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