The Christian landscape in the world today is multifaceted, varied, and sometimes jaggedly divided. In a world where global news coverage mentions “persecuted Christians in the Middle East” in one breath and “the Christian Right” of America in the next, we may begin to suspect that the simple shorthand “Christian” isn’t quite sufficient for describing the sundry groups it’s supposed to cover. In many places in the world (in the Middle East, for example), the name “Christian” may imply both a distinct culture and a distinct race or ethnicity. It’s beyond my scope to enumerate instances where that’s the case, so instead I want to limit the meaning of “Christian” here to a belief system, a philosophical-religious position. In terms of the content of the belief system (and in some cases the history or tradition of that system), we can divide the Christian landscape of today into some broad distinctions, just to help us navigate better how we use the term. This isn’t any official taxonomy, just some conceptual categories offered for your edification.
False / Heretical Christianity
There are some groups who either claim the name Christian or are sometimes assumed by outsiders to be Christian that simply aren’t. These groups either reject or fail to hold the most basic, central doctrines of standard Christianity, namely the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation. Stated briefly, the doctrine of the Trinity recognizes that there is only one God, transcendent and creator of heaven and earth (all natures and creatures), and that this Divine reality is three Persons, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who share equal power, glory, and eternality, not as three separate gods but as One God. The doctrine of the Incarnation is that the person of God-the-Son became a human being, born in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus, killed in his flesh under Pontius Pilate’s authority in Jerusalem, and was then bodily resurrected , effecting “salvation” for mankind. Some examples of groups that do not accept these foundational Christian doctrines are mormons (Church of Latter Day Saints and similar groups), Jehovah’s witnesses, some Pentecostal groups such as “Oneness” pentecostals, Unitarian/Universalists, and Christian Scientists. All of these groups acknowledge Jesus as playing some role in their system, but none of them accept him as the fully divine and incarnated second person of the triune God.
The faith systems that acknowledge the two essential doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation could all be called Standard Christianity, though within this still exceedingly broad category are a dizzying amount of (sometimes very serious) differences of belief and practice. The history of the birth and spread of Christianity 2,000 years ago is sufficient to show that the two foundational concepts of the Trinity and Incarnation uniquely distinguished Christianity from every other religion or philosophy in the world — not just the pagan religions, but even monotheistic Judaism and the philosophies of Plato, Lao Tzu, and the Vedas. Today, however, these two doctrines are often the only things holding communities with wildly disparate cultures, practices, world-views, and motives in any kind of relation to each other. But this wasn’t always the case, so I’ll use the historical threshold where this reality came into being as a way to sharply distinguish what I see as two broad manifestations of standard Christianity with different spirits.
Protestant Christianity – The historical threshold I’m referring to is the advent of Protestantism in Europe. Once this threshold was crossed, the number of distinct, unaffiliated Christian communities exponentially exploded. Apart from the two central Christian doctrines, the one thing that united every new protestant group was the conviction that dissociating themselves from every other Christian group in existence was fully justifiable for the sake of whatever their unique distinction was. And all those distinctions are now quite sundry: paedobaptism v. believer’s baptism; Calvin’s theology v. Melanchthon’s; ceremonial v. informal prayer meeting; submersion v. sprinkling; necessity of speaking in tongues or not; guitar or organ. As the distinctions became more and more superficial, the idea of re-emphasizing the central doctrines and marginalizing all the rest resulted in non-denominational churches and much neutered mainline denominations. These non-denominational communities still belong in the ‘Protestant Christianity’ category, however, as even they continue to perpetuate the pattern of dissociation from any other Christian group already established. Whether Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Vineyard, non-denominational, or any of the estimated 30,000+ protestant groups, they all set their own terms and remain heirs to the spirit of separation from what came before them, namely….
Classical Christianity – For about the first thousand years A.D., there was only really one kind of Christianity. This Christianity certainly had at its core the two central doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but upon those foundational realities was built an entire integrated structure of faith and practice, life and activity. The unity of both faith and praxis among Christians throughout the pagan Roman Empire, then across the Christianized Roman/Byzantine Empire, from Syria to India to Ethiopia to Armenia to Italy to Ireland, was because the Christians understood themselves primarily not as adherents of a belief system called Christianity, but as members of one Church. One of the hallmarks of Classical Christianity is its self-identification as “The Christian Church”. They understood this Church to be One – undivided, the body of the One Lord; Holy – called out from the world of sinful cares and passions, dedicated to God; Catholic – ‘according to the whole’, being both universal in its scope, but also full, containing within it all revelation and everything necessary for man’s salvation; and Apostolic – maintaining continuity with the teaching and the spiritual authority of the Holy Apostles, those chosen and sent by Christ himself. Classical Christianity also maintained a hierarchy of leadership, not merely for pragmatic organization, but as a continuation of investing worthy men with spiritual authority from Christ himself; a sacramental life, understanding the effectual actions and power of God to be communicated through physical actions like baptism, chrismation, ordination, marriage, anointing, confession/absolution, and especially the Eucharist; a careful preservation and inspired beautifying of liturgical worship, understanding the work of the people in worship, led by their priest or bishop, to be a joining in with the eternal heavenly worship; a direct friendship with and invocation of the prayers of Saints in heaven, both the departed from this world and the angels of God; a reverence for the beauty of creation and its capacity to bear God’s holiness, especially in holy places, objects, and images of Christ and his Saints.
The fullness, the richness, the antiquity, and the integratedness of Classical Christianity still animates the Orthodox Church, the “Oriental” (Non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox, and the Roman Catholic Church today, which is why they are all working (albeit very cautiously and meticulously) to re-establish full communion with each other. They all maintain the ancient credal commitment to one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but they also still see in each other so much of themselves and remember the unfortunate historical and all-too-human circumstances in which they severed communion with the others. Even now, though the path be unsure and the hoped for destination shrouded by the veil of futurity, they make progress in overcoming semantic differences, repenting of the sins of their predecessors, and growing in love and understanding toward the others, not for the sake of some cheap and expedient reconciliation, but for the real, deep, uncompromising, sacramental unification.
Of all the protestant groups, only the Anglicans are worth mentioning in a discussion about re-unification with the Classical Christian churches, as Anglicans have had serious talks throughout their post-reformation history with both the Orthodox and the Romans about it. This is because many Anglicans uniquely were able to preserve with honesty and integrity so much of the life of Classical Christianity. There are still some corners of the Anglican Communion that strive to maintain this life, but most all official talks at this point have ceased, as it becomes more and more clear that Anglicanism on the whole is quickly falling further away from anything resembling Classical Christianity. For every other protestant group, re-unification with any of the three remaining Classically Christian churches would be impossible without at least a radical change in their ecclesiology first, and probably changes in their doctrines and practice, too.
To recap, Classical Christianity with its fully sacramental life as universally practiced in the first 1,000 to 1,500 years of Christianity is represented today among the Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, and (most of) the Roman Catholics. Protestant Christianity diverged from Classical Christianity primarily in its degraded ecclesiology and general willingness to dissociate from previous groups and confessions in order to establish a newly distinguished one. This willingness to break off and establish something new, it must be said, is not a trait that applies to the vast majority of actual practicing protestant Christians, as many are life-long adherents to the communities in which they were born and raised. It was rather in the original establishers of those communities –and, I fear, embedded somehow into the deep nature of the groups they founded– that the spirit of dislocation is found. But through the centuries and the countless divisions, sometimes the only thing that makes some groups intelligibly identifiable as “Christian” is their persistence in holding to those non-negotiable doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Any group that does that, Classical or Protestant, at least meets the bar for Standard Christianity. Those who use the term “Christian” for themselves but can’t meet that standard are False Christian. These categories in no way reflect my presumptions about the people actually in them (as St. Augustine observed, who knows how many lambs are outside the fold and how many wolves are within?), but are only a way to help us think more clearly about the varied and manifold groups that regularly get called “Christian”.
*For further information about the specific differences between Orthodox, Catholic, various Protestant traditions, and False Christians groups, see “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy”, the book and the podcast.