Why are There So Many Denominations?

(Check out my previous article with a similar theme, “Why are There So Many Bible Translations?“)

Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.

Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?


Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.

The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.

Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.

More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.

In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved. IMG_2976

Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church.  The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”[1]

Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.

These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).[2]

So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:

Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).[3]

There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.

Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.

If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.



[1] Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.

[2][3] Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Is Faith Blind?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

Christians should constantly make an effort to grow in their knowledge of God and the Word He has given us. In addition to the growing of one’s faith, it’s important to also grow in one’s understanding and knowledge of God’s Word. This is because the two of them are intertwined. It’s possible for someone to have a simple yet saving faith in Jesus without knowing much about the Bible or theology in general. However, Christian faith is placed in Christ, trusting that He died and rose again. These realities are true, historical facts that happened 2,000 years in the past. It is definitely true that none of us believe through our sight, because none of us have seen Christ in the flesh. Jesus appeared to His apostles and others in Jerusalem once He rose from the dead. Once He ascended into heaven, that would be the last anyone would see of Him (with the exception of Paul and John) until the end of the world, when He will return in glory and majesty.

However, Jesus did give us His Word. The faith we have in Christ is not just something that was passed down through oral traditions and word-of-mouth. The reality of the true man Jesus of Nazareth was not corrupted along the way as it was transmitted across the globe. Rather, for the sake of the Church, He ensured that the entirety of Scripture would be written down, copied with diligence, and exist throughout the rest of mankind’s time on the earth. When we look back at the oldest Bible manuscripts, it is astounding how certain we can be that they are accurately the same message as the original writings (despite what secular scholars might want you to believe.)

Side note: for more information on the reliability of Biblical texts and the accuracy of Scripture, I highly recommend checking out Alpha and Omega Ministries, run by Dr. James White. He has tons of blog posts, videos, and debates defending the historical integrity of the Bible, and the information he presents is sure to nurture your confidence in Scripture.

Seeing is not everything, especially when it comes to Christianity. When Thomas the apostle did not believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus in the flesh, Jesus replied, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) We are blessed by the fact that our faith in God is not a belief of mere physical sight. Even those who personally saw Jesus still needed the Word of God preached to them! Simply physically seeing Jesus doesn’t produce Christian faith. Rather, we are given the gift of faith through the Words of Jesus’ mouth, and he extends that Word to us in baptism and preaching.

It’s a common misconception that the faith of a Christian is just blind trust, where we “follow” Jesus just because. When a young child asks a difficult theological question that they legitimately want an answer to, their parents might be quick to tell them, “That’s just how it is. You need to have more faith.” 

I’m not trying to say that we can understand every reason behind God’s every action. I’m also not implying that we shouldn’t trust God with all of our heart, no matter what situation we are in. Rather, we should be joyful and recognize the fact that He has blessed us by giving us answers.

He has given us the privilege to know His plan of salvation and why He does certain things. He is not asking us to blindly follow Him, with God silently marching ahead and never saying anything to us. Instead, He takes hold of our lives and guides them with the instruction of His Word. He communicates His intentions and plans through the Word and Sacraments. We are perpetually blessed by the fact that we can always hold on to Christ and His crucifixion, even when everything else in our short lives seem uncertain.

It’s important, though, to talk about the other side of the coin. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith in Christ does not work in the same manner as the scientific world. Our faith is not a collection of data and observations, verifiable by repeated experiments conducted throughout our lives. Too many Christians base their faith on the condition of their own lives and what they find when they look inside their hearts. Sadly, these people are told that if they’re going to church enough, being nice enough to strangers, and making sure they tithe 10%, they can be assured that they have faith. Looking to ourselves and into our hearts for the assurance of our faith can never end well. When we look into our own hearts, even as Christians, all we find are “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander.” (Matthew 15:19) Our sinful hearts are the same hearts that Jesus came to redeem. Until we enter God’s heavenly kingdom, our hearts and minds will be filled with sin.

Every Christian, no matter how devout, will have moments of doubt and unbelief. In fact, our entire lives are spent still being sinners who are only justified on account of Christ. Instead of looking introspectively for evidence of our faith, we need to look to something (or someone) outside of ourselves. We look at the cross, Christ crucified. We look to His Word where He assures us that He has hold of us. We look back to the moment of our baptism, the moment when Christ claimed us as His own.

God could have written down just one sentence of Scripture if He had wanted to. He could have simply said, “believe in my Son because I say so.” And it certainly is true that we trust in God because He is omniscient and perfect. But how do we know this about God? How do we know He is loving and kind and gracious? How would we know any of these important details if God had not given us the full story? Thanks be to God that He wrote down an entire book for us, preserved it throughout all of history, and delivered it to us, where we read countless stories of God’s mercy and faithfulness. God rules over our world and all of our history. He didn’t leave us on our own to figure things out with our own reason. He called us to faith with comprehensible, faith-creating words. The Word – His Son, Jesus Christ.

“In these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

Hebrews 1:2 (ESV)

Reflections – 2 Timothy 4:17

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

2 Timothy 4:17 (ESV)

The apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy, his son in the faith. He was referencing an event in which all of his friends deserted him – nobody came to his aid when he was being persecuted. Paul couldn’t rely completely on the faithfulness of his fellow Christians. When things got too dangerous, they fled away from him, frightened of the physical harm that might come to them on account of the Gospel.

Our friends and siblings in the Faith will definitely help us through the tough times in our lives. We will have to rely on their help when we face trouble in our lives. But they are still sinful human beings – they are prone to turning their backs on us when they are placed in harm’s way.

God, however, is faithful in all circumstances. Even when we are faithless towards God, He remains faithful to us. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 2:13 – “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” God has promised countless times in the Bible to remain faithful to His people, and He remains faithful to us through the work of the person Jesus Christ and our faith created by the Holy Spirit. God is faithful on account of what Jesus did for us, not because of anything we have done. If God was not faithful and merciful to all Christians, He would be denying the redemptive value of Christ’s atonement. Therefore, God must always remain faithful. To do otherwise would go against the very nature of who He is. When the LORD spoke through the prophet Malachi, He made this statement of faithfulness – “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6) He had mercy on the nation of Israel because He had made a promise to them – the promise that He would send the Messiah.

Back to the story of Paul – God showed His faithfulness to Paul by strengthening him and allowing him to escape from the danger surrounding him. Even more importantly, in the grand scheme of things, He rescued Paul for the sake of the Gospel. If Paul had died then and there, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament. God preserved Paul so that we could hear the complete Word of God.

Eventually, God allowed Paul to die a gruesome death on account of his faithful proclamation of the Gospel. Does this made God unfaithful? Of course not. In reality, our death and departure from this sinful world is the point when we will fully taste the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness. God has conquered death, our greatest enemy, and transformed it into a gateway to eternal life through the death of Jesus. The end of our sinful worldly lives is also the beginning of our eternal reign with Christ.

Of course, God does clothe, feed, and provide for Christians in their temporal lives. He does this only out of His mercy and love. However, our lives in this sinful world will still be filled with sorrow and suffering. Jesus’ words to His disciples also ring true for us (though maybe not to the same extent) – “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name.” (Luke 21:16-17) It is in these times when we can look towards the ultimate act of God’s faithfulness – our redemption through the atonement of Christ. We should not expect our earthly lives to be blissful and enjoyable the whole way through – God’s blessing through Jesus comes to its fruition not in this world, but in the next. Jesus didn’t suffer for our ability to live prosperous and wealthy lives. (Looking at you, Joel Osteen.) Rather, He gives us the ultimate gift of wealth on account of Christ. We spend our entirely earthly lives focusing our eyes on the cross, running the race of faith, whose finish line is everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

2 Timothy 4:7 (ESV)