For Christians, most of us were born into a Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other Christian denominations. There are far more people who identify as Baptists and “mainstream” Protestant [Anglican-Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Calvinist-Reformed] than there are Eastern Orthodox globally and in the US. The Roman Catholic is still the largest single faith community in the US, and within Christianity globally. Evangelicals are a large body, especially in the US, and growing in Latin America and Africa, but harder to put hard “boundaries” around. Most Baptists are evangelical, and there are Evangelical Lutherans whom most evangelicals wouldn’t acknowledge as evangelical. Then there are the Pentecostal or charismatic churches, which believe that all of the spiritual gifts manifested in the 1st century church still regularly manifest in true churches today – including healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, etc. Many people lump Baptists, Evangelicals, and Charismatics in with the three main groups of “mainstream” Protestants as all being Protestants, but while they all do share some beliefs, they are as different from each other in practice and theology as Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican-Episcopal are from each other. Then there are even more “unusual denominations” like the Seventh-Day Adventists.
Evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination or even a group of denominations. Most evangelicals belong to independent “Bible” or “Community” churches. Baptists are not a single denomination, but a collection of individual self-headed churches that voluntarily associate with one or more associations or conventions to support missions, seminaries, publications, etc. There are substantial differences between sub-denominations [e.g., United Methodist Church vs. Wesleyan Methodist; Presbyterian Church USA vs Orthodox Presbyterian vs Dutch Reformed; Southern Baptist vs. American Baptist; Anglican vs Episcopalian; Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod vs Evangelical Lutheran Church].
Although our parents and Churches made sure that we were taught and identified with the religious group of our parents, it is important to recognize the unity in diversity of the church as in the universal church of all believers. The critical issue defining genuine Christianity is whether they believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts, and whether they adhere to the ancient creeds of [lower-case] orthodoxy: the Nicene, Apostles, Athanasian, and Chalcedonian.
At a young age we were told that our denominations had the truth. None of us at a young age were told to not only understand our denomination of Christianity but the others as well so that we could decide for ourselves. In some instances people raised in faith either stay with their designated religious group, stop identifying with any religious group, decide to join a different denomination or change religion (Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist…)
Some of us do not have an in-depth understanding of what our denomination believes and may not have had a chance to compare and contrast it to other Christian denominations. A Christian denomination is one that believes Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled the Messianic prophesies in the Jewish Bible (Tenakh); born of a virgin, performed healing miracles, proclaimed the New Covenant , was crucified for our sins, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and promised to come again and has forever been one God in unity with the Father and Holy Spirit. Since the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) and Jehovah Witnesses do not possess all of these beliefs they are not considered Christians by most orthodox Christians, even though Mormons and Christian Scientists consider themselves to be Christian.
Other than what is stated above where do Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelicals agree? All believe they are apostolic churches. As the Nicene creed declares “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Catholic in this sense means universal not a denomination. Apostolic means that the faith that is declared came from Jesus, was taught and practiced by the Apostles and were then transmitted to their immediate successors. We can know what was taught and practiced from the New Testament and from the famous Christian Historian Eusebius, who wrote in the 4th century concerning the life of Jesus, the Apostles and their successors up to the first Christian Emperor Constantine. Therefore as we read where denominations agree and disagree keep in mind if that belief is in fact apostolic.
Salvation: Orthodoxy believes that one must live a holy life [including participation in the Sacraments] to obtain union with God. Catholics believe people are saved through participation in the Sacraments which are channels of grace. Pope Leo XIII declared that salvation came from Christ but through Mary to humanity. Pope Pius IX declared that all saving Grace comes from Christ through Mary. Vatican II declared that Mary was Co-Equal in salvation. However, Pope John Paul II actually disbanded some organizations in the church that claimed this “Co-Redemptrix” role for Mary, and threatened them with excommunication if they didn’t recant. Catechism says “mediator not a source of grace” and “Mediatrix” not “Redemptrix.”
Catholicism believes that Justification (Faith in Christ) must be combined with Sanctification (Good Works) so that salvation is earned. Evangelicals believe Salvation is the free and unmerited gift of God to man. It is obtained by grace through faith in Christ ALONE. Through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we are rendered acceptable to God and judged righteous (justified) in his sight. Sanctification (our works) are what we do as proof that we’ve been saved.
Bible/Scripture: Catholics and Orthodox accept the Tenakh [Jewish Bible or Old Testament] plus other Deuterocanonical books that are found in the 2nd century B.C. Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Bible. Evangelicals accept the Tenakh as the Old Testament, but reject the Deuterocanonical books as apocrypha (hidden). All accept the New Covenant scriptures. Orthodoxy believes the one source of divine revelation is tradition. Scripture is the oral part of revelation and the writings of saints and ecumenical councils also constitute part of divine revelation. Catholics believe scripture and tradition constitute divine revelation as interpreted by the teaching authority of the Church. Evangelicals believe Scripture alone is the only infallible guide and the final authority on matters of Christian faith and practice
Eucharist/Sacraments: Orthodox and Catholics believe that Yeshua is present in Communion. The bread and wine actually become Yeshua’s body and blood. Orthodoxy denies communion to non-Orthodox. Catholicism denies communion to non-Catholics not baptized into “communicating Churches” such as the Lutheran or Anglican-Episcopal Churches. Catholics believe in transubstantiation whereby the composition of the Host actually changes. Lutherans believe in consubstantiation whereby the Host is spiritually the body and blood of Christ. Baptists, Calvinists, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals believe Communion is a symbol for us to remember what Yeshua did for us, and all baptized Christians are welcome to take communion.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism believe in 7 Sacraments. Orthodox call Confirmation Chrismation. The Sacraments convey grace upon those who participate in them. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians do not recognize any saving power except in a sincere personal confession of faith in Christ as their Savior (redeemer from sin) and do not recognize sacraments as such. They recognize two holy ordinances: Baptism and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Lord’s Table). These are viewed as reminders of grace already received commemorated in obedience to Christ’s command and example as recorded in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.
Apostolic Succession: For Catholics and Orthodox this ensures that they follow or trace the church that Yeshua declared. Direct line of succession is not important to Evangelicals rather following the teachings of Yeshua and the Apostles is most important.
Celibacy of the Clergy: Orthodox clergy can marry before ordination. Their bishops cannot marry. Catholic clergy cannot marry except for married clergy that convert to Catholicism. Eastern rite Catholic clergy can marry. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal clergy can marry. It is also important to note that the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican-Episcopal churches refer to their local church’s spiritual leaders as priests. Other Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches refer to them as ministers and/or pastors.
Divorce: Orthodox permit it in the case of adultery. Catholics do not recognize it but permit a tribunal to annul the marriage union. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches discourage it but permit it and remarriage.
Holy Spirit: Orthodox believe the Holy Spirit only proceeds from the Father. Catholics and Evangelicals believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son.
Mary: Orthodox believe Mary died but reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. They do not believe that Mary was sinless but do believe in her bodily Assumption. Orthodox believe Mary was ever-virgin and is venerated as the God-bearer. Catholics believe Mary was assumed into heaven and believe in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception whereby Mary was sinless. In 1854 Pope Pius IX enacted the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The dogma of the Assumption of Mary was declared in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. Catholics believe she is the Mother of God and believe in her perpetual virginity. This was declared in 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus and again in 451 A.D. at the Council of Chalcedon. Mary was declared Mediatrix of all graces and Co-Redemptrix of the universe by Pope Pius XII in 1943. Baptists, Evangelicals, Protestants, and Pentecostals believe Mary was born and died like other women, but was a holy woman greatly blessed by God for her faithfulness and obedience. They do not believe that Mary or the departed saints have an intercessory role with Christ, nor do they believe that ANY intercessor is needed for the believer except Christ Himself. They do not believe in the Assumption or Immaculate Conception. Only Yeshua was sinless. Mary was blessed to bear the Son of God; however, she was not ever-virgin and had other children as stated in scripture (Matthew 1:25; Luke 2:7; Matthew 12:46-50; John 7:3-5; Acts 1:14). They declare that St. Clement, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Leo I all stated that ONLY Jesus was sinless.
Pope: Orthodoxy recognizes the Pope as the Bishop of Rome equal to other Bishops. They reject Papal Infallibility. The Holy Spirit worked through the ecumenical councils from 325-787. These councils were infallible. Catholics believe the Pope is the head of the Church on earth and has authority over the councils. When he speaks ex Cathedra he is infallible [explicitly according to the First Vatican Council of 1869, but implicitly since the 12th century]. When he creates a dogma it must be believed in the Church. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians reject Papal infallibility and believe only the Bible is infallible.
Purgatory: Orthodoxy recognizes a state of existence between heaven and earth but do not believe that it’s a place of purification. Catholicism believes baptized Catholics who die with un-repented venial sins must go to purgatory as part of their punishment until those sins are expiated. Indulgences earned by the living can help free the poor souls in purgatory. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians reject the concept of purgatory and believe what Jesus did on the cross was the only, necessary and sufficient means to remove human sin.
Saints: Orthodox and Catholics see them as holy people who can be venerated and as intercessors between God and man. Catholics additionally believe Saints must be responsible for at least two miracles through their intercession in order to receive canonization. Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians believe that all saved people are saints and only Christ can mediate between God and man. However, most recognize that the great departed saints provide examples to the modern church of faithfulness, obedience, love, and self-sacrifice and appreciate the writings of many of the earlier great saints like Augustine, Aquinas, etc. as useful to better understand God, mankind’s condition, the role of the church, and other truths of Christianity spelled out the in Bible.
Conclusion: After reviewing what the three principle Christian faith streams believe, where do you find yourself agreeing for the most part? What is true Christianity? Is it Biblical (determined through interpretation of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation), Apostolic (determined by Yeshua and the Apostles interpretation of the Tenakh as found in the New Covenant and by the teaching of the Apostles immediate successors) or Post-Apostolic (determined by the interpretation of Church leaders who participated in the numerous ecumenical councils from 325 A.D. to present). Regardless of what faith confession one is raised in people should be free to choose where in Christianity they believe is closest to the truth. The water under the bridge that we must also contend with is the Orthodox assertion that the Catholics departed the true faith by excommunicating the Orthodox after the schism in 1054. The Catholics believe the Orthodox departed the true faith by failing to recognize the authority of Rome as compulsory on all Christians. The Catholics condemned the Protestants [including Baptists and other non-Catholic churches in the West] at the Council of Trent in 1564.
The declarations and anathemas of the Council of Trent related to Justification by faith apart from works, rejection of the Apocrypha and opposition to the granting of indulgences and the existence of Purgatory have never been revoked. The decrees of the Council of Trent are confirmed by the First Vatican Council (1869), the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the official “Catechism of the Catholic Church” 1992.
My advice, make your relationship with Jesus. Follow Jesus. He alone is your Savior. It is important to be engaged in a regular reading of God’s Word, regular prayer to God the Father, and regular fellowship with a body of believers in their local church. These provide the foundation and guidance for a healthy relationship with Christ.
Men and their decrees can be flawed because men are flawed. Don’t let others think for you. Once you have established your relationship with the one true biblical God in prayer have faith that He will guide you and place you where he wants you for his purpose unto His glory.