Do Denominations Divide More Than They Unite?

A Church Versus a Denomination

Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Very often, in titles of churches we belong to-“this church” or “that church”-these are the names of the denominations. Really, we should say the church in America is all of the Bible-believing churches that have the marks of the church. That is the church in America. The basis of all this is the Great Commission and the many other passages that tell us, Acts 2:42 and elsewhere, what the main elements are that make a church a church. It all comes down to this: the Word is proclaimed faithfully and accurately, the sacraments are properly administered —baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered according to Christ’s institution, no idolatry, no superstition, no blasphemous sacrilege associated with it— and where disciples are made. The church takes care of its own, both in body and soul, that’s why there are elders and there are deacons. You know where a church is especially wherever the gospel is preached. You can have all sorts of other things that are marks of a healthy church, but if you don’t have these marks it isn’t a church. It’s just a club or something else. 

The denominations themselves are not the church. But here’s the thing, you have clearly in the New Testament an emphasis on churches being connected to each other. There are different forms of government that people believe are taught in scripture or some people think there is no form of government at all, it doesn’t make any difference. But clearly, there is a sense that all of the local churches are connected with each other. Churches should not be just lone rangers out there. No church is an island.

Churches should be connected to each other just as the one body of Christ. Denominations help serve that. I know we often think of denominations as dividing the church, splitting it up into vanilla, strawberry, cherry and so forth, different flavors. That is true, but it’s better than having no grouping of churches at all that are connected to each other. I really think that denominations are not the ideal. What would be the ideal is that all the particular churches spread throughout the world were united simply under one organizational institutional banner, that of Jesus Christ. 

Unity in the Church

When we talk about the unity of the church, the first thing we need to say about the subject is that the body of Christ is one objectively. How do we know that? We’re told in Ephesians 1:4, for example, that in love, He predestined us to be adopted as his children and he chose us in him in Christ before the foundation of the world. Then he redeemed his church. Then He sent His Holy Spirit to unite those who are sinners, Jew and Gentile, to Christ the head and the Holy Spirit is our deposit guaranteeing our final redemption. We are united as one body because we are connected to one head, Jesus Christ. He's the head and we are members, he's the vine, and we're the branches. It's very important that we begin there the church is one.

The church that will be unveiled on the last day when Christ returns will not be a mixed assembly, it won't be made up of believers and unbelievers. There won't be any hypocrites there won't be any people who are only in name Christians but don't really trust in Jesus Christ. It will be a perfect church, a holy church, the full number of all of those whom God gave to Christ before the foundation of the world. Now, we look at the church visibly and it looks like a mess. Well, so was Israel. I mean look at the whole history of Israel. It was a huge mess, and yet God always preserved a remnant. God always maintained his faithfulness in spite of Israel's unfaithfulness he's still doing that today. Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” When we come to his prayer in John 17, we have to say Jesus prayer was answered.

When he prays that all of his disciples will be one even as he and the Father are one and that this will be a great testimony to the world, that actually is fulfilled. Jesus keeps praying that at the Father's right hand that it will be fulfilled more and more in the life of the church. So then why are there so many denominations, why so many divisions? At the end of the day, we have to say, “Thank the Lord that he has accomplished this objective unity of his church, in spite of the fact that we have not promoted it to the extent that we should." 

The Bond of Unity 

In Ephesians 4, Paul exhorts the Ephesians to preserve the bond of unity. And how do they do that? He says, “by recognizing the only bond of unity is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” If anyone diverges from one Lord, believing in other saviors or serious errors, heresies, concerning Jesus, he's not a part of the unity of the church. If anyone teaches another faith, then the basic gospel that scripture proclaims, summarized in the Creed's, as Paul says to the Galatians, let him be anathema. If anyone teaches another baptism than the one that Christ instituted as the bath of union with him and each other, they're breaking the peace, they don't belong to the Commonwealth of Christ. But barring these decisive breaches, we should work hard as Paul says, to preserve the bond of fellowship with churches we don't necessarily agree with. That's hard. It's very difficult sometimes for us. Here's the thing: we're not equally right about everything. We shouldn't hold, with the same confidence, in particular views of end-times, for example, that we have concerning the deity of Christ.

There is the unity of the body of Christ, which is objective and real, and then there's the visible unity of Christ's body that is plagued by all sorts of division and scandal. Jesus' prayer will not go unanswered. It has been answered by the Father, it is being answered by the Father and one day it will be answered by the Father when the church, that is one objectively, in God's eternal purpose is revealed visibly as one to the world. I'll never forget my mom's encouragement, growing up she would always tell my siblings and me, "You have to get along with each other because you’re family." 

Our unity isn't something that we're creating here on earth. Unity isn't something that we're building from the bottom up, it's something that God has already blessed us with through baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. Because that's the reality, we're joined to Christ or joined to his body, we should get along with our brothers and sisters, we should love each other and show charity to each other. 

Adapted from answers given on Episodes 171 and 180 of the Core Christianity Radio Show. 

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

Related Resources

Card image cap Church

Will the Future of the Church be Greater than its Current State?

Episode 314 | Dr. Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez answer questions about his hope for the church, Leviticus 18 and homosexuality, the Trinity, and Jesus’ return at...

Card image cap Church

3 Spiritual Benefits of Singing in Church

Congregational singing is essential to our life with Christ.​

Card image cap Church

3 Reasons You Need the Church

Why does Christianity include the church?