Historic Christendom is generally thought of as consisting of three main branches: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism.1 Yet as a serious student of Christianity I would like to propose that a reasonable case can be made that there is now a fourth branch of Christendom to go along with the three traditional ecclesiastical bodies.2 Not everyone will agree with my assessment but let me offer a description of this new branch and explain why I think it is distinct from the other three.

The New Branch
The new branch was birthed from historic Protestantism and shares a lot of common ground with it, but maybe especially with the nonmagisterial or Radical Reformation Protestants (or Anabaptists). I view the emergence of this fourth branch of Christendom as being closely associated with the continued splintering of Evangelicalism (keeping in mind the term “evangelical” is increasingly difficult to define). I call the new branch “Jesus Followers.”

Here are twelve general characteristics of the newest version of Christianity as I see it. Again, many of these characteristics are reflected in the modern-day representatives of the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century. Think of this list as a paradigm or model rather than an exact description or classification.

  1. Followers of Jesus: Many people in this new branch want to avoid being called “Protestant” or even “Christian.” Rather, they prefer to be called “followers of Jesus” or similar terms. Since Christianity is a way of life centered on Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all Christians could be considered Jesus followers. But believers within fourth branch churches don’t want to be associated with the divisions and schisms that are so prevalent in church history. So, they want their identity to be found not in historic churches but in Jesus himself.
  2. Nondenominational: Building on the point above, fourth branch Christianity tends to be nondenominational. Or if these churches have denominational connections (and most do) they tend to downplay those connections. Again, there is little direct historical connection to church history.
  3. Charismatic or Pentecostal: Many individuals and churches who are part of this new formation of the faith have adopted a charismatic or Pentecostal spirituality. The historical roots of these churches may even be connected to traditional Pentecostal denominations. This form of piety isn’t a universal characteristic of the new branch, but it is common. There are also what we may call Bible churches in this fold that are cessationists concerning the spiritual gifts.
  4. The Bible only: Fourth branch churches and individuals interpret the Bible in its own right apart from Christian history. This position is in the spirit of what traditional Protestants call sola Scriptura, but I think it is a little different. The fourth branch believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and the sole authority for doctrine and Christian living; they also affirm the creedal expressions of the Trinity, the incarnation, etc. Yet these churches view biblical authority as functioning seemingly independent of collective church councils, church tradition, or church history.
  5. Affirm mere Christianity: The doctrinal perspective of the new branch encompasses generally basic Christian doctrine. This term “mere Christianity” refers to a group of essential and “agreed, or common, or central”3 Christian doctrines (such as creation, the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the ascension, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming) that all branches of historic Christendom affirm. 
  6. Noncreedal: This fourth branch typically has a statement of faith but no formal creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed) or confessions (e.g., Westminster Confession or Thirty-Nine Articles). However, while these churches may not formally recite a creed, they may and sometimes do sing it in their regular times of worship.
  7. Nonliturgical: Services at fourth branch churches are typically much more informal compared to the structured liturgy and religious rites found in traditional church services.
  8. Nonhymnal: Instead of formal hymns and liturgical songs, worship services at fourth branch churches feature popular praise music, bands, and contemporary Christian songs.
  9. Nonsacramental: These ecclesiastical bodies emphasize ordinances instead of sacraments. So while a sacrament is understood as a means of divine grace, an ordinance is a practice that involves the participants’ obedience to faith. For example, instead of affirming baptismal regeneration which is often associated with infant baptism, a Jesus Follower would be baptized to publicly announce his or her intention to live for Jesus.
  10. Congregational polity: For these houses of worship their church government reflects independent congregational church authority instead of an episcopal (led by bishops) or presbyterian (led by elders) form of order.
  11. Revivalism: Fourth branch churches conduct revival meetings in order to gain new converts and to inspire members to greater discipline and devotion. Church services are marked by evangelism, which commonly takes place by means of altar calls.
  12. Megachurches: Some of the congregations within this emerging branch are megachurches. A megachurch has an extremely large membership and also offers a variety of educational and social opportunities for its congregants.

Takeaway
Again, some traditional Protestant churches share a number of these characteristics with fourth branch churches or Jesus Followers. And this description should be seen as a general pattern rather than an exact definition. Nevertheless, I think there is enough difference to warrant acknowledging a new and distinct branch of Christendom.

Churches in this new branch have strengths and weaknesses just like the churches they differ from. Some find this form of Christianity very appealing while others detect deficiencies.

Reflections: Your Turn
Have you attended a megachurch? What did you think?

Resources

The Appeal of Common Christianity

Finding One’s Place in Christ’s Universal Church

Debating Denominational Difference While Non-Christians Watch

Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

  1. For a discussion of these three branches of Christendom in terms of their areas of agreement and disagreement as well as the historic divisions, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 10.
  2. Because Orthodoxy consists of two historic church traditions—Eastern Orthodoxy (Chalcedonian) and Oriental Orthodoxy (non-Chalcedonian)—sometimes people speak of four branches of Christendom. As well, sometimes Anglicanism is viewed as independent of Protestantism and thus labeled the fourth branch of Christendom. However, I think for the most part the two versions of Orthodoxy are seen as one branch and more often than not Anglicanism is viewed as being one of the churches of Reformation and thus Protestant.
  3. See C. S. Lewis’s idea of “mere Christianity” in his book by the same title, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 8.

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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