Why Are Christians Divided by Denominations?
by Paul Copan
“Nobody loves me,” said the woman.
“God loves you,” he replied. “Do you believe in God?”
He then asked her, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
“A Christian,” she replied.
He said, “Me, too! Small world! Protestant or Catholic?”
“Me, too! What denomination?”
“Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He remarked, “Well, me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
She answered, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
He said, “Well, that’s amazing! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?”
“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.”
“Remarkable! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?”
She told him, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
“A miracle!” he cried. “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
She said, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”
He then shouted, “Die, heretic!” and pushed her over the rail.1
While humorous, this joke can make us feel a bit uneasy because of how territorial some Christians have been — and continue to be. Jesus prayed to His Father that His followers “may be one as we are one” (John 17:11,22).
Yet Christians seem anything but unified. After all, what about all those denominations? Actually, a kind of denominationalism was at work in the first century. There were the Apollos, Paul, Cephas, and Jesus “denominations” — more accurately, “quarrels” — springing up in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10–17), and it was the result of unspiritual pride.
Are denominations and church fellowships in themselves — Assemblies of God, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and the like — shameful and sinful? Are they a mark of disunity? Do they diminish the Church’s witness? How should we think about denominations? Let’s explore some answers to these questions.2
1. Not all who declare themselves Christians are true or consistent followers of Christ. A “nominal Christian” carries the Christian label but has not experienced a rebirth in Christ. And a lot of nominal Christians have done much damage to the cause of Christ in the world. Jesus himself said, “By their fruit you will recognize them … ” and, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:16,21).
This means there are Christian Baptists, Christian Methodists, and Christian Pentecostals, and there are non-Christian Baptists, non-Christian Methodists, and non-Christian Pentecostals. And even true Christians — those having God’s Spirit (“spiritual”) — may not be living consistently with their calling because they are acting as “natural” (Spirit-less) persons (1 Corinthians 2:10–15; 3:1–3).
2. Hypocrisy doesn’t nullify the truth of the Christian faith. Hypocritical churchgoers may turn off people to fake Christian faith, but this isn’t an argument against the historical truth of Jesus’ existence or His bodily resurrection from the dead. In fact, every worldview or philosophy of life has its hypocrites. That doesn’t mean we should believe nothing at all. The hypocrisy argument is beside the point. Yet so many people resort to this line of reasoning.
3. Denominations remind us of a common denominator — a “mere Christianity” that all true Christian groups share. Consider the realm of mathematical fractions (as opposed to “factions”). For instance, 3/16, 5/16, and 13/16 all have a common denominator. “Denomination” suggests unity rather than disunity, and true Christians can have commonality without compromising the fundamentals of the faith. Think of the Apostles’ Creed, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity,3 or N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian.4 These familiar works remind us of the basic beliefs that all genuine Christians share — despite secondary differences.
4. Denominations don’t necessarily involve disunity, nor does doctrinal uniformity equal unity. Christians can show love in spite of secondary differences. The problem Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 1 was not differences, but “quarrels” (verse 11). The problem there was not really minor doctrinal differences, as we’ve seen, but prideful attitudes. In fact, love covers a multitude of secondary doctrinal differences. As the Lutheran theologian Rupertus Mendelius summarizes, “In essential matters unity; in non-essential matters liberty; in all things charity.”
5. It is believers’ union with the triune God through Christ, not the affiliation with a certain denomination, that links them with “the communion of saints” — living and dead. Christian unity isn’t found in denominations. It isn’t the product of apostolic succession of authority through popes or bishops. The Church’s unity is rooted in the unity of the triune God. Unity is a gift from God, as well as a human response to God’s calling on us. We are to be diligent to preserve “the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) and to make visible the invisible unity of believers in God.
As one author observed, “Since God has created one church of Christ on earth, let Christians live up to that fact in empirical life.”5
We display this unity by loving one another (John 13:35) — in spite of minor doctrinal differences. Indeed, Paul himself rejoiced that the true gospel was proclaimed, even if by people with wrong motives (Philippians 1:15–18). The union of believers, one theologian wrote, is inward and spiritual, not outward or denominational.6
6. Denominations serve as a call to humble ourselves and learn from Christians of other denominations, other cultures, and earlier times. C.S. Lewis said that denominations and local churches are “the only way of flying your flag.”7
Lewis didn’t mean denominations should be a point of spiritual pride, but rather that they show their identification with Christ’s Church by being part of a local body — or even a denomination. God’s kingdom is connected to people. Indeed, believers in Christ are a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) and “a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (Revelation 5:10).
So while theologians refer to the universal or invisible Church, we must remember that God works through local churches — particular manifestations of the body of Christ in specific geographical locations — across Church history.
That said, churches in the present at this or that place can benefit from Christians elsewhere, from different denominations, and from previous eras. With a humble spirit, we can learn much from other traditions, even if we may not wholly adopt their standpoints.
So how can we learn from other Christian denominations? For example, Pentecostal and charismatic churches typically emphasize the importance of prayer, expectant faith, Spirit baptism, and the Spirit’s life-giving and healing power. The Reformed tradition stresses the majestic glory of God and His sovereignty — a helpful corrective to popular, though faulty, theological views that suggest human initiative in salvation. “Free” churches can learn much from liturgical churches that stress the rhythms of the church’s calendar (e.g., Advent, Lent) and their sense of connectedness to the church through creeds and rich traditions. Many such churches have a great sense of history and rootedness, as well as a greater view of transcendence — something missing in many of our American churches.
Given the danger of reading with cultural blinders, we can learn from believers in other cultures — perhaps about money and materialism, the poor, the demonic realm, community, healing and other miracles, hospitality, or dedication to prayer. When possible, we should engage in reading the Scriptures in Christian community, particularly the community of internationals.
Also, we benefit greatly by studying theology and the development of doctrine throughout Church history. We should neither be blind traditionalists nor try to avoid all tradition. As the late church historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living” whereas tradition is “the living faith of the dead.”8
Certain traditions — whether of prayerful meditation, engaging in Lent, or reciting ancient creeds — can enrich, deepen, and stabilize our spiritual lives. As Pelikan pointed out, reciting creeds affirms the universality of faith across space, as well as time. We confess that we are part of a historic community, and such a creed helps sustain us through the fluctuations of our individual feelings, historical limitations, doubts, and questions.9
7. An awareness of our own traditions and denominational distinctives may help us guard against false teachings or heresies that can creep into the Church. People in churches that emphasize their doctrinal distinctives are more likely to recognize heresy and doctrinal deviation.
8. There are admittedly risks, challenges, and tensions in showing “theological hospitality.”10 As Christians interact theologically with fellow Christians from other denominations, there is a certain risk that one’s doctrinal thinking will be changed, or at least challenged. Some Christians will recoil out of fear or because of a lack of confidence in their own theological beliefs. In such cases, one’s denomination may be more like a self-protective fortress rather than an inviting home.11
Changing one’s denomination, however, is different from abandoning the historic Christian faith to embrace, say, Mormonism or some other new religious movement. In fact, compromising on Christian fundamentals — often in an attempt to “get along” or “fit in with culture” — is the surest way to create disunity.12
9. Although tradition can be enriching and can be appropriated by the believer, the Scriptures still have primacy over tradition.13Jesus and the New Testament writers routinely appealed to the authority of the Scriptures to establish their points and to highlight areas where tradition was out of sync with God’s Word (Matthew 15:1–9; Colossians 2:8).
Paul’s reference to the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:16,17 doesn’t mention any other source of authority: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
When push comes to shove, go with Scripture over tradition.
Protestant Christianity has stressed the “solas”: by Scripture alone (sola scriptura), in Christ alone (solus Christus), by faith alone (sola fide), by grace alone (sola gratia), to God alone be the glory (soli Deo gloria). One frequently misunderstood “sola” is sola scriptura, and perhaps we should try to clarify an important point. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which contends that both “Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence,”14 the Scriptures alone are our infallible guide and norm for faith and practice.
Let’s not misunderstand, however. Scripture doesn’t exclude the place of tradition, experience, or reason, which John Wesley emphasized. When Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms took his stand, he asked his challengers to convince him “by the testimonies of Scripture or evident reason.”
We shouldn’t automatically disregard tradition or creeds. Rather, we can respect, study, and appreciate biblically centered traditions. Indeed, we can appropriate them precisely because they are rooted in the Scriptures.
John Calvin himself said he could “willingly embrace and reverence as sacred” the “ancient councils [Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon] … in so far as relates to the doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture.”
To this Calvin gave “the highest place.” However, just because a council gathers, that is no guarantee of its authority. Calvin pointed out the error of the second council at Ephesus (A.D. 449), which accepted the false teaching of Eutyches, who rejected Christ’s two natures (divine and human) in favor of one. Calvin boldly declared: “The Church was not there.”15
Scripture and tradition aren’t on equal footing. The Church and tradition have gone wrong in the past. The way to address this concern is not to have an authoritative magisterial interpreter for all Christians, like a pope or council. Instead, the corrective is a humble interpreting of Scripture in community with fellow Christians and in touch with scholarship — with an awareness of history and tradition.
Beyond this, the Church should be an interpretation of authoritative Scripture. As someone once said, Christians are the fifth Gospel — that is, most people will first see who the Jesus of the four Gospels is through the faithful lives of His followers.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2,3).
The Church should be a commentary on God’s Word and a witness to Scripture that is lived out before God and a watching world. When Christians live this way, the denomination question will fall by the wayside.
1. Adapted from Emo Phillips, “The Best God-Joke Ever — and It’s Mine!” The Guardian (Sept. 29, 2005): http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion
2. This is a summary from the final chapter of Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSF, 2001).
4. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperSF, 2006).
5. Veli-Matti KÃ¤rkkÃ¤inen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 85.
6. Donald Bloesch,The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 43.
7. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Walter Hooper, ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 61.
8. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 1:9.
9. Interview with Jaroslav Pelikan, “Why We Need Creeds,” Speaking of Faith (National Public Radio), May 18, 2006, http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/pelikan/index.shtml (30 May 2007).
10. In this section, I borrow from W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
11. Ibid., 263.
12. Bloesch, 45.
13. In this last section, I borrow heavily from Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 231–7.
14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 82. Both tradition and Scripture flow from the “same divine well-spring” (par. 80).
15. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 4.9.8; 4.9.13.