One of the most frequently asked questions by unbeliever and believer alike is “why are there so many denominations.” There are simplistic and overly complicated answers to this question. One could take people on a biblical study of the purity of the truth to a historical study of schism and separation. But, can we get so focused on our differences that we do miss the call to be a unified body of Christ?
Many of us, whether we say it or not, often believe that our particular group is the only one that God is using in this age. Coming out of a Fundamentalist background, while I appreciate the focus on the purity of the truth, there is a tendency to have sort of the Elijah complex (1 Kings 19:10) who believe they are the only group still truly faithful to the Gospel. There is a tendency to therefore separate over non-fundamental issues. I would now consider myself more or less part of the Reformed camp (although a solid dispensationalist!). We, in our over zealous state, try to encourage people to embrace the doctrines of grace so fervently, that we often believe that the idea of an Arminian believer is an oxymoron! How quickly do we allow ourselves to become fixated on ourselves or on one particular theological idea that we neglect what unites us together, specifically, the cross work of Christ!
The church is bigger than you think. It is not just Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Pentecostals or such. In fact there would be people in each group that could hardly be called Christians! There are members of the body of Christ in the Anglican church and I would dare say it, some even in the Roman Catholic church. Not all have bowed the knee to Baal.
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one (John 17:21-23)
Jesus’ high priestly prayer was for the unity of the body of Christ. People would know we are followers of Christ by our love for one another. Yet, we divide over petty issues, issues that while important, do not have bearing on the essential core message of the Christian faith. Frankly, I can have fellowship with my brother the covenant theologian, my sister the paedobaptist and not feel like I have compromised the faith. I can have fellowship with one who believes tongues still operate today or who do not believe in unconditional election. These aspects are not fundamental core aspects of the faith.
What then are the core doctrines of the faith? What should be that which we divide over to maintain the purity of the Gospel? Historically there were five major fundamentals of the faith (these have been sub-divided into larger groups, but this should suffice).
(1) The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures.
(2) The virgin birth and deity of Christ.
(3) The substitutionary view of the atonement.
(4) The bodily resurrection of Christ.
(5) The literal return of Christ.
Now, if a brother and sister holds to these core truths, have embraced Jesus Christ as saviour, then we can be united in fellowship together around these core doctrines of the faith. Now, does that mean we can fellowship on the same level in each instance? No. For instance I would not have a paedobaptist come into my church and do a baptismal service! But, I would have him come in and preach in a regular service perhaps. This thinking about levels of fellowship is important as we seek to apply practically our theology to those of different positions yet together in faith.
So, my point? The church is bigger than you think. Just as Elijah thought he was the only one, the Lord reminded him there were 7000 that did not bow the knee to Baal. There are many of our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world that we can rejoice with in our shared salvation. We should not back ourselves in little corners thinking we are the only bastions of the faith, but should embrace those who too are not bowing the knee to Baal! They will know we are Christians by our love! Do you love the brethren in all its forms?
See Bob Hayton’s “Minimizing the Gospel through Excessive Separation” for a helpful discussion of the problem of excessive separation.