Why don't all these denominations agree, and how can I know which is right?

Denominations of one sort or another have existed forever. In the time of Jesus, the Bible shows that even in the Jewish religion, with its clearly expressed system of Commandments, there were different schools of thought on just how those Commandments should be practiced. One important group of “religious” men, called the Pharisees, failed to grasp the truth that men could never follow the rules well enough to be righteous in God’s eyes, so they took the 613 Commandments of God in the Old Testament and attached over a thousand additional rules and customs to them in the belief this would help people follow them more fully. The result was that the true purpose of the Law of Moses, to show Man that he could not be righteous by his own efforts, and to point toward the coming Messiah, was obscured by a bunch of dos and don’ts that did nothing to help people walk in the light and love of God.

Even in the New Testament church there were “denominations” of a sort. The churches in Judea (Israel), made up of Jews, had a Jewish flavor, continuing to worship on Saturdays and observe festivals and Holy Days that Jews traditionally celebrated, but now with an understanding that these festivals represented Jesus Christ and his final atonement for the sins of the people. Other Christian churches in non-Jewish areas worshipped on Sunday and had less ritualized services, perhaps a bit more like those we might attend today.

Paul, writing in the 3rd chapter of 1st Corinthians, mentions some of the sectarian schisms breaking out in the church at Corinth. Egos, then and now, are the cause for many church splits and the founding of many “new” denominations. But so far as the Bible is concerned, there is only one “Church”, which is the Body of Christ made up of all believers who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, irrespective of whether they also call themselves “Baptist” or “Catholic” or “Four-square”, etc. God has called Christians to a unity of purpose--to preach the Gospel of salvation through Christ--not a unity of doctrine. From the time of the apostles forward, the Christian church has never fully agreed on every nuance of doctrine apart from the core essentials. Paul recognizes this when he mentions in the book of 1st Corinthians that one person might be able to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols without a guilty conscience while another feels condemned for the same practice. He condemns neither for their beliefs, nor elevates one above the other.

Thus, a differing of views on nonessential issues is permitted within Christianity, and bodies of believers with similar opinions should join that they may be unified in purpose to preach Christ. The question arises, however, on just what are these essential issues that true Christians must agree on. You’ll hear a variety of ministers, if asked that question, list a number of things--everything from salvation by grace through faith, to doctrines of the Trinity, whether one can worship on Saturday or Sunday, Baptism, etc. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to rely on the opinion of some minister or denomination to tell us because the Bible lists the core essentials of Christianity in the book of Hebrews:

King James Bible

New Jerusalem Bible

Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go onto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,

Of the doctrine of baptisms, and the laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

--Hebrews 6:1-2

Let us leave behind us then all the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to its completion, without going over the fundamental doctrines again: The turning away from dead actions, faith in God,

the teaching about baptisms and the laying on of hands, about the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 

--Hebrews 6:1-2

Repentance from dead works means to abandon the idea of gaining or keeping salvation by doing good deeds--including following the Commandments--or thinking that we’re saved because we're “good” people.

Faith toward God, as we’ve seen, refers to placing our trust and reliance in Jesus as our savior and Lord. (This scripture also helps us to understand that Jesus also was not just a great man or human Messiah, but was actually God in the flesh!)

The doctrine of baptisms probably speaks metaphorically of a number of different spiritual experiences in the life of the believer, but certainly includes water baptism, and may have included other secondary Jewish ritual washings and ablutions that are no longer practiced by the Church.

The laying on of hands was practiced by the early church and included both a prayer for the grace and power of God to strengthen or heal the believer, and also as a means of ordination into a specific role in the church as an elder, pastor, evangelist, etc. The early church felt that this process of prayer was extremely important!

The resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment refers to the acceptance that all humans will have an eternal existence either with God or apart from Him, along with a reward or punishment based on their earthly deeds.


We’re the true church!

A false teaching exists among a few denominations who claim theirs is the only “true” Church, and anyone desiring salvation must join with them or be lost. The best known denominations that teach this lie include the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons (LDS Church), and the Boston-affiliated Church of Christ. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have also been known to hold this view, which stems from one of two theories: First, a concept known as Apostolic succession, which asserts that the Apostles of the 1st century handed down their authority over the Body of Christ to their assistants who were the bishops after them over the various regions where Christianity was established. According to this idea, the Orthodox religions are the direct descendants of the Church founded by Christ and the Apostles, and since they believe that salvation is ultimately dispensed through the Church and its sacraments, salvation cannot really be gained outside of one coming under the direct authority of the mother Church. The concept of Apostolic succession falls apart simply because of the proposition that salvation is realized through the Church and its sacraments rather than through an individual’s coming to faith in Christ because of the influence of the Holy Spirit. This idea, if valid, must be valid in every case. Thus, if salvation is dispensed only through the Church, it would be impossible for someone dying in a car wreck, for instance, to call on Christ for forgiveness without being led to do so through a representative of the Church--a ridiculous idea. But if such a concept were true, only the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches would have the right to claim the right of Apostolic succession since they alone can literally trace themselves back through an unbroken succession of popes or patriarchs to the 1st through 3rd centuries. (And some historians would question even that claim, since it is virtually undisputable that the head of the Church in its early years wasn’t Peter, but James.)

The other faiths claiming to be the one true Church deny Christ’s words in Matthew 16 that ...upon this rock I shall build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it and rely on the idea that the Christian Church was defeated by the Devil and fell into deception by the end of the 5th century, losing all authority from Christ. Thus, the Church vanished from the earth until a spiritual leader arose nearly 2000 years later to “restore” the true faith of Christianity with himself as God's direct representative on earth. The entire Mormon faith, for example, is based on the idea that God needed to raise up Joseph Smith to restore the fallen Church and the corrupted Bible by founding a new religion complete with a new set of scriptural books which are supposedly the perfect translations of God’s message to Humanity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses likewise assert that they are the true redeemed of Christ, representing the fullness of the Christian Church on earth; and the Boston-affiliated Church of Christ will likewise say that only by joining it and being baptized into that church can one be saved.

Well, the Bible has this to say about whether or not there can only be one true denomination:

King James Bible

New Jerusalem Bible

And John answered him, saying, ‘Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him because he followeth not us’.

But Jesus said, ‘Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name that can likely speak evil of me.

For he that is not against us is on our part’.

--Mark 9:38-40

John said to him, ‘Master, we saw someone who is not one of us driving out devils in your name, and because he was not one of us we tried to stop him’.

But Jesus said, ‘You must not stop him; no one who works a miracle in my name could soon afterwards speak evil of me.

Anyone who is not against us is for us’.

--Mark 9:38-40

So, there is no “true” denomination; only a “true” Church made up of believers who have placed faith in Christ, irrespective of the denomination they belong to. This is why what ultimately matters in knowing which denominations can be trusted is whether they believe and teach that salvation only comes through God's grace by placing trust in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross. A church that really believes this could never claim it is the "true" Church!

Beyond this point, denominations often disagree in matters of nonessential doctrines. Doctrines are principles apart from direct Commandments that we draw from the Bible which tell us how to live effective Christian lives, or which help us understand the philosophical viewpoints of the writers of Scripture. Because these principles go beyond clearly stated Commandments they are open to discussion and debate. Adultery, for instance, is clearly labeled as sin in the Bible, so all Christian denominations would agree that we must avoid committing this sin. Cigarette smoking, on the other hand, isn’t mentioned in the Bible but some denominations would look at scriptures like 1st Corinthians 6:19, which states that our bodies are the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, and conclude that smoking is wrong. Others would say this is a misapplication of that scripture, and that if smoking is some sort of sin merely because it is unhealthy, then so is eating red meat which is also bad for the body. So, one denomination would call smoking a “sin” while another would say it is not. Which view is right? It makes no difference because salvation is unaffected by the answer either way. Disagreements in nonessential areas like this are why Christians should find a church that teaches the solid foundations of salvation but which also has doctrinal philosophies that fit what the Christian, himself, thinks make sense.

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