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Confusing Denominational Terms

This article/video has been prepared for the “Christian Denominations” class at Master’s Baptist College.

Names of denominations can be tricky sometimes. Certain terms used in denominational names may mean different things. This can be confusing if you want to use the name of a denomination to determine what they believe. Or perhaps you hear a term used and you may think that a denomination is being referred to when it is not.

Let’s start with the term “Orthodox.” Orthodox is a word which means accepted, standard, typical, and right. So “Orthodox doctrine” means that the doctrine is accepted. The deity of Christ is an orthodox doctrine. Christian denominations all accept that it is true. Some cults don’t believe in the deity of Christ. This means they are not orthodox.

Antonyms of “Orthodox” would be “Heterodox” and “Unorthodox”. Something that is non-standard would be called “unorthodox.” A strange play in football might be called an “unorthodox” play – out of the usual. If something is opposite to the standard, and rejected by most, it is heterodox. This is a harsher term, referring to things that aren’t just unusual, but generally unacceptable.

However, there is also a denominational category of Christianity, though they don’t consider themselves a denomination, called the Orthodox Church, or Eastern Orthodox, or Orthodox Catholic Church. Sometimes in denominational titles, the word Orthodox refers to this denomination, and other times it refers to “teaching the acceptable doctrine.” Additionally, there is the Oriental Orthodox denominational category which is different as well.

So there’s the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Evangelical Orthodox Church. These are part of the Orthodox denomination.

There’s also the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Orthodox Church. These do not belong to the Orthodox Category. They use the term Orthodox to mean “accepted and standard.”

Let’s look at another term. “Catholic.” What do you think of when you hear about a “Catholic Church?” You are probably thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination of Christianity, although they also don’t consider themselves a denomination.

But like ‘orthodox’, ‘catholic’ is also a term with a distinct meaning. It means ‘Universal.’ So many denominations that are definitely not Roman Catholic actually consider themselves to either be part of the little-c ‘catholic’, church, that is, the universal church, or consider themselves to be the true Catholic Church.

In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church we just mentioned? Their official name is “The Orthodox Catholic Church.” The Episcopal Church in the United States considers itself “Protestant, yet Catholic.” Other denominations that consider themselves part of the universal church would also have no problem with the term ‘catholic’, and even have it in their creeds, such as most Presbyterians.

Now let’s talk about the term “Episcopal.” In America, if you talk about a church being Episcopal, one would think, generally, that you are talking about a church that is part of The Episcopal Church, which is the main denomination of Anglicans in the USA. So “Episcopal” could mean “Anglican.” But “Episcopal” actually refers to a type of Ecclesiastical polity. The word “Episcopal” comes for the Greek word “epískopos”, which is the word for “Bishop.” Churches that have a unique office of Bishop as an overseer over other clergy are considered to have “Episcopal” polity.
So Roman Catholic churches are Episcopal, as are Eastern Orthodox churches, some Methodist and Lutheran churches, and some Pentecostal churches. The main reason that Americans associate “Episcopal” with “Anglican” is that the American Anglican churches had to pick a less English name than “The Church of England” due to the Revolutionary war, and so they picked “Episcopal.”

How about the term “Evangelical?” In America, this term refers to a cross-denominational category of Christianity which practices evangelism, preaches a necessary born-again experience, and affirms biblical inerrancy as opposed to theological liberalism, among other distinctives. There’s a whole video about Evangelical churches on the Ready to Harvest Youtube channel.

However, “Evangelical” had another meaning historically. During the protestant reformation, churches that wanted to be reformed, as opposed to those keeping all the doctrine and practice of Roman Catholicism, were termed “Evangelical.” These churches didn’t necessarily even want to break from the Roman Catholic church, they wanted to be part of it. However, instead these “Evangelicals” so-called became protestant denominations. So the term “Evangelical” can mean different things.

In the sense of the theologically conservative, born-again preaching Evangelicals, you have churches like the Evangelical Methodist Church, Evangelical Free Churches, and the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches.

On the other side, these churches are not “Evangelical” in the sense of theological conservatism or teaching a born-again theology: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Evangelical Anglican Church in America.

Then there’s the term “Apostolic.” Literally, the term refers to the Church or continuing line of churches that began with the apostles. However, it is also the name of a denomination “The Apostolic Church”, which is Trinitarian Pentecostal in nature and has about 15 million members worldwide, it is also a term used by the non-Trinitarian Oneness Pentecostals to separate themselves from Trinitarian Pentecostals.

So among Pentecostal churches, Apostolic usually, but not always, means the rejection of the Trinity. Among non-Pentecostal churches, it is just a title signifying that the denomination believes their group is the true church that the Apostles were part of.

So how confusing can all of this get? Here’s an example: The Evangelical Anglican Church in America (EACA) Their website says:

 EACA is a denomination created within the Anglican catholic tradition that follows these traditions and apostolic practices within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, practicing faithful stewardship of our sacramental heritage and traditions in the service of all the People of God.

This church’s denomination is Anglican. They use the terms “Catholic”, “Apostolic” and “Evangelical”, but they are not Roman Catholic, not part of Apostolic Pentecostalism, and not Evangelical in the theologically conservative sense.

In summary, when it comes to finding out what a church really believes, you’re going to need to look beyond the name.

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Posted by on April 9, 2019 in Doctrine

 

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