Many of our towns are overflowing with churches. If you’ve ever tried to find a new church, you know how many options are typically available.
You can choose based on denomination: Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, Foursquare, Brethren, Methodist…you name it. And many of these broad categories actually refer to several denominations (e.g., there are multiple Baptist and Presbyterian denominations). And don’t forget the large number of nondenominational churches out there that don’t align with any denomination.
You can also choose based on the style of worship music. Do you prefer hymns or modern praise songs? If modern praise songs, do you lean more towards Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, or Maranatha?
You can also categorize churches based on their approach to preaching. Do you prefer expository, verse by verse preaching? Or do you like the topical approach with relevant sermon series?
How do you like to take communion? Weekly, monthly, or at a special communion service? Which is more “biblical,” juice or wine? Should communion be taken all at once or on an individual basis?
What’s your take on baptism? Full immersion? Sprinkling? Adult or infant? On the spot or after a lengthy baptism class?
The point is, church comes in many varieties. But should it? Aren’t we all worshipping the same God and reading from the same Bible? If that’s true, then why do we have so many denominations?
The simplest answer I have come across (from Tim Keller) is that denominations will always exist as long as Christians are concerned about both unity and purity.
If we were only concerned about unity, it wouldn’t matter what differences we encounter in doctrine or practice. One church per town would be enough. On the flipside, if we were only concerned about purity in our doctrine and practice, we wouldn’t be able meet together at all, because we all disagree with each other on some level.
So every group of Christians is trying to walk that line between unity and purity. To love one another, even in the midst of significant differences, while still upholding the truth of Scripture. And that’s tough. Not only do we disagree about specific doctrines, we also disagree about which ones are “hills to die on.” Should you leave a church and/or start a new one because your church is/isn’t elder ruled? Because there is too much/little liturgy in the services? Because the doctrinal statement affirms/denies a premillenial, pretribulational rapture? These are all issues that have produced new denominations.
Throughout church history Christians have been navigating this tension between unity and purity.
We all have to wrestle with this question: How do we balance unity and purity? I can’t imagine the fragmented state of the church today makes Jesus happy. And yet, I’m sure that he is pleased when someone takes a courageous and gracious stand for the truth of Scripture. I’m also sure he is pleased when someone chooses to love and serve together with people who disagree.
Maybe the point of it all is that simply getting all of the churches together under the banner of unity isn’t the obvious choice. Doctrinal purity matters too. Nor is splitting churches over minor doctrinal issues the right approach. Unity is important. Perhaps it’s more about the way we view and interact with the other denominations in town. Even if you’re not sitting in a pew with the Baptists or Presbyterians or whomever, do you still consider them fellow workers for the sake of the gospel? Brothers and sisters in Christ? Co-recipients of the command to make disciples of all nations (including your own town)?
Here in Simi Valley, most of the pastors in town meet regularly to pray together. These are pastors of churches that belong to a variety of denominations and hold significantly different views over many doctrines. They are each trying to be faithful to what Scripture teaches about baptism, the return of Christ, communion, and so on. But they see themselves as part of the same team, so they pray together. I love that picture of godly people working to preserve both purity and unity.
It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t have a solution for the “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) of denominationalism. But I will say that unity and purity are both important. The way we relate to one another matters. So be sure to wrestle with that question: How do we balance unity and purity?
(By the way, if you’re trying to choose a church or denomination, here are some wise words from C. S. Lewis.)