Jesus’ disciples span the globe. But the worldwide body of over 2 billion Christians is divided into thousands of denominations. Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Apostolic, Methodist – the list goes on. Estimates show that there are more than 200 Christian denominations in the United States and a staggering 45,000 worldwide, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. So why does Christianity have so many branches?
A quick glance shows that differences in beliefs, power grabbing and corruption all have a role to play.
But on some level, differentiation and variety have been markers of Christianity from the very beginning, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor emeritus of Church history at the University of Oxford in the UK. “There has never been a united Christianity,” he told Live Science.
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The early church, which spans from the start of Jesus’ ministry in AD 27 to AD 325, was divided primarily on the basis of geography. Worship styles and interpretations of Jesus’ teachings varied according to regional cultures and customs, according to Bruce Gordon, professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale Divinity School.
But there were also major breaks, or schisms, in Christian theology during this period. One of the most notable early schisms, the Arian controversy in the early 4th century, divided the church over Jesus’ relationship with God. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, claimed that because Jesus was “begotten” or begotten of God, he was a deity lower than God. But Athanasius, a theologian from Alexandria, claimed that Jesus was God incarnate.
“It caused major upheavals in the Roman Empire,” said Christopher West, a doctoral student in ancient Christianity and medieval studies at Yale University. “It divided the Christians of the Roman Empire in two.” The Council of Nicaea – a group of theologians and scholars assembled by Emperor Constantine I in AD 325 – ultimately opposed Arius. But despite the church’s official view, Christians continued to be divided on the subject for over a century.
Then, in 1054, Eastern Orthodox Christians separated from Western Roman Catholics in what is known as the Great Schism. The two groups disagreed over taking the sacraments – religious symbols believed to impart divine grace to the believer. In addition, Eastern Orthodox Christians did not agree with Roman beliefs that priests should remain celibate and that the Roman Pope had authority over the head of the Eastern Church, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
There was even a temporary schism, known as the Western Schism, within the Catholic Church itself in 1378, when two men, and ultimately a third, claimed to be the true papal heir. The division lasted almost 40 years, and by the time it was resolved in 1417, rival popes had considerably damaged reputation of the papal office.
Despite this handful of schisms, the Catholic Church has succeeded in suppressing other potential Christian ramifications “in part through continued persecution [including] real military expeditions against certain labeled heretics, but also a new system of inquiries into people’s beliefs, called inquisitions. With the support of secular leaders, heretics could be burnt alive or forced to deny their beliefs, ”MacCulloch told Live Science via email.
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But after the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the number of denominations really began to multiply.
The Reformation – sparked off by a number of events, including Martin Luther’s 95 Theses – emphasized personal faith. This movement was in response to the fact that interpretations of the Bible, grace (God’s spontaneous love and mercy), absolution from sins, and entry into heaven were all publicized by the priests of Catholicism. Luther and his followers asserted that the Bible, and not an ecclesiastical hierarchy, was the ultimate authority over everyone, including priests and the Pope, and that several ecclesiastical practices, such as granting indulgences (paying church money to be absolved of sins), were corrupted.
Initially there were only a few large Protestant groups, but eventually the Reformation ushered in more Christian ramifications.
In the 17th century, the contemporary word “denomination” began to be used to describe religious ramifications, Michelle Sanchez, associate professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, told Live Science by email. Protestants had used the scriptures to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, claiming that any believer could read the scriptures and have a personal relationship with God. But then, “the obvious problem arose: Which interpretation of the Scriptures was the correct one? Sanchez said in an interview. As believers debated the scriptures and the sacraments, churches formed and divided on the basis of a myriad of biblical interpretations, modes of worship, and organizational structures. From these debates, denominations such as Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baptists, and Quakers, among others, have taken root.
Other Protestant denominations were formed out of a power game, such as when Henry VIII founded the Church of England in 1534. “He wanted to establish political autonomy for England, and a way to achieve it. doing was Rome’s religious autonomy, ”West told Live Science. (He also wanted a famous divorce that the church refused to grant.)
While schisms can be seen as divisions or even lead to violent conflict between rival faiths, these splits have an advantage. “There is some kind of anti-corruption mechanism in fragmentation,” because those divisions can offer agency to people in lower social positions, Sanchez said. For example, after the Reformation challenged papal authority, townspeople might start questioning religious authorities about corrupt or questionable practices.
There is probably more denominational division and formation to come. Judging the differences between them, MacCulloch offered the advice of Jesus himself: “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16). That is, you can learn more about them “in terms of what they do, how they behave,” MacCulloch explained. “It’s a very good test.”
Originally posted on Live Science.