The Beauty of Denominations
The Protestant Reformation is one of the most monumental historical events in Christian history and Western Civilization. It changed the landscape of Europe, not just spiritually but politically, economically, and intellectually. Sadly, it also brought about much violence between the followers of Jesus. Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted one another. Protestants persecuted other protestants in the name of sound doctrine. One such example is the Anabaptists. Birthed out of the Reformation, they were a group of protestants who desired to reflect the early Church, wanting to participate in "baptism in the apostolic fashion: upon confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ."1 They denied the idea of infant baptism, citing no Scriptural example for the act. For the expression of their faith through confessional baptism, they were persecuted and martyred…by fellow protestants. “On March 7, 1526, [the Zurich council] decided that anyone found re-baptizing would be put to death by drowning.”2 In today's society, we cannot fathom being martyred because of our understanding of baptism. When the United States was established, religious liberty was a fundamental belief of the founding fathers, resulting in no state or government-sponsored Church. Therefore, the churches shouldered the responsibility for evangelizing the unconverted and nurturing the believer without state support and protection. Christianity was on its own.3 Religious liberty was a revolutionary idea that paved the way for religion to be expressed in many ways, allowing individuals to practice their worship in personal and peaceful ways. The lack of a government-sponsored church was a blessing, fueling the growth of multiple Christian denominations. Denominations are often viewed as disunity and separation in the Church. However, I suggest that denominations amongst the protestant churches aren't the division of God’s family, but instead builds the Church to reflect the diversity of God. Denominations allow the freedom for Christ-followers to grapple and express their understanding of God in a more personal, flexible way.
The battle cry of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura, meaning the “Bible, God’s special revelation to his people, is the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice.”4 Our Bible has undergone hundreds of translations over thousands of years. Do you ever wonder why God chose to give his holy revelation during ancient times, when the ability to read and write was a luxury, and information was passed through oral teaching much more readily than the written word? Or do you ever question why we have no writings penned by Jesus? Yet, this is how God chose to give humanity his words. Oral teaching is a more flexible form of communication compared to the written word. The nature of God’s revelation shared through oral teaching encourages discussion, debates, and dialogue within a community. From the very beginning, we were supposed to wrestle and work out our theology with others. God does not change; however, his word speaks timelessly, applicable in every situation regardless of culture and location. The Bible says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He gave his word, passed from generation to generation through oral teaching for centuries before it was widely shared in written form. God’s word is alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). If something is living and active, change and growth are natural characteristics of the living object. God’s word does not change, yet it is not rigid. His people are meant to know his word, discuss it with one another, and apply it to their daily lives. It actively speaks to multiple contexts, adding diversity to the Church not only through ethnicity and nationality but also through doctrine and theological interpretation. These theological interpretations are not grounds for the violence witnessed throughout Christian history, but rather an invitation to know God and find salvation in Jesus Christ regardless of time and culture.
No branch of Christianity has a monopoly on understanding God. He is, after all, our creator and beyond our understanding. However, that does not mean we stop seeking to know and understand him. Theology (the study of the nature of God) should be the desired pursuit of every Christian and should be discussed regularly. It is absolutely mind-blowing that the God of the universe not only knows us but wants us to know him. We would be arrogant to believe that our understanding of God is the final statement in God’s nature and character. I know many devout Jesus followers in many different denominations and contexts. We may disagree on secondary and tertiary issues that separate us in worship contexts. Yet, we can come together under the belief that Jesus is the son of God, lived a sinless life, died on the cross as the propitiation for sin, was raised from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will return someday to judge the living and the dead. Salvation found in Christ alone is a non-negotiable in the Christian faith, but denominations are a way to expand diversity in the Church regarding issues that tend to be more gray and less black and white. There is much to learn from Christ-followers in other denominations.
Denominations allow Christ-followers to explore and express their understanding of God without fear of persecution or death. The fact is there are billions of people in the world, and the Lord knows and speaks to them in a billion different ways. He will speak to me differently than he speaks to someone else. However, his message of salvation, justice, mercy, faith, and righteousness will not change. He communicates the same message through different avenues. His voice encourages people from all walks of life and all kinds of cultures to experience him. If we truly believe in the Reformation mantra of Sola Scriptura, that “Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved and all that we must do in order to glorify God,”5then we must trust the Holy Spirit to speak through Scripture, recognizing that there will be multiple understandings of God’s word. As protestants, we do not believe that we need a mediator to tell us what the Holy Spirit is saying through Scripture. We believe the Holy Spirit speaks directly to us through the Word of God. Read your Bible and be open to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Share what you are reading and understanding with other Christians. Ask your church leaders for doctrinal stances on issues and ask questions if you don't understand or disagree. Ask your friends and neighbors what they believe and why they believe it. Diversity in the Church means we will interpret Scripture through different lenses. There are non-negotiables in our faith, but don’t be afraid of someone else’s lens and their understanding of lesser issues. Ask questions and listen to their point of view. Through these conversations and relationships, you will glorify God and grow in your understanding of him and his Church.
By: Leslie Banwart
1. Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 258.
2. Shelley, 262.
3. Shelley, 358.
5. John MacArthur, “What Does Sola Scriptura Mean?,” ligonier.org, Ligonier Ministries, August 27, 2021, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-does-sola-scriptura-mean.