What are the differences among Protestant denominations?

What are the things that fundamentally distinguish Lutherans from Methodists from Baptists from Presbyterians? Are they just practical things like how the pastors dress, or how they serve communion, or even whether or not they allow women to be pastors? Or are there deeper matters of faith that set them apart?

From my point of view it seems that perhaps Baptists tend to believe in the Bible more literally than the others, but any differences among the other three are not obvious to me, and I’d say a great majority of adherents to those denominations couldn’t explain it accurately either.

Can aybody here help?

BTW, I’m looking for factual answers, but feel free to move this to GD if it suits you.

I think it might be a little complicated to get into on a message board. Usually there are real doctrinal differences between denominations, which is why they split off from one another in the first place. Presbyterians and other Reformed sects believe in predestination, irresistible grace, and so on. Baptists believe that infant baptism is wrong, one should be older, and that baptism is a sign of receiving grace, not the vehicle thereof. Methodists are different again.

You should probably get a book or find denominational webpages. Religious Literacy probably isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, but it does have basic explanations of the major Protestant sects (as well as the basics of most faiths) in the back section.

Yeah, how much time have you got :slight_smile: Its a huge panorama of beleives ranging for basically “Catholothism without the pope” (the Anglican “High Church”) to beleifs so non-orthodox that many “mainstream” Christians would even dispute they are in fact Christian (Jehovahs Witnesses).

I imagine there is a reputable website somewhere that does a good job of listing them.

Methodists take pot luck very seriously, although many Protestants do.


There are way, WAY too many differences to go into here. The differences range from the fundamental (is the Bible literally true or a series of inspired stories?) to administrative (how much authority does a bishop have over an individual congregation?) to theological hair-splitting.

Here’s a pretty good site to compare and contrast:

I think perhaps the biggest and most historically formative difference between Protestant denominations in the USA is between what were two major branches in the early 1600s. The Puritans came to New England starting in a big way in about 1631 when the Arbella carried many across. In, I think, the mid 1600s there were many Quakers lead by William Penn, settling in Pennsylvania and, eventually, spreading to the Pacific Northwest. The social flavors, even today, that these regions differ in is remarkable.

During that time, Puritan disapproval of Quakers was severe. IIRC it was a very serious crime in the Plimoth plantation to associate with Quakers.

I think Puritanism is characterized by an intense wish to purify what had been excesses of the Catholic Church. Protesting about something wrong with the Catholic Church is, really, what Protestantism is all about.

Quakerism is characterized by realizations first had by George Fox on Pendle Hill, when he recognized the “inner light”, that spark of God in each individual which showed him the truth. Of course, the idea of a direct connection between the individual and God, without brokering by the Catholic Church, is a definitive feature of all Protestantism (and I think of Anabaptism before them).

Today Puritanism doesn’t really stand in its original form, though Congregationalism (and I think I read Presbyterianism also) are descendents. Quakerism still exists and still credits Fox’s ideas at their core, but numerically they are much less important today than 350 years ago.

FWIW an example of Puritan cooking is the seafood boil that more and more places are assembling into big pots to sell to tourists in beach resorts, and an example of Quaker cooking is cream cheese. You are, after all, what you eat.

Oh, come ON! A “too long and complicated for a message board” question? Sheesh. We had seventy two bazillion pages on the plane on a treadmill question, but we suddenly don’t have the time to discuss the differences in Christian sects?

Any other time, we’d all be jumping in with half-assed guesses, vague recollections, anecdotes, bad but pointed jokes, and and snark about the vagueness of the question!

To answer the OP:

As far as I can tell (disclaimer: I am not a scholar, nor am I Christian. I just have a lot of relatives who have embraced different doctrines) it’s all in the details. All Christian sects believe in Jesus and heaven. They have slightly different rules for getting to heaven, and make the most of those differences.

My relatives (we’re rural and of Irish extraction. There are lots of “us”) are fond of details. The Church of Christ contigent thinks vanity is the most important mortal sin. The Catholic branch thinks penance makes up for venial sins. The Baptists are all over the board, but none acknowledge the Pope as especially Graced. The Lutherans & Presbyterians are calmer than the rest. The Mormons are . . . Hell, I dunno. I’ve never had to sit by them at Thanksgiving. Something to do with salvation by proxy, and Missouri.

You might get better responses by asking more detailed questions (what is the difference between Lutheran and Presbyterian, or Baptist and Church of Christ, or Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), or explaining your background.

The Puritans wanted to purify the Anglican church. King James I wasn’t keen–they harangued him a bit, so he threw them out and they went to Holland, where they imagined religious tolerance would allow them to build their own society. Unfortunately for them, there were lots of other groups getting tolerated, and their kids were becoming too Dutch, so they went someplace where they could build a city on a hill all by themselves.

Sometimes (the smallest “mini churches”) there doesn’t seem to be so much a difference in theology as simply a different pastor. For the larger ones, there are differences in theology and in organization.

Sometimes, the splits have come not so much from theology as from politics, whether national (Church of England schism, before that the schism between Roma and Constantinople) or at a more local level (those mini churches are the extreme example). Sometimes, those splits which started from politics have ended up with differences in theology, as the Traditions of each of those splintered groups evolved differently.

Here’s how it was explained to me:

Baptists are Pentecostals with indoor plumbing

Presbyterians are Baptists with lawns

Methodists are Presbyterians with sedans

Lutherans are Methodists with stock portfolios

Episcopalians are Lutherans with yachts

Can you tell I was raised Catholic?

In theory, Methodist theology should not be all that different from Catholic theology, since the roots of Methodism come from John Wesley and the Anglican Church–which split off from Rome over political rather than religious issues. (That’s the whole Henry the Eighth thing–he wanted a divorce, the Pope wouldn’t grant it, he split the Church of England off from Rome.) John Wesley didn’t start out to creat a new church, he started out studying the Bible in a methodical way (hence Methodist), and preaching to the poor coal miners–a group largely ignored by the Anglicans in that time frame. The poor coal miners demanded Communion, so Wesley ended up ordaining ministers–wishing all the while that he could stay in the Anglican fold. But in the end, it didn’t work.

In practice, a significant percentage of Methodists today are ex-Catholics. And my grasp of theology is weak enough not to be able to tell you what the theoretical issues between Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics are.

But in practice, Methodists permit women to be ordained, and permit them to fill the higher ranks of the church heirarchy as well. Methodists serve Communion “at an open table, so that all who wish to recieve of its blessing, whether members of this church, any church or no church are welcome”. Methodists also tend to be more flexible about whether the people getting married or the members of their wedding party share the church’s beliefs than say the Catholics are.

And there’s the food thing, although as someone who has almost always attended United Methodist churches, (Methodists picked up the United in the Sixties, I think, from a join with the Evangelical United Brethren Church), the way Methodists treat food strikes me as normal, and I don’t know how other churches do it.

Oh, and music. I have tended to attend Methodist churches with good organists, good choirs, good music in general–often including bell choirs. I have the impression that good music is common to Methodist churches, though it’s probably not universal. And no, belonging to a church which has good music doesn’t mean the congregation sings along loudly early on Sunday morning.

It’s even more complicated than you probably think. For instance, there aren’t just Baptists; there are the Southern Baptists, the General Baptists, and maybe a few other Baptist denominations.

Which denominations are similar enough in their mode of worship that a follower of one could attend services at a church of another and not think it bizarre?

And differences caused by geography, as much as anything else–Methodists in the Bible Belt are more like Baptists than Methodists where I grew up in Minnesota(a heavily Lutheran area). Methodists west of the Mississippi are more likely to be supportive of Gay rights/Gay clergy etc. than Methodists east of the Mississippi. I doubt this is unique to Methodism, but I’ll admit to not being as well informed of the quirks of other denominations as I am to those of Methodism–and I’ll deny being well-informed there, either.

So… how do Methodists treat food, Eureka?

I’m a devout atheist, and it has been more than a decade since I did any serious study of various religions. But my recollection/understanding is that there are historically significant theological differences between most mainstream protestant religions. My impression, however, is that these historical distinctions are of little or no relevance to the overwhelming majority of present-day protestants. Instead, the denominations seem somewhat more differentiated on a political/social continuum. (Or, which church is most convenient, has the most entertaining minister/pastor, etc.)

Note - this is in extremely general terms, by an outsider, who repeatedly got the impression that the majority of professed believers knew and cared quite little about the historical and theological nuances of their own faith. I don’t understand that attitude, but if it is good enough for them, who am I to say they are wrong?

I thought that was Anabaptists.

I’m a Methodist. At least in the churches I’ve attended, the open communion table is the big doctrinal difference from other churches. Basically, everyone is welcome to join the communion.

Really, Baptists are Anabaptist. It’s confusing.

Lutheranism: All the liturgy of Catholicism, and none of the guilt. :wink:

One major division is between Arminianism and Calvinism. The former are Methodists and other denominations, and they emphasize free will in salvation. Calvinists are Presbyterians and Congregationalists and churches with Reformed in their name, among others, and emphasize predestination and the rest of their five points.