33,000 Protestant Denominations? No!

33,000 Protestant Denominations? No! February 20, 2016


Photograph by “Unsplash” [public domain / Pixabay]

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[originally posted on 9-4-04]

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Recently, the anti-Catholic Pied Piper James White chided me on his Dividing Line webcast for not immediately speaking out against this figure (or similar ones; 23,000 is also often heard) when I was on the radio, after a caller mentioned it (mainly due to lack of time). A friend also wrote, asking for documentation, as to where these kinds of numbers can be found and substantiated. It so happens that I have dealt with this question before, and co-wrote a paper with my good friend Al Kresta, on the topic (dated 19 March 2000): “23,000 or More Protestant Denominations: a Myth of Catholic Apologists or a Documented Fact?”

To summarize the gist of the paper; the following charges were made against myself or Al Kresta, from Protestants:

. . . you are LYING about your “separated brethren.”

I want to know if we as Christians are justified in inflating information to combat those we disagree with?

The claim that there are 28,000 Protestant denominations is absurd on its face. It is one of the favorite red herrings of pop Catholic apologists, yet has neither basis in fact, nor acceptance by serious theologians of either the Catholic or Protestant persuasion. I have yet to meet anyone who can back this claim by an even partial enumeration of the supposedly 28,000 different

. . . the usage of the 28,000 number by Keating and other pop apologists is arbitrary and capricious at its onset, and is a red herring in any substantive dialogue of this nature.

The 33,000 (or whatever it is today) denominations argument really ticks me off every time I hear it. I could see some cradle Catholic sourcing a text and sticking with this, but to hear former evangelicals do it just [makes me very angry]. My point? You know better.

These were the accusations made against us and against Catholic apologists in general. They are false, and most unfair. There are indeed sources for these numbers and they are neither Catholic nor unscholarly. The article above can be read in full for all the details, but again, to summarize briefly:

According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America [Protestant] (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990): “As of 1980 David B. Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations worldwide . . .”

(“Denominationalism,” p. 351). I have this book, so I have seen this with my own eyes. Barrett “classified them into seven major blocs and 156 ecclesiastical traditions.” This is from Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982, of which he is the editor.

Also, according to United Nations there were over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations world-wide (World Census of Religious Activities [U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989]). This was cited in Frank Schaeffer’s book Dancing Alone (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press, 1994), p. 4. Schaeffer is Orthodox.

The 1999 Encyclopedia of Christianity has this to say: “In 1985 David Barrett could count 22,150 distinct denominations worldwide.” {edited by E. Fahlbusch, et al., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999, vol. 1, p. 800, s.v. “Denomination.” David B. Barrett is the statistical editor}

Citing the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia, 1982: “. . . a projected 22,190 by 1985 . . . The present net increase is 270 denominations each year (five new ones a week).” {pp. 15-18}

The definition Barrett worked with was that a denomination was “an organized Christian Church or tradition or religious group or community of believers or aggregate of worship centers or congregations, usually within a specific country, whose component congregations and members are called by the same name in different areas, regarding themselves as an autonomous Christian church distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions.”

Now, this is where the figures ultimately come from. No doubt some Catholic apologists (even more well-known ones) use them as a kind of “folk truth” — having heard them bandied about, and we will examine some serious problems with them below. But that doesn’t mean the numbers were entirely made-up and arbitrary. As we see, this is untrue: they come from these sources.

One may indeed question the criteria by which “denomination” was defined. This ultimately led to my own skeptical position, and caused me to change my opinion only a short while after I wrote my paper, upon further reflection (and to remove the paper from my website). Strangely enough, one person who helped convince me to change my mind was the anti-Catholic Eric Svendsen (who despises my work and thinks little of me even on a personal level). But I don’t care where truth comes from: truth is truth. Eric made a good argument, that I found compelling. Here are a few excerpts from it (“30,000 Protestant Denominations?”) — his words in blue, with some commentary of my own, in black:

I have posed this question over and over again to many different Roman Catholic apologists, none of whom were able to verify the source with certainty. In most cases, one Roman Catholic apologist would claim he obtained the figure from another Roman Catholic apologist. When I would ask the latter Roman Catholic apologist about the figure, it was not uncommon for that apologist to point to the former apologist as his source for the figure, creating a circle with no actual beginning. I have long suspected that, whatever the source might be, the words “denomination” and “Protestant” were being defined in a way that most of us would reject.

As usual, Svendsen paints with too broad a brush. He hadn’t checked with me, or my friend Al Kresta (both published Catholic apologists). He states that this is from his book Upon This Slippery Rock, dated 2002. My paper was online in March 2000 and my withdrawal of it occurred not long afterwards. Granted, we can’t all see everything that is happening in the apologetics controversies. But at least two apologists cited their sources with great particularity and accuracy. One would never know this by reading Svendsen’s characterization (it would ruin the image of the “ignorant Catholic apologist” that he is trying to project). Ironically, then, I was chided by Svendsen’s friend James White for not correcting the figure (even mentioning Svendsen), when in fact, I did so over four years ago, whereas Svendsen’s book appeared some two years after my paper, and he shows no signs of being aware that any Catholic apologist had so concluded, or that they cited any reputable sources at all. Ironies never cease where anti-Catholics are concerned.

I have only recently been able to locate the source of this figure. I say the source because in fact there is only one source that mentions this figure independently. All other secondary sources (to which Roman Catholics sometimes make appeal) ultimately cite the same original source. That source is David A. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900—2000 (ed. David A. Barrett; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). This work is both comprehensive and painstakingly detailed; and its contents are quite enlightening.

Good. And as we see, this is the work that Al and I cited. Now here is where Eric starts to make a good point about denominational criteria:

Barrett identifies seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” under which these 22,190 distinct denominations fall (Barrett, 14-15): (1) Roman Catholicism, which accounts for 223 denominations; (2) Protestant, which accounts for 8,196 denominations; (3) Orthodox, which accounts for 580 denominations; (4) Non-White Indigenous, which accounts for 10,956 denominations; (5) Anglican, which accounts for 240 denominations; (6) Marginal Protestant, which includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, New Age groups, and all cults (Barrett, 14), and which accounts for 1,490 denominations; and (7) Catholic (Non-Roman), which accounts for 504 denominations. According to Barrett’s calculations, there are 8,196 denominations within Protestantism—not 25,000 . . . 
. . . Barrett indicates that what he means by “denomination” is any ecclesial body that retains a “jurisdiction” (i.e., semi-autonomy). As an example, Baptist denominations comprise approximately 321 of the total Protestant figure. Yet the lion’s share of Baptist denominations are independent, making them (in Barrett’s calculation) separate denominations. In other words, if there are ten Independent Baptist churches in a given city, even though all of them are identical in belief and practice, each one is counted as a separate denomination due to its autonomy in jurisdiction. This same principle applies to all independent or semi-independent denominations. And even beyond this, all Independent Baptist denominations are counted separately from all other Baptist denominations, even though there might not be a dime’s worth of difference among them. The same principle is operative in Barrett’s count of Roman Catholic denominations. He cites 194 Latin-rite denominations in 1970, by which Barrett means separate jurisdictions (or diocese). Again, a distinction is made on the basis of jurisdiction, rather than differing beliefs and practices.

I accept this (and urge people to read his entire article, linked above, to fully understand the considerable force of his objection), and I reject Barrett’s calculations (as he defines and categorizes them), just as Eric does. In any event, the criteria of the definition of “denomination” is a different question from whether or not Catholics have pulled it out of thin air in order to embarrass Protestants. I am convinced by Eric’s explication of the former, from Barrett himself, but I reject the latter characterization.

Be that as it may, I think we can safely refer to “hundreds” of Protestant denominations, using a cogent doctrinal definition, not merely jurisdictional or superficial (though institutional unity is not an unbiblical characteristic, either, if we want to get technical about it). Biblically speaking, any more than one “denomination” or “Church” is a scandal. The Catholic continues to assert that there is one Church and that the Catholic Church is the fullest institutional expression of that one Church, with other Christians implicitly connected with it to more or less degrees. This (agree or disagree) at least lines up with the biblical witness as to the nature and definition of the Christian Church, rather than being blatantly contrary to the Bible, as the very notion of denominationalism (wholly apart from later disputes about numbers) is.

So, yes, I agree, Svendsen’s clarifications of Barrett’s meaning and his rebuke are worthwhile, and to be heeded accordingly; it does not follow, however, that the scandal of Protestant denominationalism is therefore alleviated. It is scandalous because it entails a false, unbiblical definition of what the Church is, no matter how many of these sects one arrives at, or by what calculation and criteria.

I, as a Catholic apologist, can easily admit that Svendsen is right about wrongheaded definitions concerning denominations, but that doesn’t have any ill effect whatever on the overall Catholic apologetic. On the other hand, Protestant apologists like Svendsen and White (even ecumenical Protestant apologists and other thinkers) have a huge problem trying to biblically justify denominationalism and sectarianism and in determining the internal causes of same (which we Catholics would identify as: sola Scriptura, private judgment, so-called “supremacy of conscience,” the sectarian and exclusivistic mindsets, anti-institutionalism, anti-sacerdotalism, rejection of a binding apostolic tradition and Church, and of apostolic succession, episcopacy, even American cultural individualism running rampant within American Protestantism, etc.) that they have by no means ever resolved or even squarely faced.

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