A Handy-Dandy Breakdown of Different Christian Denominations

One topic that can be confusing for newer Christians is the seemingly endless variety of church denominations. Especially in the part of America where I live, you could find anywhere from three to thirty different types of churches in the same town!

But what’s the difference between a “First Baptist” church and a “First United Methodist” church? How do you know whether you should attend an Assemblies of God church or a Presbyterian one?

To help, here’s a quick overview of the different denominations of Christianity and what makes them distinct from each other.

What Is a “Denomination”?

A denomination is a branch or sub-group within Christianity that has a distinct name, organizational structure, and set of core doctrines. Denominations may differ in their interpretation of minor issues or on how churches should be run, but for the most part they agree on essential matters of doctrine about Christ and salvation.

That said, there can be a great degree of variety even among churches within the same denomination. The best approach to choosing a denomination to join is to read the doctrinal statement of the particular church you’re considering (you can typically find them online). Examine whether that church takes an approach that you believe is biblical and that you can adhere to in good conscience.

The “Big Three”: Main Branches of Christianity

There are three major, overarching branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox.

Roman Catholic: Catholics consider church tradition as equal in authority to the Bible, and also look to the Pope (the bishop of Rome) as the key human authority over the church. They also believe that Jesus’ sacrifice secured grace for all people, but individuals receive that grace through the sacraments offered in the Catholic Church (like Eucharist, baptism, confirmation, penance, etc.). Some modern Catholics also believe that people can earn salvation through their good works, without faith or church participation (!). It is common for Catholics to venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus, along with other saints.

Eastern Orthodox: The Eastern Orthodox Church (or just “Orthodox Church,” or “Orthodox Catholic Church”) split from the Western (Roman Catholic) Church during the Middle Ages over issues of church leadership and theology. The Orthodox Church maintained that teams of bishops called synods should lead the church, rather than a single Pope. Theologically, the Orthodox Church places a high emphasis on mysticism, and considers salvation to involve achieving greater union with God (theosis). Like Roman Catholics, they consider church tradition to be just as authoritative as Scripture, and also practice veneration of Mary, the saints, and icons.

Protestant: Protestant Christians split from the Catholic Church during the period now referred to as the Protestant Reformation. They denounced the extrabiblical traditions and corrupt practices of the medieval Roman Church and sought a return to Scripture alone for doctrine. While viewing tradition as helpful, Protestants today emphasize the need to respect Scripture as the highest authority for Christian belief and practice. Protestants also emphasize that salvation is by God’s grace through faith, not through works or rituals (even though those things are important).

Major Denominations Within Protestantism

Anglican and Episcopalian
The Anglican Church is the national church of England. In America, the official presence of the English Church is in the form of the Episcopal Church (after the Greek word for “overseer”: episkopos), although there is also a more conservative branch known as the Anglican Church in North America (the denomination I’m currently a part of, by the way!).
Its main distinctive is its organizational structure, which is similar to Catholicism: one archbishop presides over a number of other bishops who in turn preside over local congregations. Anglican/Episcopal churches also tend to be very formal/liturgical in their worship services, place great value on historic traditions, and have a high view of the sacraments. They are also widely known for the Book of Common Prayer, which serves as a guide for Anglican worship services and daily prayer.
In a nutshell: Catholic-flavored Protestantism.
Famous members: C. S. Lewis, Theodore Roosevelt, J. I. Packer, John Stott, N. T. Wright, Bono.

Gets its name from the Greek word for “elder” (presbuteros). Presbyterianism is noteworthy for its unique organizational structure, in which local congregations are governed by teams of elders who, in turn, are part of an overarching assembly of elders. In America, the largest of these assemblies are the PC-USA (which is more liberal in its leanings) and the PCA. The Presbyterian denomination is also distinctive for its emphasis on Reformed/Calvinist theology.
In a nutshell: Elders and Calvinism.
Famous members: B. B. Warfield, J. Vernon McGee, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller.

As the name implies, Lutheran churches are affiliated with the theology of Martin Luther, the German friar/professor who kick-started the Protestant Reformation.
Lutherans have a high sacramental theology, perform infant baptisms, and hold to specific understandings of justification and amillennial eschatology. Also, Lutherans teach that the Catholic Pope is Antichrist, so there’s that.
In a nutshell: “This is the word of Martin Luther.” “Thanks be to God.”
Famous members: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, Dr. Seuss (purportedly).

The Baptist denomination is one of the more well-known in the United States. Two things in particular make them unique. The first is their insistence that baptism must be reserved only for individuals mature enough to make a personal profession of faith (and done by full immersion, not sprinkling!). The second is their emphasis on the independence and self-governance of local church congregations (although many local Baptist churches choose to be affiliated with larger Baptist conventions, like the Southern Baptist Convention). Some Baptists also teach that certain spiritual gifts like healing, tongues, and prophecy died out once the New Testament was completed (this view is called cessationism).
In a nutshell: Baptism for adults only; local church autonomy.
Famous members: John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, Russell Moore, John Piper.

This denomination stems from the ministry of John Wesley in the 1700s. Wesley was an Anglican priest who pioneered new ministries on the American frontier. His followers, known as Methodists, subsequently split off into a new denomination. Methodist theology is traditionally Arminian. Some Methodists believe that Christians can achieve perfect sanctification in this life (Wesleyan Holiness Movement). Many also teach that one can lose their salvation through willful/persistent sin. Many Methodist churches also place a heavy emphasis on social activism. Methodist worship services are often more formal/liturgical, but some are contemporary.
In a nutshell: Arminian theology and activism.
Famous members: Francis Asbury, William Booth (founder of The Salvation Army), George W. Bush, I. Howard Marshall, Thomas Oden.

Pentecostal and Charismatic 
Pentecostalism is the largest Protestant denomination worldwide. It has grown especially in Asia and Africa thanks to missions endeavors. Its main distinctive is its emphasis on the continuance of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit (healing, tongues, and prophecy).
Traditional Pentecostal distinctives also include: 1) the belief that the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is an event subsequent to conversion, and 2) the belief that Spirit-baptism is always evidenced by speaking in tongues. Some branches of Pentecostalism also place an emphasis on trying to return to the conditions and practices of the first-century church (as described in the book of Acts). Pentecostalism also has many sub-denominations, including: Classical Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, Holiness Pentecostals, and the Apostolic Church.
[Important Note!: While Pentecostalism is a specific denomination, the term “charismatic” is a category description that says a church believes in the continuance of all spiritual gifts. In other words, a church can be charismatic without being Pentecostal. Non-Pentecostal charismatics believe that Spirit-baptism happens simultaneously with conversion and don’t teach that everyone must speak in tongues.]
In a nutshell: “We really like the Holy Spirit here!”
Famous members: Elvis Presley, Smith Wigglesworth, Joyce Meyer, John Wimber, Sam Storms, Gordon Fee, Craig Keener.

Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ
The Church of Christ denomination, while not as large as those mentioned above, is unique in its emphasis on simplicity and “Bible-only” teaching. They generally reject the use of creeds and historical theology when forming their doctrine. Churches of Christ are also known for forbidding the use of musical instruments in worship services.
A closely-related denomination is the Disciples of Christ. This group also denies creeds, and teaches by way of having members read the Bible and and follow whatever it says to them. All that’s required to become a member is that you undergo believer’s baptism.
In a nutshell: “No creed but the Bible (according to my own interpretation).”
Famous members: Max Lucado, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Anabaptist groups emerged out of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation — those who distanced themselves from participating in society. Today, Anabaptist offshoots include the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. They are well-known for their emphasis on pacifism, non-participation in military or political matters, and (in some cases) living in secluded, alternative communities.
In a nutshell: Non-conformists.
Famous members: Menno Simons, William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania), John Howard Yoder, Greg Boyd.

And there you have it! Obviously much more detail could be given on any of these denominations and their own subgroups, but hopefully now you can at least tell your Lutherans from your Episcopalians.

See you down the path!

Categories: Ecclesiology & Missions, General

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22 replies

  1. Great piece, very informative!
    I would like to know if Billy Graham believed in cessationism.


  2. Thank you so much for this handy guide. I was looking all over the internet for somewhere that told me the difference between all the denominations in just the right amount of detail. Most other websites forgot some of the denominations or just didn’t provide any detail. This article helped me to distinguish the difference between all of them.


  3. What the heck?? I’m a lifelong Lutheran, was Missouri Synod in the 50s and 60s, now ELCA. member in several states and have participated in nationwide events. I have never heard any Lutheran pastor or class or individual speak of the Pope as you describe. Generally there is great respect for the Pope. “the Antichrist?!” Hardly.


    • Luther made the statement in his Schmalkaldic Articles, II, IV, 10-12, that “the Pope is the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ.” This was generally received as a true confession of Lutheranism until around the middle of the twentieth century, so that may be why your experience has been different. Looks like the stance of the LCMS has softened from classical Lutheranism.


    • The whole Protestant Reformation started based on how bad the Catholic Church was. That is why there are Lutheran churches today. If there was no division, there would be no Lutheran church. The Catholic church was involved in a huge mess with things like indulgences, killing people, paying for salvation, etc. Luther straightened this out and broke from the Catholic Church.

      Most Lutherans who follow the Bible and the teachings of Luther, are going to have issues with the Catholic Church as they still present opposite teachings. They clash as does oil and water. Though recently theological liberalism has invaded some Lutheran churches to make the distinctions less clear and blurred the line to some extent, traditionally, many Lutherans saw Catholics as enemies of the faith, as did Luther, which is why they named their church after the guy.


  4. Hi there,
    This was really interesting and informative, I was trying to understand what all is included under the umbrella of Christianity. I’m Roman Catholic and I’m curious what Catholics believe that people can earn salvation through their good works, without faith or church participation? Can you tell me where you got that information? Also, do you know if Mormons are included under Christianity? Let me know and thank you so much!


    • Haley,
      I was referring in broad terms to some of the more liberal wings of Catholicism, particularly among academics. It’s been a while since I wrote this post, so I’d have to go back and dig around for a specific source. As far as Mormons, I would not label them as orthodox Christians; they hold beliefs that are wildly different from historic Christian orthodoxy and any of the agreed-on creeds of Christianity, so I would consider them a quasi-Christian sect or cult.


  5. I am a former skeptic who came to believe that the Old Testament and the New Testament could not be just myths. The predictions in the Old Testament seem to actually come true in the New Testament. I am not looking at all of the various Christian groups and I am frustrated about that. John 17 says that Christ wanted the church to be perfectly one so the world would know that Christianity is the one true church. One of the things that convinced me that the New Testament was true is that Jesus said that he would build a church that would not fail. He said that it would be persecuted. He said that it would go to all nations. And he said that he would be with the church until the end of time. But when I look at the early church that did all of those things it is the Catholic Church. What am I missing? I used your great site here to find some Early Church Father writings.

    And from a person who has no biases because I grew up an atheist, Irenaeus looks completely Catholic. He references that there is only one church. One thing you left out in your article that summarizes his work “Against Heresies” Against the Heresies in section 3.3.2 is that he said that the Church of Rome had a primacy over the church at that time. He listed Bishops of Rome from Peter to the guy was the Bishop of Rome at his time who was Eleutherius.

    From my total new comer perspective with no biases it seems that in the New Testament Jesus said that he would start a church and the gates of hades would not prevail against it. He said that the Holy Spirit would guide the church in “all truth” and would do so “forever.” He said that he wanted the church to “be one” so that the world would know that Christianity is the one true religion. He even predicted that the church would be persecuted but still he wanted it to go to all nations. And when I looked at the early church; all of that came true. There was one unified church. It was persecuted. It did go to all nations. That is why I believed that Christ really was resurrected. The unity and growth of the early church is what Christain apologists use as evidence that Christ was resurrected and was guiding the church. But when I look at THAT CHURCH in those early years it was the Catholic Church. The Papacy seems to be accepted and in force even before the church defined the doctrine of the Trinity and before it even identified which books would be considered as the inspired New Testament. The one Catholic Church is all I see for 1,000 years. So, if the unity and growth of the early church is the primary evidence for the resurrection of Christ; how does it make sense for Protestants to come along 1500 years later and claim that some of those things that the early Catholic Church was unified about are wrong and terrible doctrines? That would seem to destroy the evidence for the resurrection. Would love to hear a Protestant perspective on that. God bless. And thank you for making information about the early church fathers available.


    • “But when I look at the early church that did all of those things it is the Catholic Church. What am I missing?”

      What you’re missing is that the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today has so morphed and changed over the many centuries it’s been around. The modern understanding of the papacy (to take one example) is far removed from how it was practiced in the earliest centuries, when numerous bishops at numerous times felt free to oppose and correct the bishops of Rome whenever they were in error. No one held that the Pope had authority to speak infallibly “ex cathedra” — that is a thoroughly modern notion. The Marian dogmas, veneration of icons, and understanding of justification and transubstantiation all also changed from how the early Fathers understood them, to the point that they contradict early church teaching. When St. Irenaeus said it was necessary to agree with the Church of Rome, that was true in his day in the second century. It is no longer true in ours.

      It’s also worth noting that the Catholic Church was divided long before the Protestant Reformation. The East, West, and Coptic branches were all in schism from each other before then, and still are.

      “if the unity and growth of the early church is the primary evidence for the resurrection of Christ” — I wouldn’t say it is the primary evidence. The New Testament documents themselves are the primary evidence. Church growth is a secondary line of support. From what we know of history, the early church was quite diverse, with many local customs and variations. What made it one, as far as I can tell, was that Christians were willing to work together and be flexible on non-essential, secondary doctrines. They had to win converts by demonstrating changed lives of love and compassion, in addition to bringing convincing reasons to believe. Maybe if we brought that attitude back, it could go a long way toward healing these divisions we see.


  6. This was a wonderful post to read. I grew up pentecostal but my views have drastically changed and I’ve been struggling to figure out where I fit best. So far it seems Anglican is the best fit for me. As this seems to be your denomination as well, are there any good sources you can refer me to or information to help me gain more knowledge of this denomination? There is only one Episcopal church near me, and I’m just nervous going in blind.


  7. I feel like with the Baptist oen, the reason you can’t be baptized until you’re mature enough to make a personal profession of faith is that if you’re too young to even truly understand the Bible in any capacity, how can it be genuine. How can a baby who’s to young to even talk begin to comprehend salvation, heaven, hell, and all that?


    • Patrick, that’s a fair question. The answer the church has given since ancient times is that the child’s family speaks on their behalf until the child is old enough to better understand the faith they have been raised in. Rather than basing salvation solely on our ability to comprehend, it is instead seen as also based on God’s covenant promises to the community of faith, the church.


  8. Thank you so much for this informative list! I was raised southern Baptist, and while some of these ideologies I am familiar with some of these are also new to me.
    I recently worked a job where I met a new friend and he considered himself a “seventh day Adventist”. I had never heard of this sect of Christianity and inquired what their beliefs were. He went on to tell me how they also believe that the Catholic Church is the spearhead of Satan, and that the pope is the antichrist, and all Catholicism is against Christ, that catholics have all been brainwashed, and didn’t realize it though. He also went on how strict the scripture was for them that they don’t even eat pork or bacon because it says not to eat unclean animals, but to take it even further- him and his family, (and apparently his whole church) truly believe that the Earth is flat, and that there is an edge to the place that we call earth, and that the sun and stars and moon and everything literally does revolve around Earth. and he went on to have all kinds of “proof“ like maps from different world leaders in history that have believed this to actual Scripture quotes in the Bible. He truly believes that the whole “planets being round thing” is a huge conspiracy- part of Satan‘s lie about reality. I guess why I’m bringing this up is because “seventh day adventist” was not mentioned in your list, and as far as I can tell, they have some of the most radical ideas I have ever heard of!! I mean the flat earth theory has weaseled its way into Christianity, when did this happen?
    Where did this sect come from?
    And how does the message of Christs love and light get transmuted into this?
    Sorry to leave you with nothing but questions…. So I won’t!
    If you can read this, then I want you to know that I love you without question or judgment!! you are a being of light and God created you just like every other thing in the universe!!
    so you are here!
    you are valid!
    and you are loved!!
    Now shine your light as bright as you can for our Amazing God!
    Love, Light and Grace be with you-always!


  9. Re Church of Christ, I’ve always heard “No creed but Christ.”

    Thanks for the synopsis!



  1. Why Are There So Many Denominations? – Theology Pathfinder
  2. A Handy-Dandy Guide to Unorthodox “Christian” Sects & Cults – Theology Pathfinder

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