From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Part of the series on

History of Christianity
Ecumenical councils
Great Schism

The Trinity
God the Father
Christ the Son
The Holy Spirit

The Bible
Old Testament
New Testament
The Gospels
Ten Commandments
Sermon on the Mount

Christian theology
Salvation · Grace
Christian worship

Christian Church
Orthodox Christianity

Christian denominations
Christian movements
Christian ecumenism

Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the New Testament writings of his early followers. It is the world's largest religion, with an estimated 2.1 billion adherents, or about one-third of the total world population. It shares with Judaism the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Old Testament by Christians), and is sometimes called an Abrahamic religion, along with Judaism and Islam.

The names "Christian" and hence "Christianity" are first attested in Acts 11:26, "For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians (Gr. χριστιανους)".

Christianity encompasses numerous religious traditions that widely vary by culture and place, as well as many diverse beliefs and sects. Since the Reformation, Christianity is usually represented as being divided into three main branches:

  1. Catholicism -- includes the Roman Catholic Church, the largest coherent group, with over one billion baptized members, as well as certain splinter groups (e.g., the Old Catholic Church) which either reject the pope, or recognize a different pope;
  2. Eastern Christianity (includes the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East), with over two hundred million baptized members;
  3. Protestantism (including Anglicanism, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, Anabaptist, Evangelicalism, Charismatics and Pentecostalism)--numerous denominations and schools of thought, with just over five hundred million members altogether.


This leaves 158 million Independents (unaffiliated with the major streams of Christianity), as well as 31.7 million belonging to other groups with less clear status (including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons). (Source: [1])

These broad divisions are not equally uniform. On the contrary, some branches encompass vast disagreements, and in other cases the division overlooks existing sympathies. But this is the convenient standard overview of distinctions, especially as Christianity has been viewed in the Western world.

A more comprehensive overview would show more complicated relationships among denominations and traditions. Among various disparate groups, this would include categorizing the Miaphysite Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East (the so-called Nestorian Church) as branches distinct from "Chalcedonian Christianity" (including Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and most forms of Protestantism). On the other hand, grouped according to cultural similarities rather than concilar positions, the Eastern Catholic or "Unitate" churches surely belong together with all the Orthodox churches.

Groups with restorationist beliefs – including the Churches of Christ, some Anabaptists, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and others – sometimes regard themselves as entirely separate from Protestantism, with which they have often been included.

The Churches of the Anglican Communion speak of themselves as following a "via media," a "middle way," between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and therefore are also often listed separately. One sometimes reads of a "liturgical family" including Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy. At the same time, Anglicanism encompasses "Anglo-Catholic" and "Evangelical" wings as well as what we might call "culturally Christian" members, and thus finds itself pulled in several directions simultaneously.

A number of groups hold that the branches of Christianity presented above devolved from the original church instituted and founded by Christ as a result of a Great Apostasy. These groups, although historically founded many centuries after the death of Jesus, claim direct theological descent from the original Church portrayed in the New Testament or claim a complete restoration directly from Christ of the origninal Church. Examples would include the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also called Mormons), the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgians), Jehovah's Witnesses, the 7th day Church of God groups, the Christadelphians, and the "Jesus only" or "oneness" Pentecostals.

These groups are considered heretical or even "non-Christian" by many of the mainstream Christian groups, on account of their deviation from tenets considered basic by mainstream Christianity, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, in some ways these groups arguably reflect the teachings and practices of Jesus and/or the early church more closely than the Christian mainstream.

A chart showing the development of various churches from their roots in early Christianity.
A chart showing the development of various churches from their roots in early Christianity.


Enormous diversity obviously exists in the beliefs of those who call themselves Christians. Some churches (notably the Unitarians), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostals) reject the Trinity, which most others recognize as an absolutely essential article of faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaim there is one God or Godhead, but there are three personages: God the Father, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, with God and Jesus having distinct, perfected, physical bodies of flesh and bone. The Unification Church teaches that Christ has returned in the person of their founder, Sun Myung Moon. Not infrequently, a spokesman for some mainstream congregation will raise eyebrows by denying such things as the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the efficacy of prayer, or some other doctrine (or by affirming another belief seen as non-Christian). An example would be retired Episcopal bishop John Spong.

And yet, it is possible to venture general statements which would apply to upwards of 95 % of Christian believers. One such statement is the Nicene Creed (or technically, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), of which the following represents an adaptation:

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty
Creator of heaven and earth
And of all things visible and invisible.
And in his only Son Jesus Christ, our Lord
Eternally begotten of the Father
God from God, light from light, true God from true God
Begotten, not created
Of one essence with the Father.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven
And was conceived by the Holy Spirit
And the Virgin Mary and became man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate
He suffered, died and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
Who proceeds from the Father [Western churches add, ..."and the Son"--see filioque]
Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified
Who spoke through the prophets
And in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
I expect the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the age to come. Amen.

Central Christian beliefs which are affirmed in the Nicene Creed include:

  • The Trinity, God as a single eternal being who exists as three persons: Father, Son (Divine Logos, incarnated as Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost).
  • Jesus Christ as both fully God (divine) and fully human: two natures in one person. He is without sin.
  • That Salvation from "sin and death" is available through the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially his execution and resurrection. Both Protestants and Catholics have arrived at several explanations as to exactly how salvation occurs. (See soteriology.)
  • Jesus's virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Second Coming.
  • The "General Resurrection," in which all people who have ever lived will rise from the dead at the end of time, to be judged by the returned Christ.

Obviously, not all Christians have accepted all of these articles of faith, or else such a creed would never have been written. In fact its lines frequently target certain opposing beliefs of other early Christians, which the creed regards as heretical. Examples would include Ebionite groups which denied Jesus's divinity, a well as Docetist groups which denied that Christ was a human being.

Again, while some churches take exception to some of these articles, to the extent that they do so, this usually represents a conscious departure from the Christian mainstream. Note that many churches (such as the Baptists) would accept these beliefs, but not the creed itself, since they regard all creeds as necessarily unscriptural.

The Afterlife

Christian views of the afterlife generally involve heaven and (somewhat less frequently) hell, with Catholicism adding an intermediate realm of purgatory. Except for purgatory (whose denizens will ultimately enter heaven, after "purification"), these realms are usually assumed to be eternal. There is however some debate on this point, for example among the Orthodox. Much the same spectrum of opinion obtains with respect to the other supposed denizens of heaven and hell, namely angels and demons.

Many Christians interpret "salvation" to mean being able to enter heaven (and escape hell) after death, though some theologians have lamented this tendency. The question of "who is saved" has long been considered a dark mystery by many theologians, though some Protestants consider it a relatively simple issue of whether one has accepted Jesus. On one hand, a major theme of Christianity is that Christ is the way to salvation. On the other hand, few would ascribe to God a willingness to damn infants; persons living prior to the birth of Christ; those who lack exposure to Christianity; and so on. The belief that all will be saved is known as Universalism.

It is generally unclear how the afterlife fits together with the doctrine of the General Resurrection--i.e. whether eternal life begins immediately after death, or at the end of time; and whether this afterlife will involve the resurrection of one's physical body (perhaps in a glorified spiritual form). Most Christians recognize that the soul survives the death of the physical body, though the Jehovah's Witnesses reject this, saying that only the good will be physically resurrected (the others to remain in the grave).

A few Christian denominations, and many more individuals, have promoted belief in reincarnation (chiefly New Thought and New Age churches) or ghosts (many Spiritualist churches identify themselves as Christian). These typically teach that such doctrines are to be found in the Bible and/or early Christian tradition.


Orthodox and Catholic believers describe Christian practice in terms of the seven sacraments:

Many Protestant groups, following Martin Luther, recognize the sacramental nature of baptism and communion, but not the other five. Anabaptist and Brethren groups would add feet washing. Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Holiness Churches emphasize "gifts of the Spirit" such as spiritual healing, prophecy, exorcism, speaking in tongues, or (very occasionally) snake handling. The Quakers deny the entire concept of sacraments.

In general, mainline Protestants tend to see ritual more as a commemoration than a mystery. Their concept of Christian practice is more likely to include acts of personal piety such as prayer, Bible reading, and attempting to live a moral lifestyle. A strong tradition holds that it is impossible for people to reform themselves, but that progress can only occur with the grace of God.


Baptism is the usual ritual whereby one is welcomed into Christianity. It involves either sprinkling water upon the forehead, or immersion in water. It may be applied either to infants or to "adult believers" (which might include young teenagers). Some denominations, such as the Baptists, insist that baptism by immersion of adult believers is the only valid method. Others, such as the Catholics and Orthodox, recognize both methods and all ages, but place restrictions on who may validly perform the ritual for others.

Baptism is derived from the Jewish practice of immersion (mikveh) for purposes of ritual purity. The Christian practice is derived from John the Baptist's call to repentance and conversion (metanoia), and is said to mark a new, spiritual birth. Unlike Jewish ritual immersion, a Christian may only be (validly) baptized once.

In ancient Christianity, baptism was regarded as a kind of initiation ceremony. Those who were not yet baptised were not allowed to enter the church proper, but had to stand before the entrance.

Weekly Worship

Justin Martyr (First Apology, chapter LXVII) describes a second-century church service thus:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Justin's description, which would apply equally well to most church services today, alludes to the following components:

  • Scripture readings drawn from the Old Testament, one of the Gospels, or an Epistle. Often these are arranged systematically around an annual cycle, using a book called a breviary.
  • A sermon. In ancient times this followed the scripture readings; today this more often occurs later in the service.
  • Congregational prayer and thanksgiving. These will probably occur regularly throughout the service. Justin does not mention this, but some of these are likely to be sung in the form of hymns. The Lord's Prayer is especially likely to be recited.
  • The Eucharist (also called Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper) -- a ritual in which small amounts of bread and wine are eaten and drunk. Protestants say these represent the body and blood of Christ; Orthodox and Catholics say that they become the body and blood of Christ (the doctrine of the Real Presence). Churches in the "liturgical" family (Orthodox, Catholic, and some Anglican) see this as the main part of the service, while Protestants may celebrate it less frequently. In many cases there are restriction on who may partake, which visitors should apprise themselves of. For example, only Catholics may take communion at a Catholic church (and not even all of them would be permitted).
  • A "collect," in which the people are asked to contribute money. One common method is to pass around a collection plate. Christians traditionally use these monies not only for upkeep for the church, but also for charity of various types.

A number of variations or exceptions exist. Sometimes these are due to special events, such as baptisms or weddings which are incorporated into the service. In many churches today, children and youth will be excused from the main service in order to attend Sunday school. Many denominations depart from this general pattern in a more fundamental way. For example, the Seventh-Day Adventists meet on Saturday (the biblical Sabbath), not Sunday. Charismatic or Pentecostal congregations may be spontaneously moved by the Holy Spirit, rather tha follow a formal order of service. At a Quaker meeting, participants sit quietly until moved by the Holy Spirit to speak.

In some denominations (mainly liturgical ones), the service is led by a priest. In others (mainly among Protestants), there is a minister, preacher, or pastor. Still others may lack formal leaders, either in principle or by local necessity. In addition we may distinguish between "high" church services, in which the people dress up (i.e. wear semiformal clothing) and the priest wears vestments; and "low" services at which a more casual atmosphere prevails.

In Orthodox churches, the congregation traditionally stands throughout the liturgy (though allowances are made for human weakness). Roman Catholics and many Protestant churches follow a custom in which participants stand to sing, kneel to pray, and sit to listen (e.g., to the sermon). Others are less programmed, and may be quite lively and spontaneous. Music is usually incorporated, and often involves a choir and/or organ. Some churches use only a capella music, either on principle (many Churches of Christ object to the use of musical instruments in worship) or by tradition (as in Orthodoxy).

Moral Lifestyle

Unlike some other religions, Christianity has not developed a code of religious law--perhaps because the Roman Empire already had a functioning criminal code, making it unnecessary for Christian authorities to duplicate its various prohibitions.

On one hand, there exists a long tradition within Christianity of saying that Christ supersedes/fulfills the laws of Judaism; that love--of God, and one's "neighbor"--is the "Greatest Commandment," from which all other moral rules spring; that no human being can hope to avoid sin completely; and so on. On the other hand, Christians have long emphasized the practice of morality. Consider the following observation from (non-Christian) Pliny the Younger, from around the year 100:

...on a fixed day they [the Christians] used to meet before dawn and recite a hymn among themselves to Christ, as though he were a god. So far from binding themselves by oath to commit any crime, they swore to keep from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and not to deny any trust money deposited with them when called upon to deliver it. This ceremony over, they used to depart and meet again to take food — but it was of no special character, and entirely harmless.

Pliny's informants were probably alluding to the Ten Commandments, which most Christians consider to represent a basic foundation for morality. Other than the Ten Commandments, Christians do not generally adhere to the ceremonial or civil sections of Jewish law as contained in the Old Testament.

The New Testament also contains important moral guidance for Christians. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount asks followers to love their enemies, and give to all who ask; in Mark 10:21 he calls upon the "rich young man" to sell all his possessions, and give the money to the poor. Most Christians concede these directives to be extraordinarily difficult, bordering on the impractical. At the same time, most Christians would admire those whose lives seem to embody these principles, for example Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa.

Some of Jesus's moral judgments are rather more feasible, but still not in general practice among Christians. In the Sermon on the Mount he speaks out against divorce (a controversial issue in many Christian denominations) and against oaths.


Main article: Prayer in Christianity

Every known version and variation of Christianity practices prayer. Christian prayers may be formulaic, improvised, or (say Charismatics) inspired by the Holy Spirit. They include categories of thanksgiving, petition, adoration, intercession, and communion. Christian prayers may be addressed to God or Christ, or (for Catholic and Orthodox) to a particular saint. Catholics have developed the devotional practice of praying the rosary; among Orthodox, the Jesus prayer plays a similar role. Among forumulaic prayers, the Lord's Prayer and the Psalms (and in Catholic circles, the Hail Mary) are especially likely to be encountered.

The question of the efficacy of prayer is fraught with theological difficulty. On one hand, Christians generally believe that God "answers" prayer (though not necessarily with a yes). On the other hand, it seems perverse to imagine God caring more for the famous or popular (who can be expected to have more prayers said on their behalf) than for the obscure or unpopular. Some churches teach that prayer is capable of altering the physical environment, thus accounting for such things as spiritual healing. Examples would include Christian Science as well as the several New Thought churches. In this context we might also cite the word of faith movement and the Prayer of Jabez, recently popularized among Evangelicals.

At the conclusion of a prayer, it is customary to say Amen ("so be it").


The best-known Christian symbol is surely the cross, of which many varieties exist. (Some regard the cross as the world's first successful logo.) For convenience of recognition, several denominations tend to favor distinctive crosses: the crucifix for Catholics, the crux orthodoxa for Orthodox, and the unadorned cross for Protestants. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Other Christian symbols include the ichthys ("fish") symbol, or in ancient times, an anchor.


Practically all Christian churches accept the authority of the Bible, including the Old Testament and the New Testament. Differences exist in the canons of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches - chiefly, their treatment of the the Deuterocanonical books used by Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but rejected by Protestants as Apocrypha. However, apart from the issue of canonicity itself, this does affect doctrinal issues only indirectly. More theologically significant is the Swedenborgian churches' rejection of the New Testament Epistles, a stance which has not won acceptance from any other denomination.

Whereas Jews see the Torah as the most important part of the Bible, the Christian equivalent would surely be the Gospels, four accounts of the life of Christ. Ornamental books of the four gospels are sometimes used in church liturgies. These may be carried into the church in procession, and laid upon the altar during the first part of the service. The "gospel" (in the singular) can also mean the "good news" (that word's literal meaning) of the Christian message, which Christians regularly disseminate to others. This may include missionary work as well as the translation and distribution of Bibles, as practiced for example by Gideons International.

If Christians largely agree on the content of the Bible, no such consensus is forthcoming on the crucial matter of its interpretation, an issue which divides denominations from within as well as from one another. "Biblical literalism" or "Christian fundamentalism" describe well-known conservative hermeneutic stances with respect to Christian scriptures, and are mainly associated with Protestantism. Catholics, Orthodox, and some Anglicans consider the Bible as one phase (albeit formative) of church tradition, which has continued through the decisions of the ecumenical councils, and the writings of the Church Fathers, and indeed is alive today. Protestants meanwhile tend to accept Martin Luther's dictum of sola scriptura, which sees the Bible as the ultimate source of faith and doctrine, and assumes that any Christian believer is capable of interpreting it. Even Protestants concede that this raises difficulties, especially in view of the wide variety of practices and beliefs which have some claim to biblical warrant.

Some Christian groups have also elevated additional writings to the status of inspired scripture. Well-known examples would include the Book of Mormon, considered to be "another Testament of Jesus Christ" by the Mormons; or Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Others, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have produced translations of the Bible which they hold to be alone wholly reliable. One might expect Lutherans and Calvinists to regard the interpretations of Luther and Calvin, respectively, with similar reverence; in fact most Catholic and Protestant theologians would agree that their writings are a mixture of good and bad.

Church Structure

The Roman Catholic Church is led by a religious hierarchy including priests, bishops, cardinals, and at the summit, the Bishop of Rome, who is called "the pope" (from Italian il papa, meaning "Father"). Each man in this hierarchy is appointed by his superior except the pope, who is elected by the College of Cardinals. The effect is that of a centralized church in which Rome, not an individual congregation, has ultimate control over the local priest.

Most Orthodox and Oriental churches resemble the Catholic pattern, except without the pope (or cardinals). Thus they could be described as networks of congregations whose bishops are "in communion" with one another. Most additionally recognize one or more patriarchs, which position is however considered less canonically important than that of bishop. Churches in the Anglican Communion are also episcopal ("led by bishops") in governance. Unlike their Orthodox counterparts, these vote in national meetings as well as exercise local authority.

The Old Believers arose when some Russian Orthodox believers revolted against their bishops over the issue of the Patriarch Nikon's "reforms." Although their original motivation was to prevent changes to their religion, they eventually found themselves in the position of having to function without bishops or priests (since these must be ordained by bishops). Some eliminated the priestly role, while others sought to recruit new priests from among the Orthodox.

Most Protestant churches lack the sort of hierarchy that characterizes the liturgical denominations. The role of "preachers" or "minister" is often treated almost as an ordinary job, which many churches believe could be filled by any knowledgable believer. Others specify that the leader of a congregation should have a seminary education and/or a sense of being "called" (vocation) by God to that role.

Supra-congregational organizations are rejected by a few churches (e.g., the Churches of Christ), but most Protestants find themselves organized into denominations. In European countries these may be organized by the state--this reflects the legacy of the "Majesterial Reformation, in which some state-run Catholic churches became state-run Protestant churches. Depending on the country and denomination, they are equally likely to form part of voluntary groupings (from which individual congregations may withdraw), or a looser, more democratic form of hierarchy.

An important theological issue is, "What is the church?" Most Christians accept that there is really just one overarching "Christian church," which is identified with "the body of Christ." Roman Catholics identify this church, naturally enough, with the Roman Catholic Church. Orthodox do much the same, with the predictable substitution. Protestants tend to see "the church" as existing within various human denominations, though some groups (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) insist that they alone are the true church.

History of Christianity

Main article: History of Christianity

Ancient Jewish Christianity

Christians have always viewed Christianity as the fulfillment and successor of Judaism, and Christianity carried forward much of the doctrine and many of the practices from the Hebrew faith, including a form of monotheism, the belief in a Messiah or "anointed one"—Christ from the Greek Christós (Χριστος)—spoken of in prophecies, many moral precepts, certain forms of worship (such as prayer, and reading from sacred texts), a priesthood (although most Protestants assert the "priesthood of all believers" is the only valid priesthood today), and the idea that worship on Earth is modeled on worship in Heaven.

Christianity in the Roman Empire

The Great Schism

The Medieval West

The Reformation


Not all people identified or self-identified as Christians accept all, or even most, of the theological positions held by their particular churches. Like the Jews, Christians in the West were greatly affected by The Age of Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Perhaps the most significant change for them was total or effective separation of church and state, thus ending the state-sponsored Christianity that had existed in European countries. No one could be a free member of society and disagree with one's church on various issues, including the right to freely to leave one's church altogether. (Nonetheless, even in the 21st century, despite many global changes, state-sponsored or established Christian churches do exist in a number of world regions, especially Europe and parts of Latin America.)

Many did resist or abandon mainstream Christianity, accepting belief systems such as Deism, Unitarianism, Binitarianism, and Universalism, or becoming atheists, agnostics, or humanists. Others, instead, created the liberal wings of the Protestant Christian tradition. Modernist Christianity in the late 19th century encouraged new forms of thought and expression that did not follow traditional lines.

Reaction to the Enlightenment and Modernism triggered the development of literally thousands of Christian Protestant denominations, Roman traditionalist splinter groups of the Roman Catholic Church that do not recognize the legitimacy of many reforms the Roman Catholic Church has undertaken, and the growth of hundreds of fundamentalist groups that interpret the entire Bible in a more literal fashion, exclusive text-centered fashion.

19th Century Liberalism

In Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, the growth of philosophical and ideological liberalism since the 19th century has also led to increased secularism. Some Christians have long since stopped participating in traditional religious duties, attending churches only on a few particular holy days per year or not at all. Many of them recall having highly religious grandparents, but grew up in homes where the practice of Christianity as such was no longer a priority. They have developed ambivalent feelings towards their religious background. On the one hand they cling to their traditions for identity reasons; on the other hand, the influence of the secular Western mentality, the demands of daily life, and peer pressure tear them away from traditional Christianity. Marriage between Christians of different denominations, or between Christians and non-Christians, while once taboo, has become commonplace; some correlate such trends with decline in religious identity among many societies and social segments. The populations of many countries and regions traditionally strong in a particular tradition, such as Roman Catholicism (e.g. Latin America, France, Italy) or Lutheranism (e.g. Scandinavia) have largely become agnostic or secular.

Liberal Christianity grew rapidly during the early 20th century in Europe and North America, by the 1960s gaining the leadership of many of the larger U.S. and Canadian mainline denominations. However, this trend has reversed. At the turn of the 21st century, though secular society tends to consider the more accommodating liberals as the representatives and spokesmen of Christianity, the mainline churches are shrinking. [2] This is partly due to a loss of evangelistic zeal, partly due to drift of their membership to Christian churches which are associated with a more conservative Christianity, and partly due to the failure of one generation to pass on Christianity to the next. Among the larger Protestant denominations in the United States, only the conservative Southern Baptist is growing. In addition, many other conservative denominational churches are growing along with many conservative non-denominational churches.

Evangelical parachurch organizations have grown rapidly in the last half of the 20th century. The liberal Christian Century magazine has shrunk, while being replaced by its challenger, the rapidly growing evangelical Christianity Today.

The Enlightenment had much less impact on the Eastern Churches. Having to face a much more hostile secular society, especially during the rise of Communism, the church clung to ancient beliefs, even as its membership eroded or, in many cases, went underground, at least to public acknowledgement of one's faith.


According to Weber's thesis, in the 19th and 20th centuries many historically Christian countries, including many legally-designated Christian states, especially in Western Europe, saw increasing social trends of secularization, especially in the Communist states of the mid- to late-20th century, which were governed by avowed atheists. Coinciding with the scientific discrediting of a literal interpretation of the Bible's account of the earth's origin, there has been a shift of social and scientific ethics, from a Christian to a secular reference. At the same time, there has been growing resistance to secularism and certain developments of the 19th and 20th century, including materialism. These opposing trends clash on many fronts, including the public debate of Abortion, Euthanasia, Suicide, and laws governing marriage and divorce, parental rights, the legal status of community standards, and a broad spectrum of other matters in addition to the public controversies primarily associated with Fundamentalist Christianity concerning, for example, the appropriateness of religious instruction alongside secular views in public school classrooms (as in the creationism controversy).

At least in North America and Great Britain, however, religion was never really actually in decline. Numbers of church-goers have remained fairly consistent since the seventeenth century, although numbers for particular churches have risen and fallen as various forms of, belief, preaching and worship waxed and waned. Many of religion's twentieth-century forms, such as spiritualism, pluralism, and liberal Christianity provoked evangelical Christians, who often refused to recognize them as forms of Christianity at all. Yet the civic philosophy of pluralism was held up by other Christians as way of allowing for a public sphere where tolerance and mutual responsibility would fulfill the Christian imperative of service to one's fellow-humans, creating a world where no individual would be denied the basic rights of education, employment, or political representation, based merely on religious identity.

Christian principles based on compassion and social justice have always formed a major tradition carrying through the early church, the monastic movement, the ministry of healing, the Catholic and Protestant churches. In the nineteenth century, Christianity lent moral force to the Progressive Movement in the 19th-century United States and the Social Gospel -- one of the bases for FDR's New Deal; the Civil Rights Movement for racial justice in the Unted States, and Liberation Theology, advocating justice for the poor in South America and other areas of the so-called Third World. Progressive Christians have continued to be active in the peace movement, anti-racism, soup-kitchen activism, homeless shelters, various denominational committees on relief, Habitat for Humanity, and a wide variety of other outreach programs.

Contemporary Renewal

Today in Eastern Europe and Russia, a renewing trend is taking place. After decades of communist-instated atheism, there is widespread interest in Christianity, as well as religion in general. Many Orthodox churches and monasteries are being rebuilt and restored; Protestants of many denominations are pouring in to evangelize and build churches; and the Roman Catholic Church is revealing once secret dioceses and undertaking other steps to support Roman Catholic churches more openly.

In South America and Africa, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity form rapidly growing movements that are increasingly sending missionaries to Europe and North America. [3] This is also true of Asia where many of the underground "house churches" intend to send hundreds of thousands of missionaries out over the next decade. This is especially true of China. [4]

During the second half of the 20th century the Megachurch became a significant phenomenon. These churches are generally characterised by service forms designed to appeal to the non-Christian, using contemporary music and multi-media presentation styles and often a focus on practical helps for living. They are most common in the United States, and frequently target specific demographics. Criticised by more traditional churches as 'watering down' the Christian message and for their use of techniques akin to advertising, they are typically not affiliated with a particular denomination.

Since the development of Postmodernism with its rejection of universally accepted belief structures in favour of more personalized and experiential truth, organized Christianity has increasingly found itself at odds with the desire many people have to express faith and spirituality in a way that is authentic to them. What has thus far been known as the Emerging Church is a by-product of this trend, as many people who broadly accept Christianity seek to practice that faith while avoiding established Church institutions. Another reaction of some Christians to Postmodernism is the advent of what might be called Postmodern Christianity.

A large and growing movement within Christian populations, especially in the West and most visible in the United States, is the Evangelical movement. Most mainstream Protestant denominations have a significantly active Evangelical minority and, in some cases, a dominant majority (see Confessing Movement). Evangelicals are both ontologically and methodologically "trans-denominational" and therefore are generally more willing to have formal and informal relationships with Evangelicals from outside their denomination than to have the same sort of relationship with non-Evangelicals within their denomination. Other movements within Christianity which fall to a greater or lesser extent within the broad category 'Evangelical' include Dispensationists, Pentecostals, Charismatics and Fundamentalists.

Some Evangelicals have been schismatic within various church organisations, leaving to form their own denominations. More often they are forced out. It was only by dint of sheer determination that John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was able to remain an Anglican priest against intense opposition. His followers separated in America and in England after his death. Some Evangelicals claim that their beliefs are no less than true Christianity itself and that those within the church who differ from them may not be true believers. This attitude has led to much disunity amongst churches, especially those with a large modernist (and hence 'Liberal') influence.

Christianity's relationship with other faiths

For more details on this topic, see Christianity and world religions.

Due to its diverse history and its numerous denominations and branches, it is difficult to give an accurate account of Christianity's current relationship with the various other religions. After all, this varies from region to region, and from denomination to denomination. The following synopsis may perhaps be helpful:


Christianity and the pagan religions of classical antiquity are popularly understood to have been rivals, with each seeking to persecute and destroy the other. This is a gross simplification. Even the pagan, anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) conceded that "These godless Galileans (i.e. Christians) feed not only their own poor but ours: our poor lack our care". [5] The Church Fathers had a wide spectrum of attitudes toward pagan learning which ranged from utter rejection, to recognition of the partial inspiration of philosophers such as Plato (whose image is found among the saints in a number of church and monastery walls).


See also * Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity and Judeo-Christian

Historically, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been strained, to say the least. In the past, Christians were often taught that "the Jews" killed Christ, for which "murder" they bear a collective guilt (an interpretation which most major denominations now reject). Jews meanwhile have tended to associate Christianity with various pogroms, or in better times, with the dangers of assimilation. Anti-Semitism has a long history in Christianity (see Christianity and anti-Semitism), and indeed is far from dead (for example, in contemporary Russia). However, since the Holocaust, much dialogue aimed at Christian-Jewish reconciliation has taken place, and relations have greatly improved. Today, many conservative evangelicals support Christian Zionism, much to the irritation of Arab Christians, based partly on the Millenialist belief that the modern state of Israel represents the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

The phenomenon of Messianic Judaism has become something of an irritant to Jewish / Christian relations. Messianic Jews--who generally seek to combine a Jewish identity with the recognition of Jesus-- are rejected by mainstream Jewish groups, who dismiss Messianic Judaism as little more than Christianity with Jewish undertones.


Adherents of Islam have historically referred to themselves, Jews, and Christians (among others) as People of the Book since they all base their religion on books that are considered to have a divine origin. Christians however neither recognize the Qur'an as a genuine book of divine revelation, nor agree with its assessment of Jesus as a mere prophet, on par with Muhammad, nor for that matter accept that Muhammad was a genuine prophet. Not a few have chosen to paint Islam and its prophet in the worst possible light.

Muslims, for their part, believe that parts of the Gospels, Torah and Jewish prophetic books have been forgotten, misinterpreted, or distorted by their followers. Based on that perspective, Muslims view the Qur'an as correcting the errors of Christianity. For example, Muslims reject belief in the Trinity, or any other expression of the divinity of Jesus, as incompatible with monotheism.

Not surprisingly, the two faiths have often experienced controversy and conflict (an example being the Crusades). At the same time, much fruitful dialogue has occurred as well. The writings of superlative Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas frequently cite those of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides as well as Muslim thinker Averoes ('Ibn-Rushd).

On May 6, 2001, Pope John Paul II, the first pope to pray in a mosque, delivered an address at Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, saying: "It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others’ religious beliefs. Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family."


Christian-Hindu relations are a mixed bag. On one hand, Hinduism's natural tendency has been to recognize the divine basis of various other religions, and to revere their founders and saintly practitioners. On the other hand, perceptions of aggressive proselytism on the part of Christianity have led to an upsurge of anti-Christian violence, often fueled by Hindu nationalist political parties. In Western countries, Vedanta has influenced some Christian thinkers, while others in the anti-cult movement have reacted against the activities of immigrant gurus and their followers.

Buddhism and Protestantism came into political conflict in 19th century Sri Lanka, to the eventual embarrassment of the Christians; and in Tibet circa 1904 (the Younghusband Expedition), with the same result. Various events have cooperated to introduce various strains of Buddhist theology and meditation to several generations of Western spiritual seekers (including some Catholic religious), to the point where Buddhism has become a minor competitor with Christianity on it's "home ground," so to speak. Nevertheless, relations are generally good, except perhaps in South Korea and Vietnam. The Russian republic of Kalmykia recognizes both Tibetan Buddhism and Russian Orthodoxy as its official religions.

Western esoteric and magical groups have often arisen partly as a protest against Christianity. Some of these, such as Theosophy or Scientology, have produced rather hostile polemics against Christianity. More often, such groups attempt to claim Jesus on behalf of whatever the group teaches, saying that mainstream Christianity has misunderstood him. An example would be A Course In Miracles, which purports to be a channeled message from Jesus Christ.

Christianity and persecution

Historically Christians, both as groups and individuals, have like many other religious traditions, been both the victims and perpetrators of persecution. Some forms of persecution of Christians and on the part of Christians continue to the present day.

Persecution of Christians

(For full article, see Persecution of Christians)

Christian martyrs in the first three centuries were crucified, torn apart by chariots, cut down, or impaled on pikes in much the same manner as other Roman political prisoners and rebels. Many were forced to fight in Roman coliseums as fodder for famous gladiators, or forced to fight each other for entertainment and as punishment. When early Christians refused to fight each other, wild beasts or gladiators would often be set loose to slaughter them, providing sinister entertainment for betting Roman citizens. Bets were often cast on which Christian would die first, whether or not one would raise arms against another, and how long one would last before having his or her torso ripped apart. They are recognized as martyrs because they chose to die rather than renounce their Christian faith.

In the modern Middle East and Africa, Christians face a great deal of persecution, including arrests for "blasphemy" in the Middle East and even being targeted for assassination and acts of terrorism. In China there are also laws against proselytizing, so while it's not illegal to convert to Christianity, one can be fined or imprisoned for attempting to convert others, especially publicly. Predominantly Christian regions (such as East Timor) have chosen independence partly for this reason. Because of this, many Christian converts from these parts of the world have left for Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Some Christians see restrictions placed on some forms of religious activity, whether of Christianity or other religions, in the public sphere as a form of discrimination against religious people in general.

Persecution by Christians

(For full article, see Historical persecution by Christians.)

Christians have not only been the victims of persecution. After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Christian mobs frequently molested pagans and destroyed their temples, sometimes with government support. The philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered by such a mob in 415. Many of the Christians who did not accept the Council of Nicea, or other pronouncements, were considered heretical and often had to flee persectution once Christianity was accepted by Constantine and his successors.

In 380, Roman emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and outlawed the practising of paganism and Manichaeism. Judaism remained legal, but Jewish communities suffered from recurrent violent attacks and expulsions, especially in the latter half of the Middle Ages.

During the Crusades, Christian Crusaders committed atrocities against Jews across Europe and massacred non-combatants in Palestine and Syria. Crusaders also sacked and plundered the city of Constantinople and persecuted many Pagans, Muslims, and Jews.

Christians have at times persecuted other Christians over doctrinal and ethnic differences. During the Arian disputes in the 4th century, Arians harassed their orthodox brethren, and were supported in this by various emperors. When Priscillian was executed by the state in 385, this was widely denounced by leading Church figures of the time. By the Middle Ages, however, the Church was the executor of persecution, setting up the Inquisition to fight heresy by judicial means including torture. The Crusades, while primarily aimed at non-Christians, also included incidents such as the sack and plunder of Constantinople. The Early Modern period saw the phenomenon of Witch hunts, which were frequent in Western Europe, especially Germany, and later also in New England. This period was also typified by violence between Catholics and the emerging Protestant movement.

Allegations of Christian persecution of others continue to the present day. Christians in the Western world are often accused of engaging in discrimination against other religions, denominations, and minorities. For example, some claim persecution in the opposition of some Christians to giving equal status to homosexual activities; rare individual instances of religiously motivated violence and vandalism also occur. Such offenses, however, are usually on a smaller scale than the persecution seen in the rest of the world.

In the second half of the 20th century, ethnic or social conflicts are sometimes reinforced by religious antagonism. In Northern Ireland, the struggle for independence is exacerbated by denominational differences; in general terms, Catholics support independence, while Protestants desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. The region of former Yugoslavia contains many groups fighting for control, most of which are typified by strong cultural and religious solidarity.

Migration of Christians

Main article: Christian emigration

Due to the continuing persecution of Christians in places like the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and the Indian Sub-Continent, many Christians have migrated to foreign lands. Christians that have been migrating from their native lands range from Middle Eastern Christians leaving the Middle East due to persecution from the Muslim majority, to Chinese Christians leaving China because of Communist China's stance on Christianity.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

History and denominations

References and Select Bibliography

External links

General on-line sources


Criticisms, responses to


Personal tools