Have you ever wondered why there are so many Christian denominations? Are Christians hopelessly divided, or does an underlying unity undergird much of the diversity that we see?
One way to understand these denominations within Christendom is to compare them with something that we understand: The United States of America. The word United speaks of oneness. The word States speaks of difference.
In America, fifty different states, all having their own individual state governments, maintain a connection with one federal government. As a result, we find that U.S. citizens tend to identify themselves in two ways: 1) as Americans, and 2) As Utahns or Sooners or Hoosiers or Buckeyes or any other state-based name. Americans see themselves as part of an overall, cohesive group (our nation), but they’re also proud of a smaller subgroup (home state).
We accept the fact that each state has its own unique history of settlement, its own cultural strengths, and its own treasured values, but we recognize that our state is not a complete picture of America. As with denominations, each has its own history, emphases, and personality, yet each denomination is only a part of something greater that God is building, the kingdom of Christ.
A little knowledge of history is particularly helpful for putting denominationalism in perspective. Think for a moment of how helpful it is to understand a state’s history when examining America’s rich cultural diversity. If you wanted to understand Louisiana, you would look at the history of the people who settled it, particularly the aristocratic French settlers who brought their cooking and architecture to the area.
If you wanted to understand Utah, you would almost certainly examine the history of Brigham Young and LDS pioneers. Once you understand the history of a state, you begin to understand each state’s special cultural contribution to the U.S.A.
Something similar is true of Christian denominations; history helps us understand what each denomination cherishes. Lutherans trace their roots to the 1500’s when a German named Martin Luther confronted the religious leaders of his day with the Biblical truth that God graciously accepts sinful men through faith alone in Christ alone.
Presbyterians often trace their roots to John Calvin, a French theologian of the 1600’s who was dedicated to preaching through the Bible verse by verse. Methodists started in England in the 1700’s thanks to the evangelistic outdoor preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The Northern Baptist denomination emerged in the U.S.A. in 1845 to express its conviction that slavery should be abolished. Other Christian movements spontaneously began in Africa, China, and Russia in the 1900’s.
The historical reality is that Christian movements have developed through the efforts of many different leaders who lived in many different places at many different times in history. The founding members of the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and other denominations probably never met each other, just as many of the settlers of Massachusetts never met the founders of Louisiana or the founders of Utah.
These denominations, at least at their beginning, shared a unified belief in the unchanging gospel message from the Bible. Bible believers in different countries, writing in different languages for different cultures, wrote to present the fruit of their Bible study in their own contexts. The result is that many different “denominations” of Christians have emerged.
A common misconception among Latter-day Saints is that denominational diversity in Protestant Christianity points to vast differences in doctrinal beliefs. Among Protestant denominations, there remains remarkable doctrinal agreement. How so?
Let’s return to our analogy between Christendom and the U.S.A. Almost all Americans from every state display a deep commitment to the Constitution and to the principle of freedom. Our unified commitment to liberty, however, has not created uniformity of preferences.
In California, we might find people rallying together to protect the coastline from erosion. In Iowa, we find Hawkeyes petitioning government representatives for corn-based ethanol subsidies. In New Orleans, cafes put gumbo on their menus.
Americans from different states prefer different governmental policies, different food, different jobs, different dress, and different sports. Americans even have different accents. Nonetheless, Americans are unified by their devotion to the Constitutional freedoms of America.
Something similar is true of Christian movements. Belief in the one, true gospel that unites the spirits of all Christians does not require Christians to display outward uniformity in every lifestyle decision or devotional practice. The points of unity that all true Christians share are faith in Jesus as Savior and submission to the Bible alone as the ultimate authority for faith and practice.
Despite the fact that Christians sometimes apply their faith in Jesus and the principles of the Bible differently in different denominations, the Bible itself is given the final say about what truths we should believe, what attitudes we should manifest, and what commands we should obey.
The Bible states that when sinners believe into Jesus (John 3:16), they become united with Christ (Romans 6:1-6) and with every member of the Godhead (John 14:20). Further still, the Bible states that as believers are united with Christ, they become united with each other as members of the same spiritual body (Rom. 12:5).
Linked to Christ, we are all linked to each other in one body that shares God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). We are living branches organically growing from the same true Vine (John 15), living stones being built up together as a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5; Ephesians 2:19-21), and organically connected as functioning members of Christ’s body (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 6:15; 12:27; Ephesians 3:6; 5:3) under the direction of our Head, the Savior of the body (Eph. 5:23).
We become sons and daughters of God (2 Corinthians 6:18; 1 John 3:1; Revelation 21:7) and members of His family (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 4:17).
In addition, Christians are privileged to call each other brethren. Christian union springs from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17, 12:13; 1 John 3:24) and the same Savior (John 14:19; Galatians 3:29), a union which is indissoluble (John 10:28; Romans 8:35, 37; 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 17).
All Christians are permanently part of the same body and are designed by God to have a role in the functioning of that spiritual body (Eph. 4:16, Rom. 12:4-6). We don’t get to choose our spiritual family members any more than we get to choose our earthly family members. Every time a person is born-again through faith, God the Father places a new child of God in the Christian family for all eternity (John 1:12, John 3:3-5).
As a result, all Christians are commanded to love and appreciate one another. We share a common citizenship, a common submission, common privileges, common fruit, common doctrine, common life, common calling, and common needs. What can be said of all Americans can be said of all born-again Christians: we have a deep, nation-like unity despite our differences.
The True Center
Since Jesus Christ is the true source of all unity, we urge people to make Christ, not a church, the primary focus of their lives. The focus of the Bible is Christ (Rev. 19:10). The focus of New Testament ministry is the building up of people who are in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16 and Col. 1:24-29). The key to Christian living is total dedication to following Christ.
Historically, some denominations have walked away from Christ. When they do, it means that they have seceded from the unifying principles of Christian faith by rejecting the authority of the Bible, by misidentifying the Person of Christ, or by abandoning the gospel message, just to name a few.
In such cases, we grieve, we attempt to restore Biblical unity, and we encourage true Christians inside that denomination to find a new denominational home, one that is seeking Christ’s true Kingdom. Sadly, sometimes Christians must choose Christ over their denomination.
The practical question for every follower of Jesus is “Where, and with whom, should I worship?” The answer to this question is actually quite simple. God wants you to be joined to Christians (1) who are clearly committed to the Bible and (2) who keep the message of Christ front and center.
Find believers who are excited about Christ, not about their movement. Find believers who are focused on studying the Bible and obeying it. Find believers who respect believers from a wide variety of backgrounds, but who are more committed to the Bible than to any denomination.
If you follow these guidelines, you will end up in fellowship with godly brothers who are building something bigger than themselves and something bigger than a Christian institution. You will find yourself participating in building the kingdom of God, a body of people called out by Christ to proclaim the praises of God (1 Pet. 2:9). That kingdom transcends any single denomination.