It has been said that Martin Luther tried to fix the church, but ended up breaking it into 20,000 pieces instead. That’s in reference to the more than 20,000 protestant denominations in the world. Is that a fair assessment? Did Luther effectively shatter the unity of the church? Are denominations destroying the unity of the church? To answer these questions, we need to start at the very beginning because, as Fraulein Maria taught us, “It’s a very good place to start.”
In Acts 15, we see that there is a Jerusalem Council because the Judaizers in Antioch are telling the Gentile believers that they need to become Jewish Christians (obedient to Jewish laws/customs, including circumcision) if they were to be actually Christian. The apostles met together in Jerusalem to hear arguments, discuss the matter, and render a verdict. Peter testified that Gentiles had indeed become Christians, having received the Holy Spirit just as the apostles (and believing Jews) had. He adds this crucial point, “And he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will,” (Acts. 15:9). Paul and Barnabas give credence by their own testimony as to what Peter witnessed. Thus James, Jesus’ brother, gave the statement that circumcision was not necessary, and the Gentiles shouldn’t be burdened with such matters. Why bring this up? Two reasons: 1) There were already signs of tension in the Church in the first 15 years or so from Pentecost. 2) It shows the supremacy of the gospel above all other church matters. And so, going to the letter to the Galatians by the Apostle Paul (personally, I believe this was pre-Jerusalem Council, though not all would agree with me), we see the same thing. “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,” (Galatians 1:8). So we see that the gospel is the central issue. As Peter said to the council, and the letter to the Galatians makes abundantly clear: the gospel is justification by faith alone through grace alone. All other church matters are of less importance than this one.
Lest we forget, soon after the Jerusalem Council, Paul and Barnabas parted ways. They had a sharp disagreement about John Mark (aka Mark) and whether or not he should be allowed to rejoin them having deserted them once already. This separation was not about a gospel issue, but a personal one. It was more about how the two men would do mission rather than what the mission would be. I am not saying that this is prescriptive (a sign or command to do what is read); it is certainly more descriptive (telling us what happened). My only point in bringing this up is to show that even the Apostle Paul and Barnabas (a nick-name meaning “Son of Encouragement”) separated for, at least, a time. But as we see the apostle and Mark were still on the same mission. “Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry,” (2 Timothy 4:11). Though there may be separation on how ministry is done, it does not mean that there is separation as to what that ministry is.
That being said. . .there are prescriptions in Scripture that tell us to sever ties. Because the gospel is the main issue, anything that messes with that is reason to divide. Remember the strong words of Paul: “let him be accursed.” There is no room for a changing or denial of the gospel. The Apostle John fleshed that out for us (pun intended as you shall soon see). “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already,” (1 John 4:2-3). To deny that Jesus came in the flesh is to deny the gospel, as Christ’s humanity is just as important as his divinity. Without one or the other, salvation is not possible, thus the gospel is no gospel. John told us, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [Jesus in the flesh], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works,” (2 John 10-11). Thus, if anything, one should be able to see that changing the gospel is reason for separation.
Last point before I get to answering the question. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Rome, after explaining the gospel and doctrines of the faith, he started to apply it to daily living. In chapter 14, he dealt with the issues of matters not so black and white within Scriptures. Some people didn’t mind eating meat, others abstained eating only vegetable. Some celebrated holidays that others thought they shouldn’t. To these matters he told the Romans (and us), “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind,” (v. 5). This is what I would deem “the conscience clause.” If the matter is not clear in Scripture (in other words, we don’t have to do mental gymnastics to make it say what it doesn’t say), then we let conscience decide, and in the spirit of unity other believers let it be determined as such.
So let us take all that we’ve learned so far and apply it to denominations.
- The gospel is the central issue. There are cults that claim to be Christian, but deny the gospel or that which is pertinent to the gospel, thus changing the gospel. Two of the more widely accepted cults thought to be Christian but are not: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (following the teachings of Joseph Smith) and The Jehovah’s Witnesses (following the teachings of Judge Rutherford; begun by Charles Taze Russel). There are “denominations” who deny the Trinity which goes against clear biblical teaching, which changes the gospel, and thus are heretical and by definition cannot be part of the Church.
- Just because there are thousands of denominations does not mean that we are not on mission together. We may have our different ways (the how) we do missions and ministry, but we agree on what that mission is: to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. We may have parted ways on how to do it, but we are united in that it must be done. Each of our ministries are useful to each other.
- Much of the “division” is secondary or tertiary (third-level) doctrines. Often these are polity issues–how a church ought to be governed. Some churches/denominations believe in congregationalism (congregations rule). Some churches/denominations believe in elder rule (some go further to a presbytery board), while others believe that bishops govern local parishes or churches. Some churches believe in believers’ baptism (credo-baptism), while others believe that infants ought to be baptized (paedo-baptism). Some believe that speaking in tongues continues on today while others say they ceased after the first century or so. To these issues we tend to let conscience move us forward. There is no clear biblical teaching that says “You must do it this way.” Instead, there are descriptions and honest attempts at understanding how those descriptions (and what are clearer teachings/principles) are to be applied.
So did Luther shatter the church? No. Not if by the church you mean those who confess that Jesus, God the Son, came in the flesh, lived the perfect life as our example, died the death that we deserved, rose from the dead three days later, and ascended to heaven. That is the gospel and all who believe it are part of the Universal Church which can never be divided. Denominations are not destroying the unity of the church; in fact, they are expanding the mission and ministry of the church.
In baseball, you have nine players on the field; each one playing their own position in which they are skilled. Yet, all nine players have one mission: to win the game (ultimately to go to the championship-varsity, college, or pros). They aren’t alone though; there are other teams, and in one way they compete with each other, but in another way they propel each other to greater and greater playing abilities. Thus there is scouting, recruiting, learning, advances in technology, and such. Those teams make up a division, a conference, a league; in essence, one large team, scattered and sectioned off for the greatness of baseball. So it is with the church: one large Church, scattered and sectioned off for the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel.
Surely there will be those who disagree with me. I would love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below. If this article was helpful, please let me know with a like and/or comment as well. If you believe others would benefit from this article, please feel free to share it across the social media spectrum. I look forward to reading your comments.