Frequently Asked Question, from Jasmyn
Thanks for your question, Jasmyn! It's a good one, and the answer is important to understand. I'll limit my answer to a discussion of the Protestant churches in New Zealand.
It is important to start out with what all Protestants agree upon. They agree with four core statements of the Christian faith, as formulated in the early church: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith. Check out each of these links and read them carefully. If a person or church does not hold to these fundamental beliefs, they are outside orthodoxy and should not be considered Christian.
Members of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches do hold to these four statements, so they should be considered Christian.
The Protestant churches are one of three branches of Christianity, all within orthodoxy. They began in 1517 with Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses, but Protestants would say there heritage ultimately derives from Jesus and the apostles through the Scriptures.
Protestants traditionally hold to the five solas:
Sola Scriptura - Scripture alone
Sola gratia - Grace alone
Sola fide - Faith alone
Solus Christus - Christ alone
Soli Deo gloria - Glory of God alone
Sola Scriptura emphasises that the Bible alone is authoritative for matters of Christian faith and practice. This differs from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches who place a much greater emphasis on church tradition.
Sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus emphasise that a person is saved by grace alone (not by law), through faith alone (not by works), in Christ alone (Jesus is the exclusive way of salvation).
Soli Deo gloria emphasises the truth that God alone gets the credit and glory for our salvation and any good we do as believers.
Within the Protestant churches, there is a subgroup of churches that is often called "evangelical." The distinctives of evangelical churches include:
Conversionism: belief in the necessity of being "born again," whether at a particular moment of time or gradually.
Biblicism: reverence for the Bible and high regard for biblical authority.
Crucicentrism: the centrality of the saving death and the resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Activism: the active expression and sharing of the gospel in diverse ways that include preaching and social action.
Evangelical churches in New Zealand include Anglican churches, Baptist churches, Brethren churches, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (like Life churches, Elim churches, and Equippers churches), Presbyterian churches, Grace Presbyterian churches, and many independent churches. The difference between the evangelical churches comes down mainly to four factors: history, form of church government, beliefs, and practices.
In New Zealand, the issues of difference between the various evangelical churches normally have to do with:
Whether the objective truth of Scripture or people's subjective spiritual experience takes priority?
Whether certain spiritual gifts and offices (tongues, healing, prophecy, apostleship) are still happening today or ceased with the deaths of Jesus' twelve apostles and the completion of New Testament?
Whether God takes into account human free will when determining who is saved and unsaved?
Whether women should be pastors, leaders, and elders in local churches on total equality with men?
Whether the nation of Israel has been replaced by the church or Israel is still important in God's plan for the future?
Whether Daniel and Revelation are to be understood primarily literally or allegorically? and
Whether churches should keep up with the times on issues of sexuality and gender or stay true to the historic Christian position on these matters?
Depending on how an evangelical believer answers these seven questions usually dictates what church or denomination they will gravitate towards.
Churches that emphasise Scripture above personal experience tend to be Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, Presbyterian, Grace Presbyterian, and independent churches. Those that emphasise experience tend to be the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Actually Baptist churches occupy a middle ground here, at least in New Zealand.
Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, and many Baptist churches, also teach that the spiritual gifts of healing, miracles, and speaking in tongues are operating today. Most of the other churches teach that these gifts operated during the early church only and became obsolete once the New Testament was completed around ad 100.
As for free will and God's sovereignty, the churches influenced by John Calvin, the Presbyterian and Grace Presbyterian churches (also known as Reformed churches) teach that God sovereignly decided who would be saved and who would be unsaved before he created the universe and that human volition has nothing to do with God's choice. Anglican, Baptist, Brethren, and Charismatic/Pentecostal churches usually guard some amount of human free will when it comes to salvation.