There are many Christian churches today all over the world, each with distinct histories, organisations as well as some variation in beliefs.
The main church
In Western Europe until 1500 the main church was the Roman Catholic Church led by the Popes in Rome. In the early 1500s, partly inspired by the actions of Martin Luther who wished to reform the Catholic Church, various groups of Christians protested against the Roman Catholic Church and set up independent churches. These groups became known as Protestants.
Generally, the Catholic Church has remained strong in southern Europe (France, Italy, Spain and Portugal) while in northern Europe (Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland) Protestant or Reformed churches became established. When these countries started Empires across the world they exported their types of church with them. Therefore, North America, Australia and Southern African countries have more Protestant churches following from Great Britain, but South America has been very Catholic because of Spanish and Portuguese conquerors.
The main differences
And so, what are the main differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches? Part of the answer to this question has to do with authority. That is, where do Christians learn about God, God’s view of people and how to organise church life? Who or what should decide these things?
The Catholic Church has placed greater emphasis on the church leadership and tradition as interpreters of the Bible. Indeed, the Pope was and is still viewed as God’s special representative who guides the church into truth. The Protestant churches became suspicious of what they saw as corruption from the Catholic Church and they look to the Bible as their authority in all things.
Five important differences
This different view of authority partly explains the different views of these churches. Five important differences are given below.
- The Catholic Church has lifted Mary the mother of Jesus to an important position in their theology and many Catholic people pray to Mary. Protestants don’t see this in the Bible and so do not do this.
- The Catholic Church requires priests to be unmarried men. For Protestants, church leaders can be married and in some cases can be women.
- The Catholic Church has often taught that it is the things a Christian person does that can help them be saved by God. The Protestant churches argue from the Bible that people are saved by faith in what Jesus has already done for us.
- A Protestant church service is often more informal than a Catholic one and preaching from the Bible is usually central. Individual choice and response to God’s Word are emphasised. In a Catholic Church service ritual, symbolism, confession and Holy Communion are crucial and priests play an important role in bringing people to God and God to the people.
- Another important area of difference is in the sacraments. Sacraments are visible signs of unseen, spiritual realities. The Protestant church celebrates only two, baptism and Holy Communion, in response to Jesus’ instructions found in the Bible. However, the Catholic Church has seven in total.
No church is perfect
Finally, we must remember that no church is perfect and nobody is automatically saved by God because they are a member of one church and not another. There are many people who love God and trust in Jesus for their salvation in both Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Equally, both groups of churches have made mistakes in history.
Closer to the truth
However, ultimately the beliefs of the Protestant Churches (for example, the Westminster Confession) are closer to the truth taught in Scripture than the beliefs of the Catholic Church. This is especially the case when it comes to the key teaching from the Bible on how a person is saved and becomes one of God’s children. Historically the Protestant Church has emphasised five “solas” (Latin for “alone”): Scripture alone, Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, for the glory of God alone. Each one of these “solas” makes a positive statement about what Scripture teaches, against Catholic teaching, and guards the truth of the good news of Jesus’ saving work for us.
Also read Which church is the right one?