Why so many denominations?

By Nick Brzozowski


You may be surprised to hear that this makes it’s way up as one of the top five questions I have been asked as a pastor. And unfortunately, I am always excited, but never prepared to answer this question. It truly is a loaded question, which takes layers of unpacking history and theology to understand. And so, I have accidentally taken up an hour trying to answer this question for more than one poor soul who regrets asking it.


So, for your convenience, here it is in blog form. If you have ever wondered about denominations, this is my most concise and friendly-packaged answer!

If you have ever wondered about denominations, this is my most concise and friendly-packaged answer!

There’s a number of reasons why you might be wondering about denominations.

First, if you are wondering about Christianity, then it only makes sense to be curious about how it is organized. It is sort of like when people ask us where our church is. It’s not like the location of our church is the most important piece of information about us, but it does help bring something tangible to understanding Anchor. From the outside, knowing how the denominations work helps create a framework for the rest of Christianity.

Second, you may be wondering which denomination is for you. We live in a world filled with seemingly endless options. And if you are considering joining a church, there may be 150 within twenty minutes of your house. Knowing something about the denominations might help you better understand which church could be a better fit for you.


Third, you might be skeptical by nature. Honestly, if you are, I think that’s great. Skeptics are my favorite people! Some of my most meaningful conversations and best insights have come from my skeptical friends. And so, if you are skeptical, then, maybe, this question has crossed your mind: “If there are so many different ways to understand and practice Christianity, then how can you be so sure any one of them is right?” The fact that there are so many denominations may actually point to the fact that Christianity doesn't have its act together.


So, how many denominations are there. It actually depends on how you count it. Does Catholicism count as 1 or 200 (for all the countries it may find itself in)? On the high end, there are 40,000 denominations today. But, on the low end, there are only 300 (which, seems to still be high in my opinion - See my source here)


Before we explore where some of the more popular denominations came from, let’s take a bird’s eye view at what separates one denomination from another. In my research, I was surprised to see that we can find these three themes in the very beginning of the Christian church in the first century AD.


3 Ways Denominations Differ from One Another

#1. Beliefs


We have evidence of the very first generation of Christians immediately deciding that beliefs matter and challenge what’s considered “false doctrine.” In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he challenges him to pay close attention to his doctrine, as well as his life (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul’s saying that it is just as important what you believe as how you behave. And Luke records in Acts 15, an occasion where the church is confronting people who were spreading the belief that you have to be circumcised to be a Christian. This might be the most convincing text to tell us that beliefs matter (especially, to the guys!).

Now, this shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that beliefs matter so much that they would divide some groups from others. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus makes clear that those who believe in him as the Son of God will have life. Our relationship with God hinges entirely on believing in Jesus. Now, before you think that that is nonsense and unfair to all those who have never heard of Jesus, follow me for a second. According to John 1:1, Jesus (the Word) is God. So, can you really have a relationship with God if you don’t believe he even exists?

So, over the last 2,000 years, churches have divided over various beliefs. Was the Holy Spirit sent from the Father or the Father and the Son? Do the gifts of tongues, prophecy and healing still happen today? Seeing that we are saved by grace, what do we mean by “grace?” Do we baptize infants or adults? What really happens when we partake in communion? Does the New Testament restrict women from serving in leadership? etc...


If there are so many different beliefs and different ways to interpret the Bible, then what actually makes Christianity, Christianity? Are there any truly Christian beliefs that are shared by all denominations? As a matter of fact, there are! Now, of course, this isn’t ironed out word-for-word anywhere that I can point you to. But, there are a handful of beliefs that are critical (they matter a lot for life and faith), clear (there is ambiguity in the Bible) and common (they have been held by Christians from the start).


These core beliefs include (but not necessarily limited to) the following:

  • God is the creator and ruler of the world.

  • The Holy Spirit lives in everyone who trusts in Jesus.

  • Jesus is the Son of God.

  • God created people in his image and everyone matters to God.

  • Everyone who trusts in Jesus alone has eternal life.

  • The Bible is God’s Word to us.


Taking these as core beliefs of Christianity means that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons share some, but not all of Christianity’s core beliefs.

#2. Methods


Some denominations are known for a more traditional style. Others, more modern. Most denominations tend to focus primarily on one element of the worship service: either preaching (Baptist, Reformed), the music (Pentecostal, Charismatic) or communion (Catholic, main line). Of course, there are varieties within each denomination and impossible to totally caricature one or another.


In Acts 15, we notice a difference in approaches. After failing in the past, Mark wants a second shot at traveling with Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas wants to show compassion, but Paul wants to protect the mission. Both were convinced, and so, in the end, they decided to split into two teams. Now, they didn’t actually form two denominations, but they did create two entities working to spread the gospel. And their difference was not over theology, but rather method.


Besides differences in styles and emphases in a worship service, you will find different denominations utilizing various approaches. In some, the individual churches have a lot of autonomy. In fact, the "denomination", Converge, that Anchor is a part of, leaves so much autonomy and freedom, that we don’t even call it a denomination. It is more of an association of churches or a conference of churches supporting one another. But, the Catholic Church is far more hierarchical in their approach, making decisions at the top that are received by individual churches.

Other differences may include structure of governance (elder run {a board} or congregational {the members are in charge}, priority of mission (planting churches or strengthening churches), selection of leadership (how ordination works, whether or not to ordain women), as well as particular decisions, like how to set up retirement.


#3. Personality


In some ways, this is such an obvious difference that it goes without saying — that different denominations have different people. But, since we are relational by nature, there is a human phenomenon in which we gravitate toward individual people to represent our movement. Certain pastor, priests or popes will become more prominent in people’s minds when they think of faith.

It is similar to the situation in Corinth, when Paul criticizes the church for forming into factions: “What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13).


While we can learn from theologians and spiritual leaders, we have to constantly be careful to avoid letting a celebrity-like figure receive too much of our devotion. Recently, several well-known pastors and leaders have morally failed causing wide-spread devastation to people’s faith. Now, more than ever, we have to remember that no matter the circles or tribes or clubs we relate with most, Jesus is the prime person that we follow.

Where Did They Come From?


The Great Schism: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy


The first major historical divide did not happen until 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Christians split from the Western Roman Catholics in what's known as the Great Schism. “The two groups disagreed on the taking of the sacraments — religious symbols believed to transmit divine grace to the believer. Furthermore, the Eastern Orthodox Christians disagreed with the Roman beliefs that priests should remain celibate and that the Roman pope had authority over the head of the Eastern church.” See source here.


The Reformation: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist and Anglican


The next major division came nearly 500 years later in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis. In an attempt to criticize the Catholic Church of corruption with indulgences (giving money to the church to help your relatives get to heaven) and bring correction, we ended up with a whole new category of Christianity, known as Protestants (basically, non-Catholics). Protestants tend to emphasize the Bible as the authority for life and faith over church leadership and church history. They also stress salvation and assurance of heaven.


Shortly after, King Henry VIII launched the English Reformation. “Based on Henry VIII's desire for an annulment of his marriage (first requested of Pope Clement VII in 1527), the English Reformation began as more of a political affair than a theological dispute.” To this day, the official denomination of England is Anglican, which is the Episcopal church in America.


Along with the new invention of the printing press, the Reformation promoted intellectual exploration and a questioning of pre-existing notions. This opened the door to greater conversations over disagreements and many more schisms. In fact, almost immediately, we see the launch of Lutherans (those who take Luther’s theology), Reformed (those who take John Calvin’s theology) and Anabaptist (those who do not baptize infants).


American History: Baptist and Methodist and Pentecostalism

In 1609, the Baptist church begins with John Smyth, a preacher from Amsterdam. “Smyth was an English Separatist, believed in baptism by immersion and the rejection of liturgy. Puritans, English Separatists and then Mennonites influence Smyth.”


In the 1730s, the First Great Awakening unites the colonies through this shared experience of heightened religious enthusiasm. George Whitfield becomes the famous preacher, speaking to crowds of thousands (enormous for that time). Jonathan Edwards was the theologian of the day. And John and Charles Wesley became known for organizing the movement by launching a system of Bible studies. Apparently the name, Methodists, started as an insult, but stuck on to represent the denomination associated with the Wesley’s.


As one of the youngest denominations with its roots going back to a revival in California in the early 1900s, Pentecostalism has become one of the fastest growing movements globally in the 20th century. Pentecost was the day when the Holy Spirit filled the first Christians, ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. So, Pentecostals will emphasize the work of the Spirit, including signs and wonders, tongues and prophecy.


Even with these denominations, there have been various off-shoots and sub-groups: Southern Baptist, Church of the Nazarene (Methodist), Charismatics (Pentecostal).


Denominations: The Beauty and Brokenness of the Church


One major criticism that non-Christians have with Christianity is how divided it is. Why can’t Christians work together? Why can’t they even get along? If following Jesus makes such a difference in people’s lives, then how can they be so petty toward one another? Also, if Christians can’t agree amongst themselves, how are we supposed to trust anything they say?

With all this criticism toward denominations, there has been a movement of churches choosing not to associate with any denomination at all. At Anchor, we tend to consider ourselves non-denominational, although we have a great organization and amazing people supporting us. We really do think that branding ourselves with one denomination may hurt our attempts to reach people.

But, the multiple denominations does point to good in the church. It shows that leadership is not exempt from being challenged. It shows that theology really does matter, that beliefs make a difference. And with all the denominations, there have been lots of organizations collectively doing great work to serve the world and introduce people to the love of Jesus.


Personally, I believe the global church is both broken and beautiful. And despite the imperfections, the church is still the Bride, the Body and the Building of Christ!

What do you think? Should we get rid of denominations? Is there one denomination that appeals to you the most? What in this blog did you learn?

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