Many Denominations: the Positive Side

by Ed Vasicek

"If the Bible is true, why are there so many denominations?" What Christian has not fielded this question? 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.

Didn't the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, teach that there was to be just one denomination? Wouldn't the church be more effective if we had one central voice?

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 A.D., the overwhelming majority of Christendom considered itself Catholic and loyal to Rome. Where were Christian laymen mighty in the Scripture? Was the gospel of salvation by grace through faith spreading throughout the world?

To the contrary, the pre-Reformation church propagated a gospel of incremental salvation by sacraments, and the focus of worship was a human being (Mary). Devout men were concerned about freeing loved ones from a non-existent place (purgatory) by purchasing indulgences from the church. Do we really want to go back to a single church body and risk a similar fate? Lord Acton stated it well: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." But what about those questions?

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 to unite denominations, most have never consider the alternate understanding: this prayer began to be answered on the Day of 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" (1 Cor. 12:13). We do not need to pray to be one-all believers already are one in Christ. Our concern is how to express this unity.

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). With the vacancy left after the death of the apostles, we must evaluate churches on the basis of conformity to their doctrine (Acts 2:42, Ephesians 2:20) as defined by the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Our cooperation should be based upon a common reception of God's truth (2 John 1:9-11). The truth is itself divisive, separating light from darkness. However, our perception of truth is fallible, resulting in denominational differences.

In Revelation chapter 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 of those churches not true to His Word (Rev. 2 and 3). This poses an interesting question: are the brightly burning lampstands to seek fellowship with the extinguished lampstands? When we contrast Bible-believing churches to those without confidence in the Scriptures, this may be the issue at hand!

In the early centuries, churches were loosely organized; leadership was self-perpetuating (2 Tim. 2:2). As the second and third centuries came along, historians note a variety of groups surfaced. Some were heretical cults, like the followers of Marcion, or the evolving Gnostic groups. Some groups denied either the divinity or the humanity of Jesus Christ.

One "denomination" was, in a few respects, similar to the modern charismatic movement. 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 and joined the Montanists.

Even the early church did not have the type of unity that would satisfy ecumenists. It was only when the church was removed from the Scriptures that it attained a strong organizational unity.

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 in having a central voice, consider the advantages of decentralized Christianity: Over the last hundred years or so, many Protestant denominations turned away from belief in an inerrant Bible. But because Protestantism was diversified, the belief in Scriptural authority (and the true gospel) was propagated within the denominations that remained loyal to the Word. As it now stands, if one denomination abandons the evangelical faith, other groups will raise up the banner of truth.

Also, 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 and still others focus upon developing leaders, ministering to the hurting, or helping the poor.

Here is another benefit 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. Competition can promote creativity, innovation, and motivation.

Unfortunately, there is a negative side to this: 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, this undermines deepening relationships. 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.

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 perhaps consider ourselves "non-denominational"), individual evangelical churches and groups should openly demonstrate their common faith in the gospel by occasional joint ventures that advance the Kingdom of God.

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. We do not exist to build up our denomination; we do exist to build up the Kingdom of God.

Ed Vasicek has served the Highland Park Church in Kokomo, IN, for 22 years.

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