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—because read­ers can’t seem to stop telling me what to write about—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: 9000 denom­i­na­tions
  • Mar­gin­als: 1600 denom­i­na­tions
  • Ortho­dox: 781 denom­i­na­tions
  • Catholics: 242 denom­i­na­tions
  • Angli­cans: 168 denom­i­na­tions

Thus the imme­di­ate prob­lem is that the WCE only clas­si­fies 9000 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, Pros­per­ity Gospel believ­ers (included among 23,600 Inde­pen­dents and Mar­gin­als) 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, 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.

Flag of the Works of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta flying over the Villa del Priorato di Malta.

The Order of Malta’s New Statutes Could Dilute its Sovereignty Forever

Fra’ Luzzago, whose official title is Lieutenant of the Grand Master, added that “this sovereignty has enabled the Order of Malta to build up its vast network of international relations through its diplomacy committed to the constant support of its centuries-old humanitarian mission.”