Understanding American Protestant Denominations

By Josh Benadum

Methodists and Mennonites. Episcopalians and Ecumenicals. Assemblies of God and Adventists. Baptists, Moravians, Amish… The list goes on. American Christianity contains a virtual mosaic of denominations differing in structure, emphases, and theology. Many wonder about the key differences between the various denominations. Here we will consider the basic differences and similarities.

What is a denomination?

In our earlier article, we explained the difference between a Christian cult and a Christian denomination (see “What is a Cult?”). Historically, legitimate Christian groups were identified by their adherence to statements of central Biblical doctrines, such as the Apostles Creed, even while differing in other nonessential areas.[1] America’s major or “mainline” denominations share a common historical and theological background enunciated famously in the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe.[2]

The hundreds of Protestant Christian groups which exist in the United States are loosely grouped according to three distinct traditions: evangelical[3] Protestant churches (26.3 percent of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1 percent) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9 percent).[4] There are six primary mainline Protestant churches: (1) American Baptist Churches, (2) the Episcopal Church, (3) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (4) the Presbyterian Church, (5) the United Church of Christ, and (6) the United Methodist Church.[5]

The state of the mainline denominations

Quantitative factors: Research shows that institutional churches in America are numerically in steep decline.[6]

Qualitative factors: Secular based Pew Research has unearthed disturbing data regarding the spiritual and theological state of the mainline denominations. In one study which drew from each of the churches, only 73% of respondents were certain of God’s existence. Moreover, only 52% stated that religion was “very important” in their lives, and only 22% of mainline denominational Christians agreed that the Bible is the literally true word of God. Additionally, a staggering 83% believed that many religions can lead to eternal life.[7]

1. American Baptist Churches

History: The Baptist tradition traces back to various churches which rejected the parish structure of 16th century English congregationalism, where all members of the community were considered Christians from birth. Early Baptists emphasized each person’s accountability and ability to have a direct personal relationship with Jesus and the ability of the layperson to interpret the Bible. The American Baptist Convention split from the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue of slavery in 1844, and many smaller Baptist splinter groups have formed due to other socio-political and theological differences.[8]

Population: Today the American Baptist Convention claims 1.3 million members (2008 census).[9]

Church Polity: Baptist congregations are largely independent as a matter of principle. They are typically very traditional in liturgy.

Key Positions: Baptists are generally the most conservative of the mainline denominations, and hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture, also believing in the importance of evangelism. Officially, this denomination supports the ordination of women. Baptists hold to traditional definitions of marriage as existing only between one man and one woman.[10]

2. Episcopal Church

History: The Episcopalian Church is in the American wing of what is known as the Anglican Church or the Church of England. It was reformed and renamed following the instability of the American Revolution in the late 1700’s.

Population: Today the church has 1.95 million members (2010 census).[11]

Church Polity: The Episcopalian Church is similar in structure to the Roman Catholic Church in that it emphasizes tradition, the sacraments, and is clergy centered.

Key Positions: Episcopalians reject biblical inerrancy and also advocate full acceptance of same-sex attracted (hereafter SSA) behavior and ordination of same-sex married priests (hereafter SSM).[12] The Anglican Church in North America split from the Episcopal Church in 2008 due to biblical convictions regarding SSM.[13]

3. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

History: The Lutheran Church has remained remarkably unified for being the oldest of all protestant denominations, hailing all the way back to the reformer Martin Luther. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed in a merger between several other large Lutheran bodies in 1988.

Population: Today the ELCA claims 4.7 million members (2009 census).

Church Polity: Lutheranism is very traditional, as Luther’s reforms dissented from the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, but not in regards to its structure or forms of worship.[14]

Key Positions: Traditionally, Lutheran’s affirm sola scriptura (scripture alone) and sola fide (faith alone). In 2009 the ELCA affirmed practicing SSA pastors, and in 2011 ratified SSM in the church. Former ELCA scholar Dr. James Nestingen recently concluded that promoting acceptance of SSM as a civil rights issue has replaced the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the primary mission and message of the ELCA.[15] Following this shift, the North American Lutheran Church broke away from ELCA and is one of several Lutheran groups to affirm traditional marriage.[16]

4. Presbyterian Church

History: The Presbyterian Church derives its name from its system of governance. Theologically, the Presbyterian Church is part of the Reformed tradition begun under the theology of John Calvin.

Population: Today the church boasts 1.95 million members (2011 census).[17]

Church Polity: Unlike Lutheran and Episcopal churches which are clergy centered, Presbyterian churches are led by a group of elected elders.

Key Positions: The Presbyterian Church has no present consensus on the issue of SSM. However the church has removed all language from their bylaws prohibiting the ordination of SSA elders.[18] Since congregations elect their elders, different Presbyterian congregations greatly differ on their stance regarding biblical inerrancy, and key points of doctrine.

5. United Church of Christ

History: The United Church of Christ (hereafter UCC) officially formed in 1957 when several large groups combined to form one entity.

Population: The UCC currently claims 1.1 million members (2008 census).[19]

Church Polity:  It describes itself as unifying a blend of congregational and Presbyterian polity, and neo-orthodox with regards to its theology.

Key Positions:  The UCC rejects biblical inerrancy, and was the first to ordain an openly SSA minister.[20] The UCC is known for its emphasis on ecumenical efforts and interfaith relationships. Therefore UCC churches display great diversity in ecclesiological form, ranging from traditional to contemporary worship styles.[21]

6. United Methodist Church

History: Methodism grew out of the rigidity and dry orthodoxy of the Anglican Church through the revivals of John Wesley. Originally Wesley tried to confine his movement to the Anglican Church, but the break was ultimately inevitable.

Population: Today the United Methodist Church claims eight million members (2008 census).[22]

Church Polity: Methodist churches are less independent than those in other Protestant denominations. Pastors are appointed by the denomination, and church government is Episcopal in structure with a strict liturgy.

Key Positions: The United Methodist Church organized in 1968 beneath the banner of liberal theology, and since the 1990’s has been embroiled in debate regarding SSM. The church extends full acceptance towards SSA members, but officially will not ordain SSA ministers or conduct SSM.[23] United Methodist churches typically do not teach biblical inerrancy.


The theological shift in most mainline denominations away from the emphases of scripture has been motivated by fear of losing ground and relevancy in today’s culture. Yet ironically, Millard Erickson observes,

Groups which in the first half of the century abandoned the gospel of supernatural regeneration through faith in a supernatural, atoning Christ have not prospered. Indeed they have declined. Conservative evangelical groups on the other hand, have grown. Those groups which have continued to preach the gospel Paul preached, which have offered an authentic alternative to an unbelieving or secular world, have succeeded in winning non-Christians.[24]

Instead of acclimating our beliefs to the culture, believers should stand out as salt and light to the culture around us. This, of course, is God’s plan for growing his Church: not by assimilating to the beliefs of the culture, but by standing for the truth and love revealed in his word.


Mainline Denomination’s Key Stances


Biblical Inerrancy

Same-Sex Marriage


Calvinist vs Arminian


Accepts Illegitimate Adult baptism, communion Varies, usually Calvinist.
Episcopal Rejects Legitimate Confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, anointing[25], communion, child baptism

Neither, but traditionally closer to Arminian


Rejects Legitimate Communion, baptism (often infant) Neither, but traditionally closer to Arminian
Presbyterian Varies (does not directly affirm) Varies Communion, baptism (usually adult)


Church of Christ

Rejects Legitimate Communion, baptism (adult or infant) Neither
Methodist Varies, most reject Denies ordination, but accepts among laity Communion, baptism (adult)

Usually closer to Arminian


Additional Denomination’s Key Stances


Biblical Inerrancy



Calvinist vs Arminian

Assemblies of God

Accepts Illegitimate Communion, water baptism, baptism of the Holy Spirit[26] Neither, leans toward Arminianism
Reformed Accepts Illegitimate Communion, adult baptism


Quakers (Friends)

Rejects Legitimate Communion, adult baptism Neither
Church of the Brethren Varies, most reject Illegitimate Communion, adult baptism, anointing


Disciples of Christ

Varies Legitimate Communion, adult baptism




American Baptist Churches USA, Our History, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/our-history/

American Baptist Churches USA, What We Believe, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/

The Aquila Report, ELCA has Biggest Split in American Church History, July 2013. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://theaquilareport.com/elca-has-biggest-split-in-american-church-history/

Barna Group, Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches, December 2009. Accessed April 4, 2014. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/leadership/323-report-examines-the-state-of-mainline-protestant-churches#.Uwz6QeNdXQQ

Barna Group, Religious Beliefs Vary Widely by Denomination, June 2001. Accessed April 4, 2014. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/53-religious-beliefs-vary-widely-by-denomination#.Uwz42ONdXQR

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, Denomination. Accessed April 5, 2014. http://carm.org/dictionary-denomination

The Episcopal Church, LGBT in the Church, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/lgbt-church

The Episcopal Church, History, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/history-american-church

Goodstein, Laurie. The New York Times, Episcopal Split as Conservatives Form New Group, December 2008. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/us/04episcopal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Human Rights Campaign, Stances of Faith on LGBT Issues: United Methodist Church, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/stances-of-faiths-on-lgbt-issues-united-methodist-church

Orr, James. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Accessed January 7th, 2015. www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed_orr.html

Pew Research Center, Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. 2011. Accessed January 7th, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf

Pew Research Center, Global Christianity: Movements and Denominations. 2011. Accessed January 7th, 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-movements-and-denominations/

Presbyterian Mission Agency, Homosexuality, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/101/homosexuality/

United Church of Christ, About Us: What We Believe, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.ucc.org/about-us/what-we-believe.html

Universal Life Church Monastery, Lutherans Split Over Bible Beliefs, Social Justice Issues, September 2010 Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.themonastery.org/blog/2010/09/lutherans-split-over-bible-beliefs-social-justice-issues/


Appendix A

What is Evangelicalism?

Evangelicals are Christians who (1) believe in the centrality of the conversion or “born again” experience in receiving salvation; (2) believe in the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity; and (3) have a strong commitment to evangelism or sharing the Christian message. Evangelicals constitute a trans-denominational movement; Christians who hold these beliefs or commitments may be found in numerous denominations and church traditions, such as Methodism and Presbyterianism; Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God; and denominations that are expressly and historically evangelical, such as the Evangelical Free Church of America. The origins of modern evangelicalism are often traced to late 17th-century Lutheran Pietism in Germany and Methodism in England around the same time.[27]


[2] http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf, pp. 38

[3] See Appendix A “What is Evangelicalism?”

[4] http://www.pewforum.org/2008/02/01/chapter-1-the-religious-composition-of-the-united-states/

[5] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/leadership/323-report-examines-the-state-of-mainline-protestant-churches#.Uwz6QeNdXQQ

[6] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/leadership/323-report-examines-the-state-of-mainline-protestant-churches#.Uwz6QeNdXQQ

[7] http://religions.pewforum.org/comparisons#

[8] Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 7th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. 35

[9] http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/our-history/

[10] http://www.abc-usa.org/what_we_believe/

[11] http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/history-american-church

[12] http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/lgbt-church

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/us/04episcopal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[14] Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 7th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. 136

[15] http://theaquilareport.com/elca-has-biggest-split-in-american-church-history/

[16] http://www.themonastery.org/blog/2010/09/lutherans-split-over-bible-beliefs-social-justice-issues/

[17] Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 7th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. 176

[18] http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/101/homosexuality/

[19] http://www.ucc.org/about-us/short-course/the-united-church-of-christ.html

[20] http://www.ucc.org/about-us/what-we-believe.html

[21] Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 7th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. 219

[22] Mead, Frank. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 7th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985. 152-154.

[23] http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/stances-of-faiths-on-lgbt-issues-united-methodist-church

[24] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 1st edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985. 1066-1067.

[25] Refers to being anointed with oil for personal and physical healing.

[26] Refers to a second “filling” of the Holy Spirit involving speaking in tongues.

[27] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-movements-and-denominations/