This is the 1st part of a 3 part series. In part 1 we take a look at the history of denominationalism and how it has affected the body of Christ.
Last summer I was a leader of a Q&A discussion group at a christian camp for high schoolers. One high schooler asked a question that many would do well to consider themselves:
“What’s with all the different denominations? I mean, they’re not even in the bible.”
In essence this high schooler was asking why denominations exist, whether they are legitimate, and if they are then which one is the right denomination. To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the history of denominationalism.
(Note: I use “denomination” according to its modern usage, to refer to a people who denominate based on agreement on a body of doctrines.)
The first known hint of denominations appeared in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote to them:
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13
The Corinthians tried to separate themselves according to different leaders. Paul responds with rhetorical questions that point back to what should be everybody’s common denominator – Jesus. So denominations were almost established, but Paul did not allow them to.
Denominationalism in its modern form began to emerge a couple hundred years after Christ when people began to create various theological schools based on the teachings of certain well-known men. People separated themselves according to the teachings they favored and the teachers that taught them.
People further segregated around this time by holding councils to determine the majority vote on what they believed to be right doctrines and thereby declare anyone who believed otherwise to be a heretic.
(Note: Although some would claim that whatever the councils decided must be right, assuming that their meeting and decision making were infallibly inspired by Holy Spirit is just that, an assumption, not to mention an unbiblical assumption.)
But it was during the 16th century that denominationalism gained momentum and became firmly grounded, accompanying the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther and his followers rightly pointed out mistakes such as the practice of indulgences and the teaching of salvation by works, but they separated themselves from Catholics by demonizing them.
Protestants are called Protestants because they were born in a doctrinal protest, and it continues to this day. They are identified by what they placed their highest value on – beliefs. This is why denominations identify themselves primarily by their beliefs, often along with some person who originated that way of thinking (Wesleyan, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc., each of which, if one is familiar with them, conjure up certain doctrinal dispositions).
As time passed, people placed more and more value on getting beliefs right, and as a result the number of issues to disagree over increased. A new denomination emerged with each new disputed doctrine that was considered important enough to split over. Accordingly, separation in the church increased alongside the increase in doctrinal precision.
Contrary to the denominational method of identification, the members of the early church were called “christians” because it was evident to those around them that the person of Christ was most important to them. And if people wanted to describe a group of believers back in the day they didn’t identify them by beliefs but only by physical location (e.g. Paul writes to the church of God at Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, etc.).
Even within denominations people recognize that they don’t believe all the same things (i.e. they may disagree on what is not included in their particular body of doctrine). This raises the question – how significant are beliefs?
We’ll take a look at this question in part 2.