1. Roman Catholicism
2. Protestantism stemming from the European Reformation.
3. Eastern Orthodoxy
[Note: Some might be uncomfortable with this 'branch' language---for example, Roman Catholics usually consider themselves THE church, instead of a 'branch' of the church---but I have to use some label, and this terminology seems to be a pretty standard convention. Even Roman Catholics have to admit that these other structures are 'branches' in some sense of the word, even if they believe themselves to be the one true branch.]We classify these three as "branches" because each group is institutionally separate, each with its own unique ecclesiological claims, founded on a particular history and theology. Numerically these three are the biggest and play the most prominent roles in European and American history, which explains why most people stop counting here. Nevertheless, in this post I'd like to dig deeper. How many branches are there, really? Let's explore some of the gritty details. To be consistent, we would have to add another two:
So far as I can tell, these churches were founded directly by apostles, and have always been institutionally independent, or very close to it. In the 5th century they became even more isolated, due mostly to imperial politics and theological differences. In retrospect the theological differences were mainly issues of semantics. Oriental Orthodoxy includes several groups you might've heard of before, like the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox. The Assyrian Church is much smaller and contains no other groups.
[Note: Some might object to the inclusion of the Assyrian Church here, since the group is so small today. But this small size is mostly due to genocide committed against them, particularly genocide at the beginning of the 20th century. They've certainly seen better days. The Assyrian Church was arguably the centre of Christianity for the first few centuries, and it was without a doubt the most influential branch until Medieval Christianity in Europe eclipsed it. So yes, the Assyrian Church should definitely be included.]But we're only getting started. :-) The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches also have smaller counterparts, each with their own competing institutional claims. I can't think of any reason these wouldn't qualify as separate 'branches' as well:
6. "Breakaway" Catholic Churches who do not recognize the authority of the Pope and/or Vatican II and/or Vatican I.And these groups aren't just tiny minorities barely worth mentioning. There are more than 25 million breakaway Catholics, and over 7 million breakaway Eastern Orthodox (of course they don't consider themselves "breakaways", but you know what I mean). You can't just write off these groups as newfangled heretics, because in almost every case they've split off in order to stay faithful to older and more traditional forms of liturgy/theology. Therefore, to be fair it seems we have to add these branches to the list as well: if we count the bigger version of Eastern Orthodoxy, then we have to count the smaller version as well.
7. Eastern Orthodox Churches who have officially broken away and protested against more modern Eastern Orthodox practices/doctrines (e.g., the Old Believers, and the Greek Old Calendarists).
The Assyrian Church and Oriental Orthodoxy seem to have an interesting counterpart as well, but it's unlike these others:
8. "Reformed" Syrian/Oriental Church (i.e., Mar Thoma Syrian Church)I never heard about this church until last week. Their history is fascinating, and I would like to learn more. Like many churches in India, they've always been institutionally independent, or very close to it, and their history apparently traces back directly to Thomas the Apostle. As far as I can tell, they seem to have a lot of historical overlap with both the Oriental and Assyrian branches, particularly the latter. Following the translation of scripture into their native tongue, they underwent their own internal reformation led by Abraham Malpan (the reforms were supposedly aimed at getting rid of Roman Catholic influences and returning to their own older, native traditions). The end result was a church that we might describe as "Reformed Syrian/Oriental." Looking over some of their beliefs, they definitely have a lot in common with Reformed Europeans. They even have communal relations with the Anglican Church today! And yet, we can't really classify them as Protestants, given their unique institutional identity, their historical roots, their independent legitimate line of apostolic succession, and the fact that they don't appear to have ever schismed away from anybody. So I think this branch should be added to the list. Admittedly, this group is small, having only 1.2 million members (for frame of reference, there are 1.2 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the USA). Nevertheless, their ecclesiological history is unique enough to warrant counting them as another branch of the church, separate from both the Oriental and Assyrian branches.
There's another huge group we haven't even talked about yet:
9. Spontaneous non-institutional Christianity with no traceable rootsI have in mind here churches that seem to arise almost out of thin air due to native evangelism in regions like Asia and Africa. This seems to happen especially often in places of persecution. Think of house-churches in China, for example. We might be tempted to carelessly classify this as a subset of the European Reformation, since it clearly doesn't easily fit into any of the other branches, but I don't think that would be accurate. These churches aren't discernibly "Protestant" (except insofar as 'Protestant' is sometimes used as a catch-all term for anything falling outside of the other boundaries listed above). Their origin is different. These groups know no creeds or structures. They prosper and spread under only the most basic leadership, if any. When these churches arise, they seem to be more Bible-driven, not really stemming from any particular denomination or branch. It might be better to call this "mere Christianity", a sort of basic situation that occurs under extreme circumstances, such as religious persecution or widespread nascent missionary work. Whatever else you might say about this category, it definitely doesn't fit under any of the other branches above. And it's an absolutely enormous category. Nobody knows for sure how many members (one of the downsides to being non-institutional!).
So far this brings us to nine branches and counting:
1. Roman CatholicismOkay, by now you might be asking yourself, "Brad, what's your point? What are you driving at in this blogpost?" I've written this to illustrate a few points, and to drive us towards a particular conclusion:
2. Reformation Protestantism
3. Eastern Orthodoxy
4. Oriental Orthodoxy
5. Assyrian Church of the East
6. Roman Catholicism (smaller, older versions)
7. Eastern Orthodoxy (smaller, older versions)
8. "Reformed" Assyrian/Oriental Church
9. Spontaneous non-institutional churches
A. First of all, I hope that I've demonstrated the futility of this endeavour. The list certainly doesn't end at 9 branches. Those are just the big ones. You could spend the rest of your life counting up all the smaller, equally "legitimate" ecclesiological branches. For example, the Assyrian Church technically shouldn't be just one branch. There was a schism in the Assyrian Church when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, resulting in another totally independent historical branch with a mere 100,000 adherents: the Ancient Church of the East (whoever said the one true church needs to be big?). There are numerous smaller branches under Roman Catholicism, each of them mutually hostile. There are strange grey areas like Pentecostalism: Is it a distantly removed descendant of Historical Protestantism? Or is it more like a spontaneous emergence? Or is it better to speak of pentecostalism as merely a charismatic movement within other branches, like Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? (I've been to a couple Charismatic Roman Catholic Churches before... one of which even had electric drums...) So how many branches are there? Ultimately, it's innumerable.
B. Second, it's futile to try and figure out which of these is THE one true church. Hypothetically, if you were a new convert to Christianity sitting on the sidelines, trying to figure out which church you should join, trying to discern which church was the ONE TRUE church, then it would be best to give each branch a fair hearing. You wouldn't just need to compare Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. To be fair, you should compare Roman Catholics who believe in Papal infallibility and Roman Catholics who deny it. You should compare Eastern Orthodoxy to Oriental Orthodoxy. You should be as thorough as possible, because
you would never want to risk joining the wrong church and thereby ending up outside the one true church. But since you're human, you would eventually have to settle in one of the branches anyway, despite the risk of getting it wrong. It's simply not possible to give them all a fair hearing. This isn't just your average tough decision. We all face tough decisions in life, but arguably no decision for a Christian would be so important as this one (do you want to get left out of the Church?), no decision would be so universal (we all would be making this choice, whether we realize it or not), and no decision would be so incredibly difficult to make. Ecclesiologically, the claims of all these different branches compete with each other on apparently the same level of authority. They each have their own theological arguments and historical claims that need to be considered. Ultimately, how could you ever decide? Sure, some of the branches are bigger than others today, but should today's demographics really be the determining factor? In a nutshell: What basis would you REALLY have for accepting the exclusivist claims of a particular group like Oriental Orthodoxy while rejecting all the exclusivist claims from all the other groups?
C. Third, if you believe that only one of these branches above constitutes "the one true church", then you believe the majority of Christians got it wrong. No single branch contains the majority of Christians in the world today. Roman Catholics are by far the biggest group, but even they only have about ~50% of Christians within their walls. If we admit that all the folks above are "Christian" in some sense---Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Orientals, Assyrians are all Christian---then it means that no single group possesses the majority. If any of them makes an exclusivist claim, then that means they're categorically excluding the majority of their brethren, which is a rather scary and prideful course of action. Woe to the majority of Christians, dead and alive, who apparently messed up and didn't join the true church!
The church is NOT an institution. The church is not defined and limited by any political structure or governmental body. The church is much bigger than that and much messier. The Church is the worldwide visible community of all believers.
The church can take an institutional form, but it doesn't have to necessarily, and it certainly doesn't have to take ONE institutional form (and it never has). This principle enables us to classify all the branches above as Christian churches. This is how we avoid the futility. We don't have to figure out which church is real and which churches are illusory. They're all real! Every branch has its own errors, but they are all Christian communities.
Perhaps one day the global church will have a single, unified, institutional structure. If that happens, it will be the first time it's ever happened (such unity probably wouldn't even have been physically possible in the pre-modern era given the limitations on communication and transportation). Personally, I'm not sure if it ever could happen, or if it would even be desirable for it to happen. But that's a topic for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the church is not now, nor has it ever been, an institution. The church is the gathering of believers, simple as that.