According to recent statistics, in the United States alone, there are 327,717 Protestant churches and 19,863 Catholic churches.¹ But despite the numerous individual congregations here and throughout the world, there’s really only one true church. Even though many have differences in doctrinal opinions or other characteristics, every church which is based on Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is a part of the true church.
Amazingly, there are thousands of different denominational and independent Christian churches who, for the most part, agree on the basic fundamentals of Christ, but who maintain their separate groups for relatively minor issues. They may not agree on all other matters of doctrine, interpretation, traditions, or the special emphasis placed on certain beliefs.
Regardless of how closely various churches may agree with each other doctrinally, there still will never be two churches exactly alike. This is largely due to the fact that no two people are alike in every detail. Churches are made up of people. Thus, the combined individual personalities in a congregation, creates a distinct “congregational personality.” Sometimes people mistake differences in church personality as differences in belief or doctrine.
A denomination is a cluster of separate congregations, which have unified together due to their agreement on certain issues, and perhaps due to their disagreement with the viewpoints of other churches or denominations.
According to Church Historian, Dr. Bruce E. Shelley, the original usage of the term “denomination” actually stood for unity, not division. It was used to describe cooperation with other churches without compromise of fundamental convictions.
“The idea goes back to a minority wing of the Puritan party in 17th century England. At the Westminster Assembly (1643) was a group of Independents akin to American Congregationalists. These men had come to the conclusion that the sinful condition of man, even Christian men, made the full and clear grasp of the truth of God an impossibility. Consequently, no single body of beliefs can ever fully represent God’s total demand upon the minds and hearts of believers, and no single body of Christians can claim to be the true church of God without considering other believers in other groups.”
“Thus, in the minds of these Puritans, the word denomination implied that a particular body of Christians (let us say, for example the Baptists) was only a portion of the total Christian church called — or denominated — by its particular name, Baptist.”
“The denominational idea of the church originally stood for an important biblical truth. The church is one. There is only one Saviour, only one Gospel, only one Spirit, so there can only be one church. Divisions, therefore must be within the one body, not from the body. Otherwise Christ would be divided and that is unthinkable (1 Cor. 1:12-13).”²
Some believe that the first trace of denominations emerged in the early church at Corinth over loyalty to different Christian leaders, as some believers had separated themselves as followers of Paul and others of Apollos (1 Cor. 3:1-6). Paul chided them for their unspiritual, childish behavior as they had allowed division, strife, and envy to rule their behavior. He reminded them that the Lord’s servants were only men, mere instruments of God, not the ones to whom credit was due for these persons conversions. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6). It is clear that Paul did not approve of divisions within the body of Christ. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).
Denominations were probably not Christ’s first choice for His church. We recall His prayer that His church would be one (John 17:20-21), and can imagine that He would have preferred for His church to remain fully unified for the cause of Christ. But denominations came to help serve the purpose of God in many important ways:
- They helped to divide and scatter the influence of the Gospel to a wider spectrum of people.
- They helped to filter out the spread of harmful heresies and false doctrines.
- They have unified significant portions of the body of Christ, integrating those congregations of similar views. Even though a denomination may not have an organizational affiliation with all other churches, this does not have to represent disunity any more than a local church who seeks to befriend and support its neighboring congregations. Wise denominational leaders have used their influence to help their flock see the larger family picture of Christianity.
Thank God there will be no denominational divisions in Heaven, only those who have agreed upon their faith in the precious atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
– Source: From the book, “What People Ask About The Church,” by Dale A. Robbins. Posted by permission
This article is copyrighted © by Dale A. Robbins, 1995, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA 95949.