Christianity has existed for over a thousand years and is the biggest religion in the world today. Still, few know its history or why it has existed in three main divisions for as long as anyone remembers. Among the major questions is: what differences and similarities exist between the Protestant vs. Christian orthodox vs. Roman Catholics? Why should anyone care to know?
Christian Orthodox and Roman Catholicism use tradition and the Bible to establish their authority, although the traditions are a source of disagreement. Protestant Christianity uses the Bible alone to establish its authority, although certain denominations will value tradition to some extent.
Therefore, knowing the similarities and differences among these three groups in Christianity is important because it will answer common questions on Christianity’s history and evolution over the centuries. It also helps to understand the roots of their differences, what makes these groups unique in the religion, how they view each other, and why they are attempting to understand each other today.
What are the social differences and similarities between Protestant, Christian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic?
Similarities in social worldviews
The social worldview among the three Christian groups is similar since they share the same basic beliefs about God, sin, and redemption. They all tend to lean conservative in their social and political views, which encompass issues such as marriage, traditional institutions like the church, duties of individuals to society, gender roles, religious traditions, patriotism, and sexual relations.
Protestant Christians differ in some of these topics within their social worldview, as they have recently embraced liberal outlooks. However, conservative views still dominate the evangelical and fundamental sections of the Protestant movement, including in denominations such as the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals.
Social differences: Names and origins
The Roman Catholic church originated during the first 500 years of church history, with its name signifying where it was based: in Rome. The term “Catholic” simply means “universal.” At the same time, the “Roman Catholic” title is a term that refers to the collection of churches that identify and practice Catholic traditions all over the world.
On the other hand, the Christian Orthodox churches are varied in scope, but all share the common trait of the term “orthodox.” This is a Greek word that means “correct beliefs.” Its origin was during the Great Schism of 1054 AD.
The Protestant movement was true to its name, “protest,” as these churches were against certain practices and doctrines in the Catholic church. Its origins began during the Protestant Reformation, thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther, who was a German monk. It later developed through the efforts of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin in terms of theological worldviews and further church formation.
What is the theological comparison between Protestant, Christian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic?
Their views on God
All three major groups of Christianity believe that God exists in a triune form, consisting of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Bible does not explicitly state that God exists in the Triune form but implies it in several scriptures, such as 2 Corinthians 13:14 and John 14:26.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:26
All three Christian groups teach the Trinity and believe that they are divine. However, Orthodox Christianity is slightly different because it teaches that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from the Father and Son, as Protestant and Catholic theology teaches. To support this view, the church uses John 15:26 as its basis:
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. John 15:26
How they view Jesus Christ
All three Christian groups believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity (God the Son), born of the virgin Mary, died for the sins of humanity, and was resurrected physically from the dead on the third day. This belief is affirmed in the Apostles Creed, whose beginnings go back to around the 8th Century.
Their view on Christ is supported by several Bible scriptures, such as John 1:14, Luke 1:35, Isaiah 7:14, and many more.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory; glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God. Luke 1:35
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14
The theological differences among the three groups
The theology among these three church groups is the main source of their divisions and distrust of each other, and it is also why they seek to understand each other now as they seek reconciliation. We discuss those differences in this section.
As the church continued to grow exponentially during its first 1,000 years, various heresies developed due to misunderstandings of Biblical scriptures. In attempts to agree on belief systems and consolidate church practice and structure in their congregations, bishops from over Christendom organized ecumenical councils representing entire church bodies.
Unfortunately, these councils became less ecumenical in their views as time went on and as the church spread, resulting in the exclusion of certain Christian denominations and favors in particular congregations. This is why, to this day, the three Christian groups differ on the councils they accept when forming their church practice and structure.
The Roman Catholics accept 21 ecumenical councils, while Protestants only recognize the first 7 councils. The Christian Orthodox Church is split depending on the congregation; some recognize the first 7 councils, like the Protestant churches, while others recognize 9 councils.
Additionally, the Christian Orthodox and Roman Catholics hold these councils and decrees in very high regard, but Protestants do not.
This is the primary cause of the differences among the three Christian groups – where they derive their authority from.
Protestant theology traces back to the 95 Theses of Martin Luther, where he stressed the salvation of humanity and the supremacy of the Bible. He based his thoughts on various scriptures such as Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9
Luther presented his thoughts mainly through the idea that faith alone would save people, and God wanted people to seek repentance for their sins. He was branded as a heretic by Pope Leo X and the first papal commission in 1518, and he was excommunicated in 1521. After this, he formed the Lutheran church, and further divisions over the centuries created more denominations within the protestant movement – but all its denominations state that the Bible is the sole source of authority.
Contrary to the Protestant view, Christian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are similar because they agree that their authority comes from both scriptures and sacred historical traditions that have been handed down.
Therefore, these two groups elevate the stature of the Apostles and the traditions they taught, as they see these as closer to first-century Christianity and that the traditions are the everyday transmission of the Gospel. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul states in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken Word or by our letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15
Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 1 Corinthians 11:2
View of the Deutero-canon or the Apocrypha
Alongside the concept of Biblical authority, this is another major area of disagreement. The Christian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics consider and include the Apocryphal books or the deuteron-canonical literature in the Bible. These Apocryphal books are 11 to 12 books that are mainly added to the Old Testament and form the basis of their theology.
The books of Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, Epistle of Jeremiah, and Baruch are in the Roman Catholic Bible. Additionally, there is the inclusion of some sections of Daniel and Esther that are absent from the Protestant Bible. The Orthodox churches include these books in their apocryphal canon and add the books of 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras (or the Prayer of Manasseh). A notable exception is the Book of Enoch, which is only used today in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches.
Protestant theology rejects these books because they teach several doctrines that are contrary to the rest of the Bible: humans being saved by works, the doctrine of purgatory, God hears the prayers of the dead, the pre-existence of souls before they join assigned physical bodies, the creation of pre-existent matter, and the teaching that the body weighs down the soul.
Protestants also do not hold the Apocryphal books in high regard because Jesus never quoted them in His teachings, neither did the Apostolic writings, and the Jews did not accept them in their canon. This is in contrast to the Septuagint, frequently quoted by Jesus and the apostles. The only exception to this is the book of Enoch, which is an apocryphal book that is quoted in Jude.
Which came first between Protestant, Christian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic?
Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant churches claim to be the “first church” or the “one true church,” but looking into the first 1000 years of Church History solves this question. This is also because no scripture in the Bible says anything concerning the first church. Instead, it outlines various instructions and guidelines that help its reader know churches that align with the first church in their preaching.
After Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, he commissioned his followers in Matthew 28:19-20 to spread the Gospel:
Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
After this, Christianity used Jerusalem as its center, but the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD prompted the relocation of the movement to other towns and cities in the Empire and beyond. As it spread to these regions, different communities were established, with the Christians using the Jewish synagogue to create places of worship. Additionally, church government systems were created in an Episcopal format where bishops would oversee the activities of these congregations, similar to the Roman system of government that dominated the known world at the time.
This changed in 312 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine took over and legalized Christianity. Bishops realized they could consolidate power, resulting in the great councils where they would discuss theological issues. While the beginning stages of the Roman Catholic church are unclear, the historical account The Moody Handbook of Theology outlines that 590 AD was the beginning of the church under the leadership of Pope Gregory I. He consolidated his authority over lands and increased the church’s power by creating “Papal States.”
However, the growing tensions in theological worldviews led to the Patriarch of Constantinople being excommunicated from the Catholic church in 1054 – an event forever known as “The Great Schism.” The Orthodox church moved to the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople and later spread to other regions of Europe.
The Roman Catholic church continued in its form, with bishops and priests overseeing congregations and the Pope controlling the whole church, until around 1517 when Martin Luther published his “95 Theses”. He wanted the church to return to the Bible as its source of authority – a concept known as Sola Scriptura, instead of the heavy emphasis on traditions and the Bible promoted by the Roman Catholic church.
This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, as Martin Luther split from the Catholic church to form the Lutheran church, and ongoing splits over the centuries after this event led to other denominations forming from these Lutheran beginnings. These differences were all centered around theological issues, including baptism, the sacraments, and the Trinity, as different people interpreted the Bible differently and split off to form other churches.
Therefore, in terms of Church History, the Roman Catholic church is the oldest form of Christianity among the three main groups, while Protestantism is the youngest form.
As a devout Christian, I have always been passionate about the Christian faith. This inspired me to pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology in college. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Since I am dedicated to spreading the word of God, I am actively involved in the Church. Additionally, I share his word online and cover diverse topics on the Christian faith through my platform. You can read more about me on the about us page.