When we ask this question, are we assuming there are too many Christian denominations? Probably.
And there are certainly many, many Christian denominations. If you add to that the quasi-Christian groups, the number swells even bigger.
So how many is too many? And how do you sort them all out? Let’s take a look at history.
Many Christian denominations began due to a revival of the faith. There are many true stories of new Christian denominations coming about through revivals.
Before we go too far, it’s good to recognize that virtually all belief systems have multiple expressions, so Christianity isn’t alone in having denominations.
Are Denominations Biblical?
Let’s consider the scene during the time of Christ. We know from the Bible that the Jewish religious elite were comprised of two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
But, in addition to them, we know there were Nazarites (Samson and John the Baptist), Essenes (the people who kept the “Dead Sea Scrolls”) and others.
The New Testament writer known as Paul (Saul of Tarsus) was himself a Pharisee. Nicodemus, the man to whom Jesus said “Ye must be born again” was also a Pharisee.
Joseph of Arimathea, the man who loaned his tomb to Jesus for a weekend, was a pious and religious Jew, but the Bible doesn’t tell us if he was a Pharisee, a Sadducee or a member of another sect.
So even before Jesus Christ came on the scene, there were multiple sects of Judaism. Fast forward to today, and there are still multiple sects of Judaism. There are Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox, plus other subgroups.
Islam has at least 3 main forms: Shia, Sunni and Sufi, plus 73 other minor forms, plus multiple sub forms.
Even the religion of Atheism comes in at least 17 different forms.
We can say denominations are Biblical in the sense that they already existed in Judaism at the time of Christ. But did God intend for there to be so many different denominations? It’s a good question. Let’s take a look.
Origin of Denominations
There are a few reasons denominations happen in the first place. Wherever people meet in groups, leaders emerge in those groups and respond to different dynamics occurring in those groups.
One group might grow in a certain direction based on the needs and capabilities of the people in that group. Another group may grow in a certain direction as a response to outside influences.
More importantly, the Holy Spirit will lead some folks to respond in a helpful way in one situation at a certain location and perhaps in a different way at a different time at some other location:
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8 ESV
The Christian faith is robust and doesn’t have to be expressed in exactly the same way in every place. We see this in the behavior of many of the personalities of Biblical history. Our God meets our needs where we are. He doesn’t require some kind of robotic, cookie-cutter Christianity, where we must all look and act the same way.
But as we will see very soon, there are some very important elements of the Christian faith that are essential to Christian churches. Not every church can be called Christian.
New Testament Churches
New Testament books refer to various churches based in different cities. Paul wrote his epistles to the churches of Corinth, (1 & 2 Corinthians) Ephesus, (Ephesians) Galatia, (Galatians) Thessaloniki, (1 & 2 Thessalonians) Philippi, (Philippians) Colossae, (Colossians).
In addition, there are the Seven Churches of Revelation, and dozens of other churches mentioned in various books including the Book of Acts. Here is a list of a few of those churches, but not a single mention of a denomination:
Antioch- where followers of Jesus Christ were first referred to as Christians
Athens- the city where Paul met great opposition from the crowds, yet he successfully planted a church here (Acts 17:34)
Berea –made famous by the believers who searched the scriptures (Acts 17:11)
Laodicea – (Colossians 4:15)
Tarsus -the hometown of Saint Paul, also known as Saul of Tarsus
At this time, these churches were all independent, standalone churches. They were not part of a denomination. Many current nondenominational churches point this out as a reason to organize as independent churches not affiliated with a denomination.
Today there are many denominations. Most people who belong to one denomination or another simply want to worship the risen Lord and Savior.
But it’s possible to take this concept too far. People called Denominationalists (not all denominations -just a small minority of folks) claim their own denomination is the only true one and that all others are wrong. They forget the wise and loving words of Rupertus Meldenius (see below)
Seven Churches of Revelation
John writes in the book of Revelation the words of Jesus Christ addressing each of these seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
These are all New Testament churches that existed in that day.
Each church earns words of Christ’s loving corrections, but he never tells them they must be part of the same denomination.
Where Did Christian Denominations Come From?
Many denominations have fascinating stories of their inception. They were often begun because the Holy Spirit was moving in a new way and bringing revival to Christian churches.
One of the biggest revivals in history was the Reformation of the 16th century. A Catholic priest named Martin Luther is famous for nailing the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in the year 1517.
Not long after that a new denomination was started. It was called the Lutheran church. It was the first church of the Protestant movement.
Many other new denominations were started in the 16th century. They were all known as Protestants, which begs the question: “Who –or what- were they protesting?”
Answer: The Catholic Church. These new denominations were called Protestant because they were protesting practices of the Catholic Church that they believed were against God’s laws.
Not long after the Reformation, the Catholic Church began a reformation to address the issues. This shows how denominations can grow and gain from each other based on a dialog over time. We can see now that the Reformation was positive for the Catholic Church in the long-term.
And God has used the Catholic Church as an amazing force for good over the centuries, sending missionaries all over the world. Mother Teresa -a Catholic nun- was one of many Catholic missionaries feeding the poor and preaching the gospel over the centuries. Millions of people around the world have come to faith in Jesus Christ through the efforts of Catholic believers like Mother Teresa.
Now -to be clear- the Protestant reformation did arise from a schism. There has been a rift between Catholic and Protestant churches ever since. Even though the two sides have become friendlier in recent years, there remain some big differences.
So we can’t say that everything about different denominations is all good. Sometimes the differences are big. But most denominational differences are relatively small.
Another huge revival in church history was the 18th century revival in the (Protestant) Church of England under John Wesley. It was such a powerful movement that after Wesley’s death, the Wesleyan denomination was started as missionaries went out all over the world from these churches.
So Many Denominations…Which One is True?
Since there are so many different denominations, a very good question to ask is “which one is true?” This leads to yet another question: “How do we decide which denomination is true?”
Since many denominations have around for a long time, some great thinkers have asked this very question. They have formulated a very thoughtful and insightful response similar to what you can see below.
The truth is, there are many great denominations. As long as they hold to the essentials of Christianity, every denomination –and every member of that denomination- can confidently serve the Living God as a member of their denomination.
Essentials of Christianity
The notable Lutheran Christian theologian and philosopher, Rupertus Meldenius was credited with this quote:
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Here is how to know if a church is truly Christian. Christian churches will hold to the Essentials of the Christian faith. These “Essentials” are what’s truly necessary to call a church Christian.
The Essentials of Christianity comprise the core beliefs of the faith. Keep in mind that these essential beliefs did not just come out of thin air. The Christian faith is a fact-based faith.
There are solid reasons –based on real historical events, prophecies which were proclaimed and then fulfilled many years later, and eyewitness accounts corroborated by many witnesses with differing viewpoints that speak for the truth represented by the Christian faith.
Here is a list of the essentials of the Christian faith as revealed in God’s word –the Bible:
The Deity of Christ
Salvation by Grace, and not by works
Salvation through Jesus Christ alone
The Resurrection of Christ
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
The Holy Trinity
Where did these essentials come from? They come from the Holy Bible – the inspired word of God. The Bible itself reveals what is important and essential to the Christian faith.
Knowing these essentials, we can use them to test our church or another church against these essentials and see if they pass the test. While most denominations pass, there are also a few churches that do not qualify as Christian denominations because they do not adhere to these core beliefs.
There are some churches that do not pass this test, because they do not adhere to these essentials. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not pass the test because they do not hold a monotheistic view. They believe -contrary to the clear teaching of the word of God- that Jesus is “a god” but not “God”.
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The Jehovah’s Witnesses have created their own translation of the Bible called the New World Translation to agree with their own preconceived notions. It’s a translation that is not accepted by any Bible scholars.
Mormon/LDS church members will say that Jesus is Lord and he really died on the cross and rose again and they believe in him and have eternal life. That’s great!
But the Book of Mormon tells us that Jesus and Lucifer are both created beings and that they are spirit brothers. This is contrary to the Bible that says “In the Beginning was the Word. And the Word was God and the Word was with God.” So the Mormon Church is trampling on the very first essential- the deity of Christ.
Another core belief of the Mormon Church is that men who die as Mormons in good standing will themselves become gods of their own planets and repeat the cycle of world history there, dying for their planet and being Lord over it. This belief is not in agreement with the Christian essential of Monotheism, because these men now become gods in eternity. This makes Mormon beliefs a kind of pantheism.
Christian Science is an errant belief system that denies the Trinity, and denies that Jesus is God. It holds a number of spiritual beliefs contrary to the word of God, so Christian Science does not hold to the Essentials of the Christian faith.
Unitarians reject the Trinity and they deny that Jesus Christ is God in clear contravention to the Bible and Jesus’ own statements about who he is.
Of course, all of these groups are comprised of many sincere, sweet people who all need the love of God and we should love them all the way our Father in heaven taught us to do whether we agree or not.
It is very important that you attend a church that adheres to the true word of God -the Bible- and that the church leaders teach from the Bible.
There are many Christian denominations. And many of them are good churches that hold to the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. Are you looking for the right church in your area? A good place to start is by asking to see their Statement of Beliefs. It’s usually right on their website. You can quickly learn if their beliefs match the Essential beliefs of Christianity.
Is your Faith Founded on Fact? Have you committed to follow Jesus?