There are thousands of Christian denominations with new ones forming every year. This is a strange situation considering Jesus’ prayer for His followers, “that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:22). The apostle Paul insisted that “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” (Ephesians 4:4,5). But instead of unity we see division, with many denominations considering themselves to be the true church and all others to be heretical. Why?
Perhaps one way to approach this question is to look at the history of the first divisions of the Christian Church into separate denominations from the relative unity that existed at the beginning of the fourth century. The Donatists of North Africa separated from the imperial church because they believed that the Church had compromised. The Arians of the Middle East were expelled because they believed that Christ was a created being. They converted a number of northern European tribes to their theology. Nestorius taught that Christ has two natures, divine and human; his followers split off and became the Nestorian churches of the East. Eutyches taught that Christ had only one divine nature; his followers were expelled from the Orthodox Church and became the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches split over the issue of the authority of the pope as well as some minor theological issues.
Thus we see that new denominations formed because one group considered the other unfaithful, because of differences in theology and because of divisions over leadership and authority. These same kinds of divisions have continued through the centuries and have especially increased in recent years among Protestant churches.
On the one hand these kinds of divisions are to be expected since the Church is made up of sinful human beings who imperfectly hear God’s voice and often misunderstand His word. The messages to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 trace the history of compromise, heresy, satanic influence and spiritual indifference that crept into the Church through the centuries. Although some denominations such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches teach that the Church, being the body of Christ, is perfect and cannot err, there is nothing in the Bible to support this view, and history teaches otherwise. The Church is no more perfect than its members, and its imperfections have led to divisions, schisms and the proliferation of denominations.
On the other hand, divisions are always a failure for the Church. It is the love and unity of the Church that should be a convincing demonstration to the world of the presence of God, and the divisions and even hatred that various denominations show toward one another is a disgrace and reproach to the name of God.
In the examples that we have cited above we can see some of the underlying causes of failure. In particular, theologians have insisted on defining matters of doctrine such as the nature of Christ that God has not defined through the revelation of the Bible. Church leaders have used theological issues as a weapon to promote their own power and authority.
More recently in the Pentecostal movement individual Christians have believed that because of a particular spiritual gift they believe they possess they have a “direct line” to God that enables them to discern His will. This leads to division from anyone who disagrees.
The apostle Paul struggled against the divisions that were appearing in his day – “I plead with you, brethren, that you all speak the same thing, and there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment… each of you says, ‘I am of Paul’ or ‘I am of Apollos’ or ‘I am of Christ’. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?… For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 3:3).
The Book of Ephesians indicates that God has given His people spiritual gifts, not for personal edification, but “for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God… That we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine… but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head– Christ” (Ephesians 4:13-15).
This text shows us that God is not seeking the kind of unity in name only that says, “we all believe in Jesus and we won’t discuss the issues that divide us”. Instead He wants us to “speak the truth in love” and to “grow up”, to study and settle the issues involved in “every wind of doctrine” and come to a “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”.
This will not result in the uniting of all the various Christian denominations. The book of Revelations indicates that at the end of time there will be two Christian “denominations”. “Babylon” will claim to be Christian but will follow the false doctrine and leadership of “the Beast” (the Antichrist). The coming together of Babylon will appear to be a great ecumenical movement, but it will be unity based on falsehood and deception.
The other group is called “the Remnant”. Their characteristic is that they “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17). One of the major themes of Revelation is that at the end of time the Remnant will give a powerful message to the people of the world, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen… Come out of her, my people” (Revelation 18:2-4). God’s true people in all of the various denominations will hear this message as the voice of God, will respond and will “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4).
Only then will Jesus’ promise of unity be fulfilled: “and other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).