It’s not uncommon to hear complaints concerning the number of denominations within Christianity. “Christ wanted us to be united,” the conversation usually begins. “Denominations are evidence that we aren’t in unity. They aren’t God’s intention.”
But is this actually true? Are denominations a bad thing?
To understand denominations, we have to understand God’s intention for the Church as a whole. Every Christian is a member of the Church, whether or not they like the idea. The Church is not a building, but a worldwide body of believers united by a mutual faith in Christ. Paul described God’s intentions for believers in His letter to the church at Ephesus, saying:
Therefore you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens of the saints and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole building is fitted together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)
Our purpose as believers in Christ is to build on the foundation Christ laid: the good news of His salvation. Jesus gave this mission right before He ascended to heaven (Matthew 28:20). In Christ, the church is “fitted together.” As we individually walk in holiness, we corporately act as a temple of worship, pointing to the glory of God.
Denominations are the product of scriptural interpretation. Leaders like John Wesley, Martin Luther and John Calvin all found flaws in the Christian methodology of their time. Their interpretation of Scripture—typically concerning methods of worship, communion, baptism and personal habits—led to the division of churches into the subsects we see today.
But even with differences in general theology, there is one thing all Christian denominations should have in common: adherence to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any denomination that does not teach Christ as the only way to salvation (which Jesus Himself claimed to be—Matthew 11:27, John 5:23) is not a denomination, but a cult. A truly Christian denomination stands on the fact that Christ is who He said He was: the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).
Today we need look no further than our own cities to find Baptist, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches within a few miles of one another. Is this God’s intention? Here are a few thoughts to consider:
- Some denominations reach people that other denominations would not. The variety of denominations within the Church enable us to “go into the world and preach the gospel to all the nations” (Mark 16:15). The Baptists may reach a tribe that the Presbyterians did not have the means to approach. The Presbyterians may have a manner that better fits their neighborhood than the local Pentecostal church. The gospel proclaimed by a Baptist and the gospel shared by a Pentecostal are equally powerful because it is the gospel, not the messenger, that changes lives. God’s truth is not dependent upon us in order to work; we are just the vessels. As such, our denominational affiliation can be an excellent way to reach people that other denominations may not have reached, but we should take no pride in the denomination itself. God’s Spirit is doing the work.
- Great work has been done through Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian and many other denominational churches. Denominations change with time, and when a church council strays from God’s clear mandates (such as concerning marital fidelity, gender identity, respect of authority and Christ as the only way), we should stand up for the truth of Scripture. That said, even the denominations that have strayed in recent years were used by God in the past. Methodist churches were integral to the spread of the gospel in the United States. We should remember the good work that has been accomplished through denominations, not scorn the labor of our Christian predecessors.
- We must be united around the Gospel. Christians will never agree on all passages in Scripture until we stand face-to-face with God Himself. But the goal of the Christian walk isn’t to check off a list of dos and don’ts anyway—the goal is to walk each day in the light of God’s approval. This is done not by following rules, but by seeking God’s will for our lives and obeying His specific call.
Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)
The Church needs more workers. We should concern ourselves less with why Baptists don’t like tongues and why Pentecostals wave banners during worship, and more with uniting ourselves around the one thing we do have in common: the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The beautiful thing about our faith is the freedom we have to worship God—some may pray in tongues, some may sing with lifted hands, others may stick to hymns and the King James Version. Disagreement on issues of preference should not distract us from the directive of God: to be witnesses for His glory “even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).