Denominations within orthodox Christianity exist primarily because people disagree on the person and/or work of Jesus Christ. They don’t disagree about small things. Denominations make formal doctrinal statements concerning the authority of God in salvation and the responsibility of people. They make statements about the essential nature of the person and about whether salvation is by grace or works. They make statements regarding the nature of God. They make statements about the afterlife and the duty of man. These are permanent marker (first tier) issues and the Scriptures are hopefully interpreted in order to form these statements. Unfortunately, denominations also form and split off from other denominations because of disagreements regarding pencil issues (second and third tier).
Instead of coming together and seeking the truth of the text as iron sharpening iron, sinful people in the church splinter from, excommunicate, and divide groups that disagree or voice any differing opinion or criticism. Thus, we are left with many forms of Christianity- some healthy and genuinely searching the Scriptures and some not, but all filled with sinful people who need the salvation of Christ.
The earliest form of denominationalism we see in Scripture could be the division between the Pharisees and Sadducees. Both were Jewish, but the Pharisees believed that there would be a resurrection of the dead and the Sadducees did not. That is a major issue. Though Jesus never referred to Himself as a Pharisee, He agreed with the Pharisees on this point. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee. This isn’t enough information to deal with the question at hand.
In the books of Acts, we begin to see a splintering in the Christian faith. One group was the church as led by the apostles, who were given authority by Jesus Christ. From this group, two groups splintered off. One group was that of the Judaizers, who taught that one must first be circumcised into Judaism before one could become a Christian. The other group was that of the Gnostics, who began preaching works-based righteousness coming from secret knowledge and based on the idea that the material world is evil. It was doctrinal issues that caused the first divisions in the church and it is doctrinal divisions that continue to cause divisions. These divisions come about when people get an idea in their heads and are unwilling to approach the text honestly with the intent to change in submission to the text or be honest about the unknowns.
Such was the case with the division of the gnostic revival during the time of the Patristics. Such was the case with the split of the protestants from Romanism. Such was the case with the splitting of Arminianism from the Protestant faith (which was reformed). Such is the case now with the multiplicity of Protestant denominations, both Arminian and Reformed. Denominations exist because sinful people who refer to themselves as Christians can’t agree on what the Bible says for a variety of reasons. What the Bible says is important with regard to our confessions and to our ministry. The Bible is the word of God.
When the Christian community became more widely aware of the teaching of the Judaizers, a meeting was called to discuss the truths according to Scripture. Though Scripture doesn’t give any explicit instruction, condemnation, or condoning of denominational affiliation, we see what is described as something very similar to a denominational meeting.
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.
“And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they had stopped speaking, aJames answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.
“Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it, So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ Says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago. Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them,
“The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings. Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls, it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
There was a discussion about doctrine and an evaluation of those doctrines according to the Scriptures and a statement made about what the Scriptures say explicitly about the subject. The doctrines discussed are either discovered to be heresy, unknown, or sound doctrine. In a good council, synod, or denominational meeting, the Bible is the authority for the evaluation of any doctrine. Over the years, many doctrines have been renounced as heresy according to the authority of Scripture. Some things have been accepted as sound doctrine by different groups according to tradition or human experience or philosophy.
The participation of one church with others is important because it is in iron sharpening iron that we discover more about the person and work of our Lord according to Scripture.
Denominational affiliation has become more than this. Churches usually also choose to affiliate for the purpose of missions, evangelism, activism, disaster relief and resourcing (or the rejection thereof). The closest thing we see to any of this in Scripture is Paul’s collection of funds from various churches for the purpose of humanitarian aid (1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15). Of course, there is no restriction against any of those things. The only principle we can draw out for sure is that if we are involved in a denomination, the confessions, structure, ministry, and work of that denomination should be carefully measured according to Scripture. If a denomination is not submitted to the authority of Scripture in faith or practice then we would probably be better off not affiliating with that denomination. We preach Christ, not a denomination. We follow Christ, not a denomination. Our agenda is that of Christ, not a denomination. Our authority is the word inspired by Christ, not a denomination. Our mission is that of Christ, not a denomination. Our resource is the teaching of Christ, not that of a denomination. This requires that we be involved so that we know what is going on at a denominational level as iron sharpens iron. Most importantly, we must always return to the source of our faith- the authority of Christ’s word.
People become quarrelsome or divisive for a number of reasons. Our current daily devotionals help us to work through division and controversy in the church. Click here.