ARE THERE REALLY 38,000 DIFFERENT DENOMINATIONS?
That there are that many denominations is a lie created and propagated by Roman Catholic Apologist claiming there are 38,000 differing “Protestant denominations”. They make this claim to say that the Sola Scriptura of the Protestant Reformation is divisive in nature, protestants are divided so therefore they must be the One True Church. This lie is then repeated by other groups and while the specific number of denominations that may be claimed can be higher or lower than the 38,000 number, this false claim is made often by many groups who claim to be the One True Church.
Roman Catholic apologist get their numbers from the “World Christian Encyclopedia” (WCE) by David B. Barrett. Because the 2,400 page, 2-volume WCE is $320 new, we will have to rely on secondary sources to see why the 38,000 denomination claim is nowhere near true. The two sources we will look at are a book written by a Protestant called “Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Catholic Claims to Authority” by Eric Svendsen (see an applicable excerpt here), and a “Facts and Stats Sheet” provided by a RCC Apologist where much of the info in the WCE is detailed for us to see. To grasp what I am about to say might require you to spend sometime looking at those last two links. I will refer to these resources as the “Protestant resource” and the “RCC Resource”.
It is readily apparent after studying the RCC resource that the WCE is not really a good resource to determine how many Christian denominations there actually are. Denominations are not defined correctly and are categorized by country, race and other non-helpful sub-categories to show a way over-bloated result.
The RCC resource says the statistics are subdivided into “6 major ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs”. Those mega-blocs are Independents (about 22000), Protestants (about 9000), “Marginals” (about 1600), Orthodox (781), Roman Catholics (242) and Anglicans (168). When looking at the first “mega-bloc” we see there are not really 22,000 “independent denominations” there. To come to the 22, 000 number they include “single autonomous congregations”, “isolated radio churches”, “house-church networks” and they use race as a sub-category. In other words there are African, Black American, Filipino, and Indian Apostolics and there are African, Black American and Chinese Charismatics etc. The categories are inappropriate to determine how many denominations there are because they even include “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ” and “hidden Hindu believers in Christ”. All of these 6 major mega-blocs of information have the same problems. And the “marginal” category with “about 1600 denominations” are not really Christian denominations, but Christian pseudo Cults.
To get a better understanding of how many denominations there really are let’s refer to the Protestant resource by Eric Svendsen. Svendsen says in his book Upon This Slippery Rock, “Barrett identifies seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” under which these 22,190 distinct denominations fall (Barrett, 14-15): (1) Roman Catholicism, which accounts for 223 denominations; (2) Protestant, which accounts for 8,196 denominations; (3) Orthodox, which accounts for 580 denominations; (4) Non-White Indigenous, which accounts for 10,956 denominations; (5) Anglican, which accounts for 240 denominations; (6) Marginal Protestant, which includes Jehovah s Witnesses, Mormons, New Age groups, and all cults (Barrett, 14), and which accounts for 1,490 denominations; and (7) Catholic (Non-Roman), which accounts for 504 denominations”.
Svendsen then says “Barrett indicates that what he means by “denomination” is any ecclesial body that retains a “jurisdiction” (i.e., semi-autonomy). As an example, Baptist denominations comprise approximately 321 of the total Protestant figure. In other words, if there are ten Independent Baptist churches in a given city, even though all of them are identical in belief and practice, each one is counted as a separate denomination due to its autonomy in jurisdiction. This same principle applies to all independent or semi-independent denominations. And even beyond this, all Independent Baptist denominations are counted separately from all other Baptist denominations, even though there might not be a dime’s worth of difference among them. The same principle is operative in Barrett’s count of Roman Catholic denominations. He cites 194 Latin-rite denominations in 1970, by which Barrett means separate jurisdictions (or diocese). Again, a distinction is made on the basis of jurisdiction, rather than differing beliefs and practices”.
“However Barrett has defined “denomination,” it is clear that he does not think of these as major distinctions; for that is something he reserves for another category. In addition to the seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” (mentioned above), Barrett breaks down each of these traditions into smaller units that might have significant differences (what he calls “major ecclesiastical traditions,” and what we might normally call a true denomination) (Barrett, 14). Referring again to our seven major ecclesiastical “blocs” (mentioned above, but this time in reverse order): For (1) Catholic (Non-Roman), there are four traditions, including Catholic Apostolic, Reformed Catholic, Old Catholic, and Conservative Catholic; for (2) Marginal Protestants, there are six traditions; for (3) Anglican, there are six traditions; for (4) Non-White Indigenous, which encompasses third-world peoples (among whom can be found traces of Christianity mixed with the major tenets of their indigenous pagan religions), there are twenty traditions, including a branch of Reformed Catholic and a branch of Conservative Catholic; for (5) Orthodox, there are nineteen traditions; for (6) Protestant, there are twenty-one traditions; and for (7) Roman Catholic, there are sixteen traditions, including Latin-rite local, Latin-rite catholic, Latin/Eastern-rite local, Latin/Eastern-rite catholic, Syro-Malabarese, Ukrainian, Romanian, Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Ruthenian, Hungarian, plural Oriental rites, Syro-Malankarese, Slovak, and Coptic. It is important to note here that Barrett places these sixteen Roman Catholic traditions (i.e., true denominations) on the very same level as the twenty-one Protestant traditions (i.e., true denominations). In other words, the true count of real denominations within Protestantism is twenty-one, whereas the true count of real denominations within Roman Catholic is sixteen. Combined with the other major ecclesiastical blocs, that puts the total number of actual denominations in the world at ninety-two obviously nowhere near the 23,000 or 25,000 figure that Roman Catholic apologists constantly assert and that figure of ninety-two denominations includes the sixteen denominations of Roman Catholicism (Barrett, 15)!”
To put this into perspective the Protestant resource goes on to say “Roman Catholic apologists have hurriedly, carelessly – and, as a result, irresponsibly – glanced at Barrett’s work, found a large number (22,189), and arrived at all sorts of absurdities that Barrett never concluded”.
To sum up, it is obvious that we cannot determine if the WCE is a good resource to refer to when trying to determine the number of Christian denominations there are actually in the world without buying the massive encyclopedia and studying it in full detail. Without looking at the WCE for ourselves and having to rely on these two best resources I found we cannot know for sure that he is correct when Svendsen’s Protestant resource says that Barret and the WCE went on to further define the number of denominations by defining traditions and “major ecclesiastical traditions” separately to come up with his number of “ninety-two actual denominations”. But that number seems allot more possible and plausible than the obviously over-inflated numbers that RCC apologist and other exclusive authoritarian groups irresponsibly throw around. After all how did you answer the question of “If I were to ask you exactly how many different churches exist in the world today… what would you say?“. You probably guessed allot but not 38,000 denominations “all teaching opposite things”. I thought of less than a dozen differing denominations off the top of my head. How about you?