Christianity has developed into thousands of denominations worldwide. While this may sound divisive and negative, denominations form for a variety of reasons, with some that are negative and others that are positive.
Prior to the 1500s, the two major branches of Christianity included the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, with the major difference involving the leadership of the Catholic Church by the pope. The Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, resulted in the development of new groups of churches independent of the Catholic Church based on the Word of God and salvation by faith alone. The three major church movements included the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (largely influenced by John Calvin), and Anabaptist or free churches, led by Huldrych Zwingli and focused on the practice of believer’s baptism by immersion.
From these branches of Protestant church have come a wide variety of groups. Some other well-known denominations in the United States include Methodists (formed under John Wesley’s leadership), Baptists (of various subgroups), the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Free Church, Nazarene Church, and many others.
Some of these groups formed based on regions, such as Southern Baptists that began in the southern part of the United States. Other groups started based on various distinctives, such as the numerous charismatic churches of the twentieth century started under the influence of practicing charismatic gifts. More recently, non-denominational churches have increased in popularity, as new churches have sought to avoid the divisions or negative reputations of some past denominations.
Positive reasons for new denominations have included the starting of new churches in growing areas, as well as new denominations started when churches have left previous groups with unbiblical theology. Negative reasons for denominations have included splits or divisions based on leaders who have had integrity issues, as well as denominations divided over theological issues, such as no longer believing in the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
Denominations can offer great advantages when managed well. As a group, several churches working together as a denomination can better fund missionary work to unreached people. In addition, a denomination of churches can bring unity by standing for key biblical issues in culture, such as supporting the pro-life movement or standing for religious freedom.
However, denominations have often been viewed negatively, showing disunity in the body of Christ. This has sometimes sadly been true, as too many churches, leaders, and members have chosen to divide and start new groups rather than reconcile with current ones. Instead of viewing denominations positively or negatively, however, we encourage believers to evaluate each independent congregation.
The local church usually operates best at the local level, offering hope to those in its community. When we look at the division in today’s denominations, we can easily become discouraged. However, when we seek ways to get involved in a local church and serve, we can make a great impact on others and lead others to faith in Christ.
In John 17:20–21, Jesus prayed, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” He desires unity among his people. Our goal must be to work together with other believers on the foundations of God’s Word to make disciples of all nations.
Used by permission from 100 Bible Questions and Answers by Alex McFarland & Bert Harper; copyright 2021, Broadstreet Publishing Group, LLC.
Rev. Alex McFarland is heard daily on the American Family Radio network and weekly on The Alex McFarland Show (podcast and YouTube channels). He directs Biblical Worldview for Charis Bible College, located in Colorado. Alex speaks frequently throughout the U.S. For more information go to https://alexmcfarland.com/speaking/.