There have been three big splits in Christianity, one in the mid-400’s, one in the mid 1000’s, and one in the 1500’s.
The third split happened within Roman Catholic Christianity. As we’ve seen, Roman Catholic Christianity embraced feudalism. In fact at one time, the pope was the largest feudal lord in all of Europe, controlling more land, vassals, and serfs than any king.
But of course, feudalism didn’t last forever. By the 1300’s, feudalism was on the way out. The rise of what’s called the merchant class killed feudalism. The merchant class was composed of people who had money not because they were born with it, but because they worked for it.
The rise of the merchant class sparked a new period in Europe called the Renaissance. The Renaissance marked the beginning of the economic system known as capitalism. The Renaissance also brought out the basic ideas of democracy and ideas like the separation of church and state.
Remember, Christianity is always interpreted through the lens of the society in which people live. And so when feudalism ended, Christianity was reinterpreted yet again, this time in Renaissance terms of capitalism and democracy.
But not all would go along with that. Many were firmly planted in a Christianity interpreted in feudalistic terms.
That led to the third big split in Christianity: the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a reinterpretation of Christianity using the ideas of the Renaissance.
Protestants rejected the interpretation of Christianity based on feudalism and developed an interpretation of Christianity based on Renaissance ideas. And so in the 1500’s, European Christianity split into two parts—Roman Catholic and Protestant. Roman Catholics held to an interpretation based on feudalism, while Protestants developed a new interpretation of Christianity based on the ideas of the Renaissance.
Protestants were the first English settlers in the United States, and in fact, Protestants formed the main bulk of people who would eventually settle here. That’s why Protestant Christianity is the most common form of Christianity in the United States. Protestants outnumber Catholics 2 to 1, and much of the Catholic population in the United States is recent or relatively recent immigrants to this country.
From Protestant Christianity eventually developed the multitude of Christian denominations we have in the United States today—Baptist denominations, Presbyterian denominations, Episcopalians, Methodists, Church of God, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, etc.
Those are the three big splits in Christianity, and the result of it was that there are now four main Christian groups in the world—Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Their beliefs are very different. Each of the splits happened as a result of society changing and Christianity being reinterpreted according to new ideas and conditions arising in society.
And that brings us up to today. American society today is, at least theoretically, still based on Renaissance ideas, ideas like capitalism, self-rule of people, individualism. But new ideas and new conditions are arising in American society.
We are already witnessing another reinterpretation of Christianity happening in our day.