Why in the World Are There so Many Christian Denominations?
I have often heard the complaint about so many Christian denominations. We are told that there is one Bible, and we Christians are supposed to love each other; so why have Christians split into 9,000 different denominations? That’s a reasonable question.
According to the New Testament, the church was started by Christ and nourished by Peter, Paul, John, James, and others. During those early days, the church was known as “the church in Jerusalem” or the “Jerusalem church.” Later, churches were established in homes in Corinth, Antioch, and Rome. Being human (and fallible), Christian leaders disagreed (wrongly) with some of the Apostolic teachings and formed churches that reflected their interpretation. Some were minor and some were major departures from the Scripture. They then wrote false “gospels” to support their erroneous departure from the truth. The many denominations came into existence because of such departures from the truth.
The first Christians were very familiar with the synagogues so it was expected that the first Christian services would resemble the synagogue: public reading of Scripture, chanting the Psalms and responsive “Amens.” Such was the norm in ancient church services. Church historian Kenneth Latourette reveals, “Not until the fourth century do we have more than partial glimpses of the Christian liturgy.” So, those who gush over the “solemn” and “dignified” liturgical services in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglian, etc., churches have no support in Scripture or early history. The ancient church services were very simple.
The opulent distinctive dress of the clergy was unknown to the early Christians; even the clerical collar is not supported by Scripture. However, as usual, modern preachers, especially megachurch pastors and their wannabes have swung to the other extreme wearing faded jeans, polo shirts, and often expensive earrings and tasteless “Jesus Saves” tattoos.
The strict division of clergy and laity was unknown for a hundred years of the church’s existence. Church leadership came from the membership. Moreover, Paul the Apostle clearly commanded us in I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 to remember that we are all believers in Christ and we must show humility as we exercise our spiritual gifts in His service. You never see archbishops, cardinals, monsignors, abbots, metropolitans; or popes in the Bible or in the early churches. You only read about pastor/elder/bishops and deacons. Again, simplicity.
It was only natural for pastors in the Empire to look to more established church leaders for help so the concept of appreciation, admiration, and authority of the church in Rome became the norm. And many of the small churches were started by the Roman Church so of course, there was an affinity to Rome. With the passing of time, the influence of the Roman pastor changed from an acquaintance, to an authority, to an authoritarian, and in the 400s, he expected the other independent pastors to look to him as the religious boss. That didn’t go well with others since all pastors were expected to be equal and independent. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church did not exist since the Christian world looked for leadership in five places: Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome.
Historian Edward Gibbon agreed: “The primitive bishops [of Rome] were considered only as the first of their equals, and the honorable servants of a free people.” He forcefully reports that the early churches of the Roman Empire “were united only by the ties of faith and charity.” No pope there.
Even as late as the 400s, there was no recognized universal church authority as historian Will Durant wrote, “The patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria claimed equal authority with the Roman see.” No pope there, only five wannabe popes!
The idea that Peter and/or Paul founded the church in Rome is totally false. In a footnote in the classic, (and very first) Church History by Bishop Eusebius (died 339), we read, “Neither Paul nor Peter founded the Roman Church in the strict sense for there was a congregation of believers there even before Paul came to Rome, as his Epistle to the Romans shows, and Peter cannot have reached there until some time after Paul. It was, however, a very early fiction that Paul and Peter together founded the church in that city.”
As for Peter dying in Rome, that is not mentioned by anyone before Origen who died in 254. That is hardly a contemporaneous validation.
Emperor Constantine moved the center of the Empire to Byzantium (later named Constantinople, now Istanbul) in 330 and the Patriarch of Constantinople later claimed control over the whole church including what was left of the western part of the Empire centered in Rome. That alarmed, angered, and agitated the Bishop of Rome since he liked his usurped authority that was slowly developing and saw it threatened by the Patriarch in Constantinople. When Rome fell, it produced major problems for everyone and left a vacuum of leadership.
Moving the center of the Empire to the East was no doubt one of the causes of Rome’s fall. It was the beginning of a geographical, cultural, and political split between the East that was centered in Constantinople and the West that was centered in Rome. Everything started to sour and did so for hundreds of years. Still a little sour today.
Gibbon gives 476 as the year Rome Empire ceased to exist. That was when the Germanic king Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor to rule the western portion of the Roman Empire. During the resulting chaos, the Bishop of Rome stepped in to take more control of secular as well as religious matters.
Eventually, but gradually, the Roman Catholic Church became a reality when Gregory the Great (590-604) became the first man to wield the authority similar to modern Popes–yet he opposed the concept! But popery became a reality late in the sixth century!
Relations between Rome and Constantinople continued to simmer and erupted when the Patriarch of Alexandria broke away from Rome at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and was soon joined by the Armenians, and later by a dissenting group from Antioch. By the 800s, most of the liturgical churches identified with Rome in the west or Constantinople in the east. They basically split over the issue of papal authority; the eastern churches thought the Pope assumed the top honcho position claiming authority he did not rightly possess. But the other mini popes refused to recognize that, so “Christendom” was embarrassed when the two leaders excommunicated each other! Now there was a definite split between Rome and Constantinople, and the independent churches continued to proliferate.
In 1054, the split became permanent and the eastern churches were known as Eastern Orthodox Churches (official name, Orthodox Catholic Church). Now Christianity was divided into Roman Catholic Churches, Eastern Orthodox Churches, and independent churches, with the large number of formal, liturgical churches split between Rome and Constantinople. The independent churches continued to multiply and gain religious and political influence.
All three groups claim to be successors of the original Christians. In my opinion, the Eastern Orthodox group is closer to original Christianity than the Roman Church; however, their liturgy, vestments, holy days, unswerving adherence to the church councils, adoration of icons, use of terms such as Ecumenical Patriarch, Metropolitan,etc., are absent from the Bible. Also, like the Roman Church, the Orthodox group teaches apostolic succession.
With the passing of time, the Roman Church became incredibly corrupt–in theology and personal living. Enter the Reformers beginning with Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, Luther, Knox, Calvin, Puritans, and Pilgrims, among others. While the Reformers were highly dedicated and courageous men who came “out from among them,” they did not come out far enough! After leaving a corrupt system, they formed churches which became state churches and all of them practiced infant “baptism.”
In a free nation, people can choose to believe what they want–even error, and I do not agree with Augustine and his followers who believed people should be forced to believe the “truth.” A truly free person can believe error if he or she chooses.
Of course, there is a big price to pay for error and part of that price is so many denominations.
I am not looking for a church of opulence but obedience; not money but a message; not grandeur but grace; not popularity but passion. I demand sincerity, strength, simplicity, and scriptural truth–just like the ancient churches.
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