To the outsider, Greek, Ethiopian, Syrian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Egyptian, Russian and other Orthodox groups don’t seem that different from each other or Roman Catholics – however, most are rich in rituals and traditions that have developed over the centuries and which are held dear by the faithful.
Mormons, a large and growing group, believe that their founder in the 1800s was visited by an angel who lead him to a manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which the church teaches is “another Gospel of Jesus Christ” – which is repudiated as heresy by fundamentalists. Similarly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and Seventh-Day Adventists have their own unique teachings passed down by their founders, but rarely accepted by anybody else.
So, is all this division a good thing?
“To the average person,” teaches Pratt, “Christianity includes hundreds of different denominations that disagree with one another in name, organization, doctrine, worship, and plan of salvation. Such a situation clearly constitutes division, not unity. Yet all the denominations claim to be Christian and to follow Jesus Christ. If we really want to please God, however, we must forsake what we want and practice what He wants.”
After all, Ecclesiastes 12:13 teaches us that man’s whole duty is to fear God and keep His commands. We should be determined to do God’s will, not our own. Matthew 16:24 instructs us that to follow Jesus we must deny ourselves. “True religion does not consist of what pleases us,” says Pratt. “It is entirely a question of what pleases God.
“The fundamental consequence of denominationalism is that error is just as good as truth! If the denominational concept is true, then all denominations are acceptable to God even though they flatly contradict one another regarding worship, salvation, etc. This means error is just as good as truth and unrighteousness is just as good as righteousness. Denominationalism must be wrong because it says that error does not condemn.”
Pratt, of course, has a clear idea of what he believes to be the true church. And it does not include groups that are “in error.” Pastor Rick Harrington isn’t so sure. He says the issue can be viewed in terms of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
“The Good: Denominations help people distinguish theological differences. If I am looking for a church that holds to Scripture alone as the highest authority, then I certainly want to stick to a protestant denomination. If I am also looking for one that holds to believer’s baptism, then I want to find a free church or a baptist church. If I want one that is paedo-baptist (infant baptism) I will look to the Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregationalist. If I am Reformed, then usually that means Presbyterian or Congregational. If I want a high-church liturgy, then Anglican or Methodist. You get the idea. Denominations mean we are taking theology seriously. That is a good thing. To water down the message for the sake of unity is a huge mistake.
“The Bad: Denominations can also be bad. By that I mean evil. They can be a source of divisiveness and arrogance. When one denomination begins to think that they are the only real Christians who have a full grasp on all the truth, there is a problem. I’ve seen this in all different denominations. Christ is bigger than any one denomination of Christianity. Sectarianism and divisiveness are flat out evil. This falls into the ‘I follow Paul’ or ‘I follow Apollos’ mentality we read about in 1 Corinthians.
“The Ugly: Sometimes denominations can just be plain ugly. People hide away in their denominational traditions and never peek out to see what else is going on in the world. It is not that people don’t think there can be Christians outside of their denominations, it’s just that they have no association with them. They are ‘American Baptists’ or ‘Southern Baptists’ or ‘Orthodox Presbyterian’ or ‘Evangelical Presbyterian Church.’ Think about how this looks to the world. Instead of making much of our unity in Christ, we turn the church into alphabet soup: ABC, SBC, BGC, EPC, OPC, PCA, UCC, CCCC, PCUSA, UMC, CB, ELCA, IFCA, etc. (yes those are all real denominations).