A Fourth Branch of Christendom?
Historic Christendom is generally thought of as consisting of three main branches: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism.1 Yet as a serious student of Christianity I would like to propose that a reasonable case can be made that there is now a fourth branch of Christendom to go along with the three traditional ecclesiastical bodies.2 Not everyone will agree with my assessment but let me offer a description of this new branch and explain why I think it is distinct from the other three.
The New Branch
The new branch was birthed from historic Protestantism and shares a lot of common ground with it, but maybe especially with the nonmagisterial or Radical Reformation Protestants (or Anabaptists). I view the emergence of this fourth branch of Christendom as being closely associated with the continued splintering of Evangelicalism (keeping in mind the term “evangelical” is increasingly difficult to define). I call the new branch “Jesus Followers.”
Here are twelve general characteristics of the newest version of Christianity as I see it. Again, many of these characteristics are reflected in the modern-day representatives of the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century. Think of this list as a paradigm or model rather than an exact description or classification.
- Followers of Jesus: Many people in this new branch want to avoid being called “Protestant” or even “Christian.” Rather, they prefer to be called “followers of Jesus” or similar terms. Since Christianity is a way of life centered on Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all Christians could be considered Jesus followers. But believers within fourth branch churches don’t want to be associated with the divisions and schisms that are so prevalent in church history. So, they want their identity to be found not in historic churches but in Jesus himself.
- Nondenominational: Building on the point above, fourth branch Christianity tends to be nondenominational. Or if these churches have denominational connections (and most do) they tend to downplay those connections. Again, there is little direct historical connection to church history.
- Charismatic or Pentecostal: Many individuals and churches who are part of this new formation of the faith have adopted a charismatic or Pentecostal spirituality. The historical roots of these churches may even be connected to traditional Pentecostal denominations. This form of piety isn’t a universal characteristic of the new branch, but it is common. There are also what we may call Bible churches in this fold that are cessationists concerning the spiritual gifts.
- The Bible only: Fourth branch churches and individuals interpret the Bible in its own right apart from Christian history. This position is in the spirit of what traditional Protestants call sola Scriptura, but I think it is a little different. The fourth branch believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and the sole authority for doctrine and Christian living; they also affirm the creedal expressions of the Trinity, the incarnation, etc. Yet these churches view biblical authority as functioning seemingly independent of collective church councils, church tradition, or church history.
- Affirm mere Christianity: The doctrinal perspective of the new branch encompasses generally basic Christian doctrine. This term “mere Christianity” refers to a group of essential and “agreed, or common, or central”3 Christian doctrines (such as creation, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the ascension, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming) that all branches of historic Christendom affirm.
- Noncreedal: This fourth branch typically has a statement of faith but no formal creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed) or confessions (e.g., Westminster Confession or Thirty-Nine Articles). However, while these churches may not formally recite a creed, they may and sometimes do sing it in their regular times of worship.
- Nonliturgical: Services at fourth branch churches are typically much more informal compared to the structured liturgy and religious rites found in traditional church services.
- Nonhymnal: Instead of formal hymns and liturgical songs, worship services at fourth branch churches feature popular praise music, bands, and contemporary Christian songs.
- Nonsacramental: These ecclesiastical bodies emphasize ordinances instead of sacraments. So while a sacrament is understood as a means of divine grace, an ordinance is a practice that involves the participants’ obedience to faith. For example, instead of affirming baptismal regeneration which is often associated with infant baptism, a Jesus Follower would be baptized to publicly announce his or her intention to live for Jesus.
- Congregational polity: For these houses of worship their church government reflects independent congregational church authority instead of an episcopal (led by bishops) or presbyterian (led by elders) form of order.
- Revivalism: Fourth branch churches conduct revival meetings in order to gain new converts and to inspire members to greater discipline and devotion. Church services are marked by evangelism, which commonly takes place by means of altar calls.
- Megachurches: Some of the congregations within this emerging branch are megachurches. A megachurch has an extremely large membership and also offers a variety of educational and social opportunities for its congregants.
Again, some traditional Protestant churches share a number of these characteristics with fourth branch churches or Jesus Followers. And this description should be seen as a general pattern rather than an exact definition. Nevertheless, I think there is enough difference to warrant acknowledging a new and distinct branch of Christendom.
Churches in this new branch have strengths and weaknesses just like the churches they differ from. Some find this form of Christianity very appealing while others detect deficiencies.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you attended a megachurch? What did you think?
The Appeal of Common Christianity
Finding One’s Place in Christ’s Universal Church
Debating Denominational Difference While Non-Christians Watch
Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom
- For a discussion of these three branches of Christendom in terms of their areas of agreement and disagreement as well as the historic divisions, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.
- Because Orthodoxy consists of two historic church traditions—Eastern Orthodoxy (Chalcedonian) and Oriental Orthodoxy (non-Chalcedonian)—sometimes people speak of four branches of Christendom. As well, sometimes Anglicanism is viewed as independent of Protestantism and thus labeled the fourth branch of Christendom. However, I think for the most part the two versions of Orthodoxy are seen as one branch and more often than not Anglicanism is viewed as being one of the churches of Reformation and thus Protestant.
- See C. S. Lewis’s idea of “mere Christianity” in his book by the same title, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 8.