Protestant vs. Christian: Why your label matters—and why it doesn’t

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Protestant vs. Christian: Why your label matters—and why it doesn’t

January 11, 2022 - Dr. Ryan Denison

© doidam10 /stock.adobe.com

© doidam10 /stock.adobe.com

Are you Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or Christian? 

It may seem like a strange question, but it’s one the Democracy Fund has asked over half a million people across the last year and a half, and the results are interesting

What makes the Democracy Fund’s survey unique is that most such questionnaires do not give people the option of choosing “Christian” when it comes to describing their religious affiliations, instead limiting the selections to individual denominations. 

And while Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers are all part of the Christian family, the term with which individuals choose to identify can reveal a great deal regarding how they see their faith and the religious climate in which that faith was formed.

The study found, for example, that a person’s age played a significant role in whether he or she identified as Protestant or Christian. Respondents below the age of fifty-five were more likely to claim the Christian title while the reverse was true for those in older generations, with those eighty and above roughly eleven times more likely to describe themselves as Protestant than Christian (44 percent and 4 percent respectively). 

The study did not ask people to give a reason why they chose to identify as they did, but the rise of nondenominational churches in the 1980s, increasingly public controversies across the denominational spectrum, and a general trend toward seeing spirituality as more personal than communal likely all play some role in the shift. That many older Christians grew up in a time when the Catholic/Protestant distinction was widely considered more significant, both socially and spiritually, than it is today could also help explain why they might feel a closer tie to their denominational identity than younger generations.

What is essential? What matters?

There’s an argument to be made that a reduced emphasis on such distinctions within the spectrum of Christianity is a sign of progress and hope for the future of the faith. After all, Jesus was clear that the requirements for being his disciples have far more to do with obedience and the recognition of who he is as Christ than with our theology on the Lord’s Supper, predestination, or even the importance of church hierarchy and the pope (Matthew 16). 

At the same time, though, if people are increasingly choosing the label of Christian because they don’t understand those issues and others like them, rather than because they rightly see them as less significant, then that could be a troubling sign for the future of the faith. 

There is a large gap between essential and insignificant, yet far too often we’re tempted to either assign every Christian belief to the first category or everything but the essentials to the second. The truth is that most Christian theology exists on a spectrum between those two poles, and all of it is important, even if what exists in that middle ground isn’t essential for salvation. 

The reason is that all of it can help us understand the God we love and serve in ways that deepen our walk with him.

So, with that in mind, think back to how you responded to the question posed at the opening of this article, and take some time to reflect on why you answered as you did. Then ask the Lord to use that insight to help you evaluate your relationship with him. 

Are there any areas of that relationship or aspects of theology you’ve taken for granted? 

Have you expanded your definition of essential beliefs beyond what the Bible teaches? 

And, perhaps most importantly, do those choices point to a desire to know God better or a contentment and complacency born of the belief that what you understand is good enough? 

For better or worse, how you answer each of those questions can help explain a lot of why your walk with the Lord is the way it is.

Are you happy with the results?

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