“If the Bible is true, why are there so many denominations?” What Christian has not fielded this question? Yet there is an unspoken assumption behind this objection, namely, that having one denomination is somehow a good thing. I suggest that the opposite is true. Bigger is not always better.
“But didn’t the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, teach that there should be just one denomination? Wouldn’t the church be more effective if we had one central voice?”
When the churches were one
Before we explore these valid concerns, let me prime your mind by asking a few questions of my own. When most of Christendom was part of one denomination, how ideal were things? Before 1054 AD (when the Eastern Orthodox Church split from the old Western Catholic Church), the overwhelming majority of Christendom considered itself Catholic and somewhat loyal to Rome. Both forms of Christianity had wandered far from the simplicity of Scripture centuries before the split. Were Christian laymen mighty in the Scriptures? Was the gospel of salvation by grace through faith spreading throughout the world?
No, on the contrary. The pre-Reformation Roman church (before 1517) propagated a gospel of incremental salvation by sacraments, and many acts of worship (like prayer) were directed toward Mary rather than God. Devout men were concerned about freeing deceased loved ones from a non-existent place (purgatory) by purchasing indulgences from the church.
Considering the above, do we really want all local churches bound in a single organization and thus risk similar or new departures from Scripture? Lord Acton said it well: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Objection one: Jesus’ prayer for unity
But what about the objections? Let’s start with the first question: Does Jesus want all churches to form one denomination? In His prayer in John 17:11, Jesus prayed to the Father for His followers, “that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Although many Christians interpret this prayer as a mandate for us to unite denominations, most have never considered an alternate understanding: that this prayer has been answered, beginning with Pentecost.
Paul writes: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (I Cor. 12:13, NIV). We do not need to pray to be one—all truly born-again believers already are one in Christ. We call this collection of all true believers “the invisible church.” Our concern is how to express this unity of the invisible church in a visible manner.
It is fair to say that the Scriptures emphasize unity within a particular congregation (Eph. 4:3), and cooperation among churches true to the Apostles’ teaching is assumed (Acts 15). After the death of the Apostles, we now evaluate churches on the basis of the doctrinal rubric the Apostles left us, the New Testament (Acts 2:42, Eph. 2:20, 2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is why God gave us the Scriptures. The church did not produce the Scriptures, but merely recognized God’s inspired Word.
Our cooperation should be based upon a common reception of God’s truth (2 John 1:9-11). Truth can be divisive, separating light from darkness. However, our perception of truth is fallible, one of several reasons for denominational differences.
In Revelation 1, we see Jesus portrayed as walking among the churches. Note that the churches are portrayed as seven individual lampstands. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle menorah was a single lampstand with seven arms. Not so in Revelation, where every church is pictured as free standing under the headship of Christ. Additionally, Jesus threatens to extinguish the lamps only from those churches compromising His Word (Rev. 2 and 3).
This poses an interesting question: are the brightly burning lampstand churches to seek fellowship with the extinguished lampstand churches, assuming we could identify them?
When we contrast Bible-believing churches with those without confidence in the Scriptures (or with those which do not make a serious attempt to conform to Scripture), we may indeed be dealing with “extinguished lamp stands.” There might be a lot of heat, but not much biblical light. We may differ in defining where the line is, but those far over the line are evident.
In the early centuries, churches were loosely organized and leadership was self-perpetuating (2 Tim. 2:2). As the second and third centuries came along, historians note a variety of “Christianities” surfacing. Some were heretical cults, like the followers of Marcion, or the evolving gnostic groups. Some groups denied the divinity or humanity of Christ.
One early “denomination” was, in a few respects, a bit similar to some modern charismatic holiness groups. The Montanists were convinced that Christ was going to return during their lifetime: their many prophetic utterances assured them such was the case. The great theologian, Tertullian (who lived 155-230 A.D. and coined the term “Trinity”), left the group that would later evolve into the Roman Catholic Church. He joined the Montanists.
Please note that even the early church did not have the type of unity that would satisfy modern ecumenists, and they excluded those in serious doctrinal error. It was only when church authority was set above the Scriptures (and with the force of the state behind it) that it attained a strong organizational unity. I would suggest that a “one church” approach advocates sola ecclesia rather than a sola scriptura form of final authority in which the church—not the Bible—is the final word. As long as the Bible is the final word, we cannot have organizational unity, only the spiritual unity Christ prayed for, the unity we have always had since Pentecost.
Objection two: a more effective voice
Let’s move on to our second question: Wouldn’t the church be more effective if we had one central voice? Although there might be some benefits to a central voice, consider the advantages of decentralized Christianity.
Over the last hundred years or so, many denominations have turned away from belief in an inerrant Bible. Nonetheless, belief in scriptural authority (and the true gospel) was propagated within the denominations and independent churches that remained loyal to the Word of God. As it now stands, if one denomination abandons biblical faith, other groups will raise up the banner of truth.
Because we do not have one central voice, individual churches and groups can nurture creativity and specialization. Certain denominations emphasize foreign missions while others emphasize local outreach; some focus upon developing leaders, ministering to the hurting, or helping the poor. Others have more of a varied focus.
Another benefit exists that may sound odd at first: competition. The church needs to compete with itself to sharpen itself. Lack of competition among groups has the same result as lack of competition in the business world. Brotherly competition, coupled with ethics, can promote creativity, innovation, and motivation.
Unfortunately, there is a negative side to having many distinct churches: the situation can, and has, nurtured a consumer attitude among Christians. Instead of competing to reach lost people—or even help Christians mature in their faith, much competition is about people-pleasing (not God-pleasing). When Christians are habitually seeking greener pastures, relationships remain shallow. Churches (and friendships) become expendable. My “needs” and my family’s “needs” become more important than doctrine, relationships, and the stability of specific churches—not good. Thom Rainer points out that unchurched people who later become solid Christians were drawn to churches that espoused convictions. But Christians who transfer from one church to another are usually driven by something other than doctrine and conviction (often music).
Despite the pros and cons of having a variety of fellowship groups, we must underscore the practical implications of being one “in Christ.” Although we participate in differing denominations or consider ourselves “non-denominational,” individual Bible-believing churches and groups should openly demonstrate their common faith in the gospel by occasional joint ventures that advance the Kingdom of God. If we share the fundamentals of the faith, we view one another as serving in the same spiritual army. We might disagree on secondary issues, but we can—and many of us do—work together for the common good.
A word of caution
It is one thing to participate in denominational life, but quite another to embrace an arrogant denominationalism that isolates itself from other Bible-believing Christians.
Isolation is never good: it can produce a cult-like atmosphere. We get to thinking that we are the only true church—not a good attitude. We do not exist to build up our denomination or particular fellowship. We may think our particular church is the best around, but we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Although the church I pastor is not part of any denomination or affiliation, we recognize that God has blessed and used many denominational churches despite the fact that other denominations have forsaken the true faith. Let’s celebrate our oneness in Christ by maintaining the health of our churches and nurturing the pursuit of biblical truth where we live and serve.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (in 1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed later felt a call to ministry and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (B.A., Pastoral Studies/Greek). After graduating, he served as pastor of Victory Bible Church of Chicago (a branch work of Cicero Bible Church) and married Marylu Troppito. In 1983, the couple moved to Kokomo where Ed began pastoring Highland Park Church, where he still serves. Ed and Marylu have two adult children, Hannah and Luke. Ed loves to write. He has written over 500 weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and populated his church’s website with an endless barrage of papers. You can access them at www.highlandpc.com.