None can question the importance of unity in the Christian Church. Jesus, Himself, in John 17:21, prays for the unity of all believers, asking “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” In this prayer, we see why unity in the Church is important—it is a potent tool for evangelizing. In unity, there is power, the power of millions working together toward the same goal, toward bringing the Word of God to the unsaved and doing His good work. The building of the Tower of Babel was just such a united show of power, but it was unity for the wrong reasons—the Tower glorified creation, not God. For the good of mankind, God broke apart this union, and mankind was forever scattered and divided. Even in today’s contemporary world of connectivity and mass communication, God’s intervention at the Tower affects every aspect of our lives, causing the barriers between cultures, perceptions, and worldviews to hold fast, and preventing us from fully uniting beneath one human flag. Unity, even within the Church, seems impossible. So the question, then, is this. In light of the events at the Tower of Babel, are denominations within the Church an affront to the prayers of Christ, or are they merely the framework in which we must work? Let us briefly consider why denominations might actually be beneficial.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit form the Trinity—the ultimate example of perfect union and community. Since we are made in the image of God, we have this innate desire for unity—we innately desire to emulate God, even though many do not realize the genesis of these desires, and attempt to fulfill them with harmful substitutes. This emulation is what Christ prayed for in John 17:21, confirming that unity is what God wants for his Church and his people. In Eden, Adam and Eve were created to live in perfect harmony with one another as a microcosm of God’s own community with Himself. In the beginning, all was as God intends.
This changed with the Fall. When man was cast out of Eden, it was not long before community broke down and unity was shattered by the murder of Abel. Mankind continued its descent, and, according to Genesis 6:13, “The earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence,” and so God made the choice to cause the great Flood of Noah’s time, leaving only a few remaining faithful. In time, these faithful repopulated the world. But the Fall continued to exert its influence, and this time, man took the opposite road. Rather than violence and division, mankind united as never before, coming together to build a mighty symbol of their power—the Tower of Babel. But this, too, angered God, as the Tower was focused on exalting creation rather than the Creator. The Tower was, in fact, one of the first tangible proclamations of humanism. In response, God forever divided mankind, as allowing them to continue on their path would have resulted in events far worse than a mere confusion of language—God always acts in ways that are best for us, painful though His judgments may sometimes be.
In the face of God’s dividing act at the Tower of Babel, can the Christian Church find unity within itself? It is surely God’s will that it does, as we have established. The key here, I would argue, is that there can be diversity in unity—that there must be in order for that unity to thrive. People come to Christianity from very different cultures, geographical locations, worldviews, economic strata, and families. Each of these individuals brings something unique to the body of Christ, and is uniquely valuable. The fact is, however, that the entire mass of Christianity will never be able to agree on every point. As we use our fallible human minds to interpret the Bible, an infallible text, mistakes happen. Interpretations vary. And, unfortunately, we have no way of truly knowing, in most cases, which interpretations are the truest to God’s will. No one group of Christians could ever be satisfied with a single, unified doctrine—chaos would erupt, and the mission of the Church would be impeded. However, diversified into denominations which allow for human variance and united in the essentials of Christianity, the Church can function. It is not the optimal outcome, true, but it is what works in a fallen world. Eventually, Christ will return to redeem and unify, and all will be returned to the state God intends. For now, though, the denominations of the Christian Church allow us to pursue God’s will as a diverse group, being individuals in Christ.
There are many instances in which denominationalism can grieve God, however. All Christians should remain united in the essentials of Christianity, essentials such as there being only one God, that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead, and that God exists as a Trinity. This is the difference between diversity and disunity. Disunity occurs when disagreements over interpretation of scripture are taken personally, and become infighting which hurts the image of the Church, and its ability to evangelize. It occurs when denominations are formed out of a lust for power and a sense of self-interest. It happens when fragmentation and barriers keep groups of believers from combining resources and working together when the opportunity presents itself. This is this disunity Christians should fear—the same disunity Christ prayed against.
Are denominations inherently unbiblical? Should Christians avoid any hint of them? I would argue no to both of these questions. Find a church, denominational or not, that suits you and allows for a style of teaching that reaches you best, and allows you to come closest to God. Just as not everyone learns the same—some learn by reading, others by doing, and others by listening—not all pastoral and worship styles will suit all. I, for instance, feel most worshipful when there is great ceremony—it feels as if the ceremony lends worship the seriousness and thoughtfulness that it deserves. Others, because of their background, culture, and upbringing, may enjoy more contemporary worship that feels more authentic to them. If not for a choice of denominations, we might both feel a lack. There is freedom in how we choose to worship and serve God, and if we adhere to the essential doctrines of Christianity, we can congregate as individual groups within the ultimately united Christian Church, living with the reality of our fallen, human divisions, but still striving, as one to bring about the world God intends.