Jesus calls for love and unity, yet His church has splintered into 1000’s of pieces. And each of these pieces has also shattered into more pieces.
From Catholicism we see many different orders. Orthodoxy has many geographical and cultural flavours. Anglicanism also talks about a unity yet shows diversity in many matters of faith. And other Protestant denominations continue to split faster than amoebae with various Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal etc. denominations dividing further.
Even with most modern Christians not understanding the similarities and deep differences between all these denominations, it raises the question, “Why so many?!”
A recent blog by New York Pastor, Tim Keller, highlighted the passion this topic raises. Keller gave his two cents worth, resulting in a tsunami of troll harsh online comments. From the comments given there seemed to be two positions.
Firstly, denominations are bad because Jesus wanted unity. Therefore, any divisions or denominations are against God’s will. As an example, the hatred between the Protestants and Roman Catholics over the years illuminates the ugly soul of cross-denominational fighting.
Secondly, denominations are good because diversity in the wider Church is healthy and useful. The Bible lists examples and letters to different churches with diverse styles. And if you visit different denominations today, you will see a diversity of worship styles, preaching styles, community involvement and theological positions that allow people to express their own personalities and personal positions towards God.
Let’s explore these polarized positions, searching for wisdom on the issue.
How did the one universal Church splinter into the 40,000 or so denominations we have today? The big groups are the Roman Catholic (approximately 40% in Australia), Anglican (25%), Presbyterian (4%), Baptist (3%), Pentecostal (3%), and Orthodox (3%) plus many other independent groups.
Reflections on differences of denominations:
Good. There have always been denominations. A survey of Paul’s letters to the various churches reveals the very different regional issues and personalities these churches had.
Paul seems to acknowledge the differences but calls for unity around the cross (i.e. Jesus’ atonement). The Book of Acts also highlights many differences and even endorses these while giving firm direction for unity of central aspects of the faith (e.g. the Council of Jerusalem).
A modern-day example: One Christian with autism described his difficulty understanding the Book of Revelation with all its rich imagery and symbolism. In the same way he preferred denominations that were more structured in their worship (e.g. formal Anglicanism) and systematic in their teaching (e.g. Reformed theology).
He struggled going to Pentecostal churches with their emphasis on feelings and emotions. This highlights that God made us different. Denominations allow for everyone’s diverse personality types.
Bad - Paul and Barnabas were two of the biggest figures in the early church. Both godly men were intensely focused on sharing the good news about Jesus. Yet even these Christian giants had “such a sharp dispute” that they parted ways taking their own followers (Acts Chapter 15 verse 36-41).
Similarly, each letter of Paul describes a dysfunctional church with infighting. For example, some had lavish Lord’s Supper feasts while others miss out. Even within a denomination people clash, so it is not just the “many denominations” issue that is the problem.
The problem is really the human heart, where evenly godly people can have their own strong personalities and different opinions on how to do Christ’s work. It reflects the human heart rather than the gospel concept of reconciliation.
As a result, we should not be surprised that there are so many denominations or endless splits in the church. It points to the Church’s need for a Saviour. It points to the reconciliation Jesus offers.
Case study: A desire for unity brought about foundational documents such as the Council of Nicaea. This aimed to join Christians together with a desire to protect Jesus’ identity and what He died for.
Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) brought denominations together to protect from alleged error in other denominations (the Roman Catholic church). The WCF even infers denominations are God ordained by defining the true Church (capital C) as God’s saved people across all denominations and nations.
This unity is formed by believing in the central truth of the saving power of the cross. As a subset of this universal united Church there are those that are part of a church (small c) yet are not “true” believers.
I was recently reading the Salvation Army’s denomination documents that clearly state their Ministers and workers should not say harsh words against other denominations. While acknowledging the differences it explains that critical hearts are a bigger problem, and these detract from the work of the gospel.
In contrast, the WCF describes the head of the Roman Catholic denomination, the Pope, as “the antichrist” identifying error as the bigger problem to the gospel. Is only one correct or are they both correct in context?
Denominations are both positive and negative. God ordained them for our benefit yet also grieves over the critical hearts of its members. Denominations can come from our pride, independency, and inability to get along. However, they can also come from seeking unity and protecting the gospel.
The application comes from realizing the complexity of unity in a fallen world. It means changing the question to, “How can we build unity?”
The thing that unites all denominations is the gospel – a central message of Jesus saving His people from their sin. Unity comes from keeping this in focus and submitting to this rather than fighting against others.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover1.html