Category: “Why are there so many Christian denominations?”

Which church – that is, which denomination of Christianity – is the “true church”? Which church is the one that God loves and cherishes and died for? Which church is His bride? The answer is that no visible church or denomination is the true church, because the bride of Christ is not an institution, but is instead a spiritual entity made up of those who have by grace, through faith been brought into a close, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those people, no matter which building, denomination, or country they happen to be in, constitute the true church.

In the Bible, we see that the local (or visible) church is nothing more than a gathering of professing believers. In Paul’s letters, the word “church” is used in two different ways. There are many examples of the word “church” being used to simply refer to a group of professing believers who meet together on a regular basis (1Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 8:1, 11:28). We see Paul’s concern, in his letters, for the individual churches in various cities along his missionary journey. But he also refers to a church that is invisible—a spiritual entity that has close fellowship with Christ, as close as a bride to her husband (Ephesians 5:25, 32), and of which He is the spiritual head (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 3:21). This church is made up of an unnamed, unspecified group of individuals (Philippians 3:6; 1Timothy 3:5) that have Christ in common.

The word “church”, comes from the Greek word ekklesia meaning “a calling out.” The word describes a group of people who have been called out of the world and set apart for the Lord, and it is always used, in its singular form, to describe a universal group of people who know Christ. The word ekklesia, when pluralized, is used to describe groups of believers who meet together. Interestingly enough, the word “church” is never used in the Bible to describe a building or organization.

It is easy to get ensnared by the idea that a particular denomination within Christianity is “the true church,” but this view is a misunderstanding of Scripture. When choosing a church to attend, it is important to remember that a gathering of believers should be a place where those who belong to the true church (the spiritual entity) feel at home. That is to say, a good local church will uphold the Word of God, honoring it and preaching faithfully, the gospel will be proclaimed steadfastly, and the sheep will be fed and tended and cared for by godly leaders. A church that teaches heresy or engages in sin will eventually be very low on (or entirely bereft of) those people that belong to the true church—the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him (John 10:27).

Members of the true church always enjoy agreement in and fellowship around Jesus Christ, as He is plainly revealed in His Word. This is what is referred to as Christian unity. Another common mistake is to believe that Christian unity is just a matter of agreeing with one another. Rather than speaking the truth in love and spurring one another on to unity in Christ, this encourages believers to refrain from speaking difficult truths. It sacrifices true understanding of God in favor of a false unity based on disingenuous love that is nothing more than selfish tolerance of sin in oneself and others.

The true church is the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2, 9, 22:17) and the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 12:27). It cannot be contained, walled in, or defined by anything other than its love for Christ and its dedication to Him. The true church is, as C.S. Lewis put it, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”

The imagery and symbolism of marriage is applied to Christ and the body of believers known as the church. These are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their personal savior and have received eternal life. In the New Testament, Christ, the Bridegroom, has sacrificially and lovingly chosen the church to be His bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). Just as there was a betrothal period in biblical times during which the bride and groom were separated until the wedding, so is the bride of Christ separate from her Bridegroom during the church age. Her responsibility during the betrothal period is to be faithful to Him (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:24). At the Second Coming of Christ, the church will be united with the Bridegroom, the official “wedding ceremony” will take place and, with it, the eternal union of Christ and His bride will be actualized (Revelation 19:7-9; 21:1-2).

At that time, all believers will inhabit the heavenly city known as New Jerusalem, also called “the holy city” in Revelation 21:2 and 10. The New Jerusalem is not the church, but it takes on the church’s characteristics. In his vision of the end of the age, the Apostle John sees the city coming down from heaven adorned “as a bride,” meaning that the inhabitants of the city, the redeemed of the Lord, will be holy and pure, wearing white garments of holiness and righteousness. Some have misinterpreted verse 9 to mean the holy city is the bride of Christ, but that cannot be because Christ died for His people, not for a city. The city is called the bride because it encompasses all who are the bride, just as all the students of a school are sometimes called “the school.”

As believers in Jesus Christ, we who are the bride of Christ wait with great anticipation for the day when we will be united with our Bridegroom. Until then, we remain faithful to Him and say with all the redeemed of the Lord, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

Ekklesia (and its alternate spelling ecclesia) is a Greek word meaning “a called-out assembly or congregation.” Ekklesia is commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament. For example, Acts 11:26 says that “Barnabas and Saul met with the church [ekklesia]” in Antioch. And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says that he had “persecuted the church [ekklesia] of God.” The “called-out assembly,” then, is a congregation of believers whom God has called out of the world and “into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). The Greek ekklesia is the basis for our English words ecclesiastical (“pertaining to the church”) and ecclesiology (“the study of doctrine concerning the church”).

The word in the New Testament was also used to refer to any assembly of people. In his address to the Sanhedrin, Stephen calls the people of Israel “the assembly [ekklesia] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). And in Acts 19:39, ekklesia refers to a convening of citizens to discuss legal matters. However, in most contexts, the word ekklesia is used to refer to the people who comprise the New Testament church.

It is important that the church today sees itself as being “called out” by God. If the church wants to make a difference in the world, it must be different from the world. Salt is different from the food it flavors. God has called the church to be separate from sin (1 Peter 1:16), to embrace fellowship with other believers (Acts 2:42), and to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14). God has graciously called us unto Himself: “‘Come out from them and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:17).

In order to argue against Protestantism and Sola Scriptura, Roman Catholics will often ask, sarcastically, that if we are to only go by what the Bible says, not church tradition, which of the 30,000-plus Protestant denominations has the correct interpretation? The argument is essentially that, since the Reformation has resulted in thousands of denominations/divisions within Christianity, which is clearly not God’s desire, Sola Scriptura must be invalid and God must have established an infallible interpreter of Scripture; namely, the Roman Catholic Church, the first church, the one true church of God.

The “30,000 Protestant denominations” argument fails on several points. First, there are not 30,000 Protestant denominations. Even under the most liberal definition of what constitutes a denomination, there are nowhere close to 30,000 Protestant denominations. The only way to get even remotely close to the 30,000 figure is to count every minor separation as an entirely different denomination. Further, the vast majority of Protestant Christians belong to just a handful of the most common Protestant denominations; i.e., Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. Yes, it is undeniably sad that there are so many denominations, but the 30,000 Protestant denominations argument is an extreme exaggeration of the reality of the divisions within Protestantism.

Second, even if there genuinely were 30,000 Protestant denominations, one thing all Protestant denominations agree on is that the Roman Catholic Church is not the one true church of God. Protestant denominations are unanimous in rejecting the papacy, the supremacy of Rome, prayer to saints/Mary, worship of saints/Mary, transubstantiation, purgatory, and most other Roman Catholic dogmas. Sola Scriptura has led all Protestant denominations to the same conclusion – the Bible does not teach many of the things Roman Catholics practice/believe. Further, outside of disagreeing with Roman Catholicism, the Protestant denominations agree on far more issues than they disagree on. Most of the Protestant denominations were formed because of a non-essential doctrine, a side issue, on which Christians can agree to disagree. As an example, Pentecostalism separated from the other denominations based primarily on the issue of speaking in tongues. While tongues can be an important issue in the Christian life, in no sense does it determine the genuineness of faith in Christ.

Third, there is no infallible interpreter of Scripture, nor is there a need for one. There is no infallible denomination or church. Even after receiving Christ as Savior, we are all still tainted by sin. We all make mistakes. No denomination/church has absolutely perfect doctrine on every issue. The key is this – all the essentials of the faith are abundantly clear in God’s Word. We do not need an infallible interpreter or 2,000 years of church tradition to determine that there is one God who exists in three Persons, that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead, that Jesus is the one and only way of salvation, that salvation is received by grace through faith, that there is an eternal heaven awaiting those who trust in Christ and an eternal hell for those who reject Him.

The core truths that a person needs to know and understand are absolutely and abundantly clear in Scripture. Even on the non-essentials, if Sola Scriptura were consistently applied, there would be unanimity. The problem is that it is very difficult to perfectly and fully apply Sola Scriptura, as our own biases, faults, preferences, and traditions often get in the way. The fact that there are many different denominations is not an argument against Sola Scriptura. Rather, it is evidence that we all fail at truly allowing God’s Word to fully shape our beliefs, practices, and traditions.

To answer this question, we must first differentiate between  denominations within the body of Christ and non-Christian cults and false  religions. Presbyterians and Lutherans are examples of Christian denominations.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are examples of cults (groups claiming to be  Christian but denying one or more of the essentials of the Christian faith).  Islam and Buddhism are entirely separate religions.

The rise of  denominations within the Christian faith can be traced back to the Protestant  Reformation, the movement to “reform” the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th  century, out of which four major divisions or traditions of Protestantism would  emerge: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican. From these four, other  denominations grew over the centuries.

The Lutheran denomination was  named after Martin Luther and was based on his teachings. The Methodists got  their name because their founder, John Wesley, was famous for coming up with  “methods” for spiritual growth. Presbyterians are named for their view on church  leadership—the Greek word for elder is presbyteros. Baptists got their name  because they have always emphasized the importance of baptism. Each denomination  has a slightly different doctrine or emphasis from the others, such as the  method of baptism; the availability of the Lord’s Supper to all or just to those  whose testimonies can be verified by church leaders; the sovereignty of God vs.  free will in the matter of salvation; the future of Israel and the church;  pre-tribulation vs. post-tribulation rapture; the existence of the “sign” gifts  in the modern era, and so on. The point of these divisions is never Christ as  Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit  flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to  their consciences and their understanding of His Word.

Denominations  today are many and varied. The original “mainline” denominations mentioned above  have spawned numerous offshoots such as Assemblies of God, Christian and  Missionary Alliance, Nazarenes, Evangelical Free, independent Bible churches,  and others. Some denominations emphasize slight doctrinal differences, but more  often they simply offer different styles of worship to fit the differing tastes  and preferences of Christians. But make no mistake: as believers, we must be of  one mind on the essentials of the faith, but beyond that there is great deal of  latitude in how Christians should worship in a corporate setting. This latitude  is what causes so many different “flavors” of Christianity. A Presbyterian  church in Uganda will have a style of worship much different from a Presbyterian  church in Colorado, but their doctrinal stand will be, for the most part, the  same. Diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not. If two churches disagree  doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of  “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs  27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it  is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the  responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John  4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John  17:21-22).

The Downside of Christian  Denominations:

There seems to be at least two major problems  with denominationalism. First, nowhere in Scripture is there a mandate for  denominationalism; to the contrary the mandate is for union and connectivity.  Thus, the second problem is that history tells us that denominationalism is the  result of, or caused by, conflict and confrontation which leads to division and  separation. Jesus told us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This  general principle can and should be applied to the church. We find an example of  this in the Corinthian church which was struggling with issues of division and  separation. There were those who thought that they should follow Paul and those  who thought they should follow the teaching of Apollos, 1 Corinthians 1:12,  “What I am saying is this: each of you says, “I’m with Paul,” or “I’m with  Apollos,” or “I’m with Cephas,” or “I’m with Christ.” This alone should tell you  what Paul thought of denominations or anything else that separates and divides  the body. But let’s look further; in verse 13, Paul asks very pointed questions,  “Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized  in Paul’s name?” This makes clear how Paul feels, he (Paul) is not the Christ,  he is not the one crucified and his message has never been one that divides the  church or would lead someone to worship Paul instead of Christ. Obviously,  according to Paul, there is only one church and one body of believers and  anything that is different weakens and destroys the church (see verse  17). He  makes this point stronger in 3:4 by saying that anyone who says they are of Paul  or of Apollos is carnal.

Some of the problems we are faced with today as  we look at denominationalism and its more recent history:

1.  Denominations are based on disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture.  An example would be the meaning and purpose of baptism. Is baptism a requirement  for salvation or is it symbolic of the salvation process? There are  denominations on both sides of this issue and have used the issue to separate  and form  denominations.

2. Disagreements over the interpretation of  Scripture are taken personally and become points of contention. This leads to  arguments which can and have done much to destroy the witness of church.

3. The church should be able to resolves its differences inside the body, but  once again history tells us that this doesn’t happen. Today the media uses our  differences against us to demonstrate that we are not unified in thought or  purpose.

4. Denominations are used by man out of self-interest. There  are denominations today that are in a state of self-destruction as they are  being led into apostasy by those who are promoting their personal  agendas.

5. The value of unity is found in the ability to pool our gifts  and resources to promote the Kingdom to a lost world. This runs contrary to  divisions caused by denominationalism.

What is a believer to do? Should  we ignore denominations, should we just not go to church and worship on our own  at home? The answer to both questions is no. What we should be seeking is a body  of believers where the Gospel of Christ is preached, where you as an individual  can have a personal relationship with the Lord, where you can join in Biblical  ministries that are spreading the Gospel and glorifying God. Church is important  and all believers need to belong to a body that fits the above criteria. We need  relationships that can only be found in the body of believers, we need the  support that only the church can offer, and we need to serve God in community as  well as individually. Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ,  how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is  preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His  church is all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers,  there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is  latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only  good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first  allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.