Drive through most American towns and you’re likely to see a host of different church buildings. From Gothic stone and wooden steeples to modern forms and schoolhouse-like buildings, the architecture isn’t the only difference in these churches—what takes place inside varies as well.
Back up about two thousand years. It’s the night before Jesus is crucified. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus gathers together his closest followers. Knowing the adversity that lies ahead, he prays with them and for them. Then he prays for future generations of Christians:
"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father. . . . I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."1
Jesus prays for “complete unity” so that his future followers “may be one.” Well, what happened to that?
Christians are often known for their squabbles and divisions, not the unity, harmony, and cooperation among them. Even when they appear to get along, they divide up into hundreds of different groups, churches, and denominations—sometimes even side by side on the same street.
This is confusing for everyone. If you’re not a Christian and you want to visit a church or explore spiritual issues, where do you even start? And if you are a Christian, aren’t all these divisions unhealthy? Don’t they betray the very spirit of Jesus’ prayer?
Within Christianity, there are three primary divisions: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. In the United States, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are the most common.2
While virtually all Roman Catholic churches hold the same beliefs, forms, and structure, the theology of Protestant churches varies according to smaller groupings. These include Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches, as well as numerous other groups.
In addition, there are a growing number of churches that are mainly Protestant in their doctrine but do not affiliate with any specific denomination. They are considered nondenominational.
So why are there so many Christian denominations?
For starters, let’s not forget that denominations are made up of churches, which are made up of people, who often just do not get along. Like everyone else, Christians struggle with pride, selfishness, stubbornness, the desire to wield power, and hypocrisy, so they sometimes respond to their disagreements poorly.
This has often led to debates and divisions within churches and denominations, which in turn lead to the creation of new churches and denominations. It’s an unfortunate situation but a reality, given human nature. Christianity, of course, is not alone in this; almost every religion is divided and subdivided into major groups for the same reasons.
Beyond all that, Christians sometimes have legitimate disagreements about beliefs or practices that are more secondary in nature: What does baptism mean and who should be baptized? How should believers structure their local churches? Who should fill leadership roles? How often should the faithful practice Holy Communion? How should Christians interpret certain passages of Scripture?
These are all good questions, and the answers are not always clear or explicit in the Bible. The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to exercise wisdom and humility when it comes to “disputable matters.”3
One reason for the existence of so many denominations is disparity in personality, passions, and talents. Consider individuals for a moment. Some people connect with God best through the exercise of their minds or while in nature. Others experience spirituality through creative or artistic expression. Still others feel a sacred or divine connection when they serve others or help those who are hurting.
While all of these are admirable and valid means to connect with God, it’s no surprise that different churches and even whole denominations embodying these distinctive personalities have emerged.
Another reason relates to the role of tradition. Some people appreciate the structure and heritage of worshiping God according to traditions passed down over many centuries. Thus they might be more comfortable in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or Lutheran churches. Others, however, prefer to explore new and different ways of worshiping God or practicing their faith; they might feel boxed in by rituals or traditions. Therefore a nondenominational church might suit them best.
Culture plays a critical role as well; people from different cultures practice their faith in distinctive ways. It should not surprise us if churches in a middle-class English town are extremely different from those in a war-torn, poverty-stricken village in Africa. Consequently, churches and whole denominations will vary greatly depending upon the geographical location and cultural values of the people themselves.
Of course, these are not the only reasons that different denominations exist, but practical matters such as these often play significant roles in church divisions.
Finally, it should be noted that a lack of uniformity among Christian denominations does not necessarily imply a lack of unity. Regardless of church, denomination, culture, or geographical location, there are a few central tenets that unite virtually all Christians.4
Christians believe in a three-in-one God—made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believe that all humans are sinful and in need of grace. Moreover, Christians hold that only Jesus—through his life, death, and resurrection—makes it possible for us to experience God’s forgiveness and grace. Christians also believe that the Bible most clearly reveals these spiritual truths.
As one Christian once wrote: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”5
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 17:20b–23, italics added.
- See Craig D. Atwood, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 13th ed., (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010).
- See The Holy Bible, Romans 14:1-23.
- For example, see the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed for nearly universally accepted statements of faith within Christianity.
- This quotation is often attributed to Saint Augustine, but it is uncertain that he was its author. See the discussion in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), vol. 7, 650–653.
- Photo Credit: Forewer / Shutterstock.com.