Dividing the Christian World

The Pope is indeed Catholic. The rest is up for debate.

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WaPo’s Erin Cunningham reports on “How Russia’s war in Ukraine is dividing the Orthodox Christian world.” The setup:

Russia’s invasion has roiled global markets, revived the NATO alliance and triggered war crimes investigations. It has also opened a rift in the Orthodox Church, pitting the Russian wing and its pro-Kremlin patriarch against Orthodox leaders in Kyiv and around the globe.

Orthodox Christianity is one of the largest Christian communions in the world — after Catholicism and the Protestant church. Most of its roughly 260 million adherents are concentrated in Europe, Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

It is the dominant faith in both Russia and Ukraine, where the status of the church has become a source of tension between Moscow and Kyiv. For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ally in the church, Patriarch Kirill, Ukraine is an inseparable part of a greater Russian world — one with Moscow as its political center and Kyiv as its spiritual hub.

There’s a lot more there for those interested in the internecine politics of the Orthodox Church. What interests me, however, is more mundane: how one divides the various Christian faiths.

I don’t think there’s such a thing, for example, as “the Protestant church.” Rather, I see Protestantism as a rebellion against the Roman Catholic church that ultimately led to a large number of competing denominations that have very little to do with one another. At the edges, there are debates as to which non-Catholic denominations qualify as “Protestant” with, for example, many excluding Mormonism from the category. (Indeed, there are some who argue Mormons aren’t even Christian.)

Conversely, I tend to think of the Eastern Orthodox churches as Catholic, just not Roman Catholic. Granting that the Great Schism was over a thousand years ago, my understanding is that the main divide is over governance rather than theology.

FILED UNDER: Religion, Russia, Ukraine, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Just to confuse the issue further, the Lutheran Orthodox Church considers itself to be Evangelical Catholic. And then there are Anglo-Catholics, or Anglican Papalists…

    I find it hard to keep any of this straight.

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  2. SKI` says:

    Beyond forcing their views on others, internally dividing seems to be what Christians are most consistent at. I tend to think one leads to the other…

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  3. Mu Yixiao says:

    Considering that I’ve heard people say that Catholics aren’t Christians… Trying to define the terms and divisions is going to be quite complicated.

    It should also be noted that American Catholics are very different than European Catholics. And both of those groups are very different from South American Catholics.

    1
  4. Scott says:

    There is always going to be conflict when faith is mixed with ethnicity and nationalism and power. And with humans using those conflicts for non faithful purposes.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    Protestants originally defined themselves with respect to the Catholic Church, but it’s been centuries since that was universally true. Nonetheless, my admittedly peanut gallery view of non-mainline protestants is that they are obsessed with what other denominations are doing wrong, usually expressed in the most lurid and apocalyptical terms possible.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Catholics in the same parish vary quite widely too…

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  7. CSK says:

    My pet peeve (I believe this may be the first time I’ve ever used that phrase) is people who identify as “Christians” without specifying a denomination. As far as I can tell, they’re some kind of Protestant, but what kind? Methodist? Episcopalian? Baptist? Lutheran? Congregationalist? Presbyterian? What?

    1
  8. Kathy says:

    @SKI`:

    Christians might be more notorious in this regard, seeing as there seems to be two denominations for every Christian, but IMO all religions with more than two adherents eventually splut in many splinters.

    And they all justify things the same way: We all worship the same God. They in their way, and we in His.

    1
  9. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Queen Elizabeth I might have put it best: “There is only one God and one true faith. The rest is a dispute about trifles.”

  10. SKI says:

    @Kathy: I’d push back a little on the implication that such divisions are limited to religion. Splitting apart is a quintessentially human thing to do.

    That said, no group or religion splinters are much or as often as Christians.

    1
  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Hmmmm… Why am I reminded of the immortal line from Life of Bryan: “SPLITTERS!

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  12. Franklin says:

    Bob dies and goes to heaven. St Peter welcomes him at the pearly gates and hand him off to some angel to give him a tour of the place. She’s walking him around past various doors … “Here are the Catholics,” and further down, “here are the Evangelicals,” and farther still, “here are the Methodists,” etc. At this point the angel tells Bob, okay, we have to very quiet now, and they both tiptoe silently under the window of the next door, which is labeled, “Lutherans.” When they are safely past the door, Bob asks, “why did we have to hide from the Lutherans?” And the angel answers, “Because they think they’re the only ones here!”

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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @CSK:..I find it hard to keep any of this straight.

    I hope this helps…

    “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
    Stewart Brand
    Opening sentence of the Purpose of the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    At no time in history have more than 5% of Christians actually behaved like Christians. If so much as half of nominal Christians actually lived Christian lives this country would be a paradise.

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  15. SKI says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    At no time in history have more than 5% of Christians actually behaved like Christians. If so much as half of nominal Christians actually lived Christian lives this country would be a paradise.

    If 95% of Christians behave a certain way, then that is what behaving like a Christian is.

    They don’t get to No True Scotsman out of reality and history.

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    @SKI: I retry much agree with you 100%… on alternate days. On the other days I believe that any group that gains popularity and/or power gets co-opted by others. If it goes on long enough eventually the original group disappears.

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @CSK: Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (to which I belong) defined us as being “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus movement.”

  18. SKI says:

    @MarkedMan: Well, looking at centuries and centuries of actions and choices by the vast majority of the public adherents of a group and noticing again and again the same types of behaviors should lead us to conclude that yes, that is exactly who they are.

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  19. just nutha says:

    @CSK: Sorry, that one’s going to continue to vex you forever. I will note in passing that both Congregationalists and various Church of Christ groups (with the United Church of Christ being the largest, IIRC) call their buildings Christian churches. But beyond that the hyper-separatism that flourished as a result of the historical/higher criticism movement stimulated a strong desire in independent congregations to identify only as Christian in order to separate themselves from all the denominations that had “corrupted the truth” with their denominationalist and godlessly liberal theology.

    TL/DR: You’re stuck with it. Learn to adapt.

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  20. Kathy says:

    @Franklin:

    Imagine if a Christian were to reach the afterlife only to be confronted by Anubis and Ammit.

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  21. just nutha says:

    @Kathy:

    And they all justify things the same way: We all worship the same God. They in their way, and we in His.

    Exactly! 😀

    1
  22. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    No, actually, it didn’t help. But thanks anyway.

    @SC_Birdflyte:
    Well, sure, but you and the bishop identify as Episcopalians. I know what that is. It doesn’t help me figure out what someone who calls himself a “Christian” is. Am I the only one who has this problem?

    I’m reminded of a side story from the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. A detective was questioning Zimmerman when he noticed she was wearing a cross. He asked if she was a Catholic, and she replied, “No, I’m a Christian.” And here I thought all along that Catholics ARE Christians. The first ones, in fact. Silly me.

    1
  23. just nutha says:

    @Franklin: I’ve always heard that joke about the Baptists–except that there in a separate zone, behind a wall with no window.

    But I believe that, with a total of something on the order of 135 separate confessional groups, Baptists reign as the most schismatic single denomination.

  24. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    Well, sure, but you and the bishop identify as Episcopalians. I know what that is. It doesn’t help me figure out what someone who calls himself a “Christian” is. Am I the only one who has this problem?

    When someone says they’re a Jew, are you confused and require their denomination? If someone says they’re Muslim, but not Sunni or Shia does that confuse you?

    A non-denominational Christian is someone who (ostensibly) believes that Jesus is the son of God and follows the teachings of the Bible. They do not belong to a hierarchical, structured organization.

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  25. just nutha says:

    @CSK:

    It doesn’t help me figure out what someone who calls himself a “Christian” is. Am I the only one who has this problem?

    No. In fact, I don’t always find that even some identifying as Episcopal or Methodist or _x_ is all that helpful in figuring out what someone is. But I was raised in a very strongly separatist tradition.

  26. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Do they go to church? Isn’t church attendance a mark of being a good Christian?

  27. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    Do they go to church? Isn’t church attendance a mark of being a good Christian?

    Maybe or maybe not. But then in plenty of polls, people who identify as Catholic, Methodist, etc., don’t actually attend church regularly.

    And for many, the mark of being a good Christian is believing in Christ.

  28. CSK says:

    @just nutha:
    Part of my problem with people who identify first and foremost as “Christians” is that, in my experience, they range from the annoying, smug, and supercilious to the downright psychotic and evil.

    1
  29. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    I think we may be talking about two different things. If you’re going to be a Christian, why not affiliate with a denomination? There appear to be many from which to choose.

  30. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    If you’re going to be a Christian, why not affiliate with a denomination?

    Why should they? Why not just associate with the people in their area who feel the same as they do? Or… Associate with nobody and do it on their own.

  31. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    The problem is that they have a tendency not to keep it to themselves.

    2
  32. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think there’s such a thing, for example, as “the Protestant church.”

    I think that Christianity is divided into several camps. Small o-orthodox Christians which include Roman Catholics, high church Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and the capital-O Orthodox on the one hand and what might be called “reform Christians” on the other.

    I also agree with Michael that relatively few Christians are actually Christians and the entire world would be better for it if more were.

  33. JohnSF says:

    Included in the Apostles Creed, the basic statement of faith for Anglicans:

    “I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church…”

    The Church of England is sorta kinda Protestant(ish) by theology, but with bishops and claims to Apostolic Succession; asserts it is both Catholic and Reformed. Such a tease. And let’s not get into the Anglo-Catholics…

    The solution is obvious: let all other denominations come into accord with Anglicanism, acknowledge the Primacy of Canterbury, and then we can all go and have a nice cup of tea and some biscuits… 🙂

    More seriously, a key aspect of Orthodox and Anglican arguments with Roman Catholicism is that they contend the Romans assertion of papal supremacy is an based on the political self-aggrandisement of Popes in the 10th Century onward, without theological basis, and unknown to the early Church.
    In many respects the schisms are far more about organization then doctrine.

  34. just nutha says:

    @CSK:

    why not affiliate with a denomination?

    Some sects (my brother studied extensively with one, but I don’t remember the name anymore) believe that to hold inaccurate teaching on a single point of doctrine condemns the believer.* Since any denomination will fail on some point of doctrine (if there wasn’t disagreement, there wouldn’t be schisms and denominations), the solution becomes to not have a denominational attachment. Beyond that point, Mu’s offered rationale is also popular and may be advancing as the more common reason.

    On the annoyingness of Christians, I have nothing to offer. Too many humans at large have annoying confidence of their own perfection for me to consider Christians unique in this quality–even though I agree that they are particularly noxious.

    *Yes, I understand this theory doesn’t make any sense because it only means that all of humanity is doomed because we can’t be perfect. I don’t make the rules.

  35. Moosebreath says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    “When someone says they’re a Jew, are you confused and require their denomination?”

    Sometimes. There are very large differences in beliefs between Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Jews.

    “A non-denominational Christian is someone who (ostensibly) believes that Jesus is the son of God and follows the teachings of the Bible.”

    The requirement of following the teachings of the Bible (including all of the 613 commandments , some of which cannot apply when there is no Jewish Temple) would only apply to Orthodox, and to a lesser extent, Modern Orthodox, Jews. Conservative Jews follow a significant number, but far from all. Reform Jews vary widely, but very few follow more than several dozen. Reconstructionist Jews follow a number of rules, but many are not biblical in origin, or even from other ancient Jewish sources like the Talmud.

  36. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:
    Church attendance is certainly highly regarded by (some) protestant sects for the purposes of preaching, and part social, part theological arguments for “the discipline of a godly community”.
    IIRC New England denominations were very big on that.

    And Catholics have come to place a high value on attending mass, communion and confession.
    But interestingly, that seems not to have been the case before around the 11th Century.
    And still is with the Orthodox: a lot of Orthodox may only attend at Easter, Christmas and maybe a few other times, but are still regarded as no less Christian for that.
    (IIRC Orthodoxy actually has a different definition of Sabbath/Lords Day in the first place.)

    Many Anglicans are also only occasional communicants/attendants, though on a rather different basis to the Orthodox.

  37. just nutha says:

    “…relatively few Christians are actually Christians and the entire world would be better for it if more were.”

    I was going to say that if one really believes that idea, then the solution is to embrace the philosophy/lifestyle/religion/whatever and show people how it’s done, but I won’t go there today.

  38. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Moosebreath:

    There are very large differences in beliefs between Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Jews.

    Yep. I’m aware of them (not extensively, but aware). The point I was making is that when someone says “I’m Jewish”, the listener generally takes that as being enough without needed to know which of the various sects and divisions the speaker belongs to. “‘I’m Jewish” is enough.

    Why isn’t that enough when someone says “I’m Christian”?

    2
  39. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:

    “And here I thought all along that Catholics ARE Christians. The first ones, in fact. Silly me.”

    There’s fightin’ talk for them Orthodox.
    They consider the Roman (emphasis on Roman) Catholics to be innovators without basis in scripture, proper theology, or the Church of the Fathers.

    One reason why Anglicans and Orthodox tend to fairly amicable, even if some points of practice differ: they are politically aligned in rejecting the supremacy of Rome.

    2
  40. Mu Yixiao says:

    @JohnSF:

    Included in the Apostles Creed, the basic statement of faith for Anglicans:

    “I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church…”

    Yep. But notice the small “c”; “catholic”–meaning universal, all-encompassing–versus “Catholic” (the ones with the Pope)

  41. Jen says:

    Catholicism can range widely even from one parish to the next. When I was a kid, our house was sort of located between two Catholic churches. They had slightly differing mass times, so when we’d miss the 9:30 mass at one church, we’d try to get to the 10:00 mass at the other one, because my parents didn’t like waiting for the 11:00–it didn’t get out until noon, and by then we were all starving and cranky. Anyway.

    My father didn’t like the priests at Church 2, because a few of them were adherents of Liberation Theology (my father called the church “Our Lady of Lenin”).

    1
  42. gVOR08 says:

    @Mu Yixiao: I was recently at a Lutheran service. They projected hymn lyrics and lines of prayers. Had that same line about “the holy catholic* Church” and added at the bottom of the slide “(*catholic means worldwide)”

  43. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    There is some version of Lutheranism that bills itself as “the only Catholic church.”

  44. Franklin says:

    @just nutha:

    I was raised Lutheran and last heard this joke at least three decades ago, and my recollection may leave something to be desired. But I believe the denomination or sect is fully interchangeable, depending who needs to get made fun of that day for being so dogmatic. 🙂

    1
  45. JohnSF says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Both Anglicans and Orthodox (both Eastern and Oriental versions) tend to often use the term Roman Catholic, for the Latin rite and Uniate Greek papal church, to emphasize that they consider themselves to be a (the?) Catholic Church.
    (Case of the “c” is optional, theologically, LOL)

  46. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    At no time in history have more than 5% of Christians actually behaved like Christians.

    In the gospel according to Andrew Lloyd Weber, I’m pretty sure it was only Mary Magdelene. Maaayybe Judas.

  47. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Generally through history all religions primary role has been social and familial or “tribal” cutoms and traditions.
    Details of belief have very little to do with it, on the whole.
    See for instance Europe in the early second millenium, when investigations by various bishops indicated that the majority of priests had little knowledge of anything beyond the reciting the Pater Noster and Credo.
    And a sizable number of those did not understand the Latin they were reciting.
    Still less did their congregations.
    Outside the literate minority in monasteries, cathedrals and the precursors of universities, very few would have any familiarity with the actual texts of the Bible or theological doctrines as such.

    Such knowledge was generally on the level of a sequence of folk tales, and perhaps also the similar tales of a local saint, against a background of implicit belief in universal influence of supernatural forces.

    A lot of what is taken to be “typical” western Christianity today only developed in stages from 1000 and 1500.
    And then changed again with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which massively increased levels of teaching, preaching and the inculcation of more or less coherent doctrines, both among Protestants, and then as a defensive reaction among Roman Catholics.

    1
  48. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Why isn’t that enough when someone says “I’m Christian”?

    It may be that “Christian” has too many different connotations and shadings of meaning. If a person says “I’m Christian,” they can mean anything from “I was baptized as a child, but it means nothing to me” to “God rescued me from a life of despair and depravity and to show my gratitude, I evangelize door to door.” I’m reminded of the situation I encountered in Korea. People who said “I’m Buddhist” mostly were identifying as non-religious, which is to say neither Catholic nor Evangelical. (I come by my conclusion because most that I talked to added “oh I don’t go to temples or anything like that.” At least among the people that I saw were devout about Buddhism, I can’t remember anyone who identified themselves as Buddhist.)

  49. Moosebreath says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    “The point I was making is that when someone says “I’m Jewish”, the listener generally takes that as being enough without needed to know which of the various sects and divisions the speaker belongs to. “‘I’m Jewish” is enough.”

    My point was that saying that just because you know someone is Jewish, you know very little about their religious beliefs. They could be culturally Jewish but effectively agnostic or even atheist, or they could be devout. You cannot say anything remotely comparable to your statement that “A non-denominational Christian is someone who (ostensibly) believes that Jesus is the son of God and follows the teachings of the Bible”.

    I suspect that you cannot say that about many people who just answer that they are Christian as well, as I know some people who would answer that way who are basically secular but celebrate Christmas, and others who say that and are strongly religious, but their church is unaffiliated.

    1
  50. Mu says:

    Jew is probably a safe description as, at least as far as I’m aware of, they have never cut each other’s throat wholesale over matters of doctrine, unlike the Christian and Muslim sects.

  51. Jim Henley says:

    @CSK: I’m an Episcopalian, or will be when I’m confirmed in October. I sometimes say, “I’m a Christian,” cause I’m a Christian. As are Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists etc.

    It’s complicated by the fact that there are officially “non-denominational” churches like the Assemblies of God and even Baptists officially IIRC, and further complicated by the fact that imo these folks are kidding themselves in a lot of ways about not being a “denomination.” And also by the fact that sometimes when someone says, “I’m a Christian,” they mean, unlike these other benighted souls, and sometimes we do not.

    I assure you the situation will not improve.

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  52. Moosebreath says:

    @Mu:

    “Jew is probably a safe description as, at least as far as I’m aware of, they have never cut each other’s throat wholesale over matters of doctrine”

    Not since biblical times, anyway. Of course, not having a state for most of that period had quite a lot to do with it.