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Christianity Overview

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Christianity Overview


Christianity has many branches, including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the various religious denominations of Protestantism. Other forms of Christianity have arisen that claim a separate history, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

According to a 1993 estimate, Christianity was the world's most widely accepted religion, with 2.1 billion adherents (1 billion Catholics, 500 million Protestants, 240 million Orthodox and 275 million others), followed by Islam with 1.1 billion and Hinduism with 1.05 billion.

Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century. Christians brought 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, reading from religious texts; a priesthood; the idea that worship here on earth is modeled on worship in heaven. The book of Acts, in the Christian New Testament (NT), says that Christ'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, probably just a few years after Jesus' death and ascension.—Acts 11:19, 26.

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.


The most crucial beliefs in Christian teaching are Jesus' incarnation, atonement, crucifixion, death and resurrection to redeem mankind from sin and death. These events are believed by Christians to be the basis of God's work to reconcile humanity with himself. Many Christians believe that this emphasis on God giving his beloved Son for the sake of humanity is an essential difference between Christianity and 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 and Holy Spirit.
Jesus is both fully God and fully Man, two "natures" in one person.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, bore in her womb and gave birth to the Son of 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 God 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 death of Christ. Through faith, they live by the promise of resurrection from death to everlasting life through Christ. The Holy Spirit is given to them, 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 who balk at this terminology as too close to the title Word of God, an epithet for Jesus Christ, nevertheless 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.

See: Ecumenical Councils

Christianity is considered by Christians to be the continuation or fulfilment of the Jewish faith. However, many 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 Fundamentalist 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 diagram illustrates the manner in which Christian groups trace their own historical development:


It must be noted that many individual denominations of Christianity see their own descent as a straight line from the earliest days of the Faith and all others as some sort of branch or deviation.

See also: List of Christian denominations and History of Christianity

For a detailed look at the various denominations of Christianity, see Christianity: Denominations.

Christianity today

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. Millions did take these paths, further developing belief systems such as Humanism, Atheism, Agnosticism, and Deism; others created liberal wings of Protestant Christian theology, and the Unitarian trend in Christianity became an acceptable choice for some. The Enlightenment had a much less profound impact on the Eastern Churches of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.

In the United States and Europe, many secularized 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.

In Eastern Europe and Russia, a different trend is taking place. After decades of Communism and atheism, there is widespread renewed 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.

The changes to society brought about by The Enlightenment have triggered many responses within the Christian community. These include 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.

The advent of Modernism in the late 19th century encouraged new forms of thought and expression that did not follow traditional lines; this brought with it a large-scale rejection of Christian belief altogether, often in favour of philosophies such as Communism, Humanism or Atheism.

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 personalised and experiential truth, organized Christianity has found itself increasingly incompatible with peoples' desire 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.

Christian Heresies

The following is a list of beliefs within Christianity that have been called heresies.

Adoptionism -- Albigensians -- Apollinarism -- Arianism -- Cathars -- Docetism -- Donatism -- Lollardy -- Mandaeans -- Manicheanism -- Monarchianism -- Montanism -- Nestorianism -- Patripassianism -- Pelagianism -- Priscillianism -- Psilanthropism -- Sabellianism -- Unitarianism -- Universalism

In Classical times, Gnosticism exchanged ideas and symbolism with 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

There are a number of articles on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. These articles include:

Comparing and contrasting Judaism and Christianity
The 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.

Christianity and persecution
Groups denominated Christian have been both the victims of persecution and the perpetrators of persecution (see Persecution of Christians).

Christians have at times persecuted, tortured and killed others for refusing to believe in Christianity or for believing in a different type of Christianity. Protestants, Catholics and other Christians have persecuted each other in the name of Jesus, sometimes for having different beliefs. In the second half of the 20th Century Roman Catholics and Protestants have been killing each other in Northern Ireland. To commit violence in such a way is believed to be antithetical to Christ's teaching. 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.

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.

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