There are a variety of reasons for the creation of multiple denominations. Christians often have different interpretations on how particular portions of Scriptures are to be understood. Many also have particular convictions as to which church practices should be conducted in corporate worship and how worship services should be structured. Others divide on their view on who should be appointed into church leadership, and the extent and scope of their authoritative powers.

In short, denominations often differentiate from each other based on least three main factors, which include:

1) Ecclesiology: Churches can differ in their view on which form of church government is most biblical and which one is best for the preservation of biblical doctrine and practice, and maintaining the purity of the church. The most common forms of government are: episcopalian, presbyterian and congregational. In particular, their views may also vary on who should be appointed into leadership, and the extent and scope of the authoritative powers that are given to leaders for the administration of the church.

2) Orthodoxy: Churches also deviate from each other in their adherence to various creeds, confessions and statements of faith. These formulated statements summarise the core doctrines of the affiliated denomination and includes their view of Scripture, Jesus, salvation, the sacraments (such as the Lord’s Supper and baptism), eschatology, as well as many other doctrines.

3) Orthopraxy: Lastly, churches administer different liturgies and ministry practices that are tailored to their particular context. As an illustration, this includes the type of musical instruments, genre and style differ in each church: modern-style churches primarily sing gospel songs, and other more traditional churches praise God through hymns. The sacraments are also administered differently in each church; as to which particular sacraments are administered, who is eligible to receive the sacraments and to the frequency to which these sacraments are celebrated.

We will cover some of the more prominent church denominations you will find within Australia: (1) the Anglican Communion, (2) the Presbyterian Church, (3) the Baptist Church, (4) the Methodist Church, (5) the Pentecostal Movement, and (6) the Uniting Church.

Anglicans

1) Ecclesiology: Though all thirty-nine provinces of the Anglican Communion are autonomous in their own governing affairs, they all share in the global communion and recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as a symbol of unity for global Anglicanism. Each province adopts an episcopalian government structure, which means that individuals, called bishops, are appointed with the authority to govern a number of churches within a specific region. These bishops were understood to be the successors of the Apostles, in which their authority was transmitted to them through apostolic succession. Therefore in this system, the community of believers do not share in the government of the church and therefore have limited input to how the church is governed.

Archbishops are bishops of an archdiocese, which contain a number of regions, and possess greater metropolitical powers to govern those districts. While bishops have authority over a region, rectors have authority over their particular parishes. To become a rector, one has to first become ordained as a deacon and then later ordained as a priest.

2) Orthodoxy: The adoption of various theology, creeds and confessions differ within the Anglican Communion. Anglican churches across the board have agreed upon the three creeds; the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed for their doctrinal foundations. However, there is no formally binding confession that the Anglican Communion adheres to. Today, high churches (churches that place a ‘high’ emphasis on liturgies, sacraments and ecclesiology of the Catholic tradition) often use the Book of Common Prayer, whereas some low and evangelical churches (churches that reject Roman Catholic tradition and adopt a more evangelical outlook on their doctrine and practice) subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. [1]

3) Orthopraxy: Church rituals, practices and liturgies also vary within Anglicanism. High churches will insist upon their clergy members to wear vestments in corporate worship, and songs of praise are often sang from the Book of Common Prayer.
Low, evangelical churches are more flexible in what they wear, and adopts more contemporary styles of worship, such as the use of modern-day musical instruments like the guitar and drums.
Most Anglican churches across the board celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as well as both adult and infant baptism. Baptisms can be performed either through sprinkling or full immersion.

Presbyterians

1) Ecclesiology: The Presbyterian church adopts a presbyterian government structure. In this model, the community of believers in the local church have power to elect a group of elders, who will then become the ruling body of that church who represents and leads them. In the Presbyterian church, elders have the same power, duty, and responsibility as pastors/ministers – the only difference between them is that the latter is given a stipend so as to free his time to engage in more ministry work while the former has a separate vocation in addition to his responsibilities as an elder. A collective group of elders is called a Session, and they meet frequently to pray for the church, to make plans for growth, and to provide spiritual leadership over the people that they have been entrusted with. The elders of that specific region meet together in what is called a presbytery, and there, they deal with ministry matters that concern that particular region. In Australia, a State Assembly is held annually to discuss matters concerning the church at a state level, and a General Assembly is held once every three years to discuss matters concerning the church at a national level. Every ordained elder and minister has a seat at the assembly.

2) Orthodoxy: The theology of the Presbyterian church is predominately Reformed, and they adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the standard of doctrine, subordinate only to Scripture itself.

3) Orthopraxy: Reformed Presbyterians consistently adhere to the Regulative Principle which states that we should not only worship the right God, but we should also worship the right God in the right way. This means that we should worship God in ways that are either explicitly commanded in Scripture or which can be deduced by good and necessary consequence. Therefore, some more conservative Presbyterian churches hold to worshipping and singing the Psalms exclusively, though most today embrace the use of more contemporary music. Reformed Presbyterians celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as well as both adult and infant baptism. Baptisms can be performed either through sprinkling or full immersion.

Baptists

1) Ecclesiology: Baptists adopt a congregational government structure. In this model, the community of believers in the local church have power to elect a group of elders, but the authoritative power that these elders possess does not extend beyond the local church.

2) Orthodoxy: Due to the congregational government structure Baptists adopt, doctrinal beliefs can vary from each individual congregation. It is also for this reason that Baptists are less enthusiastic about finding expression of their doctrinal convictions in a universal confession of faith.

However, the main doctrinal teaching that differentiates Baptists from any other denomination is their rejection of infant baptism. According to them, baptism is a sacrament whereby the believer makes a public declaration of their faith to the congregation, and this is an act that can only be done by an individual who are of age to respond to the gospel call. Similarly in regards to baptism, Baptists believe that full immersion (the immersing of the entire body of the person in water) is the only method of baptism that faithfully depicts how baptism was administered in the early Christian church.

3) Orthopraxy: Generally, Baptists celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptism, though they will only baptise those who choose to follow Christ. Since they emphasize the autonomy of the local church, liturgies, rituals and practices vary among individual churches.

Methodists

1) Ecclesiology: The Methodist church adopts an episcopal government structure, similarly to the Anglican church.

2) Orthodoxy: The doctrine in Methodist churches is broadly driven by Wesleyan-Arminian theology, rather than Reformed theology. They generally agreed upon the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed as declarations of their Christian beliefs. But unlike the Presbyterians, they do not adhere to any particular confession of faith.

3) Orthopraxy: Methodist churches are generally quite relaxed in what they wear, and adopts more contemporary styles of worship. Most Methodist churches across the board celebrate the Lord’s Supper, as well as both adult and infant baptism. Baptisms can be performed either through sprinkling or full immersion.

Pentecostals

1) Ecclesiology: The majority of Pentecostal churches adopt a congregational government structure, similarly to Baptist churches. However, it is arguable that functionally, many Pentecostal churches are effectively Anglican in practice. In other words, it is not uncommon for the Senior/Lead Pastor of a Pentecostal church to have the majority power in the decision-making procedures in the church.

2) Orthodoxy: The doctrine in most Pentecostal churches are driven by Arminian theology, similarly to the Methodists. Some of the other theological distinctives that characterize the Pentecostal movement is their belief in the continuation of extraordinary spiritual gifts, such as healing and tongue speaking. Pentecostals also have a peculiar view of the baptism of the Spirit, where they teach that believers must undergo a twofold experience of the Spirit. In this second stage of the experience, the Spirit anoints the believer with spiritual gifts, equipping them for ministry. Some churches believe tongue speaking is evidence of one having received Spirit baptism, others teach that any of the gifts of the Spirit can signify that one has received the baptism.

3) Orthopraxy: Pentecostal churches adopt very fluid forms of worship. Dancing, shouting, clapping, praying loudly and speaking in tongues are some of the unique expressions of worship characterized by the Pentecostal understanding of the Spirit’s lively influence in the believer during worship.
Like most Protestant denominations, they celebrate both the Lord’s Supper and baptism. However, similarly to the Baptists, most Pentecostal groups practice believer’s baptism by immersion only.

Uniting Church

1) Ecclesiology: The Uniting Church adopts a presbyterian government structure. Quite similarly to the Presbyterian church, the local church appoints a council, a group of elders consisting of both lay men and women and ordained people, to govern the pastoral affairs of the church on a congregational level. Councils are also established outside the local church, from the regional (presbytery) and state level (synod), up to the national level (assembly). One ecclesiological distinctive of the Uniting Church, however, is that a chairperson is appointed to represent that respective council. At the state level, a moderator is appointed for that role, which can be occupied by a lay member or ordained minister. A president is elected at the national level to oversee affairs concerning the entire church in Australia.

2) Orthodoxy: Despite the Uniting Church’s presbyterian government structure, there is a peculiarly vast spectrum of theological perspectives that is rooted from its Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational church origins. The list of theological positions can range from Reformed evangelical, Arminian, to progressive and liberal. However, due to the Uniting Church’s unified commitment to social justice, the majority of the congregations are drawn more closely to liberal progressive theology. This means many of these churches deny the fundamental doctrines of the historic Christian faith; the creation narrative, the virgin birth of Christ, His atonement, His resurrection and the final judgement are all considered primitive concepts and are dismissed. Naturally then, the church permits the ordination of not only female ministers, but also those who are openly gay and lesbian.

3) Orthopraxy: Similarly to the Uniting Church’s orthodoxy, its orthopraxy are varied. Some churches hold to praising in worshipping in more traditional forms of music, singing hymns in the Australian Hymn Book, while others adopt more contemporary forms of music.  Like most denominations, the Uniting Church celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and the frequency to which these sacraments are celebrated are determined by the council of the local congregation.


References

[1] – ‘Doctrine in Anglicanism’ Wikipedia. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglicanism#Doctrine (Accessed: 27 February 2019)

Further Reading

  1. Westminster Confession of Faith. Available at https://www.presbyterian.org.au/images/downloads/wcf/WCF-AustVersion-19042012.pdf
  2. A brief understanding of Arminianism can be found on GotQuestions.org at https://www.gotquestions.org/arminianism.html
  3. Thirty-nine Articles. Available at http://acl.asn.au/the-thirty-nine-articles/

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