Many times I hear people say that they love Jesus but they hate denominations. They then rattle off a list of complaints that they have about denominations, usually one or two specific denominations and thus conclude that denominations in and of themselves are evil.
Today I want to challenge that premise and try to give a balanced view of denominations and eliminate the prejudice leveled against them based on cultural bias, personal pain, or lack of understanding.
In order to deal with this subject we need to first establish a couple of things.
We need to start with how Jesus views the church because like it or not, most people who chose to band together in denominations are part of His church.
Jesus started the church.
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
The church is the body of Christ
And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.
The church is the bride of Christ
6 Then I heard again what sounded like the shout of a vast crowd or the roar of mighty ocean waves or the crash of loud thunder:
“Praise the Lord !
For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
7 Let us be glad and rejoice,
and let us give honor to him.
For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb,
and his bride has prepared herself.
8 She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.”
For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people.
Those three things should give people pause before they label and demonize any part of the church.
Jesus began the church, thus He has a vested interest in its success.
Jesus gave His spirit to the church, each and every member, thus He not only began the church but He has endorsed the church.
He called it His own and each member is part of His body. He not only accepted each member as part of His body, but He is madly in love with the church to the point He is faithfully waiting for His bride at the altar. He is a jealous, passionate, and protective lover.
So as I wade into the issue of whether or not denominations are evil, I take with me those truths.
The Definition of a Denomination.
Although I would not recommend Wikipedia as a source for deep theological thought, when it comes to giving some basic definitions to terms objectively, they usually do a pretty good job.
I am going to use their definition of denomination.
A religious denomination is a subgroup within a religion that operates under a common name, tradition, and identity.
The term describes various Christian denominations (for example, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicanism, and the many varieties of Protestantism). (source)
So what they are saying is that a denomination is part of a larger group who have certain distinctives. Not unlike Paul’s description of the body found in the book of Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 12:14-20
14 Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. 15 If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? 18 But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. 19 How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.
How Do Denominations Form?
This is where many people read into the subject their own bias.
Most people who believe that denominations are a bad thing believe that all denominations exist to thwart unity. That denominations formed and exist because of strife.
Let me once again use a definition from Wikipedia.
Denominations often form slowly over time for many reasons. Due to historical accidents of geography, culture and influence between different groups, members of a given religion slowly begin to diverge in their views. Over time members of a religion may find that they have developed significantly different views on theology, philosophy, religious pluralism, ethics and religious practices and rituals. Consequently, different denominations may eventually form. In other cases, denominations form very rapidly, either resulting from a split or schism in an existing denomination, or if people share an experience of spiritual revival or spiritual awakening, and choose to form a new denomination based on that new experience or understanding. (source)
Denominations Form for Many Reasons
Just as Wikipedia aptly points out, denominations do not form just over doctrinal differences or splits.
They form because of language differences, cultural differences, different practices, ethical differences, and experiential differences.
Not all of these things are evil.
In my own life as a Christian, I am not the same person with the same beliefs that I started my Christian life with. It has been a journey. Many people are like me.
They may have started out with just a few ideas on how to live the Christian life but over time, with study, and through experience, those ideas have changed and expanded.
The same is true for everyone in the Christian faith. Their faith is a journey. Why would we expect uniformity of everyone’s journey?
Denominations Can Form For Godly Reasons
Many people who form or are a part of a denomination do so for mutual cooperation, fellowship, and accountability. All three of these things are godly things.
This cooperation is a good thing.
Not every church can support a missionary full time. They may want to participate in sending missionaries to other countries but they do not have the budget to do it alone. So they band together with other like-minded churches to cooperate with one another in sending out a missionary together.
One lone church has a very small voice. By banding together they have a much larger voice than alone.
This is also a good thing when trying to influence society, government, or the world at large.
Whether you like it or not, and whether you agree with the Catholic Church or not, because of its size, it has a voice that is seen through the Pope that even Presidents and Prime Ministers listen to.
That is not to say that this hasn’t been abused in the past and sometimes even in the present, however I do not believe the fault lies with cooperation, but with the failings of men.
Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?
Banding together with people who are of like mind is not an evil thing. In fact I think it is a good thing.
Nobody wants strife and sometimes the only way to avoid it is to choose who you are going to walk with.
This world is big enough and diverse enough not to force people who sincerely disagree with one another to walk in uniformity.
The Greek word for fellowship is Koinonia. It means fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, and intercourse.
You cannot build community and communion in the midst of disagreement and strife, so as much as you may love and respect those who you are in disagreement with, you still may need to find a place where you can walk in agreement.
That is what has happened through the years. The desire to walk in agreement with people of like mind has given birth to many denominations who were persecuted and rejected by the group out of which they came.
In our culture of everybody doing what is right in their own eyes, the subject of accountability is taken lightly. We do not value accountability until somebody wounds us or defrauds us personally.
Then we scream for accountability.
Denominations form to provide a level of accountability both to the individual members and to those that are in leadership.
I cannot tell you how many times people have been wounded by individuals and churches who had no accountability.
It is not perfect, as we have seen with the priests and pastors who have fallen due to sexual misconduct, but at least there is a method of recourse.
When there is no accountability, then the problem cannot be addressed.
Denominations form to make sure that we are mutually accountable to one another.
Now there is a lot of room for disagreement on which method is the better method for accountability and our experiences and cultural biases can play a part in that discussion but the fact remains that God has called us to accountability structures.
1 Timothy 5:17-19
17 Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” 19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.
Notice that Paul acknowledges a way to hold someone in authority accountable. He makes it clear that there must be a level of burden of proof, but the way exists.
Denominations provide a way to train, validate, and discipline leaders.
So If Denominations Are So Good, Why Do They Do Bad Things?
Nowhere in this article do I want to hide from or ignore the fact that many horrible things have been done in the past by denominations.
My only question is this. Was it the “denomination” that did these things or the “people” in the denomination that did them?
Take for instance the crusades. They are one of the greatest tragedies of abuse in Christian history.
Was it all Catholics who are to blame?
Was it the denomination that was to blame?
Or was it a combination of bad doctrine and greedy leaders?
The Catholic Church did not start out with teaching that justified holy war. It developed over time.
It started with Cicero and the teaching of bellum justum (just war) and grew to bellum sanctum (holy war).
So where does the blame lie?
It lies with the bad teaching and men of bad character.
It was not the organization, but those people who were molding it. You cannot place blame on an institution, the problem lies with people.
Let’s take another example: Slavery.
Many people have blamed denominations for the support of slavery. This again is inaccurate.
Some denominations supported slavery in the past, but others vehemently opposed it.
The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton who later became an ordained priest in the Church of England in 1764 and became curate of Olney, Buckinghamshire.
He along with William Wilberforce who was an English politician, philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade moved the nation of England to abolish slavery.
William Wilberforce a native of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, he began his political career in 1780, eventually becoming the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812).
In 1785, he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian, which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.
In 1787, he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton.
They persuaded Wilberforce to take on the cause of abolition, and he soon became one of the leading English abolitionists. He headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for twenty-six years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Both of these men were members of a denomination.
Are we to be hypocritical and call all denominations evil because of the evil that men did who were part of a denomination, but then only give credit to the individuals who did good things without giving credit to the denomination they were part of?
That is illogical.
The denominations that were pro-slavery were wrong. They once again were being led by bad teaching and greedy leaders.
They had failed in their responsibility to train, affirm, and discipline their leaders. However that does not mean that all denominations, and all the people who are part of denominations are evil.
They are imperfect as we are imperfect.
Do Denominations Promote Strife and Division?
In answering that question, I go back to what I just stated.
Denominations are imperfect because they are filled with imperfect people.
At times those imperfect people will be filled with human pride and arrogance and think that they have the market cornered on all of God’s truth that there is to be had.
They think that they know everything there is to know about the Christian life. Paul spoke of this problem in the book of Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 12:9-12
Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! 10 But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. 11 When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 12 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
None of us have the complete picture of Christian thought or doctrine. None of us know everything.
So it is human pride that drives us to think we are the the only valid expression of Christianity.
Is that the denomination’s fault or the arrogance of people within the particular denomination?
I would say it is the latter.
Denominations are not evil. They are imperfect. The reason they are imperfect is because they are filled with imperfect people like you and I.
They are a tool. Used properly they produce good fruit and when used improperly they produce bad fruit.
Is there room for reform in denominations?
Is there room for diversity in denominations?
Do denominations need to work on cooperating with one another?
I would say yes!
Are they prisons, chains, shackles, and all the other negative appellations used to describe them?
Give me a break!
A long time ago, my mother gave me a definition of gossip that has stuck with me.
She told me that if you are not part of the problem or part of the solution, then you are a gossip.
I think it is time that people remember what I first talked about in this article.
They need to remember that Jesus started the church, including the parts of the church that have denominational families.
Jesus considers those people who are part of those denominational families part of His body and that He loves those people as a jealous lover loves His bride.
They may be imperfect, but those people are His and it would behoove us to show a little more respect and a whole lot less cynical criticism.