This is the fifth in a series of occasional posts from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, where I have the privilege of serving with Michael O’Neal, a church planter/pastor/teacher from Tennessee, and missionary Scott Carter to teach Christian apologetics to fellow believers and assist local pastors in their discipleship and church-planting efforts.
Oct, 1, 11:45 p.m. — The Off-House, Subang Jaya
The Q&A is simultaneously the most terrifying and invigorating part of any apologetics presentation — at least for me. It’s affirming to field a question for which you are prepared, and a bit sickening to get one that’s so unexpected you wonder if the person is serious. Such as: “What do you know about a secret society called the Illuminati that is Satanically inspired and plotting to take over the world?” A safe answer seems to be the one given to the question about the meaning of life in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:” Forty-two.
But the question I have gotten nearly every night at various student centers and churches in Kuala Lampur is one I would not have guessed to be much of an issue in a nation that is officially Muslim but celebrates its religious diversity: “If the Bible is true, why are there so many Christian denominations?”
Here are some thoughts:
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom.14:1-23; 1 Cor.10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded. “The point of these divisions is never Christ as Lord and Savior, but rather honest differences of opinion by godly, albeit flawed, people seeking to honor God and retain doctrinal purity according to their consciences and their understanding of His Word” (“Why are there so many Christian denominations?” found in www.gotquestions.org).
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another (Eph. 4:32); clearly, this has not always been the case.
Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” The Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and Charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word.
Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers are disciplined or leave the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
In fact, it is important to differentiate between: (1) denominations within the body of Christ; (2) cults (or counterfeit forms of Christianity); and (3) non-Christian false religions. Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and Lutherans, for example, are Christian denominations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (Jehovah’s Witnesses) are cults (religious organizations whose members claim to be Christians and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of historical Christianity). Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are non-Christian false religions.
Within Christian denominations, diversity is a good thing, but disunity is not, according to Gotquestions.org: “If two churches disagree doctrinally, debate and dialogue over the Word may be called for. This type of ‘iron sharpening iron’ (Proverbs 27:17) is beneficial to all. If they disagree on style and form, however, it is fine for them to remain separate. This separation, though, does not lift the responsibility Christians have to love one another (1 John 4:11-12) and ultimately be united as one in Christ (John 17:21-22).”
So what is a believer to do when looking for a church home? “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture,” writes Charles Draper in The Apologetics Study Bible. Gotquestions.org adds the following recommendations: “Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church [are] all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship; it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys.”