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Monday, January 13, 2020


One attack on Christianity comes from its denominations. "There are Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and a vast number of divisions within each. Which one (if any) is true?" That's the complaint. It's a mistaken complaint.

Denominations are not new. They aren't a "Protestant" process. Paul addressed them in 1 Corinthians. "What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas,' or 'I follow Christ.'" (1 Cor 1:12). Divisions. And it only got worse from there. But he rightly asks, "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor 1:13). Obviously not. says that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations (including "non-denominational" denominations). (You may have heard a number like 33,000, but I think that's just Protestant denominations.) There are problems with this. First, these numbers separate out the same denomination in a different country. There are, for instance, African Methodists versus American Methodists. The same denomination is now two simply because of the country in which it is located. On the other hand, Roman Catholic churches practice different rites (using Roman Catholic -- one denomination -- as an example). They vary by location, but they're considered one denomination because they have one pope. If they were measured by the same standards as Protestant denominations, they'd be different denominations. Already the numbering has become a problem.

So what makes a "denomination"? Well, most think it's practice and belief. Often it's style of worship, style of services, locality, and language. It could be just a name or the way the church is organized. Sometimes it is differences in theology. However, if you define "Christian" (you know, as in "Christian denominations"), most of that either goes away or is largely irrelevant. Here, let me illustrate. We all know that there are "Calvinists" and "Arminians." Division, right? Yes. But what division? The "Arminians" came about when followers of Jacobus Arminius raised some questions regarding the central tenets from their textbooks that came largely from Calvin. To what did they object? Out of all the information in their textbooks, they had five points ... only five. To tell the truth, scholars think that Calvin himself would have likely agreed with the ruling of the Synod of Dordt that said they were wrong on those five objections, but you can't actually find the specific texts from Calvin that states the five things to which they objected. So, yes, there was a difference in theology, but 1) only on five of hundreds or even thousands of points and 2) not in anything essential to Christianity. That is, Arminians and Calvinists are still all Christians even though they differ on these few points. In the same way, there are variations and differences in small areas about theology or practice between various denominations, but not in essential Christianity. So the National Catholic Register disputes the "33,000 Protestant denominations" saying that number is vastly overblown. It includes things that aren't Christian, such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Universal Unitarians, and even "Arab radio/TV network" (19 denominations). If they aren't Christian, they aren't "Christian denominations."

The numbers, then, are wrong. Not 41,000 and not 33,000. Something far, far less. But the bottom line is the numbers are not my primary concern. My primary concern is the concept. We're talking about Christian denominations here, but we also use the term, "denominations," for money, for instance. You can get bills in denominations of ones or fives or tens or ... well, you get the idea. Let me ask you: which of these are not money? Obviously they are all money. The fact that they are different denominations does not change the fact that they are all the same essence -- money. The same is true for Christian denominations. There are variations in practice or preference, how services are performed or fine points of doctrine that differ, a whole range of differences. But if they are Christian, they are all the same essence. Put that another way. If they are all the same essence, then they are all Christian despite their denomination. And at this point "denomination" becomes essentially irrelevant (literally) and we can get to Jesus's prayer:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23)
We can arrive at Paul's claim:
There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)
It is nonsense to deny that there are differences in the Christian church. There are. But let's be clear. In the essence of what is "Christian," there is no difference or it is not "Christian." As such, "denomination" is not a problem and when we make it a problem we're failing to understand the situation. We're causing division where it need not be. Scripture says, "God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Cor 12:24-25). Scripture warns, "As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11). Let's not be "that guy." Is Christ divided? No. Let us not us be divided on matters that don't deserve it.


Craig said...

It definitely seems like most of the division between Christian denominations has been minor when compared to what they agreed on.

Now we’re just seeing denominations move away from Christianity.

Stan said...

Yes, but then they cease to be Christian denominations, don't they?

Marshal Art said...

This focus is generally an attempt to suggest a problem within Christendom, as if we can't agree on what essentially makes us all Christian, and thus, they can all be dismissed as being unreliable. But as you suggest, that would mean the cash in my pocket isn't all money. The non-believer who condescends to believers will use any means to disparage faith.

Stan said...

It is interesting that sometimes it comes from the Roman Catholics. "See? You guys don't know what you're doing." Not realizing, apparently, that they have the same thing.

Craig said...

That’s correct, they do cease to be Christian, yet so much is predicated on them still being considered Christian.