Protestant churches began as a protest movement in 15th Century; hence the name ‘Protestant’. A priest called Martin Luther rejected some of the teaching and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. His thinking sparked a movement across Europe, which prompted the start of several denominations; the name given to different groups of Christians.
Protestant Christians emphasise the grace of God; God’s unmerited favour. Paul, one of the first leaders of the Christian church, explained that being at one with God (‘saved’) is God’s gift to us, not something we can or need to earn. He wrote: ‘It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.’
The various Christian denominations all follow Jesus, but differ in their interpretation of the Bible, the way they are governed and their practice of Christianity, including the way their places of worship are decorated. Even today, new Protestant denominations emerge as significant leaders gain a following.
The various Christian denominations all follow Jesus, but differ in their interpretation of the Bible
Anglican churches look to the Church of England as their founding church, although today most Anglicans are African. They are sometimes known as Episcopal churches as they have a hierarchical system of government which includes bishops. The Church of England began in the years following Henry VIII’s split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century.
Reading and learning from the Bible is at the heart of Anglican services, alongside eating bread and drinking wine, known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Ritual and tradition is also important to many Anglicans and this is reflected in the way church leaders (clergy) dress, the order of events in Sunday worship, and the colours chosen to decorate churches at different times of year. The Anglican Church is led by archbishops, bishops and priests. In England some bishops are members of the House of Lords, reflecting the link between Church and State.
Anglican churches around the world have a close relationship with each other in the ‘Anglican Communion,’ but they make their own decisions. They look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the most significant bishop among many equals. Anglicans agree that their priorities are to proclaim Jesus’ teaching - the ‘Good News of the Kingdom’; to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to transform unjust structures of society, challenging violence and pursuing peace and reconciliation; and to strive to ‘safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. Different Anglican churches might express these priorities in very different ways. The denomination holds together people with widely divergent views and styles, so going to an Anglican service can vary in neighbouring churches, let alone neighbouring countries.
Anglo-Catholics emphasise the Catholic rather than the Protestant heritage of the Anglican Communion, placing more emphasis on the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist (or Communion, Mass, or the Lord's Supper).
Evangelical Anglicans are part of a worldwide, trans-denominational movement within Protestant Christianity. They love the Bible and believe that God takes the initiative, inviting people into the story of his love as shown by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Evangelicals emphasise the need for a personal response to God, sometimes described as being ‘born again’. Repentance (turning away from sin and short-comings) and faith (trusting God, not personal good deeds or efforts) are key aspects of evangelical belief.
The Methodist Church takes its name from a methodical approach to life and faith. These churches date from the 18th century, when John Wesley inspired a huge number of people to follow Jesus for the first time. Methodist services have always featured simple prayers and a love of hymn singing. (John Wesley’s brother Charles was a great musician and wrote many hymns that are still sung regularly). Every year at a covenant service, Methodists have an opportunity to dedicate themselves to God’s plan for the world: ‘I am no longer my own but yours…’
The Salvation Army began in Victorian London when Methodists, William and Catherine Booth, abandoned the traditional concept of a church pulpit to take practical Christianity directly to the people. They started with ‘soup, soap and salvation’ encouraging both social and spiritual transformation among society’s most vulnerable and marginalised people. The Salvation Army continues this work in more than 130 countries, offering practical help, unconditional assistance and support to transform lives. Salvation Army staff are called ‘officers’ and wear distinctive uniforms. The denomination is known for its military-style bands that take music out of their buildings and onto the streets.
The Baptist denomination has a four hundred year history. Instead of christening children as babies (an initiation ceremony which involves sprinkling the child with water), Baptists make baptism an adult event marking a thoughtful decision to be a Christian (‘believers’ baptism’). Instead of sprinkling, they fully immerse believers in water during a joyful service.
Decisions in Baptist churches are shared by the whole congregation. This means the churches are very varied. Baptists love the Bible and worship with few rituals. They emphasise the importance of responding to the Bible’s teaching by serving the world’s neediest people and telling others about Jesus. They are strong in the south of the USA, where they are very conservative, and in countries where Baptist missionaries first went, such as India.
Brethren Christians believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers’. They love the Bible and shared participation in communion or ‘breaking of bread’. Their worship services are memorable in their simplicity. Often they use no instruments and the buildings where they meet are plain with no symbols. Led by men, Brethren are immensely supportive of each other.
Pentecostal churches emphasise the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible’s account of the early church at Pentecost. The movement is strongest today in the global South, which includes Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Pentecostal worship is exuberant and includes ‘speaking in tongues’, a phenomenon described in the Bible.
There are more than 700 Pentecostal denominations, including the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), which is the fastest growing Protestant denomination in the world. It began in Nigeria in the 1950s and is led by the General Overseer Enoch Adeboye. The RCCG has a presence in more than 198 countries.
The Lutheran Church emerged in Germany and Scandinavia at the same time as Anglican churches. There is a strong emphasis on the way the Bible shapes day to day life, and the way God has made it possible for humans to be one with him. There is a quiet dignity to their hymns and prayers.
Reformed churches are plentiful in the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the UK their various names include the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church. In Australia, they include the Uniting Church. They were founded in the 16th century. Today reformed worship is profound, simple and committed to encouraging integrity in working life. Communion takes place infrequently, and therefore with great seriousness and preparation.
Quakers are more properly known as the Religious Society of Friends. Since the 17th century silence has been the most important part of their meetings. Anyone is allowed to break the silence and share thoughts which they believe God has given them. They have an ongoing search for God rather than a set list of beliefs. Inspired by Jesus, Quakers have a record of peace-making and pursuit of justice across the world – most are pacifists.
There are many other Protestant denominations reflecting different practices, emphases and cultural expressions of Christianity.