Understanding Protestant Christianity

Christianity, including the Roman Catholic and the Protestant traditions, is the world’s largest religion with nearly 2.4 billion followers around the world. Encompassing approximately one billion believers, or the equivalent of over forty percent of Christianity, Protestant Christianity is a form of faith and practice within Christianity.

The Origins of Christianity

The history of Christianity draws its roots in Judaism. From the account of creation to the faith of Abraham to the Law of Moses and the kingdom of David, Christianity draws from the teaching and ethics of Judaism and the God of the Bible.

Judaism is monotheistic and sees its followers as a people with a covenant relationship with their God. If the Jewish believers were faithful to the covenant, God promised material and spiritual blessings, including a Messiah who would restore the prominence Israel enjoyed during the reign of King David.

Christianity developed around the life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The name “Christ” is a title, rather than a family name, and is from the Greek word meaning “Messiah.” Jesus was born in 4 BCE in Bethlehem to descendants of David. Most place his crucifixion and death at 30 CE.

Persecuted by Rome and others, the early roots of Christianity saw little structured organization. Each group of believers, called churches, were governed independently. In 313, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, issued the Edict of Milan, decriminalizing Christian worship. The emperor became a great patron of the church and soon the organization and structure of its leadership was centered in Rome, mirrored the government of the Empire, and became known as the Roman Catholic Church.

Through the centuries, many criticized the Roman Catholic Church for becoming too political and attempted to initiate reform and change. It wasn’t until the early 1500’s that a group of men who became known as Protestant Reformers decided that division was inevitable. Seen by many as the catalyst, Martin Luther made his complaints known to the church officials in 1517 by posting them on the church door. Excommunicated for their radical ideas, these leaders and their followers became known as Protestants, protesting the teachings of the Catholic Church, and formed their own churches.

Beliefs & Denominations

The Protestant movement is more diverse theologically and organizationally than Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, with over 41,000 different Christian denominations world-wide. The Baptist denomination may comprise the largest of the Protestant groups with over 100 million members, but there are over 400 separate denominations dividing them.

From the outset, the groups differed on key concepts of theology, including predestination, how much God controls the daily decisions of men, and communion, a ritual remembering the death of Jesus. Though all Protestant denominations draw their teachings from the Bible, each began to embrace their own interpretation of the Scripture, their own rituals for worship, and their own standards for faithful living.

Death & Mourning

Christians believe that death is the separation of the spirit or soul, which is eternal, from the physical body, often referred to in a symbolic way as “dust.”

The Christian funeral service focuses on the entry of the deceased into heaven and the compassion of God in providing comfort to the grieving. A strong belief in the afterlife provides not only optimism but an assurance that the deceased has taken up residence elsewhere. Christians often speak of an analogy of the body being a tent and the heavenly residence a mansion.

The funeral service is customary within most forms of Christianity. A time of visitation, sometimes called a wake, is held before the funeral service to allow friends and family to gather to comfort the close family members and to remember and give thanks for the life of the departed. Most visitations are held in a funeral home, with some taking place at a church or chapel. Depending on the needs and circumstances of the family, the setting of a private home or public assembly room would be appropriate. Funeral services normally take place within one week of the death.

After Life

Protestant Christianity shares a belief in life after death for everyone. Those who have made peace with God through acceptance and adherence to the teachings of Jesus will live forever in Heaven; those who do not will spend eternity banished from God in a place of punishment. Protestant Christians find comfort in the midst of grieving the loss of a loved one in the idea that the loved one is immediately reunited with other family and friends who were faithful.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

Certain rituals provided by the church, often called sacraments, honor the most significant events of life. The final sacrament, The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, also includes what is traditionally called the “Last Rites,” and is performed when the person is in grave danger of dying. The sacraments are administered by the professional clergy.

The funeral service is a time to honor the life of the believer and to comfort and encourage the bereaved. Rituals and traditions will vary with each denomination, but traditionally will include prayers and Scripture readings, music, eulogies, and a message of hope delivered by a member of the clergy.

As a rule, the closer the denomination formed to the original break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 the more the traditions and customs tend to be dictated by formality and ritual. In these denominations, the professional clergy play a larger role in the funeral services. Less formal settings encourage family and friends to take part in the service, giving eulogies, reading Scripture, or providing music.

Some denominations use the funeral service as an occasion to evangelize, to share their message of how people can get right with God with those who have not yet done so. Psychiatrists have found that at a time of death surviving family and friends are likely to contemplate their own purpose in life, the brevity of life, and the possibility of life after death. Most Protestant Christians would hold that a decision to reconcile with God must take place before death, thus an evangelistic funeral message allows a blending of urgency with a time of receptiveness to the message.

Grief & Mourning

Christianity in general teaches that it is natural and appropriate to grieve the loss of family members and friends at the time of their death. Grieving is a very personal thing, for no two deaths are exactly alike and no two people cope with loss the same way. Christians are encouraged to express their grief and to comfort each other during the time of loss.

While it is difficult to see during times of stress and loss, Christianity tends to view all events of life, including suffering and death, as having a purpose ordained by God. As such, death is not seen as a total tragedy but as a part of the cycle of life that can be used by God. The period of mourning, with no set amount of time requirement, is meant to show honor and respect for the departed and to prepare the bereaved for the days that will follow.