Christianity is a monotheistic religion, encompassing many religious traditions that trace their origins to Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Lord and sole Savior of all humanity as the Jewish Messiah. Over the past two millenia, Christianity has diverged into three main branches: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodox. Collectively, it is the world's largest single religion, with over two billion adherents.
Christianity originated in the first century AD. According to Acts 11:19 and 11:26 in the Christian New Testament, Jesus's followers were first called Christians by non-Christians in the city of Antioch, where they had fled and settled after early persecutions in Palestine. After Jesus' death, early Christian doctrine was taught by Paul of Tarsus and the other apostles. The term Christian derives from Greek Χριστός Khristós (Christ).
Relative peace and good roads throughout the Roman Empire allowed Christianity to spread quickly over the next three centuries, but more important was the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. Combined with his Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine's conversion effectively made Christianity the favored religion of the Empire, and he organized the first of several ecumenical councils for resolving doctrinal issues. Between the first century and 1050, missionaries from Constantinople, Ireland (from about 450), and elsewhere evangelized Christianity throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, translating the Bible into local languages and sometimes incorporating elements of native culture into Christian custom (see for example Easter: Symbolism of Easter, Halloween: Alleged Christianizing the Celtic Samhain).
In the second millennium, Christianity spread worldwide but experienced accelerating fragmentation. The Great Schism of 1054 split the universal Church into Western and Eastern branches: the Western branch gradually consolidated into the Catholic Church under the central authority of Rome (see Catholicism), while the Eastern branch became known as the Orthodox Church with the Patriarch of Constantinople as the most honored bishop among its autocephalous churches (see Eastern Orthodoxy). In the European Reformation of the 1520s, Protestants and numerous similar churches arose in objection to perceived abuses of growing Papal authority and to perceived doctrinal error and novelty in Rome. This sparked a vigorous struggle for the hearts and minds of Europeans.
Protestants arrived in North America (and later Australasia) with European settlement, but lacking any central authority in either Rome or national governments, they worshipped in hundreds, and later thousands, of independent denominations (see Restorationism). Christianity was taken to South America and Africa by European colonists, especially in the 16th to 19th centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries many Christian-dominated nations, especially in Europe, became more secular (and most communist states were governed by avowed atheists, though only Albania was officially atheist). Adherents to Fundamentalist Christianity, particularly in the United States, also perceived threats from new scientific findings about the age of the Earth and evolution of life.
- History of Christianity
- History of Christian Missions
As of 2004, Christianity was the world's most widely accepted religion, with 2.0 billion adherents (followed by Islam with 1.2 billion, Hinduism with 841 million, and the nonreligious with 774 million). Christians include 84 million Anglicans, 414 million Independents (unaffiliated with the major streams of Christianity), 31.7 million "marginals" (Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, etc.), 216 million Orthodox, 367 million Protestants and 1.1 billion Catholics.
Christianity has many branches, including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the various religious denominations of Protestantism.
Although Christianity is the largest religion in the world and there are massive missionary efforts under way, as a whole it is declining in terms of the overall population. While the population of the world grows at roughly 1.25% per year, Christianity is growing at about 1.12% per year. By contrast, Islam is growing at 1.76% per year. Christianity in certain geographic sectors (Africa, Asia) and certain parts of groups (evangelicals, marginals) are, however, growing rapidly. Thus the character and nature of Christianity is changing.
Not all people identified as Christians accept all, or even most, of the theological positions that their particular church mandates. Like the Jewish people, Christians in the West were greatly affected by The Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Perhaps the most significant change for them was total or effective separation of Church and State, thus ending the state-sponsored Christianity that existed in so many European countries. Now one could be a free member of society and disagree with one's church on various issues, and one could even be free to leave the church altogether. Many did leave; or accommodated to society, further developing belief systems such as Deism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Humanism, Atheism, and Agnosticism.
Others created liberal wings of Protestant Christian theology. Modernism in the late 19th century encouraged new forms of thought and expression that did not follow traditional lines.
Reaction to "The Enlightenment" and Modernism triggered the development of literally thousands of Christian Protestant denominations, traditionalist splinter groups of the Catholic Church that do not recognize the legitimacy of many reforms the Catholic Church has undertaken, and the growth of hundreds of fundamentalist groups that interpret the entire Bible in a characteristically literal fashion.
In the United States and Europe, liberalism also led to secularism. Some Christians have long since stopped participating in traditional religious duties, attending churches only on a few particular days per year or not at all. Many of them recall having highly religious grandparents, but grew up in homes where Christian theology was no longer a priority. They have developed ambivalent feelings towards their religious duties. On the one hand they cling to their traditions for identity reasons; on the other hand, the influence of the secular Western mentality, the demands of daily life, and peer pressure tear them away from traditional Christianity. Marriage between Christians of different denominations, or between a Christian and a non-Christian, was once taboo, but has become commonplace.
Liberal Christianity grew rapidly during the early 20th century in Europe and North America, by the 1960s gaining the leadership of many of the larger US and Canadian denominations. However, this trend has reversed. At the turn of the 21st century, though secular society tends to prefer to consider the more accommodating liberals as the representatives and spokesmen of Christianity, the "mainline" liberal churches are shrinking. This is partly due to loss of evangelistic zeal, partly due to drift of their membership to conservative denominations, and partly due to the failure of one generation to pass on Christianity to the next. Among the larger Protestant denominations in the USA, only the conservative Southern Baptist is growing. Evangelical para-church organizations have grown rapidly in the last half of the 20th century. The liberal Christian Century magazine has shrunk, while being replaced by its challenger, the rapidly growing evangelical Christianity Today.
The Enlightenment had much less impact on the Eastern Churches of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy. Having to face a much more hostile secular society, especially during the rise of Communism, the church clung to ancient beliefs, even as its membership eroded.
Today in Eastern Europe and Russia, a renewing trend is taking place. After decades of Communism and atheism, there is widespread interest in Christianity, as well as religion in general. Many Orthodox churches and monasteries are being rebuilt and restored, filled beyond capacity; Protestants of many denominations are pouring in to evangelize and plant churches; and the Catholic church is revealing once secret dioceses and undertaking other steps to support Catholic churches more openly.
In South America and Africa, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity form rapidly growing movements that are increasingly sending missionaries to Europe and North America. This is also true of Asia where many of the underground house churches intend to send hundreds of thousands of missionaries out over the next decade.
As Modernism developed into Consumerism during the second half of the 20th century the Megachurch phenomenon developed – catering for skeptical non-Christians by providing "seeker sensitive" presentations of Christian belief. The Alpha Course can be viewed as an example one such presentation of Christianity.
Since the development of Postmodernism with its rejection of universally accepted belief structures in favour of more personalized and experiential truth, organized Christianity has increasingly found itself at odds with the desire many people have to express faith and spirituality in a way that is authentic to them. What has thus far been known as the Emerging Church is a by-product of this trend, as many people who broadly accept Christianity seek to practice that faith while avoiding established Church institutions.
A large and growing movement within the Christian church, especially in the West and most visible in the United States, is the evangelical movement. Most mainstream protestant denominations have a significantly active evangelical minority, and, in some cases, a dominant majority (see Confessing Movement). Evangelicals are "trans-denominational" and are more willing to have formal and informal relationships with evangelicals from outside their denomination than to have the same sort of relationship with non-evangelicals within their denomination.
Some evangelicals have been schismatic within various church organisations, leaving to form their own denominations. More often they are forced out. It was only by dint of sheer determination that John Wesley, founder of Methodism was able to remain an Anglican priest against intense opposition. His followers separated in America, and in England after his death. Evangelicals claim that their beliefs are no less than true Christianity itself and that those within the church who differ from them may not be true believers. This attitude has led to much disunity amongst churches, especially those with a large modernist influence. Evangelicals cannot be easily categorised, but almost all will believe in the necessity of a personal conversion and acceptance of Jesus as saviour and Lord, the eventual literal return of Christ, a more conservative understanding of the Bible and a belief in the miraculous. There are many different types of Evangelicals including Dispensationists, Reformed Christians, Pentecostals, Charismatics and Fundamentalists.
- List of Christian denominations
- Christianity: Denominations
Christians adopted many ideas and practices from Judaism, including monotheism, the belief in a Messiah (or Christ, which means "anointed one"), certain forms of worship (such as prayer, and reading from religious texts), a priesthood, and the idea that worship on Earth is modelled on worship in Heaven.
The central belief of Christianity is that by faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, individuals are saved from death both spiritual and physical by Redemption from their sins (i.e. faults, misdeeds, disobedience, rebellion against God). By faith, repentance, and obedience men and women are reconciled to God through sanctification or theosis and returned to their place with God in Heaven.
Crucial beliefs in Christian teaching are Jesus' incarnation, atonement, crucifixion, death and resurrection to redeem humankind from sin and death; the belief that the New Testament is a new part of the Bible; and supersessionism. Supersessionism is the belief that the Jews' chosenness found its ultimate fulfillment through the message of Jesus; Jews who remain non-Christian are no longer considered to be chosen, since they reject Jesus as the messiah and son of God.
The emphasis on God giving his son, or the Son (who is God) coming down to earth for the sake of humanity, is an essential difference between Christianity and other religions, where the emphasis is instead placed solely on humans working for salvation.
The most uniform and broadly accepted tradition of doctrine, with the longest continuous representation, repeatedly reaffirmed by official Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant definitions (although not without dissent, as noted below) asserts that specific beliefs are essential to Christianity, including but not limited to:
- God is a Trinity, a single eternal being existing in three persons: Father, Son (Divine Logos), and Holy Spirit.
- Jesus is both fully God and fully human, two "natures" in one person.
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, bore in her womb and gave birth to the Son of God (who is, Himself, likewise God), who although eternally existent was formed in her womb by the Spirit of God. From her humanity he received in his person a human intellect and will, and all else that a child would naturally receive from its mother.
- Jesus is the Messiah hoped for by the Jews, the heir to the throne of David. He reigns at the right hand of The Father with all authority and power. He is the hope of all mankind, their advocate and judge. Until he returns at the end of the age, the Church has the authority and obligation to preach the Gospel and to gather new disciples.
- Jesus was innocent of any sin. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers are forgiven of sins and reconciled to God. Believers are baptized into the resurrection and new life (or death in some groups) of Christ. Through faith, they live by the promise of resurrection from death to everlasting life through Christ. The Holy Spirit is sent to them by Christ, to bring hope and lead mankind into true knowledge of God and His purposes, and help them grow in holiness.
- Jesus will return personally, and bodily, to receive the faithful to himself, so they will live forever in the intimate presence of God.
- Western Christians believe that the Bible is the word of God. Many Eastern Christians balk at this terminology as too close to the title Word of God, an epithet for Jesus Christ. Nevertheless they do not question the authority of the Bible as such. However, some Christians disagree to varying degrees about how accurate the Bible is and how it should be interpreted.
Christianity is considered by mainstream Christians to be the continuation or fulfilment of the Jewish faith. However, many self-proclaimed Christian organizations throughout history have had varying ideas about the basic tenets of the Christian faith, from ancient sects such as Arians and Gnostics, to modern groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses (who have a different theological understanding of Jesus, God and the Bible), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who believe that in 1829 God restored the apostolic priesthood to their leader Joseph Smith, Jr., making possible continuing revelation (including additional teachings and scripture), and the Unification Church. While various groups may differ in their approach to the specifics of Christ's role, ministry, and nature (some calling him a god or Gods, and others calling him a man), Christ is generally assumed to have cosmic importance. Some of these groups number themselves among the Christian churches, or believe themselves to be the only true Christian church. Furthermore, present-day liberal Protestant Christians do not define Christianity as necessarily including belief in the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the Trinity, miracles, the resurrection, the ascension of Christ, or the personality or deity of the Holy Spirit. Liberals may or may not recommend belief in such things, but differentiate themselves from conservative Christians by defining as included within genuine Christianity anyone who explains their views or teachings principally by appeal to Jesus. It is common for those who hold the more traditional tenets of faith described in the paragraph above to assert that some or all of these groups are not part of Christianity.
The following is a list of beliefs within Christianity that have been called heresies.
Adoptionism -- Albigensians -- Apollinarism -- Arianism -- Cathar -- Docetism -- Donatism -- Gnosticism -- Lollardy -- Mandaeans -- Manicheanism -- Monarchianism -- Monothelitism -- Montanism -- Nestorianism -- Patripassianism -- Pelagianism -- Priscillianism -- Psilanthropism -- Sabellianism/Modalism -- Unitarianism -- Universalism
In Classical times, Gnosticism took ideas and symbolism from Christianity.
Some modern self-proclaimed Christian movements hold beliefs that more closely resemble these ancient heresies.
Christianity's relationship with other faiths
For more information on the relationship between Christianity and other world religions over the years, see the Wikipedia article on Christianity and World Religions.
Christianity and Judaism
- Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity
- Judeo-Christian tradition
- Christianity and anti-Semitism
Since the Holocaust, there has been much to note in the way of reconciliation between some Christians groups and the Jewish people; the article on Christian-Jewish reconciliation studies this issue.
Messianic Judaism refers to a group of evangelical Christian religious movements, self-identified as Jewish, who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Contrary to Judaism, they are trinitarians, professing that Jesus is God, incarnate. Even though many Messianic Jews are ethnically Jewish, they are not considered part of the Jewish community by mainstream Jewish groups. They are not to be confused with the many Christian believers of Jewish ethnic background who are members not of these religious movements, but rather of regular Christian churches.
Christianity and persecution
Christians have been both the victims and the perpetrators of persecution (see Persecution of Christians).
In spite of the widely held belief that such violence is antithetical to Christ's teachings, Christian adherents have at times persecuted, tortured and killed others for refusing to believe in their type of Christianity. Protestants, Catholics and other Christians have persecuted each other in the name of Jesus. In the second half of the 20th century Roman Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other in Northern Ireland. An example was Father Lawrence Jenco, whose health was nearly broken by almost two years held as a hostage in Lebanon. When asked about his feelings toward his Hezbollah captors, he replied that he had to forgive them. Modern Christianity appears, for the most part, to have adopted a position of freedom or tolerance rather than persecution. Observers often interpret events to fit their opinions. When a military from Christian countries invaded Iraq early in the 21st century and killed thousands of people, some observers considered it was a Christian coalition deliberately attacking a country because it was Islamic, while others considered it was a coalition of free countries deliberately trying to bring freedom to Iraqis and an end to terrorism in Iraq, with religion having nothing to do with it.
Christian churches worldwide
For a list of the various kinds of culturally different Christian churches around the world today see the List of Christian denominations. For information about the various "super-bodies" of churches which many individual congregations or in some cases bishoprics of these churches associate under see full communion.
The Ebionites originated as an ancient sect of Talmidi Jews (Followers of the Way) who held Jesus of Nazareth to have been a fully human Jewish prophet. They rejected notions of his divinity, the virgin birth, and opposed the teachings of Paul of Tarsus.