10 Problems with Denominationalism:
Definition of Terms:
In the early Church, the concept of denominations as we understand them today did not exist. The early church saw itself as a unified body of believers, united under the leadership of the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the concept of denominationalism, with its emphasis on separate organized groups with distinct identities, was not prevalent either.
Both Martin Luther and John Calvin sought church unity, however it was within the context of their own theological frameworks and focused on bringing others into alignment with their own theological views. As doctrinal disagreements escalated, Luther’s teachings eventually led to the formation of Lutheranism as a separate denomination. Ulrich Zwingli’s views on the Real Presence would clash with Luther’s, resulting in another denomination. Both Luther and Zwingli would persecute the Anabaptists for their rejection of infant baptism. Zwingli played a role in the Zurich city council’s decision to execute Anabaptist leader Felix Manz by drowning. Similarly, John Calvin sought to establish a reformed church in Geneva with harsh treatment of any opposition. Notable examples being the execution of Michael Servetus and the banishment of Jerome Bolsec as well as any Catholic priests.
While both Luther and Calvin desired unity among believers, the formation of separate denominations within the Protestant movement can be seen as a direct consequence of their differences in interpretation and theological emphases. Acceptance of denominationalism as inevitable grew in the 18th century with the rise of evangelical movements and revivals that emphasized personal faith and conversion. As more denominations sprang up, it became clear that unity was an impossibility. The 20th century saw the advent of “non-Denominationalism”, which sought to separate itself from traditional denominations, but in truth, formed yet another denomination. It is estimated that there are currently over 40,000 denominations with more cropping up every day. A few of the problems with the concept of Denominationalism are;
- Fragmentation: Denominationalism leads to fragmentation as different denominations develop unique doctrines, interpretations, and practices. St Paul pleaded that Christians agree on everything (1 Cor. 1:10) and be of one mind and in full accord (Phil. 1:27, 2:2) so that they “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). There are currently over 40,000 denominations, each claiming it’s beliefs to be Scriptural.
- Lack of Unity: Christ prayed the Church would be one (John 17:20-23). Emphasis on denominational autonomy hinders unity and cooperation. Non-denominational groups claim to avoid these problems, but are, in actuality, simply more denominations with their own doctrines.
- Doctrinal Confusion: The proliferation of denominations can contribute to theological disagreements, which are often contradictory and cause confusion amongst believers. Some examples include Lutherans holding the Real Presence and baptismal regeneration in high regard, while Baptists deny both. Presbyterians and Methodists believe in infant baptism, while most Evangelicals hold to “believers baptism”.
Denominations also disagree on whether or not salvation can be lost.
- No effective method for determining which doctrines are essential nor how to define those doctrines. For example, many disagree on whether baptism is “essential”. Even though Protestants agree on sola fide and sola scriptura, they have different understandings of what these mean. Some denominations hold to “faith alone” in the strictest sense, while others posit that works play a role in “genuine faith”. There are also differences in how to interpret “Scripture Alone” with Fundamentalists believing in a strict literal sense, while others think a higher critical approach is necessary. Still others think that at least some weight must be given to the opinions of the Church Fathers and early Councils.
- Lack of Scriptural Authority: There is no agreed upon authority to determine Biblical Canon or definitively interpret Scripture. The Bible cannot resolve differences in interpretation nor does it ever explicitly state which books to include in the Bible. There is no authority to resolve disputes on interpretation or Biblical canon between denominations.
- No effective method for reprimanding or correcting members in grave sin or theological error. (Matt 18:17-18, Luke 10:16, 1 Cor. 5:1-5, Gal 1:8-9).
- Competition and Rivalry: Denominationalism can foster a sense of competition and rivalry among different religious groups, as they vie for followers, resources, and influence. This can lead to tension and animosity rather than promoting harmony and cooperation.
- Religious Exclusivity: Some denominations believe in their own exclusivity of salvation; that all who practice differently are damned. This fosters prejudice and a lack of humility (Matt 23:12, Phil 2:3-4).
- Dilution of Faith: The wide range of denominational options can sometimes dilute the core tenets and practices of the Christian tradition. The focus on accommodating diverse beliefs and practices weakens the integrity of the faith (2 Peter 2:1, 1 Tim 4:1).
- Theological Relativism: Denominationalism contributes to a perception of theological relativism, where personal preferences and subjective interpretations become more influential than objective truths or core teachings of the faith. This erodes the sense of objective moral and theological standards.
The Gospel of Matthew 18:17
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The Gospel of Matthew 24:10-13
Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
2 Peter 2:1:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
1 Timothy 4:1:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”
1 Corinthians 1:10
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Hebrews 13:7-9, 17
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings;
2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.
1 Timothy 3:15
But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.
2 Peter 1:20
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
2 Peter 3:15-16
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
Church Father Quotes:
“Be not deceived, my brethren: If anyone follows a maker of schism [i.e., is a schismatic], he does not inherit the kingdom of God; if anyone walks in strange doctrine [i.e., is a heretic], he has no part in the passion [of Christ]. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3–4:1 [A.D. 110]).
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes [John 1:9]. Those, therefore, who lived according to reason [Greek, logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them. . . . Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason [logos] were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason [logos], whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason [logos] are Christians. Such as these can be confident and unafraid” (First Apology 46 [A.D. 151]).
“In the Church God has placed apostles, prophets, teachers, and every other working of the Spirit, of whom none of those are sharers who do not conform to the Church, but who defraud themselves of life by an evil mind and even worse way of acting. Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Against Heresies 3:24:1 [A.D. 189]).
“[The spiritual man] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, destroy it—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For they can bring about no ‘reformation’ of enough importance to compensate for the evil arising from their schism” (ibid., 4:33:7–8).
“If someone from this people wants to be saved, let him come into this house so that he may be able to attain his salvation. . . . Let no one, then, be persuaded otherwise, nor let anyone deceive himself: Outside of this house, that is, outside of the Church, no one is saved; for, if anyone should go out of it, he is guilty of his own death” (Homilies on Joshua 3:5 [A.D. 250]).
“Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress [a schismatic church] is separated from the promises of the Church, nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. . . . He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 6, 1st ed. [A.D. 251]).
“Let them not think that the way of life or salvation exists for them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since the Lord says in the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And any man who has the insolence to refuse to listen to the priest or judge, whoever he may be in those days, that man shall die’ [Deut. 17:12]. And then, indeed, they were killed with the sword . . . but now the proud and insolent are killed with the sword of the Spirit, when they are cast out from the Church. For they cannot live outside, since there is only one house of God, and there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church” (Letters 61:4 [A.D. 253]).
“When we say, ‘Do you believe in eternal life and the remission of sins through the holy Church?’ we mean that remission of sins is not granted except in the Church” (ibid., 69:2 [A.D. 253]).
“Peter himself, showing and vindicating the unity, has commanded and warned us that we cannot be saved except by the one only baptism of the one Church. He says, ‘In the ark of Noah a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Similarly, baptism will in like manner save you” [1 Peter 3:20-21]. In how short and spiritual a summary has he set forth the sacrament of unity! In that baptism of the world in which its ancient wickedness was washed away, he who was not in the ark of Noah could not be saved by water. Likewise, neither can he be saved by baptism who has not been baptized in the Church” (ibid., 73:11).
“[O]utside the Church there is no Holy Spirit, sound faith moreover cannot exist, not alone among heretics, but even among those who are established in schism” (Treatise on Rebaptism 10 [A.D. 256]).
“It is, therefore, the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. . . . Whoever does not enter there or whoever does not go out from there, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. . . . Because, however, all the various groups of heretics are confident that they are the Christians and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, let it be known that this is the true Church, in which there is confession and penance and which takes a health-promoting care of the sins and wounds to which the weak flesh is subject” (Divine Institutes 4:30:11–13 [A.D. 307]).
“Heretics bring sentence upon themselves since they by their own choice withdraw from the Church, a withdrawal which, since they are aware of it, constitutes damnation. Between heresy and schism there is this difference: that heresy involves perverse doctrine, while schism separates one from the Church on account of disagreement with the bishop. Nevertheless, there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church” (Commentary on Titus 3:10–11 [A.D. 386]).
“We believe also in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church. For heretics violate the faith itself by a false opinion about God; schismatics, however, withdraw from fraternal love by hostile separations, although they believe the same things we do. Consequently, neither heretics nor schismatics belong to the Catholic Church; not heretics, because the Church loves God; and not schismatics, because the Church loves neighbor” (Faith and the Creed 10:21 [A.D. 393]).
“I do not hesitate to put the Catholic catechumen, burning with divine love, before a baptized heretic. Even within the Catholic Church herself we put the good catechumen ahead of the wicked baptized person . . . For Cornelius, even before his baptism, was filled up with the Holy Spirit [Acts 10:44–48], while Simon [Magus], even after his baptism, was puffed up with an unclean spirit [Acts 8:13–19]” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists4:21).
“The apostle Paul said, ‘As for a man that is a heretic, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him’ [Titus 3:10]. But those who maintain their own opinion, however false and perverted, without obstinate ill will, especially those who have not originated the error of bold presumption, but have received it from parents who had been led astray and had lapsed . . . those who seek the truth with careful industry and are ready to be corrected when they have found it, are not to be rated among heretics” (Letters 43:1 [A.D. 412]).
“Whoever is separated from this Catholic Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ, no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living, shall not have life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (ibid., 141:5).
“Anyone who receives the sacrament of baptism, whether in the Catholic Church or in a heretical or schismatic one, receives the whole sacrament; but salvation, which is the strength of the sacrament, he will not have, if he has had the sacrament outside the Catholic Church [and remains in deliberate schism]. He must therefore return to the Church, not so that he might receive again the sacrament of baptism, which no one dare repeat in any baptized person, but so that he may receive eternal life in Catholic society, for the obtaining of which no one is suited who, even with the sacrament of baptism, remains estranged from the Catholic Church” (The Rule of Faith 43 [A.D. 524]).
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer & Founder of the Calvinist Reformed Evangelical Tradition
His complaints about factionalism and “denominations” were as follows: “Every state [of life] has its own Gospel, which they forge for themselves according to their appetites, so that there is as great a diversity between the Gospel of the court, and the Gospel of the justices and lawyers, and the Gospel of merchants, as there is between coins of different denominations.” -John Calvin’s short work Advertissement contre l’astrologie 1549.
“Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.” –Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111.
“I am persuaded that it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner.” – Calvin’s letter to Farel on 24 July (for more words directly from Calvin’s pen, read Selected Works of John Calvin)
When Jacques Gruet, a theologian with differing views, placed a letter in Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite, he was arrested, tortured for a month and beheaded on July 26, 1547. Gruet’s own theological book was later found and burned along with his house while his wife was thrown out into the street to watch.
Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, physician, scientist and Bible scholar, suffered a worse fate. He was Calvin’s longtime acquaintance who resisted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he angered Calvin by returning a copy of Calvin’s Institutes with critical comments in the margins. So what did Calvin do? You can read his resolution from a personal letter he wrote to a friend:
“Servetus offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” – Letter to Farel, 13 February 1546
The next time Servetus attended Calvin’s Sunday preaching service on a visit, Calvin had him arrested and charged with heresy. The 38 official charges included rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism. The city magistrates condemned him to death. Calvin pleaded for Servetus to be beheaded instead of the more brutal method of burning at the stake, but to no avail.
On October 27, 1553, green wood was used for the fire so Servetus would be slowly baked alive from the feet upward. For 30 minutes he screamed for mercy and prayed to Jesus as the fire worked its way up his body to burn the theology book strapped to his chest as a symbol of his heresy. Calvin summarized the execution this way:
“Servetus . . . suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies?” – Calvin
How could such torture be condoned? In November 1552 the Geneva Council declared Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to be a “holy doctrine which no man might speak against.” Disagreeing with Calvin’s view of God was a violation warranting the death penalty according to the way John Calvin interpreted Leviticus 24:16. The Geneva city council records describe one verdict where a man who publicly protested against John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was flogged at all the city’s main intersections and then expelled (“The Minutes Book of the Geneva City Council, 1541-59,” translated by Stefan Zweig, Erasmus: The Right to Heresy). You did not get to disagree with Calvin in this town.
John Calvin argued:
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, knowingly and willingly incur their guilt. It is not human authority that speaks, it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church.”