Number of Protestant Denominations


Hi All,

Last week I wrote an email to my dear BIL. He asked me some questions on the faith and this was one of my comments:

“Under sola scriptura, Christians are free to justify any belief or action as long as they can come up with one scripture that appears to confirm their belief. This is the reason there are 20,000+ Protestant denominations.”

He wrote back and stated, “I would begin to challenge this accusation that there is 20,000+ Protestant denominations. Where exactly does this come from? Barretts Encyclopedia states that there are 8,196 Protestant denominations…”

Which is true? Is there a source for 20,000 denominations? Is 8,196 accurate?

Thank you!


Hmmm… so there are only 8,196 different views of Christianity?

Forgive me for being blunt, but i don’t really see how that helps his case. In fact, his recognition of so many divisions further proves your point…

Not to be funny, but the statement sound like something Mel Brooks would say more than anything else.

In Christ


Here’s my BIL’s entire rebuttal. You can see where he is going with his argument:

“I would begin to challenge this accusation that there is 20,000+ Protestant denominations. Where exactly does this come from? Barretts Encyclopedia states that there are 8,196 Protestant denominations and 223 Catholic denominations. While I will give you that 8,196 is still a large number, 223 simply is a jolt to the credibility of the one true unified church. In actuality, the 8,196 can be further broken down to an even lesser number. Barrett would reserve another denomination based in great extent on jurisdiction alone or if a church sang hymns instead of praise and worship. Hardly sounds like bickering denominations who can’t agree on what the Bible says. In fact, the Evangelical Protestantism or Reformed theology can really be broken down into roughly 16 traditions. Sola scriptura is a tenet of Reformed theology brought to us by Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, etc. I agree that many churches that I wouldn’t even include in with Reformed theology, don’t look to the Bible for authority. In fact, the Bible isn’t held in high regard at all in some places. As far as recourse is concerned, I believe a great many of the theologians hold themselves accountable to other theologians. Iron sharpens iron. Our family of churches helps sponsor a conference called Together for the Gospel, with the major speakers coming from the Baptist, Presbyterian, and other Reformed non-denominational backgrounds. No one is supposed to do this alone. Together for the Gospel is an example of the universal church seeking truth. If someone takes one Scripture and starts a church, the whole time disregarding other Scripture (again measuring rod) by taking it out of context, then certainly that is cause for concern. I don’t think this happens at the rate suggested. In the end, God longs to be glorified and we want to glorify. I want to study Scripture as a whole as I know many others do, but will interpret the Scripture on the whole with the assistance of others.”


Ironically, this is exactly what James White is writing about in his daily blog:


the 200 odd number of Denominations for Catholicism is a little misleading. It should probably be said that there are 200 odd Flavors of Catholicism, but ALL dogma, Moral Teachings are the same. They are all also in Union with the Pope. The differences lie not in theology, but in how that theology is practiced.

The same is not true for Protestantism. His statement that there are really only 16 protestant denoms is not accurate either. There are maybe 16 Roots of theology, but under each of those is a wildly diverse group of beliefs. Example. Pentecostal. Ok, so you have one root, that dates really to about 1870’s ish. Under that, you have trinitarian, Non-Trinitarians, Infant baptism, no infant baptism, no works at all, must work… i can go on and on. And that is from one “root”

He also can not claim all believe Faith Alone. This is because there is no agreement what Faith alone actually means. Luther’s idea of Faith alone once properly understood is very close to Catholic Understanding, Others take it to the point really of just believe alone.

There are no “core documents” that all agree on. There is no such thing as “we all agree on the big stuff” because they don’t.

So, your BIL is a little off on his assessment. If you really want to find out how different, Just ask the different protestant churches in your own town. You will find very little agreement. The closest you will find is that you have to “accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior” but even then they don’t agree what that means

In Christ


As a stats guy, the more rational way to show this would be to include the estimated # of adherents for each denomination.

For example, there are 1 billion Catholics. Of the 222 additional “Catholic denominations” Barrett claims, how many adherents are there for each?

It is a far different matter to have 999 million Roman Catholics and 1 million non-Roman Catholics than to have 1 million Roman Catholics and 999 million non-Roman Catholics.

The correct criteria probably must include within a denominational penumbra the issue of authority. It is a far different thing to have 1 billion people under the authority of the Roman Pontiff than to have 183 who recognize the authority only of their pastor.

After all, the question at hand is one of unity. If you and I differ in all things but that Christ is Lord, are we unified in any real sense?


I just did a little survey in our Yellow pages. Granted it’s anecdotal, but in San Francisco alone (I only got through the L’s)
I counted 128 ‘non-denominational’ christian churches, 6 Lutheran, 28 Baptist, 4 Churches of Christ, 16 Presbyterian, 8 Christian Science, 2 Pentecostal, 2 JW, 6 Methodist, 4 Congregational, 5 Episcopal, and one Mormon churches. Since I got roughly half-way through, that’s 256 non-denom, 11 other Protestant.
The problem is, you could conceivably count every church in America as it’s own denomination, because most of these churches teach something different than even their own flavor of Protestant. You will get contradictory teaching from two different Baptist Churches, in fact, the Baptist synod even claims that each is independent of the others.
Sometimes priests also teach differently, except for the dogmas and doctrines. But there is always the Catechism to fall back on, and the Magesterium.


This site refers to the World Christian Encyclopedia as the source of over 20,000 Christian denominations. I feel the word denomination is probably pretty loosely used, so I would caution you not to emphasize that so much as you should emphasize that there is more than ONE church.

You know the Bible says that the prayer of the righteous avails much and we know that no one on earth was more righteous than Jesus Christ. Yet, His prayer for unity has still not come to fruition. What a tragedy for mankind.


I think the 20,000 may be reasonable if based on binding authority recognized.

Protestants seem more disunited on authority than on doctrine.


This is quite spot on and totally in line with the early church. It is actually an honest assessment that avoids the regular polemic that is not accurate, but sounds great in an argument.

The early church consisted of a myriad of independent churches run by independent elders and bishops. No bishop had jurisdiction in the affairs of another bishop in the churches planted during the Apostolic era.

There was definitely no monolithic set of doctrine and intruction constantly flowing out of Rome leading thousands of congregations. This just did not exist at all at the time.


No, it isn’t. Sure, there were temporary “local schisms” where things were muddy, but by and large the rule in the early Church was: one bishop, one city. Anything else was considered a crisis situation.

Furthermore, there were ways of speaking for the whole Church–look at the Quartodeciman controversy, where the Pope tried to “cut off” the churches of Asia Minor and Irenaeus wrote to him to admonish him not to do this. (Yes, I know that some think this was just about Asian congregations within Rome, but I find this a strained interpretation.) Clearly as early as the second century Christians were operating with a communion of churches spanning the Mediterranean and a pretty clear idea of who was “in” and who was “out.”



As nice as the prospect of Contarini and Atemi entering Theological Thunderdome is, I should note that I made no claims regarding the issue of authority in the early Church but merely noted that Protestants seem more separated from each other by authority rather than doctrine.

I do acknowledge, however, that Master Blaster rules Bartertown.


I had heard (and I could be wrong) that the 20-30,000 number was cited as the number of organizations classified as religious institutions under the US IRS tax code.

Now on one hand that number sounds maybe right when I look at all the small one-room churches that exist where I live. (You can’t throw a rock in the South without hitting a church.)

On the other hand, even in large organized denominations, each diocese and parish would have its own tax ID number as an incorporated entity.

So the number may be inflated (of course IRS numbers (if that is what they are) would only reflect the US and we’re only 5% of the world’s population so the world wide number could be much higher)

I’m with heisenburg on this one. “only” 9,000 is still a few too many


The 33000 comes from Barrett, et al World Christian Encyclopedia (2001 2nd edition). As pointed out in other threads on this topic, the source breaks it down this way:

Denominations / Paradenominations:

1970: 26,350
1995: 33,820

These are total “Christian” “denominations” including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant denominations, independent groups, and pseudo-Christian sects, cults, and “marginal” groups who claim to be in some sense “Christian.” Now we know 99% of these are Protestant. How do we know that? Well, if you claim to be “Christian” you are either (1) Catholic, (2) Orthodox, (3) Protestant.

Let’s deal with (1). Barrett claims there is one Roman Catholic Church for each country. In other words, the RCC of the United States is a totally different denom than the RCC of Canada, etc. That’s bogus, but we’ll give him this. So here Barrett counts “242 Roman Catholic denominations.” OK, subtract 242 from the total we get:

33820 - 224 = 33596.

That still leaves 33000+ Protestant and “Orthodox” denominations. Now subtract (2). Barrett counts “781 Orthodox denominations.” That leaves us Protestants only:

33596 - 781 = 32815

For a grand total of 32815 Protestant denominations, whether they call themselves “Anglican” or “independent Christian” really doesn’t matter. If you aren’t Catholic or Orthodox, you are Protestant. You round this number up, and you still have the dreaded 33000 figure. Sorry but just thought I’d defend the number again in light of White’s challenge on his blog. :thumbsup:

So yes, Steve Ray and Tim Staples and all those apologists using the dreaded 33000 number should repent of this lie if they want to be precise. They should actually use the number 32,815 Protestant denominations. Hey it’s a Protestant source published in an updated edition by Oxford University Press: World Christian Encyclopedia (2001 edition) by David B. Barrett, George Thomas Kurian, Todd M. Johnson. So we’re not talking a poll taken by Chick Publications or something. :stuck_out_tongue:

How Many Protestant Denoms are There?

Phil P


Interesting analysis, Phil—the only issue I can see is that the Protestant bucket is more of an Other Christian bucket, and Protestants will surely quibble with what makes a “real” Protestant denomination.


Indeed. Also, isn’t more than one denomination too much for any group if we’re to assume that Jesus intended one unified church organization? Be it Catholic, Orthodox, or anyone else.

Also, as has been pointed out repeatedly, here in the USA, anyone can get a tax # and call themselves a religious institution. So, frankly, I’d like to see a list of even, say 500 of these so-called Protestant denominations, so we can see if they really are denominations, or if they are Protestant. 500 is only around 1.5% of the total number…not too much to ask for, I think.

Finally, I think we need to establish what it is that qualifies as a different denomination. What beliefs must be the same to be the same denomination?


Which is precisely why there are 32,815 denominations.


That number is comical as it includes Jehovahs W’s, Mormons, Gnostics, Non-Trinitarian groups, many more that don’t hold to Sola Scriptura. The independent baptists groups alone probably number into the thousands even though the vast majority of doctrine is essentially the same.

Unfortunately, Anti-protestant’s dont seem to mind bending the truth to get to the 33,000 number. Not quite Christian is it? You may not like protestants, but perpetuating untruths should not be a trait you want to display to the world.

If you think your figure is accurate will you also accept FROM THE SAME SOURCE that the Roman Catholic Church has killed 4,951,000 martyrs?


It would help to know what the forte of the writer is to acertain how accurate they are on any subject. The fact is that, in the Protestant church(s), it depends on the pastor to determine what the doctrine of that particular church is. I used to think Protestant was Protestant (even when I was, nominally, one). I now know that that’s not the way it is. But whether it’s 3,000, 30,000, or 100 or 50 is not really what matters. What matters is that they all differ in some way from the Church that Jesus gave us.



That doesn’t make any sense. For those “denominations” that exist throughout the world, you need to divide the Barrett number by the number of countries in which the denomination exists. The fact that Barrett counts Catholic “denominations” this way should tell you that his numbers are worthless. It is inconsistent to assume that they are meaningful for Protestants but not for Catholics.

This whole argument is completely pointless until someone defines “denomination.” For the purpose of discussing Protestant disunity, a “denomination” must be defined as a group of Christians practicing full communion (not just Eucharistic, but more broadly some kind of accountability, exchange of ministries, etc.) within its bounds and having impaired communion of some kind (explicit doctrinal disagreement, inability to share sacraments and ministries, etc.) with those outside it. I do not think that the word “denomination” is the best for this purpose. And I think that the above criteria can be defined in so many ways that coming to some kind of worldwide number is almost impossible. But I’d be interested in seeing such an attempt. Taking Barrett’s numbers and subtracting the Catholic and Orthodox “denominations” does not qualify. Such a number has no meaning for Protestant-Catholic debate and dialogue.

I think that rather than slinging numbers around, a better question to put to Protestants is “with what Christians are you in union, and how?” Push that question far enough, and you will expose the serious problems with Protestant disunity much better than you can ever do simply by using numbers.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s fair to say that there are several hundred Protestant bodies/groups in the world not in full communion/agreement with each other. But that may be too low. I really don’t think the number matters. What matters is that if you push any Protestant definition of unity far enough, it collapses and does not allow for a Church that has concrete reality and in which one can truly believe, as the Creed requires us to do.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit