We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denominations

“The Reformers” (German School of the Early 17th Century). Pictured: Bullinger, Zanchi, John Knox, Zwingli, Bucer, Matthew Parker, William Perkins, Melanchthon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Wyclif.
“The Reformers” (German School of the Early 17th Century). Pictured: Bullinger, Zanchi, John Knox, Zwingli, Bucer, Matthew Parker, William Perkins, Melanchthon, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Wyclif. (photo: Public Domain)

Recently someone sent me a link with the note, “Here’s some­thing for you to refute.” Some­how along the way I have become Mr. Refu­ta­tion. I can’t say how that hap­pened.

Any­way, the link was to an arti­cle writ­ten all the way back in 2007 by some­one named Dr. Glenn Andrew Peo­ples, whom I have never heard of. Dr. Peo­ples dis­putes the com­mon myth — for myth it is — that there are 33,000 Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions.

So appar­ently this par­tic­u­lar reader thinks Dr. Peo­ples needs to be taken to school — and I am just the one to do that — and shown that there really are 33,000 denom­i­na­tions; or what­ever the num­ber has esca­lated to today — possibly 51,314 as of this writ­ing. (For there is a for­mula to cal­cu­late these things.)

I regret to say that is not going to hap­pen here. There are not — repeat with me — there are not 33,000 Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions. There are not any­where close to it. It is a myth that has taken hold by force of rep­e­ti­tion, and it gets cited and recited by reflex; but it is based on a source that, even Catholics will have to con­cede, relies on too loose a def­i­n­i­tion of the word “denom­i­na­tion.”

The source is the two-volume World Chris­t­ian Ency­clo­pe­dia (Bar­rett, Kurian, and John­son; Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press). Take note of the pas­sage where the 33,000 fig­ure comes up:

World Chris­tian­ity con­sists of 6 major ecclesiastico-​cultural blocs, divided into 300 major eccle­si­as­ti­cal tra­di­tions, com­posed [sic] of over 33,000 dis­tinct denom­i­na­tions in 238 coun­tries (Vol. I, p. 16).

So accord­ing to the WCE, the 33,000 fig­ure rep­re­sents “world Chris­tian­ity.” Now unless a Catholic wants to sup­pose that “world Chris­tian­ity” means Protes­tantism, the num­ber would have to be some­thing less. 33,000, accord­ing to the source from which the num­ber comes, means the whole of Chris­tian­ity, not Protes­tantism specif­i­cally.

The WCE then goes on to break down “world Chris­tian­ity” into the fol­low­ing broad cat­e­gories:

  • Inde­pen­dents: 22,000 denom­i­na­tions
  • Protes­tants: 9,000 denom­i­na­tions
  • Mar­gin­als: 1,600 denom­i­na­tions
  • Ortho­dox: 781 denom­i­na­tions
  • Catholics: 242 denom­i­na­tions
  • Angli­cans: 168 denom­i­na­tions

Thus the imme­di­ate prob­lem is that the WCE clas­si­fies only 9,000 denom­i­na­tions (27% of the whole) as Protes­tant. To get to 33,000, one must add in the Inde­pen­dents, Mar­gin­als, Angli­cans and 232 of the Ortho­dox.

Among the 23,600 “Inde­pen­dents” and “Mar­gin­als” (70% of the whole) are large num­bers of groups one would have a hard time call­ing Protes­tant. They include Mor­mons (122 denom­i­na­tions), Jehovah’s Wit­nesses (229 denom­i­na­tions), Masons (28 denom­i­na­tions), Chris­tadel­phi­ans (21 denom­i­na­tions) Uni­tar­i­ans (29 denom­i­na­tions), Chris­t­ian Sci­ence (59 denom­i­na­tions), Theosophists (3 more denom­i­na­tions), British Israelites (8 denom­i­na­tions), Pros­per­ity Gospel groups (27 denom­i­na­tions), One­ness Pen­te­costals (680 denom­i­na­tions), “Hid­den Bud­dhist Believ­ers in Christ” (9 denom­i­na­tions), wan­der­ing bish­ops (12 denom­i­na­tions), Inde­pen­dent Nesto­ri­ans (5 denom­i­na­tions), occultists (3 denom­i­na­tions), spiri­tists (20 denom­i­na­tions), Zion­ists (159 denom­i­na­tions), even “Arab radio/​TV net­work” (19 denom­i­na­tions), “gay/​homosexual tra­di­tion” (2 denom­i­na­tions), and schis­matic Catholics (435 denom­i­na­tions). It is a strange and eclec­tic list. (See here and here.)

How­ever strong the temp­ta­tion some may have to char­ac­ter­ize any­thing not Catholic or Ortho­dox as “Protes­tant,” you can’t do that. All that tells Protes­tant apol­o­gists is that you don’t know what Protes­tantism is, or what its dis­tinc­tives are — and they would be right. And why would they take any­thing you say seri­ously after that? If you don’t know what Protes­tantism is, who are you to be talk­ing about its errors? Not only are Mor­mons, Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, One­ness Pen­te­costals, Uni­tar­i­ans and Pros­per­ity Gospel believ­ers (included among 23,600 Inde­pen­dents and Mar­gin­als) are not Protes­tant. They are not even Chris­t­ian — they adhere to a false Chris­tol­ogy. Protes­tants and Catholics are in agree­ment about who Christ is. These other groups have other ideas.

And then the WCE some­how comes up with 242 Catholic denom­i­na­tions. That should be a big glar­ing red flag that it has been a bit — how shall we say? — free and loose with the word “denom­i­na­tion.”

In fact, if you check the break­down of these 242 sup­posed denom­i­na­tions, here is what you will find: Latin Rite Catholics, Byzan­tine Rite Catholics, Melkites, Copts and Maronites. That is to say, the WCE clas­si­fies dif­fer­ent rites as though they are dif­fer­ent denom­i­na­tions, in spite of the fact that all of them are in union with Rome. There is not a Catholic who labors under the sun who should not be sus­pi­cious of a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of “denom­i­na­tion” that would per­mit this. The result­ing total has to be inflated — by 24,100% in this case. Why not say Domini­cans and Jesuits are their own denom­i­na­tions? Some­one who would say Byzan­tine Catholics are their own denom­i­na­tion does not know what a denom­i­na­tion is, or Catholi­cism. So how is it a reli­able source to tell us how many Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions there are?

The WCE defines “denom­i­na­tion” thus:

an orga­nized aggre­gate of wor­ship cen­ters or con­gre­ga­tions of sim­i­lar eccle­si­as­ti­cal tra­di­tion within a spe­cific coun­try … whose com­po­nent con­gre­ga­tions and mem­bers are called by the same denom­i­na­tional name in dif­fer­ent areas, regard­ing them­selves as one autonomous Chris­t­ian church dis­tinct from other denom­i­na­tions, churches, and tra­di­tions.

That is a mouth­ful. It seems to be defin­ing a denom­i­na­tion as any Chris­t­ian entity that is eccle­sially inde­pen­dent, which is fine as far as it goes. But did you notice that the def­i­n­i­tion lim­its a denomination’s reach to “within a spe­cific coun­try?” In other words, you can­not have a sin­gle denom­i­na­tion exist­ing in the United States and Eng­land at the same time. They may both be Pres­byter­ian, but they are two dif­fer­ent denom­i­na­tions, even if noth­ing else divides them. So the WCE comes up with 438 Pres­by­ter­ian denom­i­na­tions and 647 Methodist and 1017 Bap­tist.

I think the num­ber is inflated.

More­over, Inde­pen­dent Bap­tist con­gre­ga­tions, who have a high doc­trine of the local church and gov­ern them­selves, are each counted as sep­a­rate denom­i­na­tions, even though they may all believe the same doc­trine. There are 8,142 such con­gre­ga­tions named by the WCE, whether Bap­tist or not, whether Protes­tant or not.

I think the num­ber is inflated.

Many Catholics like to cite the 33,000 fig­ure because the num­ber is so out­ra­geously large they assume it is a par­tic­u­lar embar­rass­ment to Protes­tants. Look at all this divi­sion in your ranks! But the result has been that Protes­tants con­sult the source, take note of the prob­lems with it, claim a few thou­sand denom­i­na­tions at most, and scoff at the wild exag­ger­a­tion. Catholics look fool­ish for insist­ing on a ridicu­lously high and easily-​refuted num­ber, and Protes­tants imag­ine they can sleep the sleep of the just because the real num­ber is nowhere close. See! they say. No denom­i­na­tion prob­lem here! Thus the real issue gets lost.

Catholics need to stop cit­ing this num­ber, not only because it is out­landishly false but because it is not the point how many Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions there are. The point is the scan­dal of divi­sion and the love of pri­vate judg­ment that has caused so much of it. The scan­dal would be no less if there were two denom­i­na­tions, and no greater if there were two mil­lion. Any divi­sion in the body of Christ is a scan­dal. To argue over how many is a red her­ring. It is an argu­ment about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

The real point is St. Paul’s words in Eph­esians 4:4–6:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one bap­tism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

By “one body,” St. Paul means “one Church,” as is evi­dent when you com­pare Eph­esians 1:22-23a and Colos­sians 1:18, 24. Protes­tants don’t need to answer to an Ency­clo­pe­dia; they need to answer to St. Paul. That is the only dis­cus­sion worth hav­ing. We make a mis­take in allow­ing them to avoid the dis­cus­sion by fix­at­ing upon the dubi­ous num­ber 33,000.