What is called Christianity in our day is divided between three major denominational families: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. Within Protestantism, we find still more division between Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals. Why are there so many denominations, and why is Christianity so divided?
For the sake of simplicity and the limitations of time, I’d direct your attention to Acts 15 and Galatians 2 to unpack two primary reasons I believe denominations come into being.
There we read of “the circumcision party” – Jews in the early church concerned that Gentile Christians were not following the law of Moses, particularly with regards to circumcision.
The text says “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,” and that the Jerusalem Council was convened to address the controversy fully.
Peter weighed in there, as did Paul and Barnabas. Then James said his peace. The conclusion? Gentile Christians should not be burdened with something neither the Jewish Christians nor any of their fathers had been able to keep – that is, the Law.
Paul for his part would go on to write to the Galatians that before all this he had opposed Peter to his face at Antioch “because he stood condemned.” Peter was being a hypocrite and undermining the gospel, and Paul says even Barnabas was led astray for a time.
Paul also says here that “certain men came from James,” possibly implying that the Judaizers represented James after a fashion prior to the Council of Jerusalem.
It’s clear at least that not everyone in the early Church was on the same page about this.
Some were saying Gentile believers needed to keep the Law in addition to believing in Christ. Others were adamant against that position, insistent such would invalidate the gospel and Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Still others were clearly undecided, otherwise there would have been no need nor place for persuasive arguments.
This is one of the ways church splits happen and subsequent denominations form. A disagreement and controversy arises over a particular point of doctrine or practice – like circumcision, infant baptism, church governmental structure, or finer points of Biblical interpretation. The matter is debated, and church leadership comes to a decision about what the path forward is going to look like.
But sometimes one side or the other refuses to abide by the decision of the elders, for whatever reason, whether from good motives and reasons or bad. So they break away and form a separate church centered on the distinctives, with an entirely autonomous and separate leadership structure.
In the case of the circumcision party, a breakaway church would have been in error. Stubbornness about Gentiles needing to keep the Law was wrong, and a denomination forming around that would have represented a false church and a false gospel.
On the other hand, as the Protestant Reformation makes clear, sometimes church leadership over time can do exactly what the Pharisees did, making void the word of God by the tradition they have handed down. And in that case, a breakaway church declaring autonomy the way Luther and Calvin and others did do so on what I would argue is a legitimate and even necessary basis.
Non-essential Albeit Important
But stay in Acts 15, and look just a few verses down. Here we see another way denominations form. It’s Paul and Barnabas again, and now they’re disagreeing about whether a disciple named John Mark should come with them on their next missionary journey.
Paul strongly objects. The last time they brought John Mark, he ditched them. He’s proven himself to be unreliable. Barnabas, however, is insistent. He wants to give John Mark another chance.
So what do they do? Does either Paul or Barnabas give up their opinion quickly and prefer the judgment of the other? Not quite.
The text records “There arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus. Paul took Silas through Syria and Cilicia.
This is clearly an important and genuine disagreement to these two men, even though it might seem to us a non-critical and even silly one. They part ways. One goes this way, and the other goes that way.
So who is correct? Or are both in error?
Should one or the other have just kept their opinion and personal conviction to themselves? In the interest of unity, should Paul or Barnabas have just gone with whatever the other thought best so they could stay together?
The text does not indicate one way or the other. However, it is important to note that a parting of the ways does not mean that either Paul or Barnabas ceased to be a Christian living for the Lord. Neither of them left the faith or gave up on missionary work. And we see that there certainly was work for both to do in different regions and cities with their own local churches, yet all within the same larger framework of Christ’s Church.
A conclusion we could reasonably draw from this is that as counterintuitive as it may seem, such splits can still involve unity after a fashion between the separating parties. So long as both parties remain in Christ, they can go and serve the Lord in separate directions and different ways, maintaining a unity of purpose even without uniformity and complete agreement on every secondary or strategic point.
At the same time, such examples demonstrate that matters of secondary importance are still important even when not critical. And while Paul and Barnabas may or may not have handled this disagreement perfectly, their conclusion in going their separate ways nevertheless might just have been the most peaceable way to proceed, representing a fulfillment of the admonition to “as much as it depends on you strive to live peaceably with all men.”
Being of One Mind
This brings us to the big question. Do these sorts of divisions undermine the truth of the Christian faith?
That may seem like an odd thing to ask, but many non-Christians object to the number and variety of Christian denominations and disagreements by saying that our not being able to agree and stay unified along these lines somehow proves Christianity is unclear and untrue.
One could concede this point if all our expectations were supposed to be defined according to the assumptions of these skeptics.
The numerous denominations and disagreements in the Church might undermine the validity of Christianity, for instance, if we had been promised that genuine Christians will always agree and stay together on everything. And the validity of Christianity might be undermined thereby, for example, if we had been promised that there will never arise false teachers or false teaching to muddy the waters.
However, we were not promised either of these things. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Both Christ and the apostles instruct us to be one of mind and unified. That is true. But we are also told to beware of false teachers and wolves in sheep clothing. We know therefore at a minimum that we are not supposed to be unified with anyone and everyone who claims to be a Christian on whatsoever points they demand.
If unity is our only goal, the Unitarians are masters of it and must be our example. They hold that all paths lead to God, and that not only all Christians but all of humanity regardless of faith in Christ, will ultimately wind up in the same eternal paradise. Clearly their claims contradict the exclusive nature of Christ and Christianity, though, and we cannot have unity like that, in that way. Unity cannot be a stand-alone principle, unconditional and without moderation by other commands, without respect for the truth.
Even within the Church and among brothers in Christ, however, we are told in the case of meat offered to idols, for example, that there are some matters on which our individual consciences may directly contradict one another. And each one should be fully persuaded in his own mind on going one way or the other, doing nothing against conscience. But disagreeing on something like that does not indicate or determine whether you are a Christian.
Beyond this, the Scriptures testify that we will one day know fully even as we are fully known. Yet now we see as through a glass dimly. And then we will see face to face, but we do not yet.
In the meantime, on debatable matters, the truth is still the truth. And we do not either validate or invalidate it objectively, however well or poorly we understand or agree with one another about it.
To this we should add also the reminder that the Berean Jews are praised in Acts for being of a more noble sort than those at Thessalonica because they “searched the Scriptures daily” to see whether Paul and Barnabas were telling them the truth about the Messiah. If they were praised, then it would seem their example is prescriptive and one to emulate.
And taking all of this together, we should accept that pursuing unity on the unalterable essentials of the Gospel is imperative. Yet we cannot be superficial or hurried or else we may find ourselves uniting in error with the likes of the circumcision party.
Rather, in pursuing unity we will likely need to engage in the hard work of extended dialog and searching the Scriptures. And that may involve disagreement, even of the sharp kind we read about in the Scriptures.
But when we disagree on some debatable matters, we may organize and work separately after a fashion like Paul and Barnabas did. And God not only can use that and be glorified in it, we see throughout the Scriptures that He often does make use of such separations, whatever drives them, to accomplish His purposes.
Nevertheless, as we contend for the faith, we should not be contentious. The goal should be teaching only sound doctrine, rightly handling the word of truth, and making disciples who are taught to observe all that Christ commanded us. And sometimes, though it seems counterintuitive, that means separation and denominations for the sake of unity.
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