Often you hear people say, “Christians believe X,” or “Christianity says Y.” Or maybe you’ve heard something more specific, like, “Catholics believe X, but Baptists believe Y, and Methodists believe Z.”
What does all that mean? Are there different kinds of Christians?
There are many forms of Christianity, and though there are similarities between them, there are also significant differences. Of the three main divisions—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the relationship between the two seem to get the most attention in the West.
Cultural and geographical elements have played significant roles in the development of Christianity, and as such, we should not discount ethnic and cultural identities when comparing a Peruvian Catholic to an American Protestant.1 But setting cultural factors aside for a moment, let’s consider some of the fundamental differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
In the centuries that followed Jesus’ death, most Christians promoted what was called “Catholic Christianity”—what the ancient Apostles’ Creed (circa 150 CE) professed as the “one holy, catholic church.”2
The term “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikē, which means literally “according to the whole” or “universal.”The term came to designate the most accepted form of faith passed down from the first followers of Jesus. It was not about an institution: “it was a spiritual vision, a conviction that all Christians should be in one body.”3
At that time, Roman culture and the Latin language dominated the West, so Christianity in that region took on a decidedly Roman flavor. Consequently, the term “Roman Catholicism” became synonymous with western Christianity.4 From the early centuries CE through the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic beliefs, traditions, practices, and institutions were the normative form of Christianity.
In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation began. Church leaders Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others protested against some of the practices and abuses of the Catholic Church.
Though the protestors wanted to reform the church from within, eventually it became clear that their movement was incompatible with the mother church in Rome. So they broke away and set up their own church structures and organizations—ushering in the birth of Protestantism.
Today, many different denominations and groups make up Protestantism throughout the world. Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Pentecostal, and many nondenominational churches now fall under the umbrella category of Protestantism.
Though individuals can, of course, have their own specific beliefs, there are five key differences between Protestants and Catholics.
The Authority of the Pope
Roman Catholics believe that the pope is the head of the worldwide Church. As the “vicar of Christ,” the pope stands as the earthly representative of Christ in the world and acts in his place to lead the Church in determining what is true, right, and proper for all Catholics. According to church teaching, the pope is preserved from any possibility of error when speaking on matters of faith and morals to be held by the entire Church.5
According to this tradition, the apostle Peter was ordained the first “pope”6 when Jesus declared, “And I tell you that you are Peter,and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”7 Tradition says that Peter went on to become the bishop of Rome. Catholics believe that this office of authority continues today.
Protestants, on the other hand, do not believe in a hierarchical structure that culminates in one individual who could speak definitively and proclaim truth without error.8
Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Mary plays a different role for Catholics than for most Protestants. Because Mary was the instrument through whom God brought his Son into the world, Catholics honor Mary with the titles “Mother of God” and “Mother of the Church.”
Catholics regard her as an example of faith and holiness. According to tradition, Mary was conceived and born without the stain of original sin and remained sinless throughout her life.
Though Catholics have a special devotion to Mary, they do not adore or worship her as they do God and the Incarnate Word (a common misperception). They pray to Mary—as they pray to other saints—asking her to intercede or mediate for them with her Son with whom she is in perfect communion. Put another way, they ask Mary to pray for them in much the same way as all Christians ask each other for prayer.9
For various reasons, though Protestants may have a high view of Mary, they do not hold her in the same regard. As such, they typically do not pray to Mary or make her a focal point of artwork or iconography in the same way Roman Catholics do.10
The Doctrine of Justification
Both Protestants and Catholics agree that one is justified—made righteous or put in right relationship with God—through grace. The differences in their beliefs are a matter of degree.
Roman Catholics believe that a person’s actions play a significant role in one’s standing with God because actions are external expressions of one’s inner faith. For Catholics, good deeds can achieve penance for sins or limit one’s time in Purgatory after death.
Protestants believe that justification by grace through faith is the only way for a person to enjoy a righteous standing before God. In this view, good works are done out of gratitude and are seen as a result of faith, but alone can earn no merit with God.11 Catholics believe this as well but continue to emphasize works as demonstrations of faith.
Roman Catholics embrace mystery, hierarchy, rituals, liturgy, structure, and more symbolic actions in worship. Protestants, on the other hand, developed worship services that are plain and straightforward, focusing on Scripture.
For Catholics, the focus of the Mass is the Eucharist or Holy Communion. For Protestants, the central moment of worship comes with the sermon—when the minister stands to preach from the Bible.12
Admittedly, the above is a generalization for the sake of clarity and simplicity. Nevertheless, a typical evangelical Protestant worship service today could consist almost entirely of singing modern songs with modern instruments in an auditorium with few religious symbols. But a Catholic service will likely contain numerous elements that are complex, elaborate, and deeply meaningful to participants.
The Role of Church Tradition
Most variations between Protestants and Roman Catholics are grounded in a more foundational difference: the role of church tradition.
Protestants believe that the central authority for faith and practice is found in the Scriptures.13 While tradition, reason, and experience are important, Protestants tend to think they should all be measured against—and are ultimately superseded by—the teachings of the Bible.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics adhere to many beliefs and practices that are not explicitly stated in the Scriptures. These traditions—along with the Scriptures—constitute a deposit of faith that has been passed down from the first apostles through the Magisterium of the Church—that is, the Pope, the bishops, and the Church Councils.14 Authority is found in the Bible, reason, and church tradition together—these three are seen as complementary, not in tension.15
Thus, Roman Catholics regard certain practices and beliefs—such as papal infallibility, Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the doctrine of Purgatory, the celibacy of priests, and the distinction between mortal and venial sins—as important to their faith, while Protestants do not necessarily agree.
Many Denominations, One God
These differences are extremely important. They continue to be the source of fruitful—and sometimes not-so-fruitful—discussions between Protestants and Roman Catholics. However, one should not neglect the central beliefs upon which virtually all Protestants and Catholics agree.
There is one God, the Creator, who sent his only Son, Jesus, into the world to live as an example, to teach about the coming reign of God, to die on the cross, and to rise from the dead. Through faith in Jesus, anyone can find hope, peace, and restoration with God.16
- Roman Catholicism is more prevalent in places like Europe and Latin America, while Protestantism is more common in North America, parts of Africa, and other regions. For more details on religious demographics, see the Association of Religion Data Archives at http://thearda.com.
- Justo L. Gonzalez, The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 2–3.
- Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 3rd ed., (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 27.
- However, Christians in the eastern part of the empire still spoke Greek. In light of their cultural and theological differences, they practiced what has become known as Eastern Orthodoxy.
- In 1869–1870, the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined at the First Vatican Council. As mentioned in the full text above, the doctrine of papal infallibility is this: when the pope speaks on matters of doctrine and morals ex cathedra (Latin: “from the chair” of official doctrinal proclamation), his pronouncements are without error. For more background, see Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 391–395.
- The title “pope” did not come into use until later.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Matthew 16:18.
- Individual Protestants have differing views on the pope himself; some hold him in high regard as a spiritual leader while others have a negative view or even disdain for the pope and that aspect of Catholicism in general.
- To understand the full honor given to Mary by the Roman Catholic Church, consult The Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), paragraphs 484–511.
- For a description of the Immaculate Conception and its theological reasoning, see Catechism, paragraphs 490–495. To understand why most Protestants reject this doctrine, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 529–531.
- For a comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of justification in Christian theology and history, see Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed., (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
- However, Protestants, too, practice Holy Communion. Some churches may have Communion at each worship service, while some may have it on only the first service of the month.
- In fact, one of the key slogans of the Protestant Reformation was sola Scripture, which means “Scripture alone.”
- Catechism, paragraphs 74–100.
- See Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997), 219–222.
- The Apostles’ Creed is a good example of the common beliefs held by all Christians.
- Photo Credit: PLRANG / Shutterstock.com.