The commonly cited figure of 33,000 has apparently been thoroughly debunked (see here and here). But this only raises the question: How many Protestant denominations are there really?
It’s not easy to find the answer.
First, a step back. The figure cited above came from an authoritative source, the World Christian Encyclopedia. One reason the number is considered too high by critics is because it counts same denomination as separate if they are in different countries. With 238 countries at the time of the survey—apparently this was 2001—one can see how this alone would inflate the number beyond the reality.
But the World Christian Encyclopedia’s method seems to be shared by other institutions. For example, the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is evangelical Protestant, estimates that there are currently 47,000 denominations. This survey relies upon the same methodology as the World Christian Encyclopedia, which it apparently deems credible. And, if you don’t consider Gordon-Conwell very authoritative, keep in mind that they are utilized as a primary source by the Pew Research Center, which pretty much is the gold standard for social science research in the United States.
And remember, Gordon-Conwell is evangelical Protestant. So this is a Protestant institution’s own assessment of its tradition’s denominational plurality.
But the debunkers are right. To say there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations—while perhaps technically accurate according to some sociological research standards—really does seem like an exaggeration.
To really assess the scandal of Protestant disunity, we must turn elsewhere. So, in the absence of an authoritative count, this author had to dig into actual lists of denominations and tally them up himself.
One starting point is the Pew Research Center. For their 2015 report on changing religious affiliation they include an index of major Protestant denominations. But once you start going through it, it becomes clear the list needs some trimming. The list is essentially a menu of survey responses which includes such categories as “Baptist, not further specified.” That won’t do when there are several Baptist denominations. Once I stripped out non-responsive categories and others that won’t help—such as non-denominational Protestants—I came up with 180 denominations.
But this is really an ‘at-least’ figure. Some entries appear to be catch-all categories for smaller denominations that have been grouped together, such as “other ethnic Baptist” and “Independent Methodist.”
The Pew list has its limitations. A potentially better source is the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). However, the only list that was readily accessible on their site enumerated every single religious group they track—which includes Judaism, Hinduism and Muslims. So once again, the list has to be whittled down to just Protestant denominations. Once that was done the tally was 188.
So, it seems we are safe in saying there are at least nearly 200 major Protestant denominations or denominational categories in the United States. (This is the number I reported in my cover story on the Reformation’s 500th anniversary for the Register.) The real number is likely higher, but the ARDA list covers at least the major ones.
When viewed historically and globally, we are safe in saying there are hundreds, likely thousands, of Protestant denominations. That’s still a scandal for Christians whom Christ desired would be one, as a reflection of the Triune unity of God (see John 17).
But the multiplicity of denominations only masks an even greater disunity. The truth is that denominational identity is on the decline today. A number of evangelical Protestants freely float among several closely related denominations, spanning a spectrum of some Baptist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches.
Moreover, increasingly, there is a widespread desire to escape the boundaries of traditional denominations. This urge is manifested in a number of Protestant movements, such as the emerging church and home church movements. Also, don’t forget the megachurches, which in 2000 numbered at 1,650 with nearly 40 percent of them non-denominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Then, beyond these, there is a plethora of so-called Bible churches scattered throughout Protestant America. There are said to be thousands of these churches, each potentially with its own doctrines, disciplines and ecclesiastical structures—as much as they all proclaim to be following a single authority.
All told, there are an estimated 35,496 independent or non-denominational churches according to ARDA. It turns out that correcting an inaccurate fact has only clarified rather than changed the underlying truth: the scandal of Protestant disunity is really as bad as the official numbers suggest.
For us Catholics, these divisions have two ramifications.
First, in terms of apologetics, the sheer multiplicity of Protestant denominations and nondenominational churches undermines the claim of any to be an authentic representation of the true Church. The contrast with the unity and universality of the Catholic Church, which claims to be the Church couldn’t be starker.
Second, Christ’s prayer for unity 2,000 years ago must urgently become the prayer of all of us today—especially as the Protestant Reformation marks its 500th anniversary.