Burning Question: Why are there different denominations of churches that believe in Jesus Christ? Why so many separate churches, all doing their own thing?
Ahh, the question about denominations! I once worked in a bookstore a long time ago and remember the time that someone came to the check-out and needed change. When the check-out lady asked, “What denomination?” . . . well, you get the picture. Needless to say, it was pretty funny!
So, what really is going on with all the different denominations? Are they a bad thing or a good thing? The question behind the question is: “Why can’t churches just have unity the way the Bible speaks of?”
The Bible definitely tells us that we are to have unity as believers (Ephesians 4:11-13). Jesus spoke of how believers of different backgrounds are called to become “one flock” with “one shepherd” (John 10:16). We could list a page full of references where the goal is one of unity within the world of believers. However, we can also find instances of disagreement that led to division in Scripture, even related to one of the heroes of the New Testament . . . you can check it out here.
Actually, for roughly the first 1000 years of church history, there was outward unity for the most part. This doesn’t mean that separation didn’t occur at all, but as Wayne Grudem points out, “. . . the prevailing sentiment was one of strong opposition to division in the body of Christ.” Since that time, when separations have occurred and new denominations have begun, they have often done so for a variety of reasons. Really since the Reformation in the 1500s has the denominational explosion really taken place. Sometimes because of doctrinal disagreements over minor points of doctrine, sometimes over major convictions dealing with major points of doctrine. Sometimes the separations have taken place because of anything BUT doctrine.
Maybe it can be helpful to think of it in terms of concentric circles: The first circle involves our different convictions regarding Scripture that, even though we disagree, do not prevent us from joyfully worshiping together. For example, the fact that you believe Paul’s thorn in the flesh referenced his poor eyesight but that I believe it referenced a specific temptation (for the sake of argument!) should not cause us to find separate churches in which to worship . . . we should pretty much be able to work through this one.
The second circle extends a bit further and involves our different convictions regarding Scripture that may cause us to worship in separate places of worship but should not prohibit our fellowship as brothers or sisters in the same body of Christ. Some examples here could be the issue of speaking in tongues or other “convictions” that have little to do with salvation. Where the main components of the Gospel are agreed upon and adhered to, believers should be able to fellowship together. However, it may be challenging for someone who believes speaking in tongues has ceased, to worship each week with one who holds firmly to the conviction that speaking in tongues is alive and well and has no problem acting on that belief. It is at this point that Joshua Harris makes an interesting point in his book, Stop Dating the Church when he says, “So you don’t have to think of denominational differences as the enemy of unity, but as something that makes true unity more achievable. We agree to agree on things of first importance; we agree to respect disagreements on things of lesser importance.”
The third circle would involve differing convictions on major details of doctrine that would prohibit even worshiping or experiencing Christian fellowship together at all. Some denominations hold to completely differing views of salvation altogether. Basic Catholic doctrine, for example, would be drastically different from classic, biblical Christian doctrine, in its understanding of grace and salvation (which led to Martin Luther’s issues at the start of the Reformation in the first place). This is not to say that there are not Catholics who are believers, but that the belief system as a whole within Catholic theology will be vastly different from orthodox biblical theology in a number of major areas of key doctrine. So as an example, there should be no reason to get mean and nasty with one another, but to be able to worship together and fellowship together in a way that is centered upon the Gospel when these differences occur is difficult, to say the least.
So are denominations bad? Well, it would be best if we could all be together under one roof in our worship of Christ as Lord and King. But rather than be sidetracked and distracted by differing beliefs and practices on peripheral areas of doctrine (tongues, baptism, church government, etc.), perhaps denominations can be a benefit. That is, as long as we keep the main thing the main thing: That Jesus Christ came to give His life as a sacrifice and substitute for sinners. And that all who turn to Him in repentance and faith will be forgiven and made right with God . . . forever.
Regardless of our denominational tag, may we be found always hot in our passion for Christ and always relentless in sharing with the world the message that has changed our lives for eternity!