One of the great questions that faces our day is the question of why there are so many denominations around us. It is clear from the scriptures that the followers of Christ were to be united in doctrine and practice. Jesus prayed for the unity of the believers in John 17. Paul condemned the factious spirit of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:10ff. Yet factions and divisions arose. After the time of apostolic guidance, the early church sought to maintain unity within the church not by appealing to scripture but by the unscriptural practice of changing the organization of the church. As opposed to having a plurality of bishops, as was the practice in the New Testament (Acts 20:28), they reasoned that if one bishop could rule the church, then the church would have unity. Eventually, this lead to one man ruling, not merely over individual churches, but over the universal church as a whole in the person of the Pope. Such was the result of man’s efforts to try to maintain unity within the body.
During the time of the reformation, many men recognized the unscriptural nature of the practices within the Catholic Church and sought reform. These men bravely faced the only known religion in Europe in that day and stood up in opposition to its corruptions. Through the efforts of men such as John Calvin and Martin Luther a challenge arose to the dusty religion of the Pope. The result of this challenge, however, was far from what Jesus originally intended His church to be. The reforms that were sought resulted in the creation of independent state religions, which we know today as mainline denominations. During the reformation, the denominations were largely relegated to various different states, but when the New World offered new opportunities, immigrants from these various states brought their religions with them all to settle in the same area. It is under the influence of the great melting pot of American and the promise of freedom of religion that the various denominations were folded together into a relatively small geopolitical area such as a county or town. The result was that a multitude of denominations now existed within a relatively small area. This brought attention to the obvious division that now existed among professed followers of Christ. Today the situation is much the same. Not much effort has been made in denominationalism to bring back the unity for which Christ prayed so earnestly and for which the apostles so stringently fought. This sad state of affairs is not the result of the plan of God, but of the refusal of men to submit to God’s will in matters of religion. Division is sinful and God hates it. But many will continue to allow division to continue because the truth is that they simply do not care about the unity of the body of Christ.
What is one to do with the amount of division that exists today among the religious world? First we must accept that the Bible and only the Bible provides the answer for religious unity today. The Bible is God’s word and it is the standard by which we will all be judged (John 12:48). We must seek to live our lives in harmony with the will of God as revealed to us in the Bible first and foremost. It is when man decides that he knows better than God that religious division occurs within the body. The tradition of men will not be able to justify one before God in that final day (Matthew 15:9). So we must decide that we are going to let the Bible settle all questions of religious difference. That is the first step toward unity.
Second, we must leave behind us all things that cause division. We must leave behind the divisive creeds and confessions of faith. We must leave behind the divisive names that we use to designate our buildings. We must leave behind the attitudes of selfishness and envy that cause division within the body of Christ (Philippians 2:3). We must leave behind any human traditions that we hold dear that would cause division. Any and everything that causes division we must let go.
Finally, we must unite together within the church that was established by Jesus. This means that we must understand the pattern that the Holy Spirit used to build the first century church. We must understand God’s pattern for worship and church organization. We must understand God’s plan for man’s salvation both for the alien sinner and for the saved. We must build upon that pattern and not allow any deviations to the right or the left (2 Timothy 1:13). When we follow the pattern that the Holy Spirit set forth in the Bible, we will get exactly the same thing that those within the first century got–the church that Jesus built.
God is not going to save a church that was not after His design. God is not going to save a body that does not respect the pattern that the Holy Spirit laid down. Jesus did not die to save men who follow after their own traditions and not after the word of God. Those who cause and continue to divide the body are guilty of mutilating the body of Christ and will receive no less punishment than those who crucified the Christ. Do we really value the words of Christ when he prayed for unity within the body (John 17:21)? Do we really value the words that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth commanding them not to have division (1 Corinthians 1:10)? If we do, then we will make every effort possible to unite based upon the teaching of the scriptures in one body. Until then, the religious world will remain divided (1 Corinthians 11:18, 19).
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).