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The Christian Family Tree:

Celebrating Jesus Together

by Thomas Bokenkotter

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).

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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 incompatible.

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 Churches, too.

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 here.

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 religious tradition.

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.

Thomas Bokenkotter, a free-lance writer, is a Catholic historian and pastor whose works include Concise History of the Catholic Church and his latest book, Church and Revolution: Catholics in the Struggle of Democracy and Social Justice (both by Image Books). He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

 

What Unites Us

Despite the divisions and differences within the Christian family, there are obvious common elements and bonds we should not lose sight of: We all turn to Christ as a source of meaning, value and healing for humankind. We all revere the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, which present a basic vision we can all share. We all turn to Christ through prayer and believe in the importance of prayer.

During the Jubilee Year and indeed as we continue moving into the new millennium, we can celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus— birth together. We can focus more on what we have in common, on how we can pray together and join in common projects for building a more just world upon the values of Christ. The Christian family tree has the same roots: Christ and the Old and New Testaments.

 

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