If Jesus prayed that the church “may all be one” in John 17:21, why are there an estimated 35,496 Christian denominations today?
Why do we have Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians and so many more—and even denominations within denominations?
Truth be told, denominationalism is a daunting issue.
Consider how you chose your dentist. You likely cared little if your dentist belonged to the American Dental Association or the National Dental Association. You just wanted to get your teeth cleaned by a professional as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Similarly, if I had to hazard a guess, many Christians simply want to worship Jesus in the presence of God’s people. They want to study Scripture with other believers. They want a place where their kids are safe and can learn about God.
And yet the fact of denominationalism—that we must choose between Protestant and Catholic, between Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, or others—can present substantial barriers to new and old believers alike.
The primary similarity between denominations
Christians the world over have differences of opinion about significant issues. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have so many thousands of denominations.
However, we are all Christians for one sole reason: we all believe that Jesus is Lord.
We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for our sins and rose from the dead, that he’s coming again, and that we exist to worship him.
Whenever questions about denominational differences arise, we should all pause and remember this central, essential fact: Jesus unifies the church.
With that thought in mind, let’s consider the main way denominations differ from each other.
The primary difference between denominations
While a host of issues differentiate one denomination from another, one basic distinction exists: the role of Scripture. Whether a church believes that Scripture is their primary authority or just one of their authorities separates many of the denominations from each other.
For instance, most Catholic denominations (or those that lean toward Catholic teachings) would say that God gave the Bible through the church. Consequently, the church is the means by which the Bible is to be interpreted. Thus, the teachings that have flowed from the church’s creeds, councils, Popes, and historical traditions are the prism through which such believers interpret Scripture.
Conversely, many Protestant denominations believe in sola scriptura, “only Scripture,” meaning that the Bible is preeminently authoritative. In fact, this is the foundation of the Protestant movement. Such believers don’t interpret Scripture through tradition as much as they interpret tradition through Scripture.
For those looking to attend a church and who have little knowledge about denominational differences, begin with this question: What is this church’s emphasis on biblical authority?
In other words:
- How much biblical teaching is being done in the worship service?
- How much will I hear the exposition of Scripture?
- Am I hearing someone who’s actually teaching what the text says more than teaching what my traditions might say, or what we collectively believe?
- Am I being led to a place where I can study Scripture for itself? Or where I can encounter God in his word?
As a Protestant Baptist, I believe in sola scriptura. Scripture comes first—always.
Do Christian denominations want to be unified?
The unity of Christianity is critical to the witness of Christianity. Why would the outside world want to be part of a group that fights among itself?
The conflicts and competitions between denominations (and even within denominations) have hurt our witness much more than they’ve helped. However, I’ve witnessed a remarkable unifying trend in the body of Christ over the last ten to fifteen years.
For instance, when Billy Graham came to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex years ago, seven hundred invitations were sent out to area church leaders. Per the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s requirements, these church leaders had to reflect representative samples of Catholics and Protestants, Baptists and Lutherans, etc. Their organization even had a formula to ensure that the entire body of Christ could be represented at the stadium-sized event.
That was an unforgettable moment of denominational unity.
I also think of the tragedies that draw us together, like the days following 9/11. At the time, I was pastoring a church in Dallas that had the largest sanctuary in our area. Consequently, we were chosen to host a community prayer service just days after the World Trade Center towers had fallen. More than two thousand people came.
I asked my good friend, Monsignor Zimmerman, of Christ the King Catholic Church, to deliver that night’s message. I asked him to wear his robes and to preach in his Catholic tradition—inside our Protestant church.
I’ll never forget the sense of unity I felt that night too, a glimpse of what John described in Revelation 7:9 as “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
The church as a whole can seek unification without uniformity. But it seldom comes easily, and we must do so in a way that honors the Lord and respects our brothers and sisters in Christ.
How do I know what denomination is right for me?
In many ways, the question about whether denominations are important is really a self-reflective question: Which denomination should I join?
Consider these three steps toward finding a denomination.
1. Believe that the Lord wants you in fellowship with his body.
When coal is removed from a fire, the fire goes out. For the fire to remain lit, pieces of coal must remain alongside other pieces of coal. The church is the body of Christ, and we’re not whole unless we’re together. Pray that the Lord will direct you where he wants to be.
2. Ask yourself, “What church (or denomination) do my friends attend?”
If your friends, family members, or coworkers already attend a church and they enjoy doing so, it’s more likely that you’ll feel at home there as well. After all, you feel at home with that person. At the very least, they can be your guide to the sometimes uncomfortable or awkward experience of attending a new church for the first time.
3. Research the church online.
Most churches have websites with ample information, including their faith statements, upcoming events, and sermon audios or videos. Do your due diligence and read, watch, or listen to their resources. If a specific question isn’t answered by their site, consider emailing a relevant person on staff. As you research, ask yourself, “Does this resonate with me?”
Some of your findings may require researching that church’s denominational background. At that point, instead of enrolling in one of my six-month seminary courses on church theology, just type in your query, e.g., “What makes a Baptist church different from a Lutheran church?” You should find helpful information that provides at least the broad strokes of their differences.
Are denominations important?
Denominations are important, but don’t let denominational differences cause you not to join a church. No denomination, and thus no church, is perfect. (As Charles Spurgeon said, “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join it.”)
Rather, allow those differences to inspire you toward study and personal reflection on the place where God would have you join his body. And always remember what we have in common: the lordship of Christ.
Though all denominations have reasons for repentance when it comes to seeking the unity Jesus prayed for us in John 17:21, we can choose to look to the future instead of retreading the sins of the past.
As I said before, we can work toward unity without uniformity so that someday—and maybe that day ultimately occurs after Jesus’ return—we’ll all be part of that great multitude in heaven, “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:10).
This article is adapted from Biblical Insight to Tough Questions Vol. 3, currently available in the Denison Forum store.