Ron Woodworth Ministries Presents…

Q&A with Professor Ron

 Question: Why are there so many denominations?

Answer: This is the same question kind of question I asked as a young believer:

  • “Why can’t Christian’s agree to work together?”
  • “Wouldn’t we be a more powerful testimony together rather than every group doing their own thing?”
  • “Is the Bible that hard to understand that we have to have so many different interpretations that keep us divided?”
  • “Why can’t Protestants get their act together like the Catholics who have one structure that unites them?”

To answer this question you need to know a little history…

According to Bruce L. Shelly1, denominations grew out of the idea of freedom of conscience that resulted in religious liberty and diversity in the early American colonies–thereby requiring a “new understanding of the church.” Such an understanding would need to make room for others who saw things a little differently (church structure, baptism formula, predestination vs. free will debate, etc.) but were nevertheless undeniably committed to Christ and the essentials of the Christian faith. The worddenomination (literally meaning “to name the same”) later came into vogue about 1740 during the Evangelical revivals of Wesley and Whitefield.

As originally conceived, a denomination was an inclusive term as opposed to a sect, which was by definition exclusive. For example, sects or cults claim an extra-biblical revelation, generally from a prophetic or charismatic leader, whose followers are separated by the superiority of their spiritual knowledge from other denominational “quasi-Christians.” Rather than this sectarian attitude, the denominational theory of thechurch insists that the true Christian church “cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure, and furthermore, that no denomination can claim to represent the whole church of Christ. Instead, each denomination simply constitutes a different form – in worship and organization – of the larger life of the church—the Body of Christ.”

Even though the original Reformers (Luther and Calvin) planted the seeds of the denominational theory of the church, the real architects of the theory were the 17thcentury Congregationalists who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly from 1642-1649. The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, whereas the Congregationalist minority was convinced of the need to maintain their Christian unity even in the midst of differences—lest there be divisive consequences, and hence political vulnerability, for the Protestants in England. As a result, both groups—called the “Dissenting Brethren of Westminster” developed a denominational theory based on several fundamental truths:

    • First, considering man’s inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.
    • Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference. Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.
    • Third, since, no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth…the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical structure.
    • Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism. It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ.

As a result, this denominational theory, which is a fundamental principle upon which Protestantism is historically founded, provides for unity and diversity. Our unity is in the acknowledgment that we are all believers in Christ Jesus and are therefore fellow-members of the larger Christian Church—the Body of Christ. Our diversity is seen in the distinctive approaches to the way we express our faith outwardly in a free society.

Final thought: The denominational theory of the church strikes me as very similar to the sage advice of the famous 5th century church father/theologian Augustine, who made the following appeal to dissenting brethren:

“In essentials, unity…

In non-essentials, liberty…

And in all things, charity.”

Let the lord be magnified


[1] Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelly. Pages 306-308. Word Publishing. 1995, Updated 2nd edition. This is a very readable and informative text that I recommend everyone gets and works through in their spare time.