Why So Many Denominations? by Phil Johnson

“That they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.” (John 17:21).

In a videotape titled “The Pope: The Holy Father,” Catholic apologist Scott Hahn claims the proliferation of Protestant denominations proves the Reformers’ principle of sola Scriptura is a huge mistake. He says,

Do you suppose that Jesus would say, “Well, once I give the Church this infallible scripture, there really is no need anymore for infallible interpretations of scripture. The Church can hold together just with the infallible Bible.”

Oh, really? In just 500 years, there are literally thousands and thousands of denominations that are becoming ever more numerous continuously because they only go with the Bible. It points to the fact that we need an infallible interpretation of this infallible book, don’t we[?]1

A tract published by Catholic Answers makes a similar charge:

The “Bible alone” theory simply does not work in practice. Historical experience disproves it. Each year we see additional splintering among “Bible-believing” religions. Today there are tens of thousands of competing denominations, each insisting its interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. The resulting divisions have caused untold confusion among millions of sincere but misled Christians. Just open up the Yellow Pages of your telephone book and see how many different denominations are listed, each claiming to go by the “Bible alone,” but no two of them agreeing on exactly what the Bible means.2

This is a favorite argument of Catholic apologists. They are convinced that the unity Christ prayed for in John 17:21 is an organizational solidarity that is incompatible with both denominationalism and independency. As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, the only way true Christian unity will be finally achieved is when “separated brethren”—non-Catholic Christians—reunite with Rome under the authority of the Pope.

  1. A full transcript of the videotape is available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.catholic-pages.com/pope/hahn.asp
  2. “Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth,” on-line at: http://www.catholic.com/documents/pillar-of-fire-pillar-of-truth

Keith Fournier, Catholic author and Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, sums up the typical Roman Catholic perspective:

Throughout Christian history, what was once intended to be an all-inclusive (catholic) body of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ has been fractured over and over. These fractures threaten to sever us from our common historical and doctrinal roots. I do not believe that such divisions were ever part of the Lord’s intention, no matter how sincere or important the issues that undergirded the breaking of unity.3

Fournier says he is “not advocating a false non-denominationalism or superficial irenicism that denies distinctives of doctrine or practice.”4 But note that he is suggesting that doctrinal differences, “no matter how . . . important,” should not cause organizational divisions. Moreover, fewer than five pages earlier, he had berated those who “fight over theology.”5 And just a few pages before that, he had expressed outrage at John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, and Jim McCarthy for saying they believe Roman Catholicism’s  rejection of justification by faith alone is “doctrinal error.”6

Notice carefully, then, what Fournier is saying: He claims he wants unity without “superficial irenicism,” and yet he objects when anyone contends for sound doctrine or (worse still) labels Roman Catholic doctrine “error.” It seems the “unity” Fournier envisions is merely the same kind of unity the Roman Catholic Church has sought for hundreds of years: a unity where all who profess to be Christians yield implicit obedience to Papal authority, and where even individual conscience is ultimately subject to the Roman Catholic Church.

Although Fournier politely declines to state whom he believes is to blame for fracturing the organizational unity of Christianity,7 it is quite clear he would not be predisposed to blame a Church whose spiritual authority he regards as infallible. And since the Catholic Church herself officially regards Protestantism as ipso facto schismatic, Fournier’s own position is not difficult to deduce. Although Fournier manages to sound sympathetic and amiable toward evangelicals, it is clear he believes that as long as they remain outside the Church of Rome, they are guilty of sins that thwart the unity Christ prayed for.

Of course, every cult and every denomination that claims to be the One True Church ultimately takes a similar approach to “unity.” Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they represent the only legitimate church and that all others who claim to be Christians are schismatics. They believe the unity of the visible church was shattered by the Nicene Council.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox Church claims the Church of Rome was being schismatic when Rome asserted papal supremacy. To this day, Orthodox Christians insist that Eastern Orthodoxy, not Roman Catholicism, is the Church Christ founded—and that would make Roman Catholicism schismatic in the same sense Rome accuses Protestants of being schismatic. One typical Orthodox Web site says, “The Orthodox Church is the Christian Church. The Orthodox Church is not a sect or a denomination. We are the family of Christian communities established by the Apostles and disciples Jesus sent out to proclaim the Good News to the world, and by their successors through the ages.”8

3.   Keith A. Fournier, A House United? (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 37.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 25.

6. Ibid., 21-22.

7. Ibid., 29.

8. http://web.archive.org/web/20030211011211/http://www.arimathea.co.uk/EOC.htm

All these groups regard the church primarily as a visible, earthly organization. Therefore they cannot conceive of a true spiritual unity that might exist across denominational lines. They regard all other denominations as schismatic rifts in the church’s organizational unity. And if organizational unity were what Christ was praying for, then the very existence of denominations would indeed be a sin and a shame. That’s why the Orthodox Web site insists, “The Orthodox Church is not a sect or a denomination.”

Furthermore, if their understanding of the principle of unity is correct, then whichever organization can legitimately claim to be the church founded by Christ and the apostles is the One True Church, and all others are guilty of schism—regardless of any other doctrinal or biblical considerations.

That is precisely why many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have focused their rhetoric on “unity.” Both sincerely believe if they can establish the claim that they, and no one else, are the One True Church instituted by Christ, then all other Protestant complaints about doctrine, church polity, and ecclesiastical abuses become moot. If they can successfully sell their notion that the “unity” of John 17:21 is primarily an organizational unity, they should in effect be able to convince members of denominational and independent churches to reunite with the Mother Church regardless of whether she is right or wrong on other matters.

The plea for unity may at first sound magnanimous and charitable to Protestant ears (especially coming from a Church with a long history of enforcing her will by Inquisition). But when the overture is being made by someone who claims to represent the One True Church, the call for “unity” turns out to be nothing but a kinder, gentler way of demanding submission to the Mother Church’s doctrine and ecclesiastical authority.

Nonetheless, in recent years many gullible Protestants have been drawn into either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy by the claim that one or the other represents the only church Christ founded. Having bought the notion that the unity Christ prayed for starts with organizational unity, these unsuspecting proselytes naturally conclude that whichever church has the most convincing pedigree must be the only church capable of achieving the unity Christ sought, and so they join up. Many recent converts from evangelicalism will testify that the proliferation and fragmentation of so many Protestant denominations  is what first convinced them that Protestant principles must be wrong.


This is not an issue Protestants can easily sweep aside. It is quite true that schism is sinful. The apostle Paul rebuked the Corinthians for having a sectarian spirit: “Each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). Later in the epistle he added, “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (3:4-5).

Schism is a demonic sin—so much so that divisive people are not to be tolerated in the church. In Matthew 18, Christ outlined a series of four steps churches should go through in calling sinning brothers to repentance. But when someone is schismatic, Paul says, that discipline process may be accelerated. He wrote in Titus 3:10-11: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.”

It’s fair to ask, then, if schism is such a serious sin, why are there so many different denominations? The Protestant Reformation gave rise to Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism,

Congregationalism, Methodism, Episcopalianism, the Plymouth Brethren, the Open Brethren, the Closed Brethren, the Church of Christ, the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God, the Assemblies of God, Holiness churches, Pentecostal churches, Dutch Reformed churches, Christian Reformed churches, Protestant Reformed churches, Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Independent Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Freewill Baptists, General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Particular Baptists, and Strict and Particular Baptists.

And that list only scratches the surface. The Handbook of Denominations lists hundreds more. The sign in front of one Arkansas church advertises: “The Strict and Particular Reforming Baptist (Non- instrumental, Closed Communion) King James Only Community Church.” Are so many different denominational tags really necessary?

Let’s be honest: one can hardly blame non-Christians for being nonplussed by the variety. The pagan from a non-Christian society is not likely to look at Christendom and say, “Behold, how they love one another.”


On the other hand, we who are Christians must understand that Christendom is not “the church.” All who call themselves Christians are not true followers of Christ—and there’s no reason we should try to make Moslems or Hindus think all varieties of so-called Christianity are truly Christian.

Just because a church or denomination calls itself “Christian” does not mean it is part of the body of Christ. That has been true even from biblical times. Consider, for example, the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. At least one was totally apostate and three or four others were already apostatizing. We know from Jesus’ warning to the church at Laodicea that it is possible for a church to abandon the truth so completely that Christ Himself will reject that church and spew it out of His mouth.

True Christians must not fellowship with such apostate groups (2 Cor. 6:15-17; Eph. 5:11).

In other words, some degree of doctrinal purity is a valid prerequisite for organizational unity. It’s simply wrong to set aside all our doctrinal differences for the sake of an artificial organizational “unity.” This is particularly true of those doctrinal issues that are immediately germane to the gospel. In fact, the apostle Paul taught that so-called “Christians” who corrupt or compromise the utter freeness of justification are not to be regarded as brethren at all! He pronounced a curse on them (Gal. 1:8-9). The apostle John taught the same thing (2 John 7-11).

Since the major point at issue between Protestants and Catholic or Orthodox traditions is the gospel (particularly the doctrine of justification by faith—which is the very point Paul wrote to defend in his epistle to the Galatians), it is utterly fatuous to suggest that a show of external unity should take precedence over our doctrinal differences. It is tantamount to saying Christians are not supposed to be concerned with truth at all.


But the unity Christ prayed for in the church is not, to begin with, an organizational unity. When Jesus prayed that we all might be one, He was describing a spiritual unity. In John 17:11, He prayed “that they may be one, even as We are.” Verse 21 continues: “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us” (emphasis added). That describes a very specific kind of spiritual unity that proceeds from our union with Christ. Christ Himself likens it to the unity between Father and Son. It is certainly not something as mundane and superficial as the homogenization of all churches under one earthly hierarchy of bishops in Rome or Constantinople.

Organizational unity cannot guarantee true spiritual unity, and the proof is seen in the Church of Rome herself. Despite all the Catholic finger-wagging about the lack of unity reflected in Protestant denominationalism, there may well be more disharmony within the Roman Catholic Church than there is on the outside.

Take, for example, Catholic Answers, the apologetics organization headed by Karl Keating. Although Keating and Catholic Answers did not invent the argument that Protestant denominationalism disproves sola fide, they certainly have perfected and popularized it. Staff apologists from Catholic Answers are the chief ones who brought this issue to the forefront of the Catholic-Protestant debate. Catholic Answers published the tract cited at the beginning of this chapter. And Keating himself personally trained a number of Catholic apologists to employ this argument in debates with Protestants. Catholic Answers has hammered this same theme for years. According to them, an infallible, magisterial interpretation of Scripture is the only thing that can assure true unity, and the continuing proliferation and fragmentation of Protestant denominations is living proof that there can be no unity under the principle of sola fide.

Suppose for the sake of argument we grant their premises and measure Catholic Answers by their own standard? Keating and his stable of apologists say they have an infallible interpretation of Scripture, given to them through the magisterium of Rome. So how has the principle of unity fared in their little group?

Not very well, it turns out. To give one well-known example, Keating has disavowed and waged war on the Internet against one of his best-known former lieutenants, Gerry Matatics, a convert from Protestantism who now heads an organization of his own. (Several of Keating’s former employees have left Catholic Answers and joined or founded competing organizations.) Matatics, it seems, prefers traditional Catholicism with a Latin Mass, while Keating is in favor of the innovations instituted by the Vatican II Council—including the new Mass in the vernacular. Keating now says he considers Matatics “a sad example of how schism leads very quickly to heresy.”9 Keating has published articles in This Rock magazine warning other Catholics against his former associate’s influence.10 Meanwhile, Matatics insists he remains loyal to the Catholic Church. And, in fact, not only has he remained in communion with Rome, but he has also enlisted several other influential Catholic leaders who have come to his defense against Keating’s charges.

9.   The Wanderer, February 16, 1995 p. 7.77

10. e.g., Karl Keating, “Habemus Papum?” This Rock (July/August 1995).

Both sides have taken their case to the World Wide Web, posting articles and open letters, debating whether Keating or Matatics best represents the “Catholic” position.11 The quarrel is several years old as of this writing.

The Keating-Matatics feud is symptomatic of several larger conflicts within the Catholic Church. Keating is a “conservative Catholic,” whereas Matatics is a “traditionalist.” The traditionalists held sway until Vatican II, but since then conservative and moderate voices within the church have insisted that they represent “true” Catholicism. Traditionalists have formed their own sects within the church, such as The Priestly Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist organization that opposes innovations in Catholic worship. There are also several Marian sects, including devotees of the various apparitions at Bayside and Fatima. Many of them disagree vehemently with other Catholics about the direction the Catholic church should go. Numerous other factions and sects operate within the walls of the Catholic Church, waging polemic battles as lively and intense as any that ever took place between Protestant denominations.

Add into that mix the scores of modernist and liberal priests who would like to introduce their peculiar preferences into the Catholic system, and you have a chaos of varying opinions that is more than equal to that of the Protestants. The simple fact is that there is really no more unity of agreement among Roman Catholics than there is among Protestants. Even with an “infallible interpretation” of Scripture, it seems, the Roman Catholic track record on unity is as bad as, or worse than, that of the Protestants.

How much “unity” can there be, for example, between, say, Father Andrew Greely and Mother Angelica (to name two of America’s best-known Catholics)? Greely is a liberal priest and novelist, who once said on “Larry king Live” that he believes the Catholic Church eventually will not only ordain women as priests, but also elect a woman as pope. Mother Angelica is a traditionalist Franciscan nun who has used her televised talk show to criticize other Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Richard Mahoney, for their non-traditionalist stance on liturgical matters. Do Catholic critics of Protestant denominationalism really imagine that their Church really embodies the kind of unity Christ was praying for?

In fact, with so many who profess loyalty to Peter’s chair waging battle among themselves over key points of truth, it should be painfully obvious to all that Roman Catholics are really no more able to interpret their Church’s “infallible interpretation” than they believe Protestants can interpret Scripture itself.

And clearly, an external, organizational unity cannot guarantee the kind spiritual unity Christ was praying for. It would be a serious mistake, and a serious blow to real unity, to imagine that the answer to our denominational division is the abandonment of denominations altogether, and the union of all who profess Christ into one massive worldwide organization where we affirm only what we all agree on. No real agreement whatsoever would be achieved through such means, and thus we would have no more true unity than we already enjoy. Meanwhile, the cause of truth would suffer a severe blow, and that would ultimately prove fatal to all genuine unity.

But the unity Scripture calls us to is unity in truth. Paul wrote, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). He did not counsel the Corinthians to grasp for a superficial unity by setting truth aside and embracing an organizational unity without regard to sound doctrine. Nor did Paul order them to abandon their differences and simply place a blind and implicit trust in his apostolic magisterium. He was urging them to work through their differences and strive to achieve unity in both heart and mind.

11. See, for example, “An Open Letter to Mr. Gerry Wells in Defense of Gerry Matatics” at: http://web.archive.org/web/20030603192155/http://www.gerrymatatics.org/matatics.htm

Such unity is possible only when people are themselves in union with Christ. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).

That is precisely the kind of unity Christ was praying for. There is nothing superficial about it. It is a unity of spirit. It is a unity in truth. And that is why, in the context of his prayer for unity, Christ also prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).


Here’s a fact many miss: To a very large degree, the unity Christ prayed for does exist among genuine believers, and it is a unity that transcends denominational lines.

All Christians are “in Christ”; therefore they are all one with the Father, and one with each other as well. Notice carefully what Christ says in verses 22-23: “[I pray] that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity.” The basis of that unity is not a denominational affiliation; it is our position in Christ.

Faithful evangelical Protestants believe God is answering that prayer of Christ even now. We enjoy an amazing degree of unity with one another, despite our denominational distinctions. In other words, the kind of spiritual unity Christ prayed for does exist in the true body of Christ worldwide despite denominational barriers. Our Lord’s prayer for His church has not gone unanswered.

Christ’s true church is not confined to a single congregation, denomination, or earthly organization. The church is composed of all true believers in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or membership in any earthly assembly. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (25.1). When the Confession speaks of the church as “invisible,” it does not mean the church is inconspicuous or utterly hidden from view. It means that its precise boundaries cannot be detected through human perception. There are people who claim to be, and appear  to be, part of the body, but they are not. Others, perhaps unknown to us, are true believers and members of the body. The exact boundaries of the true church are not always easy to discern. But nonetheless genuine believers are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)—united with Him, and therefore united with one another. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

During His earthly ministry, Christ told the disciples: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). The “one shepherd” is Christ himself, not an earthly vicar. And the “one flock” is also a spiritual reality even now, with believing Jews and Gentiles united in one new body, and the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile having been broken down (Eph. 2:14-16). The perfect manifestation of that unity awaits fulfillment in a future time, when “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). In the meantime, to settle for the superficial unity imposed by a monstrous worldwide ecclesiastical hierarchy would be a serious mistake.

The unity Christ prayed for has always existed in the true body of Christ. It is an organic, not an organizational unity. It is a spiritual, not a corporeal unity. And it is not a unity without diversity. (If He had wanted unity with no diversity, He would not have gifted us with different spiritual gifts.) But the kind of unity Christ prays for is a unity in spite of our great diversity.

The truth is that on the vital issues there is far more agreement among Protestants than Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church leaders would like to admit. All evangelical Protestants are in agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith (sola fide) and the authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura).

Proof that unity is the rule among believers despite their denominational differences can be seen in a survey of the denominational backgrounds of the men who have contributed to this book. We may not always agree on every point and every particular of secondary doctrinal questions. But on the essential gospel truths we are in full agreement. And our unity in Christ is unbroken by denominational lines between us. We embrace one another with sincere love as members of the one body of Christ. We are one in Christ.

The school where I studied is an interdenominational school. My professors were Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Independents. Students came from an incredibly diverse array of Protestant denominations. We prayed together, studied together, and did evangelistic work together. Our denominational differences were no barrier to our unity in Christ.

The church I’m a member of now is a non-denominational church. Our members come from backgrounds as varied as Baptist, Brethren, and Presbyterian congregations. Our pastor is regularly asked to speak in all kinds of denominational settings. In recent years he has spoken in Anglican churches, Baptist conventions, Presbyterian conferences, and even some charismatic congregations. We do enjoy a tremendous unity with all those who truly love Christ and are faithful to his word—regardless of our denominational differences.

The limits on this trans-denominational unity are set by Scripture itself. We cannot welcome into our circle of fellowship people who deny truths that are essential to the gospel (2 John 7-11); and we cannot embrace people who affirm a gospel Scripture condemns (Gal. 1:18-19). The gospel and all truths essential to it are therefore nonnegotiable points of doctrine, and unity on these matters is a prerequisite to any other kind of unity.

But there’s nothing inherently sinful about holding denominational convictions on secondary issues. Denominations in and of themselves are not necessarily an obstacle to true Christian unity, and Protestants should not be bullied into conceding otherwise.

Of course, when denominational convictions on secondary issues are employed to promote strife and hostility between brothers and sisters in Christ, that is sectarianism. It’s the very attitude Paul condemned in Corinth when some of the believers there were dividing in groups loyal to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, and refusing fellowship to members of the competing groups. Such sectarianism is certainly sinfully divisive. But it is not a necessary result of denominationalism. And those of us with broad denominational associations and close friendships in Christ across denominational boundaries are living proof of that.

There is room for brethren to disagree within the bonds of unity, and sometimes those disagreements can be sharp (cf. Acts 15:36-39). In fact, it is unlikely that there are any two Christians anywhere who will agree completely on the meaning of every passage of Scripture. Unity does not mean that we must agree up front on every point of truth. But unity certainly does not mean that we should ignore the issue of truth altogether and settle for a superficial organizational unity.

Pulpit Magazine Vol. 02. No. 1 January 2013


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