Where Did All the Denominations Come From? What's the Difference?
This question, in one way or another, comes up pretty frequently. I'm writing this post as a result of a question posed by a person from a country which has very limited exposure to historic Christianity and where it is unusual to find congregations which would display many signs of their distinctive theological heritage.
This is a huge question. We need to realize that from the start. My answer will have to be partial and, in some ways, indistinct. The questioner this time added a third, very important question. "Which one is right?" That means that I will probably risk offending a lot of people in my answer. This is fine, really. I only ask that if you wish to respond in the comments and defend your view of what's right, you do it in a reasoned way.
All the different Christian church bodies claim to be right. After all, it would be foolish to ask people to join with you in an endeavor that you can tell them isn't the right way. And to some extent, the claims of different church bodies to being right might actually be true. There's a lot of agreement about central issues, such as Jesus being the one who saves us by his grace through faith in him as God the Son. The Bible is taken very seriously by a wide variety of church bodies, though they will interpret some parts differently from one another.
Before you condemn me as a heretic or a universalist, I'll simply affirm that those are not categories which can fit me. I merely acknowledge that there are Christians with a genuine and sound hope in Christ for eternal life within many Christian denominations.
We use "denomination" for another important item in our culture. I think using it as an illustration may help here. Where do we use it? In terms of cash. Paper money comes in multiple denominations. You can have a one dollar bill, a five dollar bill, a ten dollar bill, a twenty dollar bill, and so forth. Some denominations are very commonly used, like a twenty dollar bill. Some are not so commonly used, like a two dollar bill. Some denominations you don't want, like a three dollar bill, since that one only exists in counterfeit form. All the legitimate denominations of cash work the same way. But they have come about at different times and for different reasons.
Within Christian denominations, we can see a similar phenomenon. Here's where we get a little sketchy. The events surrounding the distinct formation of Christian denominations are much more complicated than a reserve bank deciding there should be items of paper money worth different numbers of dollars.
From the start, Christianity was represented by congregations in different communities. Not surprisingly, some communities, especially those with a large population base, developed larger church congregations than others. Over time, (and this took centuries), Constantinople and Rome became known as prominent centers of Christian activity. In most ways, their view of Christianity was very similar. However, in the 11th century, a dispute separated Constantinople and its followers (churches known as "orthodox") from Rome and its followers (churches known as "catholic"). There are still orthodox congregations around the world. Most of them also have some identity with an ethnic group, such as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. They have largely retained practices dating back to the 11th century and before.
Within the "western" tradition, as opposed to the Orthodox in the East, the Roman church continued to assert itself as the center of the Christian faith. Many of their practices also remain rooted in history of early Christianity. There were various moves for reform within the Roman Catholic Church, but the reform movements we usually think about took place beginning in the 16th century. Martin Luther and some followers centered in German territory made a move for reform, and were forcibly removed from the Roman Catholic Church. They continued to hold to their understanding of Scripture and historic Christianity. In many ways they were asking for relatively small changes, so we will often call this the "Conservative Reformation." For the most part, their writings reflected a desire to keep almost all the elements of Christian worship found in the Roman church.
About the time of Luther, but tending slightly afterward we see a slightly more radical reform movement centered around the figure of John Calvin, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and Ulrhch Zwingli, based in Zurich, Switzerland. While Luther and his followers focused on the incarnational implications of Jesus, God with us, Calvin focused more on the sovereign power of God in Christ to save his people, and Zwingli focused a little more on the internal life of faith and its evidence in moral behavior. Another significant move of the 16th and 17th centuries was that of the Church of England, which was heavily influenced by the Lutheran movement, but at times tried to co-exist with Calvinist believers.
This situation resulted in the Western Church essentially consisting of the Roman Catholic Church and "the Reformation," which broadly embraces all the church bodies below.
The resulting church bodies have tended to branch off from one another, at least a little bit. The Calvinist tradition is largely represented by groups known as Presbyterian or Reformed, though at times there have been many people who would be identified as "Reformed Baptists."
The Baptist tradition, though originally it clashed with Zwingli, is largely identified by Zwinglian doctrine, except that they consistently baptize only people who are actively making a confession of Christian faith. Most of the churches we would consider in the "megachurch" movement are essentially Baptist in their doctrine, though some emphasize gifts of the Holy Spirit and ecstatic utterances and prophecies. These are identified as "pentecostal" or "neo-pentecostal." Except for the doctrine of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the rest of the teachings are very similar to those of the Baptists.
The Church of England remains known as the Anglican Church, though in North America it is mostly identified as "Episcopal." A reform movement within the Anglican Church is represented by the Methodist or Wesleyan tradition, started in the 1700s by John Wesley.
Lutheran church bodies have undergone significant metamorphoses, with many separations and mergers. Currently, the largest Lutheran church body in the United States is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Its doctrine is closely related to the Episcopal Church, with which it has a strong alliance. Several other, smaller, Lutheran church bodies exist, generally taking a much more historic stance on the power of God as revealed in the Bible and on holding to traditional forms of biblical Christianity. Among those is the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and the church body I am affiliated with, The American Association of Lutheran Churches.
Which one is right? Over the years, since I became a Christian as a young adult, I have participated in a number of different church bodies. My tendency has been to move progressively toward older, more historically informed forms of Christianity. I became a Lutheran because I found that Lutheran doctrine didn't have to make any disclaimers about what the Bible said, and because I saw the early Lutherans appealing to church history in ways that the other church bodies failed to do. I would invite anyone to come and participate in worship and life that is centered on Jesus, God for us, truly incarnate and present for his people, redeeming them and washing their sins away, and keeping them in this life as he prepares them for eternity.
Wherever you go, watch for careful and extensive use of the Bible, for interpretation that doesn't try to explain away different parts of the Bible, and for a deep and heartfelt reverence for God, as He is present with His people.