Denominations vs. Sects: What’s the Difference?

The terms “denomination” and “sect” are commonly used in the context of belief systems comprising multiple internal groups with differing views on certain primary or secondary matters of the faith. Some people use the two terms interchangeably, yet others differentiate between them.

Generally, the terms “denomination” and “sect” both refer to a group within a religion that shares some beliefs with the wider tradition yet have unique convictions that lead them to practice independently of others. In some contexts, “denomination” is the accepted term, while “sect” is considered derogatory.

What are examples of denominations and sects in Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy? Why are there so many “denominations” in Protestant Christianity? What are the ten largest denominations in America? Keep reading to learn more.

Christian denominations
Does the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church have denominations? See below

Denominations and Sects in Christianity

To know the precise meaning of the terms “denomination” and “sect,” the best approach is to identify a speaker or author’s intent when using them. (Also see The Largest Christian Denominations: The Top 100)

Older resources may use the terms in one way, while modern sources use them in another way. In some sources, the terms have a neutral connotation, yet in others, they may have a positive or negative one.

Dictionary definition“a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices” (Merriam-Webster) [1]“a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially: one regarded as extreme or heretical” (Merriam-Webster)
OrthodoxyDenominations are usually considered orthodox, which means that they adhere to the primary doctrines of the faith.Historically, outsiders have considered sects unorthodox, but today, context and user intent determine their meaning.
Examples in Protestant ChristianityBaptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Assemblies of GodIn conventional use, Protestant denominations aren’t considered “sects.”
Examples in Roman CatholicismCoptic Catholic Church, Latin Church, Armenian Catholic ChurchCommunity of the Lady of All Nations, Palmarian Catholic Church, Philippine Independent Church
Examples in Eastern OrthodoxyRussian Orthodox Church, Church of Greece, Romanian Orthodox ChurchOrthodox Church of France, Evangelical Orthodox Church, American Orthodox Catholic Church

Geography often forms denominational organizations in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. These denominations are in full communion with the leadership and other churches in the tradition.

“Sects” within these traditions may reflect the geographical organization, but they aren’t in full communion with other churches.

Each sect has different reasons for not being in full communion with others. However, most splintered off due to doctrinal disagreements or as a result of tension and dissatisfaction with leaders in the tradition. (Also see Non-Denominational vs. Catholic: What’s the Difference?)

Denominations in the Protestant tradition aren’t referred to as being in “full communion” with leaders and other churches in the tradition because there is no centralized authority like in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Though Protestant denominations are independent of each other in relation to government and finances, many have a good relationship with other like-minded denominations and work together for ministerial purposes. (Also see Do All Denominations Observe Lent?)

Christian Bibles
Is the Southern Baptist Convention or the United Methodist Church larger? See below

Denominations in Protestant Christianity

There are several denominations in the Protestant tradition. Protestant Christianity, more so than Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, is known for how many denominations it has.

Some estimate that the tradition includes over 300 denominations. [2] Why are there so many? There are two main reasons:

  • Protestantism has no central authority. There is no single leader in the Protestant tradition that has the power to prohibit new denominations or churches from starting. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the formation of new denominations (most are geographically organized) and churches are rooted in the vision of the tradition’s central leadership.
  • Protestantism flourishes in free countries. Many Protestant denominations started in Europe, and some experienced tension with civil authorities and fought for the right to exist in their early years. However, in recent centuries denominations have experienced fewer restrictions, especially in America, where religious freedom is a core value.

Where do all the Protestant denominations come from? Most trace their roots to the 16th-century Reformation in Europe when men like Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland (1484-1531), and John Calvin of France (1509-1564) charged the Roman Catholic church with a variety of abuses.

Luther, for example, didn’t want to start a new denomination but sought to reform the Catholic church, eradicating its negative and unbiblical practices.

When Catholic leadership resisted Luther’s efforts, a new branch of the Christian faith, called “Lutheranism,” took root. (Also see Is Catholicism a Religion or a Denomination?)

Do all Protestant denominations agree with each other on doctrine? What makes a group a “denomination’ rather than a different “religion” is that they have the same core beliefs.

For example, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Assemblies of God all believe in the Trinity and the inspiration of Scripture.

Yet they don’t have agreement on secondary matters like church governance, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, speaking in tongues, and the end times.

Did all Protestant denominations start in the 16th century? No. Some denominations that exist today splintered off those that started in the 16th century.

For example, the Anglican denomination in England started in the 16th century. The Methodist denomination splintered off the Anglican church in the 18th century when the leadership rejected the reforms of the founder, John Wesley (1703-1791).

Are there multiple denominations within a single tradition? Yes. Some traditions contain multiple denominations. These branches share some convictions with their tradition but have disagreements and unique beliefs compared to others. Examples include,

  • In the Baptist tradition: Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Conservative Baptists
  • In the Presbyterian tradition: Presbyterian Church USA, Presbyterian Church in America, Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians
  • In the Methodist tradition: United Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wesleyan Church
  • In the Lutheran tradition: Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Also, see What Are the Different Catholic Denominations?

Christian denominations
How many members does the Southern Baptist Convention have? See below

The Largest Denominations in America

The chart below is organized according to specific denominations, not its wider tradition.

RankProtestant DenominationPopulation/
1Southern Baptist Convention16 million
2United Methodist Church7.6 million
3National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.5 million
4Evangelical Lutheran Church in America4.1 million
5Assemblies of God3.1 million
6National Missionary Baptist Convention of America2.5 million
7African Methodist Episcopal Church2.5 million
8Baptist General Conference of Texas2.4 million
9Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod2.2 million
10Episcopal Church2 million

Also, see Do All Christian Denominations Use the Same Bible Translation?

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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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