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Why are there so many denominations?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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View of the steeples of the four churches at the intersection of Church Street, Canandaigua Street, East Main Street and West Main Street in Palmyra, New York (Credit: Jon Ridinger via wikitravel.org)

There were 217 American denominations listed in a recent survey.  In addition, “nondenominational churches,” if grouped together, would be the second-largest Protestant group in the country with more than 12 million members.  This reader’s question is a common one: “Why are there so many denominations?”

Let’s begin with the 16th-century Reformation.  Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Church of England rejected anything they found within Catholic tradition which they did not consider to be biblical, such as the authority of the pope and councils.  But they kept and reinterpreted Catholic teaching which was not expressly unbiblical.  These movements are usually called “magisterial” since they were supported by the magistrates, the government leaders of the day.  Their successors in America are the “mainline” Protestant denominations such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist.

As an example, the Bible nowhere forbids the baptism of infants, but it does not teach that such baptism washes away inherited original sin.  So Luther, Calvin and Anglicans kept the practice of infant baptism but changed its meaning.  For Luther, baptism is a means by which Christ confers his saving grace, but it stands on the faith commitment of the parents who are bringing their child to be dedicated to God.

The other branch of Protestant tradition is called “radical” reform.  Whereas magisterial Protestants kept whatever they found in Catholic tradition which was not unbiblical, radical reformers kept only that which is expressly taught in Scripture.

Take infant baptism once again as an example.  This practice, while not prohibited by the Bible, is not prescribed by God’s word.  So the radical reformers returned to the New Testament practice of baptizing by immersion those who made a personal commitment to Christ as Lord.  Since radical reformers did not find denominational hierarchy in the New Testament, they insisted on local church autonomy without bishops or outside governing authority.  As they stood outside government support, these reformers usually argued for the separation of church and state as well.

Today the radical reform movement is continued by Baptists, Bible churches, Churches of Christ, and most nondenominational churches as they seek to practice only that which they find expressly taught in the word of God.

As important as our theological convictions may be, the unity of Christ’s body is also crucial to our effectiveness.  Jesus prayed that his followers “may be one” so the world would believe the Father sent the Son (John 17:21).  Richard Baxter’s motto is an appropriate way to relate to other members of the family of faith: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”