Differences In Christianities, Part I
The question comes up in one form or another in my MidWeek emails and in my religion classes: Are Catholics Christian? Yes, they are. Not only are Catholics Christian, but Catholic Christianity is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) forms of Christianity. The Catholic Church traces itself back to Peter, who was one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples. What is more, according to tradition Peter became the first pope. Why, then, do Catholics get accused of not being Christian?
There has never been a single form of Christianity. The apostles of Christ themselves argued over what it meant to be Christian. Paul’s conflict with Peter — where the former openly opposed the latter and charged him with hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14) — is an example of this disagreement. Currently, there are thousands of types of Christianities (one count lists more than 33,000!), but most of these are associated (however loosely) with one of three major forms: Catholic Christianity, Orthodox Christianity and Protestant Christianity. Churches representing all three forms can be found in Hawaii, and I strongly recommend visiting all three types — especially if you consider yourself a Christian — to gain a deeper understanding of Christianity.
The three major forms of Christianity have battled one another — physically, verbally and theologically — multiple times in history and, as Paul did to Peter, openly opposed each other and leveled charges of hypocrisy with such intensity that even today there is lasting unease and conflict among the three branches. One of the results of these lingering sentiments among the three groups is the notion that one form of Christianity is more authentic than the others. Or to put the matter in another way, other forms of Christianity different from one’s own are not genuinely Christian.
There has never been a single form of Christianity. The apostles of Christ themselves argued over what it meant to be Christian.
While it would take more than an 800-word column to delineate the differences among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianities (I’ll use three columns just to scratch the surface), here are a few distinctions:
Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants look to different earthly authorities for spiritual guidance. The pope (currently Francis) leads the Catholic Church and in the view of Catholics, the pope’s authority is perfect and divinely sanctioned. In the Gospel of Matthew (16:18-19), Jesus gives the keys to heaven to Peter. Jesus also tells Peter that he (Jesus) will build his church on him (Peter). As a result, Catholics believe the pope is the foundation of the church and the pope has the authority to decide who gets into heaven and who does not. This explains in part why Catholics confess their sins to a priest — priests represent the pope, thus they hold the keys to the kingdom.
The Orthodox Church is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) forms of Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic Christians disagree which church is older). The Orthodox Church traces itself back to the apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother. Orthodox Christians reject the authority of the pope and look to a patriarch for guidance instead (currently Bartholomew for most Orthodox Christians). According to the Gospel of John (1:40-42), it was Andrew who found Jesus first and subsequently brought his brother
Peter to Jesus. In other words, if it weren’t for Andrew (Orthodox Christianity), Peter (Catholic Christianity) would not have met Christ. Peter (pope) thus has little right to assert his authority over Andrew (patriarch).
Disputes over the reach of authority each church leader had and how theological issues were shaped as a consequence resulted in the pope excommunicating the patriarch and vice-versa. A formal split between the two churches occurred in 1054. War followed not long afterward. The divide hardened the different paths of development each church followed, leading to significant disparities in beliefs and practices. For example, Catholics and Orthodox Christians do not agree on how to observe the most sacred of all Christian rituals — the Eucharist — and the two churches follow different calendars, resulting in disagreement over when to celebrate Christmas and Easter, the two most important holidays in Christianity.
Protestant Christianity refers to a vast collection of assorted churches and Christian groups that number in the thousands. These churches are so diverse and different from one another in beliefs and practices that the only thing they have in common is their agreement that they are not Catholic or Orthodox.
Protestant Christianity cannot claim to be the oldest form of Christianity — indeed, it appears late in history, 1,500 years after the death of Jesus. Instead, Protestant churches claim to be the truest form of Christianity, arguing that the
Orthodox and Catholic churches have gone astray from the teachings of Christ because they are led by men and influenced by beliefs and practices not based on the Bible. The Bible, then, is the primary source of religious authority for Protestant Christianity. This may seem straightforward, but it isn’t.
Those who claim the Bible is the true word of God are often unaware that different Christians use different Bibles. They are under the impression that the Bible is the same for everyone, containing the exact same books and the exact same message. Nothing could be further from the truth. Different Bibles have different books and different teachings. I’ll explain how this can be in the next column.