Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Christian Family Tree:
Celebrating Jesus Together
After two millennia of Christian history, the search for greater
unity among Christians is at a crossroads. The 20th century saw the rise of the ecumenical
movement as first Protestants, Orthodox and then Catholics began to show interest in breaking
down the historic barriers between the Churches. The ecumenical movement that emerged made
some real gains, thanks to a new spirit on both sides of the wall separating Protestants,
Orthodox and Catholics.
Many high-level dialogues have been held between Protestant,
Orthodox and Catholic theologians and many sentiments about the need for unity have been
voiced. The pope himself has gone out of his way to join in prayer with Protestant and
Orthodox leaders. But some observers think ecumenism has lost much of its momentum.
Is it the best of times or the worst of times for ecumenism?
Will Rome—s celebration of the Jubilee in the year 2000 spark a renewal of interest in
Christian unity? As we wonder about such questions at the dawn of another millennium, we
might take a look at the sprawling, messy Christian family as it stands at present. Why
so many Churches? Where did they all come from?
East and West
When we look at the Christian family tree, we see that until
the 16th century it had basically only two large branches: the Western and the Eastern
Churches. Already by the fifth century the Western Churches had come more or less under
the rule of the Bishop of Rome, while the Eastern—also known as the Orthodox—Churches were,
for the most part, under the rule of the patriarchs who occupied the main sees of Alexandria,
Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch. One notable exception is the Assyrian Church of
the East, which went its own way after the Council of Ephesus in 431. The other exception
is a group of six ancient Churches known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which parted
with other Christians after the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
While culturally, politically and socially quite disparate,
the Western and Eastern Churches were able to maintain some form of communion during the
first millennium with only a few exceptions. However, a definitive schism occurred after
1054 when the issue of papal sovereignty, which had long bedeviled the relationship of
East and West, finally came to a head. The papal legate and the Patriarch of Constantinople
anathematized each other, causing a lasting schism between Greek and Latin Christendom.
Many social, political and doctrinal factors over time led to the rift. Doctrinally, in
addition to disagreement over the role of the pope, East and West also had a deep difference
of understanding regarding the way we talk about the Holy Spirit in the creed (the filioque controversy).
Similar basic beliefs
Over the centuries since then various attempts were made at
reconciliation but they never proved lasting. Nevertheless both branches share the same
basic doctrines. The Eastern Orthodox Churches base their doctrines on the teachings of
the first seven ecumenical councils of the Church held from the fourth to the eighth century
at Nicaea (I and II), Ephesus, Chalcedon and Constantinople (I, II and III).
The Orthodox differ from the Roman Catholics in the formulations.
For example, while holding to seven sacraments they do not sharply distinguish them from
other quasi-sacramental actions. Again, they too believe the elements of bread and wine
are changed into the real body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, but do not insist
on the term transubstantiation, which was developed in the West after the schism.
And they are deeply devoted to the Virgin Mary as the Mother of Christ, but do not require
belief in the dogma of her Immaculate Conception, another Western insight. But their main
doctrinal difference with the Roman Church is over the authority of the pope, to whom they
ascribe merely a primacy of honor. Moreover, they demand celibacy only of their bishops,
not their priests.
Today the Orthodox or so-called Eastern Churches form a communion
of self-governing Churches, including the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople,
Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as well as five patriarchates of more recent origin:
Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Georgia. Within this communion are found also the
Orthodox Churches of Cyprus, Greece, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Albania.
There are also Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome:
the Eastern Catholic Churches. They retain their respective traditions of liturgy, theology,
spirituality and canon law. These Churches are often grouped according to their liturgical
traditions: the Byzantine rite (the Bulgarian, Greek, Melkite, Italo-Albanian, Romanian,
Ruthenian, Slovak, Ukrainian, Yugoslav and Hungarian Catholic Churches), the Alexandrian
rite (the Coptic and Ethiopian Catholic Churches), the Antiochene rite (the Syro-Malankara,
Maronite and Syrian Catholic Churches), the Chaldean or East Syrian rite (the Chaldean
and Syro-Malabar Catholic Churches), and the Armenian rite (the Armenian Catholic Church).
Like the Western Churches, the Eastern Churches have gone through
periods of renewal and decay, power and persecution. One of their glorious missionary chapters
began with the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century and led eventually
to the conversion of Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia. The latest persecution took place under
the Communists. With the downfall of Communism in 1989 there are signs that the Orthodox
Church in Eastern Europe is poised for another period of renewal.
The Western branch divides
When we turn to the branches that stem from the 16th-century
Reformation the Christian family tree takes on a baffling complexity. This is no doubt
due to the principles the Protestant Reformation espoused: faith alone as the means of
salvation and recognition of Scripture as primary authority.
Martin Luther began this Reformation in 1517 and it swept across
Europe like a tornado. One sometimes wonders what he would think were he to see the myriad
of separate Churches which derived from his principles. His original intention was not
to found a new Church, but to reform the Catholic Church he had grown up in. Yet ultimately
he decided that allegiance to the pope and reform of the ancient Catholic Church were totally
A theological and spiritual genius, he created, in effect, a
new Church based on beliefs that were seen to be at odds with the Catholic tradition. His
basic belief was summarized in the phrase "justification by faith alone," as opposed to
the then-popular belief among Catholics that you earned salvation by your good works. Luther
went on to offer many other doctrines and practices opposed to traditional Catholicism,
including belief in only two sacraments and rejection of essential Catholic doctrines regarding
the Eucharist, the Mass and the nature of the Church as a divinely established visible
institution. Indeed for Luther the true Church was to be found wherever the "Gospel was
rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered."
In effect, two main pillars of Catholic authority were undermined
by Luther and the other Protestant reformers: the magisterium of pope and bishops and the
authority of tradition. The Catholic hierarchical magisterium was denied by such teachings
as the priesthood of all believers. The authority of tradition was impugned by the principle
of "Scripture alone," sola Scriptura.
The tendency to division within Protestant ranks which would
eventually produce a myriad of separate Churches soon became apparent in the dispute over
the Eucharist between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer. While Luther taught
that, when consecrated, the bread and wine really became Christ—s body and blood, Zwingli
considered them only symbols. The French reformer John Calvin found a position midway between
the other two reformers with his doctrine that the bread and the wine are instruments by
which Christ distributes to us his body and blood.
Four main Reformation branches
Each of the Churches that emerged from these and other disputes
developed its own distinctive teachings, liturgies and structures. Without claiming to
be all-inclusive, one can roughly divide them into four main branches: the Lutheran, the
Reformed, the Church of England (Anglican) and the Anabaptists.
Lutheran Churches.These originally took root in Germany
and Scandinavia. They modified but generally retained traditional liturgical forms, putting
equal emphasis on preaching and sacraments. Arriving in North America early in the 17th
century, Lutheranism divided into a plethora of Lutheran Church bodies. But the 20th century
saw these converging into three major Lutheran Churches: the Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Canada. By the 1990's the Lutheran World Federation included 57 million of
the world—s 61 million Lutherans.
On October 31, 1999, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation
signed a "Joint Declaration on Justification" that lays to rest the major issue that sparked
the Protestant Reformation, salvation by faith versus salvation by works. In the Declaration,
the fruit of 30 years— dialogue, both Lutherans and Catholics acknowledge that the salvation
of humanity comes from God alone. Yet that gracious act of God—s mercy, the life, death
and resurrection of Jesus, calls us to cooperate with God—s grace, to live holy, charitable
lives. Reformation-era condemnations on both sides no longer apply, says the Declaration.
The signing of this Declaration was a historic step in ecumenism.
Reformed Churches. This second branch stemming from the Reformation
embraces those most heavily influenced by the theology of John Calvin, John Knox and Ulrich
Zwingli. It includes the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.
Presbyterians and Congregationalists prospered early in the
history of the United States, especially in New England, where already in 1783 Ezra Stiles,
president of Yale College, predicted that the American Christian future would be about
equally divided between Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Not a bad
prediction, for the three Churches did maintain a dominant position in the religious mainstream
well into the 20th century, though the Baptists and Methodists eventually took over the
first two places.
Congregationalists espouse a Church polity that
insists on the independence and autonomy of each local congregation and democracy in governance.
They also favor a form of worship centered on long sermons, while celebrating the Lord—s
Supper less frequently. (This tradition of nonliturgical worship became especially characteristic
of the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists and Baptists.) In 1957 the Congregationalists
joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches in the United States to form the United
Church of Christ.
To some extent the rationalistic and anti-dogmatic Unitarians in
the United States stemmed from the Congregationalists although the Unitarians can also
be placed in a different category.
Baptistscan be seen as an offshoot of the Reformed
Presbyterians follow a Calvinist Church order
that gives elected laypersons (called elders) a right to participate in the work of the
priesthood (presbytery). They join the minister(s) and deacon(s) in the preaching, teaching
and sacramental ministry of the congregation. The United Presbyterian Church, then the
largest American Presbyterian body, adopted a Book of Confessions in 1967 that included
many historic creeds, including the Nicene and Apostles— Creeds. It merged in 1983 with
other Presbyterian bodies to form the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) originated
with certain Presbyterians concerned for evangelism on the American frontier in the early
19th century. (But the Disciples may also be placed in another category.) Alexander Campbell
(d. 1866), the cofounder (with Barton Stone) of the Disciples, was much influenced by John
Locke—s idea that reason alone could reveal the essential message of the New Testament.
He therefore opposed the imposition of creeds or tests of faith and accordingly left the
Presbyterians. His Church became one of the largest American denominations.
The Church of England (Anglicans). The third Western
branch grew from the Church of England, which emerged from Henry VIII—s 16th-century break
with the pope. The Episcopal Church is a body of the Anglican Communion, which includes
the Church of England and other self-governing Anglican Churches. Like the Church of England,
the Episcopal Church is known for its great latitude in doctrinal and disciplinary matters.
Also emerging from the Church of England, yet no longer in full
communion with it, are the Methodists and the Quakers. The United Methodist Church traces
its roots to the dynamic preaching of John Wesley, a Church of England clergyman aided
by his brother Charles, also a clergyman and a talented author of hymns. Wesley held long,
unritualistic, outdoor services that climaxed when the individual was inspired to make
a personal commitment to Christ.
But Wesley was also devoted to the real presence of Christ
in the Eucharist and celebrated it regularly. The relations of the two Wesleys and their
followers with the Church of England remained undefined, and only after their death did
the Methodist Church emerge as a completely independent Church. Methodist Churches spread
widely in the United States even during the lifetime of the Wesleys. Methodism has traditionally
manifested an active concern with both evangelism and social welfare.
Like the Methodists, the Quakers originated from a fervent
preacher, in this case, George Fox (d. 1691). His magnetic personality, immense spiritual
power, selfless devotion and patience under persecution won him a large following whom
he loosely organized into the so-called Meetings. Without traditional liturgy, creeds or
sacraments, Quakers rely on an Inner Light and direct experience of God for guidance and
empowerment. They are especially noted for their deep commitment to the Holy Spirit, social
betterment and pacifism.
Anabaptists. The fourth branch of the Reformation, the
Anabaptists, formed the most radical section of the 16th-century Reformation and were given
their name because they denied that infant Baptism was true Baptism. The Anabaptist movement
from the start embraced a number of separate groups that espoused a wide variety of views
including strong anti-government and apocalyptic views. In the United States they include
the Amish and the closely related Mennonites, many of whom are known for
their communal and extremely anti-modern life-style. Church of the Brethren is also included
Loosely associated at the beginning with the Anabaptist movement,
the Baptists are the largest Protestant community in the United States. (They share
roots with the Reformed Churches, too.) Billy Graham is their most well-known preacher.
Many of them were pioneers in the quest for religious liberty. Perhaps the most famous
of these, Roger Williams, founded a Baptist Church at Providence, Rhode Island, in 1649,
an event usually regarded as the beginning of American Baptist history.
Baptists were in the forefront of the Protestant world missionary
movement that began in the 18th century, and Baptist preachers were also in the vanguard
as the frontier was carried westward in the United States. Baptists cherish the autonomy
of the local congregation.
Many scholars consider the Christian Churches that grew from
the African-American experience to be distinct. Members of black Baptist congregations
exceed 8 million. The African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church has 3.5 million members.
The Church of God in Christ claims 5.5 million.
Newer forms. Finally, beyond these four main branches
stemming clearly from the Reformation there is another category of Churches whose origins
are peculiarly American. They exemplify our nation—s penchant for religious novelty which
is, no doubt, caused in part by the absence here of a dominant national Church with a lengthy
A recent study of this phenomenon by Paul Conkin attempts to
classify these "originals" according to a number of types: restoration (Christians
and Disciples), humanistic (Unitarian and Universalist), apocalyptic (Adventists,
Jehovah—s Witnesses and Mormons), spiritualist (Christian Science and Unity) and ecstatic (Holiness
and Pentecostal). These represent, according to Conkin, well over 90 percent of Americans
who have embraced new or original forms of Christianity.
But new religions are constantly sprouting up with, it is said,
five new ones organized each week. Already by 1985 there were nearly 2,000 separate denominations
in the United States! Many of these call themselves "nondenominational."
As we conclude this overview of the Christian family, one must
admit there—s something awe-inspiring about the way the gospel has manifested such vitality
in our world in this great profusion of Churches. At the same time, however, the spectacle
of Christians divided in such a bewildering multiplicity haunts those Christians who feel
the challenge of Jesus— prayer that all may be one.
This Catholic Update includes in its print version a visual
diagram of the Christian Family Tree.