Ask just about any Christian where they go to church and you will likely get an answer that involves a denomination name. They will tell you that they attend the local Lutheran church or the Episcopalian church on Main Street. They might even simply answer with their denomination name when you ask about their faith. “I’m Catholic” or “I’m Pentecostal” are answers that are just as common as the catch-all answer of “I’m Christian.”
Almost every Christian could tell you off the top of their head which denomination they belong to, and many are fiercely loyal to that denomination. Catholics, after all, often feel out of place in a Protestant service, and Protestants have no idea what is happening during an Orthodox worship ceremony. Some denominations dislike each other, while others are so similar that to outsiders they may as well be the same denomination. Some people, however, will make a big deal out of belonging to one denomination over another. The subtext, of course, is that one denomination is better than another. Are people who think that way correct? Do denominations matter in Christianity? If they do, how and why are they important?
Though many Christians would not like to hear it, denominations are a purely human invention. Prior to the Great Schism in A.D. 1054, there was no such thing as a Christian denomination. You either were part of the single, universal Christian church or you were not. That began to change after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split from each other and formed the first two denominations. Following A.D. 1054, Christians suddenly had two groups that they could choose from without abandoning the faith altogether. For centuries, the church remained split into two sections. Then, the Protestant Revolution occurred and the number of Christian denominations in existence exploded. Today, there are dozens of different denominations, and most Christians could name the largest denominations off the top of their heads. Some people feel that these divisions do nothing but cause trouble and encourage Christians to see themselves as artificially separated from other believers.
Those who argue that denominations are damaging are neither completely wrong nor completely right. It is true that denominations are an entirely human invention. Christ never once mentioned that people should be sure to follow Catholic rituals or go to Baptist services. Denominations were created by Christians later as they took Jesus’ teachings and codified them into formal doctrines. Separating denominations from each other was a way to divide the church, but it also brought priests and pastors quite a bit more freedom than they would have had otherwise. When two groups disagreed heavily on doctrinal matters, an increased number of denominations gave one person the opportunity to walk away if they really felt that the other person was following an interpretation that was incompatible with their Christian worldview.
The ability to walk away if something went wrong was not an advantage of denominations that was reserved solely for the clergy. Average Christian laypeople also slowly got the message. Today, there is a great deal of discussion about the negative effect of Christians, especially those who are young and single, constantly church hopping and church hunting. People make a big deal out of the fact that young, single Christians are reluctant to settle on a single church immediately and instead spend months bouncing between a variety of churches or simply debating two.
Constant church hopping does have its disadvantages, and many people have decried the practice as “commercializing” Christianity. They assume that people church shop because they are looking for a church that does not preach anything they disagree with or that would require serious work. There are undoubtedly people who church hop for this very reason, but plenty of other people bounce between churches based on a variety of factors that are geared toward more innocent preferences. After all, a person that wants a small church is not going to be comfortable in a megachurch.
Denominations come in handy when people are deciding where they are going to go to church. The denomination acts like bands do it business. The name of the denomination a church belongs to tells you a great deal what to expect out of a service. Catholics and Lutherans, for example, tend to have services that follow more or less the exact same rituals every week. If you want to have consistency in your church service, you might find the unaltered rituals to be comforting. Denominations also tend to approach worship service itself in different manners. Some use a great deal of music. Others have long sermons. There is little point to you attending a service where you are going to be zoned out half the time. In this respect, denominations can be helpful. You can make an educated decision based on what each denomination is usually like.
Denominations also help create a sense of identity and community. As much as people profess them to be a nightmare and insulting, people like labels. Labels help them really feel their own identity as well as connect with other people. The wider that net is thrown, the less invested in a group a person is likely to be. This is why people often declare themselves to be Presbyterian or Methodist rather than simply stating they are Christian. A more specific label helps them feel like part of a group and establish an automatic connection with other members of that group.
There are certainly good things that go with denominations, but Christians need to be careful not to pour their allegiance into denominations rather than Christ. Denominations came about as a result of human disagreements, while Christ called on Christians to form a single unified Church. That is not to say that you cannot prefer Lutheran services over Baptist ones, but do remember that while you may be a Lutheran, you are a Christian first.