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Are Denominations Unbiblical?

The subtitle of this blog is Word and Spirit Before Tradition. I believe in that with all my heart. Is tradition itself wicked? I don’t think so. Tradition is inevitable. Tradition is methodology and belief that is passed from generation to generation. Additionally, these methods and beliefs that aren’t spelled out in Scripture, but they have made it into the community consciousness and, hence, they’re given a level of authority. Why do we give them authority? Usually, it’s because we’ve never seen it done another way, therefore this is how we’ve always done it. Examples of traditions include:

  • The frequency and method of observing the LORD’s Supper.
  • Who gets to baptize new believers.
  • Singing hymns or contemporary worship music.

I’m sure the list can be longer (and more ridiculous), but that’ll do because this post isn’t about tradition. However, I think it’s important to draw a line of distinction between traditions and denominations. While it’s absolutely true that some denominations formed over a division about traditions, it’s not always true. It’s also true that each denomination has its own traditions, which in part fuels the conflation between them. That conflation goes like this.

  • United Methodist
  • Southern Baptist
  • Church of God in Christ
  • Assemblies of God
  • Presbyterian Church of America

Unless you’re a theologian, you likely thought of traditions that these denominations are known for, not necessarily what they believe doctrinally. So, let’s be clear up front that these terms, while often associated, aren’t the same. Therefore, broadly speaking, denominations are recognized, autonomous branches of the church.

That definition brings up a couple of questions. First, recognized by who? That’s a great question. Tomorrow I can wake up and set my mind to planting a new church that will be the first church of the Word and Spirit Christian Alliance (not a bad name, right?). I could even plant that church with 300 committed believers in broad agreement on doctrine, mission, and polity.  Even with those ideal hypothetical conditions, does that mean we’re a recognized denomination of the Church? Who gets to say that? At what point does it become official? Would we need to build a network of 10, 20, 50, or 100 churches before there’s recognition? My extended internet search for a satisfying answer came up empty. My best answer is that recognition arises from the witness of the larger Body of Christ when both numbers of churches and enough time has passed to affirm that a group of churches constitute a denomination. I understand that in some countries, the government plays a role in publicly recognizing organized church denominations, but that’s a separate issue from the in-house recognition of fellow believers.

Second, denominations are autonomous. That simply means they have enough people, finances, and structure to exist independently from other existing denominations. Of course, this definition is speaking in human terms. There are no churches or denominations that are autonomous from the headship of Jesus Christ. He is the head of the Church in all of its various denominational expressions.

That’s the definition. But why do they happen? Why has the Church split into so many various branches over the last two millennia?

I borrowed this graphic from Logos.com, and here’s the article where I borrowed it from. The article offers a brief survey of the development of the major denominational branches that exist in orthodox Christianity today. It’s a good read. According to The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, there are around 45,000 Christian denominations in the world. So, this graphic is a little understated.

Again, why? Why is the Church of Jesus Christ partitioned into 45,000 individual branches? Like I said earlier, some of those branches formed over differences in traditions, but I have no way of knowing what percentage that would be. It’s more likely that the most common reasons center around doctrine, language, and geography. And to be clear, multiple denominations can exist and hold very similar theologies, but they originally formed in different geographical areas, or each speak different languages or dialects of the same language. Human behavior plays a role because we tend to flock to people who are similar, ie., from the same places and speak the same languages.

If you consider all the varied ethnicities in which Christianity has taken root, which according to the Joshua Project’s most conservative estimate would be 9,800 (depending on how you define an ethnic group, it could be as high as 24,000), just by simple math, would work out to each ethnicity possessing over four Christian denominations. I know that’s not how it actually works out, but even so, it helps give my mind some context for there being 45,000 Christian denominations.

So, let’s eliminate language and geography. Those are perfectly rational explanations for the formation of many denominations. Let’s examine doctrinal differences. I have to admit, I’ve had a change of heart on this over the years. Let me give you a brief tour of my journey. I have mostly attended Southern Baptist Churches my entire life, with a brief foray into Presbyterianism and occasional weekend retreats to Charismatic churches for a little spice. As a young believer, when I went to college and started meeting (and dating) people from other denominations, I quickly took up a dislike for denominationalism. I felt like they unnecessarily divided God’s church and if people would just loosen up their girdles a little bit, maybe they’d see the light and lower their defenses. As well-intentioned as my feelings were, as I grew I began to understand why some of these different branches existed. There were doctrinal differences that went deep enough to make worshiping together in unity difficult. It began dawning upon me that some denominations formed so that brothers could worship together in unity.

Fast-forward to the present. I no longer think I have the naivety of my youth. I have come to peace with the matter, even if I still find it sad and unfortunate. It’s unfortunate only because it just means that we still see in a mirror dimly. We know in part and prophesy in part, and that leads to differences in how we interpret the Scriptures. I used to think, one Word, one Spirit, one Truth, so only one valid interpretation.  Are there non-negotiable doctrines that are clear for all peoples and all times? You bet, and people who reject those aren’t true Christians. Refer to the Core Beliefs page for a review of those non-negotiables. But anything beyond those core beliefs falls into varied interpretations because we know in part and prophesy in part.

This is why denominations happen. Now, are they Biblical?

It’s not a simple yes or no question. Were some denominations founded for unbiblical reasons? Yes. Do we wag our fingers at people in those denominations decades or centuries after their formation? No. We don’t hold people in the present accountable for the bad motives of a denomination’s founders. What about the ones that formed around doctrinal differences, geographical barriers, or a common language? I don’t believe there’s anything unbiblical in those reasons. The Bible doesn’t expressly predict denominations, but I think foreshadows and precursors were already present. How many different ethnicities heard the Gospel at Pentecost? How long before the Gentiles outnumbered the Jews in the Church? How many different teachers rose to prominence in the early church, and drew followers? It was already going to happen. In fact, Paul offered a cryptic prediction in 1 Corinthians 11:19 that seems to attest to the reality of divisions.

19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
– (ESV)

The LORD uses divisions to reveal those who are genuine. Doctrinal disagreements don’t arise from indifferent believers. They come from those who passionately want to honor and rightly divide the Word of Truth. The Holy Spirit uses these disagreements to highlight those who are genuine. God even uses our divisions to do good things.

I’m done, and obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive handling of this subject, but if this is something that has bothered you, I hope it helped nudge you in a better direction.

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Last modified: January 5, 2024