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Conservative, mainline and
liberal "wings" in Protestantism

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bullet"Now I beseech you...that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:10, The Christian Scriptures (New Testament), KJV.

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Divisions within Christianity:

In its earliest years, the Christian religion was divided into three major religious movements: the Gnostics, Jewish Christians, and Pauline Christians. There were also many minor versions of Christianity. Often, there would be many competing forms of the religion in a given city -- much like today. The Gnostic Christians almost disappeared, but is experiencing a period of rapid growth today. The Jewish Christians -- the original form of the religion -- were largely wiped out by the Roman Army and eventually disappeared from the scene. Almost all current Christian groups trace their lineage back to the Pauline Christian movement.

Today, there are many ways of classifying the over 1,000 Christian faith groups in North America:

bulletBy denomination
bulletInto three or four meta-groups (e.g. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican),
bulletBy theological belief system (Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.)
bulletBy religious family, (Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, etc.), and

bulletBy "wing." The conservative, mainline, and liberal wings of Protestantism are described below.

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Divided Christianity:

According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world today. "Over half of them are independent churches that are not interested in linking with the big denominations." 1

Differences among Christian faith groups are so great that some observers have suggested that a useful way of classifying Christian groups is to view them as a number of separate religions with different beliefs and practices, who share:

  1. The name "Christianity,"
  2. The text of the Bible, and
  3. Not a great deal else.

They often take various conflicting positions on such topics as abortion, homosexuality, physician assisted suicide, therapeutic cloning, disciplining children, divorce, etc. They have very different beliefs on historical Christian teachings, such as the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, Heaven, Hell, salvation, Satan, demons, etc.

This section describes how people have attempted to classify individual Protestant Christians and Protestant Christian denominations into liberal and conservative -- or liberal, mainline and conservative -- wings. It also describes some of the conflicts both within and among Protestant denominations. These divisions and conflicts are largely traceable to different methods of interpreting the Bible. Ranging from the most conservative to the most liberal Christians we see the following three belief systems:

bulletThe Bible is the actual Word of God.
bulletIts authors were directly inspired by God.
bulletThe first five books of the Bible were written by Moses.
bulletSince God cannot make mistakes their writings are also inerrant -- without error -- in their original autograph version.
bulletIt is only when a person is saved -- they repent of their sin and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior that the Holy Spirit possesses them and shows them what the biblical text really means. Unless a person is first saved, their interpretation of the Bible will inevitably be in error.
bulletAll passages are useful for the believer.
bulletThe Bible contains the Word of God. However, it also contains material that we must reject because it has always been opposed to the will of God. This includes passages which condone slavery; exhibit religious intolerance; involve the torturing prisoners; treat women as property; require the execution of non-virgin brides, witches and gays; and which advocate genocide, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.
bulletThe Bible is a wide-ranging human document.
bulletIt was written by very human and fallible people who were not directly inspired by God.
bulletThe motivation of the authors was to promote the beliefs of their religious groups.
bulletThe first five books of the Bible were written by four unknown authors or groups of authors over a period of centuries and later redacted (edited) by a fifth person or group.
bulletThe Bible records the authors' evolution in spiritual and religious belief over a period of about 1,000 years.
bulletThey incorporated a lot of material from nearby Pagan religions, like the book of Genesis' creation stories and Noah's flood -- events that never happened.
bulletThe Bible contains a great deal of folklore, religious propaganda, and myth.
bulletStories of the great heroes of the ancient Hebrews (Adam, Abraham, Joseph, etc) are myths and involve characters who never existed. 
bulletSome of its content is profoundly immoral by today's religious and secular criteria, and must be ignored.
bulletThe Bible calls for justice and decent treatment of all persons. These themes are vitally important today. 

With such a different approaches to the Bible it is extremely rare that conservative and liberal Christians will agree on anything about its message. By starting with such diverse beliefs about the Bible, conservative and liberal Protestants come to totally different conclusions about its contents.

We will deal mainly with the over 1,000 Protestant and Anglican denominations in this section. However, the conservative / liberal split is seen also within Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.

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Topics covered in this section:

bulletGrouping Christians, by family, and by using a two or three mode model
bulletAbout the "wings" of Protestant Christianity:
bulletEvangelical wing
bulletMainline wing (being written)
bulletLiberal wing:
bullet Progressive Christianity,
bulletEvolutionary Christianity,
bulletFurther information:
bulletPrinceton Religion Research Center study
bulletAnother two mode model
bulletWhere do individual denominations fit into these models?
bulletConflicts and divisions:
bulletAmong denominations
bulletFuture divisions within Christianity
bulletOur policies about writing on Christianity
bulletWhat caused divisions within Protestant Christianity?

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletMethods of interpreting the Bible
bulletHow Christians view non-Christian religions
bulletDifferences between Roman Catholicism and Conservative Protestantism
bulletConflicts within denominations

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Reference used:

  1. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Christian groups > here

or: Home page > Comparisons of religions > here

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Copyright 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2008-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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