The Christian world and its Great Schisms

Christianity is the largest religion in the world (about 1/3 of the population) and the various groups have commonalities and differences in a number of aspects (tradition, theology, doctrine, language).


The term ‘Christian denomination’ refers to a distinct religious body within Christianity with a specific name, history, doctrine etc. They may differ in theological views such as how to view Jesus and the clergy or their leaders. Groups of denominations (aka branches of Christianity) often share similar beliefs, practices, and historical ties but might differ in specific elements. Not all denominations recognise one another.


Most classification schemes list three main branches of Christianity (in order of size:

1. Roman Catholicism, 2. Protestantism, and 3. Orthodox Christianity).


Orthodox Christianity can be divided into Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Church of the East, originally called Nestorianism , but in modern times can be found among the Assyrian and Ancient Churches of the East.

Protestantism includes many different groups with a variety of beliefs and practices. The following ones are the biggest and most important ones: Adventism, Anglicanism, Baptism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Pentecostalism and Reformed Christianity. All denominations except for Protestantism claim that they each represent the original Church.

In the 16th century, the Reformation happened. Protestants separated from the Catholic Church because they were against the Roman Catholic doctrines and practices which according to the Protestants were against biblical principles. In general, nowadays, the various denominations acknowledge each other as Christians and recognise mutual baptisms but do not come together!


Half of the Christians in the world (1.3 billion) belong to the Catholic Church, which sees itself as the original Church, a view rejected by other Christians. The Catholic Church includes kinds of regional councils and individual congregations and church bodies, which do not officially differ from one another in doctrine.


Catholics believe that the Pope has authority which can be traced directly to the apostle Peter whom they hold to be the original head of and first Pope of the Church. There are smaller churches, such as the Old Catholic Church which rejected the definition of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council, as well as Evangelical Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, who are Lutherans and Anglicans that believe that Lutheranism and Anglicanism, respectively, are a continuation of historical Catholicism and who incorporate many Catholic beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church refers to itself simply by the terms Catholic and Catholicism (which mean universal).


Image of the Lutheranism's Symbol Link Here


Catholicism has a hierarchical structure in which supreme authority for matters of faith and practice are the exclusive domain of the Pope, who sits on the Throne of Peter, and the bishops when acting in union with him. Most Catholics are unaware of the existence of Old Catholicism which represents a relatively recent split from the Catholic Church and is particularly vocal in rejecting their use of the term Catholic.


During the Middle Ages and before the Protestant Reformation, there was a number of movements that protested against the power of the Catholic Church but they were all absorbed by Protestantism, while the relations between Eastern and Western groups led to the Great Schism in 1054. Political leaders from both groups excommunicated one another and hostilities began for the upcoming centuries between the Eastern and Western churches. The main point of discussion was the power of the Pope in Rome and the Orthodox Patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem.

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The Old Catholic Church split from the Catholic Church in the 1870s because of the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility as promoted by the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870. The term 'Old Catholic' was first used in 1853 to describe the members of the See of Utrecht that were not under Papal authority. The Old Catholic movement grew in America but has not maintained ties with Utrecht, although talks are under way between independent Old Catholic bishops and Utrecht.

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The Liberal Catholic Church started in 1916 via an Old Catholic bishop in London, bishop Matthew, who consecrated bishop James Wedgwood to the Episcopacy. This stream has in its relatively short existence known many splits, which operate worldwide under several names.

The Protestant Reformation began with the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in Saxony on October 31, 1517. Luther's writings, combined with the work of Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli and French theologian and politician John Calvin sought to reform existing problems in doctrine and practice. Due to the reactions of ecclesiastical office holders at the time of the reformers, these reformers separated from the Catholic Church, instigating a rift in Western Christianity.


In England, Henry VIII of England declared himself to be supreme head of the Church of England with the Act of Supremacy in 1531, founding the Church of England, repressing both Lutheran reformers and those loyal to the pope. Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury introduced the Reformation, in a form compromising between the Calvinists and Lutherans.


In the Western world, Catholicism and Protestantism are the main Christian groups. The Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran churches are generally considered to be Protestant denominations, as well as Anglicanism.


Protestant denominations altogether have an estimated 800 million to 1 billion adherents, which account for approximately 37 to 40 percent of all Christians worldwide. Together, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (with its various major traditions) compose Western Christianity. Western Christian denominations prevail in Western, Northern, Central and Southern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and Oceania.


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Each Protestant movement has developed freely, and many have split over theological issues, such as Pentecostalism; Methodism branched off as its own group of denominations with the American Revolutionary War. Furthermore, in America, there is the Anabaptist movement, containing the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, who reject infant baptism but believe in pacifism.


Quakerism began as an evangelical Christian movement in 17th century England and traditionally refrain from participation in war. There are many other groups that are all considered as being part of the protestant tradition but many of them do not consider themselves as Protestant, but rather a separate tradition altogether.

Without a doubt, the largest and most significant schism/division was between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. The difficulties and problems started much earlier and were socio-cultural and ethno-linguistic divisions between West and East Rome (i.e. the Byzantine Empire).


Western Europe’s main language was Latin, while the Lingua Francas of the East (i.e. South-Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and northern Africa) were mainly Aramaic and Greek.

The first significant, lasting split in historic Christianity came from the Church of the East (Nestorian Church), who left in 431. However, nowadays this schism is considered as a largely linguistic problem because there were difficulties with translating very precise terminology from Latin to Aramaic and vice versa (sees Council of Ephesus)!


Next large split happened in 451 between the Syriac and Coptic churches (Council of Chalcedon) with the result of the development of today's Oriental Orthodox. The Armenian Apostolic Church is also considered part of the Oriental Orthodox church!


Image of Armenian Apostolic Church Symblo Link Here


The Eastern Orthodox Church, has an estimated 230 million followers and also considers itself the original Church of God, established by Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Orthodox Christians make up about 12% of the entire Christian population, 80% of whom are Eastern Orthodox and 20% Oriental Orthodox. Eastern Christian groups can mainly be found in Eastern Europe, North Asia, the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and India (especially South India).

Eastern Christianity is sometimes called ‘Greek Orthodox’ because of its common language being Greek even before the establishment of the Byzantine Empire. The previously mentioned East-West Schism in 1054 separated the Orthodox from the Catholics.

The Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself to be spiritually one body with a number of various autocephalous jurisdictions (commonly known as "churches" but still belonging to one Church).


Each bishop is responsible for his own diocese without any single bishop being the universal church leader. Nevertheless, in the case of a great gathering of the churches, it would be the Patriarch of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarch), who would be the president but with no more power than any other bishop! This special role given to the Patriarch of Constantinople gives it the title "first among equals". This fact in itself shows us the importance of the city of Istanbul (Constantinople) for the Orthodox Church even nowadays.

The largest synod with the most Orthodox worshippers is the Russian Orthodox Church, whereas the ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem are all located in the Muslim world. Others are the Georgian, Romanian, Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches.

Ecumenical Patriarch Link to Image Here


The second largest Eastern Christian communion of about 20% of the global Orthodox population is Oriental Orthodoxy. It consists of six national autocephalous groups and two autonomous bodies.


The doctrinal differences between the Oriental and the Eastern Orthodox churches are with regards to the union of human and divine natures in the person of Jesus Christ. They separated in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon.


The six autocephalous Oriental Orthodox churches are the Coptic in Egypt, the Aramaic-speaking Syriac, the Armenian, the Malankara in India, the Ethiopian and the Eritrean Orthodox churches.


Despite the fact that the two African countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea have been part of Christianity since the very beginning of the establishment of the religion, the Orthodox churches of those countries became autocephalous in 1963 (Ethiopia) and 1994 (Eritrea) respectively.


Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, the seat of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church


Some sources include the Church of the East within Oriental Orthodoxy but these two churches have not cooperated with each other since before the Council of Ephesus of 431.

The third Eastern Christian tradition is represented by The Church of the East, which has split into the following three Churches:


1. The Chaldean Catholic Church, based in Baghdad, is the largest, containing groups that started collaborating with the Pope in Rome in 1552.


2. The Assyrian Church of the East whose present Catholicos-Patriarch, Georgis III, was elected in 2015 and lives in Erbil, Iraq.


3. The Ancient Church of the East (since 1964) headed by Addai II Giorgis, resident in Baghdad.


There are also the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, which share with their Orthodox counterparts the same theological and liturgical traditions, but recognise the Head of Rome as the universal head of the Church. Although they belong fully to the Catholic communion as the Latin Church, they do not use the name "Roman Catholics" but rather describe themselves as Maronites, Melkites, Ukrainian Catholics, Coptic Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, etc.


Last but not least, the smallest Eastern Christian group is Byzantine Rite Lutheranism, which is considered part of Protestant Eastern Christianity, such as the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. These Christians have adopted Protestant theology but have cultural and historical ties with Eastern Christianity.


Thank you for reading. This is a different blog post than usual, but it is still relevant for us. Because it allows us Muslims to understand the historical context of the peoples we have and will always be dealing with. We as Muslims have had a profound effect on the Christian world and it is our job to learn and understand this. So, join us on this journey, come and sign up. https://www.stefkeris.com/

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