There are so many denominations because of sin: Christians have let our “fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, (and) factions” (Gal. 5:20) shatter the united body of Christ. Yet there are also many church denominations because of God’s grace in creating a wonderfully diverse world. These two things must be held in tension, however difficult that might be.
When I was studying to become a Presbyterian minister, several of my classmates were from Korea. They wished to see a distinct Korean Presbyterian denomination in North America that would embody in worship, language, and tradition all that was distinct and good about Korean culture. I was impressed with their case for how a church denomination could echo the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of God’s creating Word. But one of the students admitted in class that personal conflict among clergy as well as doctrinal hairsplitting had birthed a hundred different Korean Presbyterian denominations! So much for making “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). Of course, their classmates weren’t surprised. We grew up with the joke that if any town had more than one Scot in it, that town would have more than one Presbyterian church!
Christ’s church is wonderfully diverse and sinfully divided. It’s not always easy to differentiate the two when confronted by the myriad church denominations in the world.
For a long time theologians in North America considered the very existence of denominations as evidence of Christian failure to overcome the sins of social class, racial division, and pettiness, citing Mark 3:24: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” These critics rightfully drew attention to how a church divided against itself compromises its witness to the reconciling work of Christ in a world divided against itself. As such, they celebrated movements to unite denominations—including Reformed denominations—that created the United Church of Christ (1957), the Church of North India (1970), and the Uniting Church in Australia (1977).
I see a similar discontent among some of my own friends who have recently left evangelical churches to become Roman Catholics. Frustrated by Protestant denominationalism, my friends believe that “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) is better reflected in Catholic doctrine, liturgy, and moral teaching.
Some recent voices, however, speak less of the sin of denominationalism than of the good of the diversity it protects. The New Testament often speaks of groups of churches in particular places and peoples (e.g., Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 16:19). Perhaps different denominations have special insights into the gospel due to ethnic, social, geographic, or historical factors—insights that might be flattened or lost in a more uniform church. The recently formed Protestant Church of the Netherlands (2004) seems to take this approach, seeking to preserve rather than blur the distinct Reformed or Lutheran traditions and beliefs of its constituents.
Folks in the Christian Reformed Church probably can appreciate aspects of both approaches to thinking about denominations. Our classical confessions insist on church unity as a gift of Christ that must be visible among his people. And because the church is spread around the globe and isn’t confined to certain places or certain people (Belgic Confession, Art. 27), we should be ready to receive gospel insights from outside our own denomination. At the same time, we should be challenged by two prophetic Reformed confessions of the 20th century that bravely struggled with the unity of the church: the Barmen Declaration (1934) and the Belhar Confession (1982). Each in its own way, the Belhar and the Barmen make clear that seeking unity between denominations (and within a denomination) can be costly and risky and is only ever genuine if it is unity rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen, 1).