I have developed a flow chart or “family tree” of Christian denominations based on historic schisms or “branches” due to theological disagreements – primarily in the areas of sanctification (how a person attains holiness and Christian maturity once they are born again), liturgy (i.e. the sacraments) and/or pneumatology (i.e. operation of the gifts), reformation, or geo-political relocation.
Overall there are 7 “families” of denominations within the Christian church: In chronological order of appearance they are – Oriental Orthodox (Nestorian), Orthodox, Roman Catholic (differentiated at time of Great Schism), Pre-Reformers (Waldensians, Moravians, and Unity of the Brethren), Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed Churches. The latter three are all as a result of the Great Reformation.
• 1. Oriental Orthodox – Earliest of schisms primarily around the Christology of Nestorius and questioned authority of the Ecumenical Councils 4-7. This church still exists today and is under heavy Muslim persecution in North Africa and the Middle East.
• 2. Orthodox – Eastern Byzantine empire – primarily represented by Greek, Serbian, and Russian Orthodox churches. The Eastern Orthodox church formed over the course of about 800 years and culminated in the disagreement over the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed. This led to a mutual excommunication of Western Pope and Eastern Archbishop in 1054 AD and has become known to us as the “Great Schism”. The Russian and eventually Serbian Orthodox churches can be traced to the work of two missionaries named Cyril and Methodius in the 9th-10th century. They were sent out by the Eastern church (already in existence prior to the Great Schism) and shared the gospel with the slavic people even taking the Slavic language and creating a written form for them (Cyrillic Alphabet)
• 3. Roman Catholic Church – Was more “differentiated” than “founded” per se as a result of the theology of Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas. The first person to claim the title of “Pope” in the sense of a supreme pontiff was actually claimed by Leo the Great in the 5th century. This was to the chagrin of much of the existing church at the time, primarily in the east as he was just an archbishop of Rome at the time but then argued at the ecumenical council of his day for the preeminence of the Roman See – thereby making him the preeminent “pontiff”. In later centuries, this self-appointment was contended which resulted in the conspicuous doctrine of Peter being the first archbishop of Rome and therefore Peter being the first pope and founder of the “true” church. Later, in 600AD a pope by the name of Gregory (Gregory the Great) would give the world a glimpse of the church affecting state as he began to either directly or indirectly appoint leaders of western nations. Ultimately, the overstepping of power, self-assumed pre-eminence, and eventual changing of the Nicene Creed by the addition of the filioque would result in the Great Schism whereby the Roman Catholic church would emerge as a differentiated church body from that of the Eastern Orthodox church in 1054 AD.
• 4. Pre-Reformers: Unity of the Brethren or “Moravian” church- began by secret small study groups formed by John Hus who took up the cause of John Wycliffe in the UK, calling for the preaching of the word to people in their spoken language (not in Latin), Scriptures written in the common tongue (not Latin), and the disbursement of horded wealth by the Roman Catholic monasteries. Wycliffe was persecuted but protected in his lifetime but Hus was not so fortunate. He was burned at the stake for speaking against the Catholic church and his followers were disbursed – Half of which left to join the Moravians – the other half formed the “Unity of the Brethren” church – both groups are still in existence today.
• 5. Lutheran – started by Martin Luther and although some Lutheran pastors have left to join or start other movements, there have been no significant denominations that trace their roots to Lutherans aside from the Lutheran Missouri Synod. This is to the Lutherans credit.
• 6. Anglican – The result of King Henry VIII’s desire for an heir. He desired to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn to produce an heir. The Pope refused this as he owed his position to the parents of Catherine of Aragon. Henry VIII seceded from the Church at large and a slow process of reformation would ensue for Great Britain thereafter. Most denominations trace their roots to this branch: Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.
• 7. Reformed – Founded liturgically by Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland and then later, theologically by the French refugee Jean Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. Calvin’s five points – Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints are usually shared universally across all denominations that hail from the Reformed Church beginning. A large number of denominations consider the Reformed church as their historical foundation: Presbyterians, Amish, Evangelical Free, and Christian and Missionary Alliance (CM and A)
On the chart, I have colored each family separately to differentiate the direct and indirect relationships they bear to one another. Upon closer investigation of this chart, you will discover that the greatest contributor to the list of denominations is the Anglican church, followed by the Reformed family of denominations.
The denominational flow chart is chronological from top down and works much like a family tree with the origin or “roots” of a denomination shown by a vertical line and a similarity or “sibling kinship” to another denomination drawn by a horizontal line. the top or beginning of the tree can be dated 30 A.D. and the bottom or last major denomination formed can be dated 1993 (International Church of Christ, formerly known as the Boston Church of Christ)
Much of this research has been compiled from the books “History of The Christian Church” by Philipp Schaff, “Church History In Plain Language” by Bruce Shelley, Frank Mead’s “Handbook of Denominations”, and to a lesser extent, Max Anders’ “30 Days to Understanding Church History” along with the historical information provided by a particular denomination’s official website.
To explore a more in-depth description of the history, reasons for, and origins of schisms and splits of the denominations below, feel free to visit our Christian Denominations page.