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The Protestant Churches

The Protestant Churches, unlike the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is not a federation in any sense at all. The term Protestant stems from the history of the protest of the German princes against the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century. There are today more than 420 million Protestants worldwide.[1]

Most Protestants accept the first two sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Worship in the Protestant churches are normally called Services. These are normally much less elaborate than the Catholic or Orthodox ones. The liturgical rites and sacraments play a much less important role in Protestant Churches than in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Reading from the Bible and preaching from the pulpit is more heavily stressed in Protestant worship. Holy communion is celebrated weekly in some churches but others churches celebrate it less often.[2]

Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Protestant Churches have no single person acting as its leader. To Protestants the Bible constitutes the most important religious authority. All theological debates must find their solution in the Bible. Any theology that cannot be shown to be derived from the scriptures is considered to be heretical or, at the very least, of dubious value. More often then not these derivations from the scriptures are not straightforward and require interpretations of Biblical passages. With no leader to arbitrate matters regarding biblical interpretation, debates normally result in the various groups separating from one another. This abscence of arbitration is the main cause of the principal feature of Protestantism: its diversity. The Protestant Church with the oldest roots is the Lutheran Church The name is taken from the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546) who started the Protestant movement in the early sixteenth century. Lutheran Churches today have more than 50 million followers.[3] The bulk of the Lutherans are mainly from Germany, the U.S.A. and the Scandinavian countries.[4] In Lutheranism the sole authority is the scriptures. The basic tenet of Lutheranism is justification by faith alone. This means that the sacramental rites perform by the Catholics and Orthodox churches are of no value in getting one to heaven. What is needed is simply faith in Jesus and his promise.[5]

Another group of Protestant churches with almost as long a history as Lutheranism is the Presbyterian Churches. Presbyterianism claim about 39 million followers.[6] It is strongly concentrated in Scotland, the U.S.A., Hungary, Holland, Northern Ireland, Switzerland and France. The term Presbyterians come form the method of government of the church. The church is governed by a group of elders known as presbyters which also oversees the ordination of ministers for the individual churches.

The basic beliefs of the Presbyterians stems from the French theologian, John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvinism shares with Lutheranism the belief in the sole authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone. To this, Calvin added his infamous doctrine of predestination. This doctrine tells that God, in his infinite wisdom has already chosen certain people for eternal salvation, regardless of what they have done, or will do, on earth. Hence, one is predestined for heaven or hell. Salvation, or damnation, is therefore purely a matter of luck. No amount of "good works" will save a non-elect.[7] The Anglican Church is a loose confederation of churches that recognizes the honorary leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.[8] There are more than 70 million Anglicans worldwide.[9] Anglicanism is prominent in England (where it is called The Church of England), Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the U.S.A (where it is called the Protestant Episcopal Church) and Canada. Anglican churches can normally be found in countries that used to be part of the British Empire.[10]

The theology of Anglicanism contains both Catholic and Protestant elements. The government of the church is by bishops. The worship, unlike most other protestant churches, is closer to the Catholic. It is based commonly in fixed liturgies. The classic liturgy is The Book of Common Prayer which was first published in 1662. Apart from the Bible, the Thirty Nine Articles define Anglican dogma.[11] Traditionally the acceptance of these dogmatic tenets was compulsory for all Anglicans. The attitude today is slightly more lax.[12]

The Baptist churches are one of the most diverse protestant group of churches. The Baptist churches claim about 35 million followers worldwide.[13] The largest concentration of Baptist churches is in the U.S.A.. The strongest unifying principle of all Baptist churches is their attitude towards baptism. Baptism of infants, allowed in the Catholic, Orthodox and even some protestant churches is prohibited. Baptism is allowed only when a person reaches the "age of reason", i.e. twelve years old, and is done by total immersion in water. The Baptist Churches in general have no elaborate priesthood or government.[14]

The next largest Protestant Church is the Methodist Church. The name was derived from the methodical observance of the religious routine of its founders, John (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788).[15] There are more than 31 million Methodists worldwide.[16] Of this more than 12 million reside in the USA.[17]The government of the Methodist Church is similar to the Presbyterians. The supreme authority is the Conference, which consists of equal numbers of ministers and laymen.[18]

In its theology Methodism is very much "mainstream Protestant". It preaches justification by faith with the Bible as the supreme authority. In addition, it teaches of a special gift of Christian perfection which is conferred to the converted in this life. This sense of being reborn in the Holy Spirit will, according to Wesley’s teachings, effectively prevent believers from backsliding into sin and despair. Methodist worship is to some extend derived form the Anglican church with both formal and informal elements.[19]

The last group of Protestant Churches we will deal with is the Pentecostal Churches. There are about 24 million followers of these churches.[20]Like the Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches are diverse and varied. Some of the major Pentecostal Churches include the Assemblies of God, The United Pentecostal Church, The Church of God, The Apostolic Church of God and the New Testament Church of God. The main unifying thread is the belief that the "gifts of the Pentecost" are given to believers for all time. The gifts of the Pentecost is described in the Bible in Acts 2:1-4* and I Corinthians chapters 12 and 14. These gifts include healing, exorcism, prophecy and speaking in tongues or glossolalia. The Pentecost is a celebration 50 days after the Jewish feast of the Passover. It was during this celebration that the first disciples of Jesus, after his ascension into heaven, received the Holy Spirit together with the gifts mentioned above. Pentecostal worship is very loosely structured with rousing sermons and lively hymns. Speaking in tongues, a nonsensical utterance of gibberish (to unbelievers), is also a common feature of such worship.[21]

Having very briefly introduced the major Protestant churches this would be an appropriate place to clear up some confusion with nomenclature. Many people, including, I suspect, many Protestants themselves, are confused with the profusion of terms relating to some churches and movements within modern Protestantism. Terms such as fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics sometimes seem to be used interchangeably although they are not. Fundamentalists are Christians who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. Allegorical interpretations are only taken when the intent is clear. The opposite of fundamentalists are the liberals. The liberals try to reconcile the Bible with modern science by adopting allegorical interpretations of Biblical reading to avoid contradicting the findings of science. Evangelicals are "born-again" Christians whose views can vary between fundamentalist and liberal. We have explained the meaning of Pentecostal above. It should be mentioned here that all Pentecostals are fundamentalists. The Pentecostal movement however is by no mean confined only to the Pentecostal Churches. Since the 1960s movements akin to it has appeared in Catholic, Anglican and other more "mainstream" protestant churches. These movements, especially in the Catholic and Anglican Churches are called the Charismatic renewal. Charismatics are not necessarily fundamentalists.[22]

References

1 Hoffman, The World's Almanac: p610
2 Hilliard, How Men Worship: p165; Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p419
3 Barret, The World Christian Encyclopedia: p792-793
4 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p360
5 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p313
6 Barret, The World Christian Encyclopedia: p792-793
7 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p84,413
8 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p25
9 Hoffman, The World's Almanac: p610
10 Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p65-66
11 Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions, Penguin: p42
12 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p511
13 Barret, The World Christian Encyclopedia: p792-793
14 Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p128
15 Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p800
16 Barret, The World Christian Encyclopedia: p792-793
17 Hoffman, The World's Almanac: p609
18 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p335
19 Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p212-213
20 Barret, The World Christian Encyclopedia: p792-793
21 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p391
22 Gardner, The New Age: p 225-226

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