itself instead with the Lutheran Church that emerged from Martin Luther's teachings and leadership. The Lutheran Church also became the state church in Scandinavia.

In England, King Henry VIII fell out with the Pope and took the English church away from Rome. He established the Church of England, with himself as its head. With the monarch as leader of both church and state, the 'state church' system simply continued under a different name.

Today, the links between church and state in most countries are weaker. But the basic link remains. It is seen in England, for example, in the role of the Prime Minister in helping select the Archbishop of Canterbury, in coronations taking place in an Anglican church service, and in the participation of the Anglican clergy in military events like the annual Service of Remembrance. In this respect we say that the Church of England is the 'established' church. In most countries today, however—the United States of America, for example—there is no 'state church' and civil and religious aspects of life are kept separate.

Free churches

Since the Reformation there has been growing freedom for Christians of many different persuasions to practice their faith unopposed. Many denominations and loose groupings have emerged outside the state John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Churchchurches, and these are called the 'free churches'—free, that is, from state links and state control.

Examples of 'free church' denominations would be the Methodist Church, the Baptist Church, the Salvation Army and the Elim Pentecostal Church. They all have different emphases, but all claim to adhere to the basics of Christianity as revealed in the New Testament.

Other groups are less structured, preferring to exist without the constraints of a denominational setup.  

These would include the so-called 'new churches' that have sprung up in large numbers since the early 1970s. Some of them are in informal networks like New Frontiers International, while others remain independent, with only a small number of local connections. The advantage of this position is freedom to order themselves on the biblical model without outside interference while enjoying the advantage of the checks and balances provided by their voluntary connections.

All the above, from the RC Church to the 'new churches', see themselves as within the parameters of genuine Christianity. But they represent a wide range of doctrinal views and church practice, and there is no guarantee that 'membership' of any one of them ensures a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—which is how the New Testament presents real Christianity.


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