Everybody Knows There are 33,000 Protestant Denominations

Everybody Knows There are 33,000 Protestant Denominations January 23, 2014

Guess what? Everybody’s wrong.

The Bad Evangelist Club takes on some of the lazier urban legends and bits of pseudoknowledge in the Catholic apologetics community with a view to making apologists better, stronger, faster, more bionic. I’m liking the idea of this series. Go Team!

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  • Maolsheachlann

    I’d heard 28, 000. Never heard 33, 000.

  • Dave G.

    I’ve heard similar stats. I always tell people it depends on how one defines a denomination. There are thousands of churches with little to no connection to anything else. Though many are, at least to some degree, part of a greater tradition or even denomination. Some wouldn’t say that, or use the same terms. For instance, Southern Baptists don’t consider their convention a denomination. But I’ve heard some – including former Protestant clergy apologists – throw this stat around and have always felt it needed explaining.

    • It’s indeed dangerous to assume that different protestant “denominations” are (and see themselves) as different “churches”, in the sense that they represent some splitting (i.e. that one sees itself as the true church, and the others are in error). Not necessarily.

      A different look, from the other side:

      “It seems to me that the problem of the split between Catholicism and
      Protestantism rests finally on the problem of authority, and it is true
      that here there is, for the moment, an unbridgeable gap. But I am not
      at all interested in institutional ecumenism because I believe in the
      originally plural destination of Christianity – and it is, undoubtedly, for this
      reason that I am not Catholic.” (Paul Ricoeur – Critique and conviction – 1995)

  • Maolsheachlann

    Many of the commenters make fair points that the number is not as inaccurate as it might seem. Basically, the authors seem to be arguing that since the nature of a denomination and a Communion and doctrinal unity is one of the matters of dispute between Catholics and Protestants, bringing it up is not helpful. But this is surely a prudential point which does not alter the objective truth. In an already polemical discussion, I see no reason why the thousands of different Protestant denominations might not be raised. In a more irenic discussion, no need to do so.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      In an already polemical discussion, I see no reason why the thousands of
      different Protestant denominations might not be raised. In a more
      irenic discussion, no need to do so.

      Bingo. If Christian unity and the fracture of the Faith is a point of discussion, where does the unacceptable threshold of disunity begin? 33,000? 10,000? 2?

      It’s enough to point out that there are many competing voices within Christendom and move on from there. Inflated numbers just cause people to get hung up on the polemics.

      • Benjamin Baxter


    • Jared Clark

      Think of it like the Just War theory. If this particular fight, whether protestant denominations are many thousand or a few dozen, has a good chance of victory (victory being the other person becoming open to the idea that Jesus founded the Catholic Church), then bring it up. If not, focus on the core problem: that the Church is not united, yet we ought to be united.

    • That’s not what we are arguing. “33,000” is an objective number. We know where it exists. That “33,000” number counts a lot of “Catholic” denominations that aren’t denominations. It presents a definition of Christianity and denomination that both Protestants and Catholics reject. Yet more often than not Catholic apologists have used it as a confessional point to beat Prots over the head with, since it advances a greater agenda. (Prove that the eccelsial model of Protestantism is nothing like the New Testament.)

  • Stu

    Protestantism, by it’s nature is about “protest” which will always have disunity as a byproduct. Sure it’s not 33k, but it whole lot more than 1 and growing.

    • > Protestantism, by it’s nature is about “protest”
      And here it goes another sample of bad catholic apologetics

      • Stu

        I defer to your established expertise.

        Teach us oh great one.

        • I apologize. It’s not a question of knowledge but of attitude. Don’t you think that how we call ourselves, and “the others” is always a delicate matter, that that’s where dialogue starts, and we must not let polemic interfere there? We (catholics) accept to call, in normal speech, “orthodox” the members of the Eastern Orthodox Church; we may be not too happy about that, because we also consider “orthodox” ourselves in the plain and main sense of the word; but we let it pass, we accept the word can have a secondary meaning. But when protestants want to be identify themselves as “christians”, we protest (no pun intended), and we have good reasons, because to imply that some others (and not us) are “christians”, even in some seconday meaning, is unacceptable for us. Ok. Now, if we agree to call them “protestants”, then we (catholics) must use the word in a respectful sense, one that they can accept and embrace. The moment we start using that word as a weapon for apologetics (“protestant gotta protest” as if a conventional name -a convention in itself delicate and important; but a convention- would define their “nature”, and this in the negative sense) we are sabotaging dialogue. It’s true that apologetics traditionally didn’t care much for dialogue, but for fighting,. But I hope we agree that we are trying to change that.

          • Stu

            Simply pointing out the truth of the protestant movement in this forum doesn’t mean that is how I lead in witnessing. Every situation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

            And FWIW, I see anyone with a valid Baptism as a “Christian.”

        • HornOrSilk

          There is truth in both sides of this debate. Many Protestants seek only protest through self-willed evaluation of everything, bowing to no one and having everyone bow down to themselves. This, I think, is the real foundation of Protestant ecclesiology.

          The term, Protestant, came out of a rejection of the Peace between Catholics and the Reformed by the “Protestants” who wanted to continue acts of violent hate against Catholics. That is where the term came from, though slowly it was used to represent all in the West who rejected the authority of the Pope.

          Today, with the term Protestant no longer representing the protest of such peace, but the groups which came out of and because of the “Reformation,” the people who are Protestants are often not actively seeking protest. They are living within a tradition they found themselves in for a long time, and so it is what they know — for them, to become Catholic would be a “protest” of their upbringing (which happens to be a source of some converts). That’s right, many Catholics are the ones now “protesting” even the peace (ecumenical relations) with Protestants. For those within the Protestant traditions, they follow a long established tradition and lens of thought, which though wrong and founded on said protests centuries back, no longer is in the form of a protest (just like the United States was founded upon a revolution, but is no longer revolutionary).

          And yet, there ARE some anti-Catholics who remain ever the protester, as well. So it is not that all Protestants represent this in their being, but, it is not to deny some still follow with said protest.

          • Stu

            My point was a bit different. Any movement founded on protest will ultimately begin to protest itself and continually divide.

    • The main point behind the idea for the series (I’m the one running it) and which Mr. Baxter was trying to point out is this:

      Whatever one thinks of the perceived or not lack of unity in Protestantism (I think it’s a lot bigger problem than most Prots are willing to admit), the 33,000 number is flat out bogus. It’s a number everyone knows is wrong, but for some reason people still defend. We really should be better than that.

      • Stu

        We certainly agree on that. Getting the details right matters and accuracy for the sake of accuracy is a good thing.

  • Jared Clark

    Always assumed this calculation had more to it. Thanks for the link!

  • MarylandBill

    I think in fairness to our Protestant brothers and sisters, it seems that at least in mainline Protestantism, the dividing lines between denominations has been breaking down for some time. I attended a baptism last summer for a friend’s child at a Lutheran church; the child was baptized by his Methodist grandfather, the only people who didn’t receive communion appeared to be myself and the other Catholics attending the service, etc.

    Likewise, I have a friend who happily hops from Church to church every time he decides that he disagrees with what the minister is teaching; he could care less about the denomination of the Church.

    • Dan13

      Yes, you could certainly argue that if they are communion with each other that they are the same “denomination.” It’s actually how we classify the apostolic churches. For example, we consider the various Eastern Orthodox churches as one “church” because they are all in communion with each other.

  • wlinden

    See the ISAR “Directory of Religious Bodies”, and then start arguing over how many are “Protestant”. I myself have long been arguing with those who insist that “Protestant” means no more than “not Catholic” without making any impression. Or count the main headings in voume II of PROFILES IN BELIEF. Neither of these is counting “local churches”.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    From the outside looking in, it feels like there could be that many. I count 16 churches of different denominations in my town of 3,000–including three different baptist churches and two different Lutheran churches. I always assumed that there were differences in beliefs of some sort, otherwise, why weren’t all the Baptists going to one church? I see how they would all be counted as one denomination, though. At least three of the churches here I can remember starting within my lifetime, all, as far as I know, would be classified as Bible churches, but they have very different types of services. I couldn’t speak to their particular beliefs, except that they seem to mostly be Young Earth Creationists.

    • Michael Lynch

      I’m a Baptist, so maybe I can add something relevant here.

      Many Baptists in the U.S. are YEC, but it’s not what you’d consider a Baptist dogma; in fact, it’s not even particularly important to many of the Baptists who believe in it. (Personally, I have not one good thing to say for the YEC movement, and would be quite happy to see so-called scientific creationism ministries close their doors and focus on something productive, like evangelism or feeding the poor.)

      What’s important to Baptists are generally these beliefs: salvation by grace through faith in the death of Jesus, baptism by immersion restricted to those who profess such saving faith, the Bible as the sole infallible rule of faith and practice, and the independence and autonomy of local congregations. Other than that, there’s a lot of variety in Baptist churches. Some are Calvinist, others aren’t; some allow any Christian who attends to take the Lord’s Supper, while others restrict it to Baptists or members of a particular congregation; some are fundamentalists who believe in separation from the world and non-fundamentalist church activities, while others are quite ecumenical. Some churches participate in cooperative associations like the SBC for the purposes of missionary work and administration of seminaries, while others hold so strongly to the notion of independent local congregations that any sort of convention or association is taboo. Worship styles are pretty diverse, too. Services in some large, older Baptist churches can be quite formal, while others embrace emergent worship styles and contemporary music. Independent, primitive Baptist church services are sometimes similar to what you’d see in a rural Pentecostal church.

      As far as Baptist attitudes toward Catholicism, there’s as much a variety there as in many other areas. There’s a spectrum. Some Baptists (like me) consider Roman Catholics to be fellow Christians, some are more leery of various aspects of Catholic belief and practice, and then you’ve got some who will tell you that Rome is the harlot described in Revelation and responsible for every nefarious development in human history since 100 A.D. (This latter attitude is more common in independent, fundamentalist Baptist circles; many members of the Southern Baptist Convention and other Baptist groups consider such folks to be a bit off their collective rocker.) Most Baptists that I know don’t really spend much time thinking about Catholicism at all.

      • said she

        Thank you! It really, really helps to get this kind of info, so we have a clue how something we say might be interpreted.

  • irena mangone

    And the whole sorry saga started because king Henry VII could not keep his trousers zipped. Wanted a divorce and the Pope said no so dear ld Henry basically said blow you will start my own church and divorce As many times as I want or behead my wives as the case might be

    • Sigroli

      That would be Henry VIII, not VII.

      • irena mangone

        Sorry about that didn’t notice didn’t type enough I ‘s

      • PalaceGuard

        I don’t think Henry VII could keep his zipped, either, but the consequences were not as cataclysmic for the innocent bystanders.

  • Thanks for the plug Mark. I told Ben we had something special on our hands when he submitted it. 🙂

    Coming next month is my wading in with “How NOT to Refute Sola Scriptura.”

    I guess my question for Mark (and anyone else really), given you have far more experience in the business, do you have any ideas for the Bad Evangelist Club? Bad apologetic arguments or bad approaches at evangelization? Or let me go even bigger: lets see Mark contribute something in either April or May to the club!

    Or just ideas. 🙂

  • Lamprotatia

    What’s with the bit about eternal hellfire for being Protestant at the end? That hasn’t been taught in so many words by the church since…I don’t even know when. The whole bit at the end, where it sounds like “lacking chrismation in heaven” is some kind of social faux pas, is a huge turn-off. It makes it sound like God–and the Church–is petty and merciless. Which is neither true nor helpful to imply.

    • It is simply a recognition of reality that the sacraments matter. There are stakes to not being Catholic. That doesn’t meana Protestant is going to hell simply for being a Protestant. But it does mean that there are consequences to being outside the Church after death.

      If our actions (such as relying on bogus figures and alienating people) keep them out of the Church, they will be judged on account of their circumstances…… but so will we. We will have to answer to God on account of driving them away.

      That isn’t implying the Church is petty and merciless. It is simply acknolweding that there is a truth, and that truth is necessary, and this truth can be known through the Catholic Church.

      • Lamprotatia

        I just find the implications really off-putting, and I thought that the whole point of this was to improve apologetic strategies so they were not obnoxious and off-putting. Speculating about hellfire is pretty much always off-putting, and, as I recall, we’re always *speculating* about it.

        One reason I wished I could have stayed Lutheran was how much assurance there is in the theology and the liturgy that ultimate, we can trust in Christ to keep his word and not abandon or forsake us. We’re not going to be thrown into the pit despite everything on a technicality. Whenever I hear Catholics go on like this, it comes close to un-evangelizing me. I want to run away from what seems like a cold and frightening court of law rather than a warm and embracing community of Word and Sacrament. I do NOT believe God will abandon me. Catholics seem to read that as arrogance and a sin, Lutherans read it as faith.

        I read brilliant words from figures such as JPII or Benedict or Francis on church unity, and it reassures me. Why don’t apologists use their same approach? Why not stress that we are all sharing in that common baptism and should increase our unity? Why does it have to be about Catholic supremacy rather than ending the divides that have sadly and unnecessarily divided Christianity?

        • Because sometimes people who we share that common baptism with are wrong for one reason or another, and you have to say so because the integrity of the Gospel is comprimsed if you don’t. (See Apostolicae Curae.)

          Or just look at Dominus Iesus, written by Ratzinger, promulgated by JPII. It isn’t Catholic supremacy to point out that there are real issues that prevent full communion, and we shouldn’t add to them by promoting falsehoods of our own.

          Ecumenism with Protestants and with Orthodox is fundamentally different. There is precious little Orthodox or Roman Catholics have to “change” to restore full communion, and there’s precious little doctrinally. (The issue is how to express the Petrine ministry in a more historical norm.)

          With Protestants, this kind of unity we have with the Orthodox is impossible, because there are deep and serious doctrinal divisions that really can’t be bridged. We can remove barriers to engaging these issues by not being jerks, not erecting straw men, being strong in our charity, but in the end, these issues have to be handled.

          • Lamprotatia

            That was very quickly composed for its length!

            You entirely missed what I am getting at. I am not saying “oh just ignore the differences and open communion to everyone.” I am saying, rather than evangelizing on the basis of Catholicism being better than Protestantism, go on the basis of Protestants no longer needing to protest. Show them how Luther’s legitimate concerns have been addressed. Show them how Luther and Calvin had more in common with today’s Catholic church than most of the denominations that descended from them. This is particularly true of Luther. Show some respect for what good has come from Protestant theology, art, music, and culture. Who wants to leave their church when the invitation is a snooty “you’re dumb and so’s your mom!”? Start on the common ground and go from there.

            My family is German Lutheran pastors and devout back to the early 16th century in Thuringen. When I go to Catholic apologetics sites, I see things like, memes with a sexual innuendo about Luther’s wife, and handwringing certainty that nothing but rebellion and blindness could be found in 5 centuries of devout relatives. I see people who are happy to pick off Bach chorales and Bonhoeffer one-liners to use as inspiration, but cannot apparently recognize that there was something authentic moving in those men through the Lutheran church’s sacraments.

            Correcting people’s gaffes about the number of denominations is nothing. Having some true, deep respect would be something.

            • 1.) I type 110 wpm. 🙂

              2.) There’s not really a disconnect between what you said and what I did. You can do all those things, and you should. But eventually, there will still need to be doctrinal issues to work through, and our friends across the Tiber are wrong on them.

              3.) As far as correcting people’s gaffes about denominations, it is indeed something. You can’t get to the true and deep respect of dialogue with Protestants when you are peddling known falsehoods. Any Protestant who has done his homework on this is gonna walk away when he sees a “33,000 denominations!” claim.

              • Lamprotatia

                They’re going to walk away when they are told that the sacraments that have worked in them and changed their lives are nothing, too.

                It kept me away for a very long time. Finally I decided to ignore the know-it-alls at the “apologetics” level and just listen to the pope. Benedict, in that case. He has what most online Catholic chatterboxes would likely consider a shocking and dangerous amount of respect for the Lutheran tradition.

                • Benjamin Baxter

                  As the author of this piece, I think I should mention that I do have complete and abiding respect for Protestants. There are three points which should be made:

                  1. This post is addressed to Catholics. It is necessary in certain circles to emphasize your credibility after any conciliatory noises, which were made throughout the whole part of the post prior to that portion.

                  2. Most precisely, what it does say is that sacraments matter and have an effect. “This has eternal consequences, whether that means being in Heaven but not being confirmed or going to Hell.” Implicit in this is the theoretical possibility — which is all Catholics really can confirm — that some non-Catholics might end up in with God after death.

                  3. Even if a baptized Protestant ends up in Heaven, if he isn’t confirmed now we have no cause to believe he will be confirmed in Heaven. Even this matters.

                  4. It specifically admits that some Protestants have two sacraments. (Baptism, therefore marriage.) So far as saying that this sacrament has no effect — well, that’s just not what was written. It’s just that they have no more sacraments than these two, and some Protestants — Oneness Pentacostals, Mormons — have no sacraments and aren’t even Christians.

                  TLDR: It was worded very precisely. In other words, there are a whole range of possibilities, up to and including Hell, but even those consequences which are not Hell are consequences you do not want to have to answer for. This whole last section was a reminder that sacraments matter, and sacraments are at stake, and sacraments play a role in the work of salvation, and that sacraments matter even if salvation weren’t at stake.

                  • Lamprotatia

                    “Conciliatory noises” are not necessary when one has “complete and abiding respect,”

                    What is the consequence of not being confirmed, in heaven? Honest question. I have never heard of this concern before. At first glance, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

                    I don’t just mean baptism and marriage. You have to have something to say–not conciliatory noises, but something real–to someone who believed always in the Real Presence and feels he encountered it in the Eucharist in a Lutheran church.

                    Defective holy orders, etc, I get it. But what do you tell that person? That he imagined it? Can you convince him of that without destroying his faith entirely? Or is maybe the legalistic, triumphalistic route doomed from the outset in some cases?

                    Anyhow, nothing that is on the public web is “for Catholics.” Anyone with web access can read it. Protestants will see you talking about them. It will have an impact. If there needs to be backroom strategizing, do it offline.

                    • Benjamin Baxter

                      I don’t regard my conciliatory noises as conciliatory noises. However, a certain class of Catholic does. Spend enough time around the Church and you’ll know what I mean.

                      Neither is this “backroom strategizing.” This is public. It is merely addressed to Catholics.

                      >>>”What is the consequence of not being confirmed, in heaven? Honest question. I have never heard of this concern before. At first glance, it makes absolutely no sense at all.”

                      I don’t know what the consequence is. Neither do you. Do you want to take that chance? (It certainly matters here and now, and it may matter in heaven. What is referred to in CCC 1304 is the only part I can tell is definitionally not included by the fact of being in Heaven. I don’t know that this makes a difference, but I’m not about to be casual about the fact of an indelible mark, a new sacramental character.)

                      Defective holy orders? Well, no. Holy orders is binary. Either they have it or they don’t, and Protestants do not. Now, so far as saying it, there is this principle: If it doesn’t add anything to the understanding, or if it adds more heat than light, then the right way to reply is some better formulation. However, it is never an option to even suggest that Protestants as a whole have either holy orders or unction or confession or the Eucharist.

                      If someone experiences the Eucharist outside the Church, the way I’d reply is to point out that it would be an extraordinary grace, within God’s power. It may in fact have been the thing which led that former Lutheran to the Church. However, it is not the sort of thing they can trust Lutheranism to provide. It is the sort of thing they can only trust the Church to provide.

                    • Benjamin Baxter

                      In any case —

                      >>>”What’s with the bit about eternal hellfire for being Protestant at the end?”

                      — is a demonstrably wrong reading of the original text. Can we at least agree on that?

  • PalaceGuard

    Two are plenty to illustrate the point.

    • Benjamin Baxter

      This is the entire point of the post linked.