Why We Need Denominations

How the variations of practice show us the beauty of the Gospel.

The first church I remember attending was an Assemblies of God church in Albuquerque, N.M. After we moved, my family joined the Evangelical Free Church of America in St. Louis, Mo. Now I am on staff at a non-denominational church in the area while I finish up my Master’s at a Presbyterian Church of America seminary. And my favorite writer is C.S. Lewis, an Anglican.

These are the ecclesiastical flavors in which my mind has soaked. And I have loved it. I love denominations. That’s not to say that I would like to be in a denomination, but I appreciate them enough to write about it.

Denominations are beautiful. While some within the Church see them as schismatic and unhelpful, I see them as lovely, imperfect variations on a single, pure theme.

But personal preference aside, are denominations actually biblical? That’s a difficult (and perhaps unfair) question.

Try asking it another way. Are Baptists biblical? Are Methodists biblical? Are Lutherans biblical? Or is it only us “non-denoms” who have gotten things right?

On issues that aren’t the Gospel and don’t pertain to the Gospel, Christians have this wild freedom to lovingly differ with their brothers and sisters.

Paul reminds the Corinthian church that he preached to them the pure, unadulterated Gospel. The Gospel is of first importance to the Church (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Opponents of denominations will argue that Paul is calling the Church to unite around the Gospel and forsake all other creeds and confessions. (“I’m not a (insert denominational label), I’m simply a Christian.” After all, denominations focus us on the secondary issues when what we need to focus on is the primary issue: the Gospel of Christ.

But rather than explicitly forbidding ecclesiastical denominations (a concept that didn’t even exist in the early church), Paul is reminding one local congregation in central Greece to focus on one thing as of first importance. He doesn’t say that other issues are not important. But he is reminding them of the overshadowing primacy of the Gospel.

The implied problem is that the Corinthians have forgotten to keep the main thing the main thing. But if the Church (all believers, everywhere) is united on the Gospel of first importance, surely we can be allowed to form fellowship over secondary issues, provided we keep fellowship over the primary issue.

The beautiful fruit of essential truth is that we are free to fly more freely with secondary issues. On issues that aren’t the Gospel and don’t pertain to the Gospel (that which is of first importance), Christians have this wild freedom to lovingly differ with their brothers and sisters. We query the Bible, ponder the implications and form our theology as our conscience allows.

Within the realm of orthodox Christianity, denominations are the result of brothers and sisters disagreeing on secondary issues. Though we all rally around the preeminence of the Gospel (and are thus united), we differ on doctrines that are not of first importance. And so there are multiple expressions of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). There is one theme, many variations. And we can all learn to appreciate the varied tones of different voices. Perhaps an analogy would help.

Magpies are known for “borrowing” shiny objects. They’ll snatch all sorts of baubles or trinkets they can find. They take what is beautiful from another place and bring it back to the nest, to add beauty. The little treasures don’t add to the nest, but they are secondary beauties to the primary beauty of the nest.

Think of the nest as historic, mere Christianity (what all Christians at all places have always believed). The nest is the supporting structure of the Gospel. We love the nest and we don’t stray from it. But the nest is enormous and filled with other magpies.

Each magpie has its own little pile of treasure (secondary issues) that they cherish, but they don’t cherish them more than the nest. The nest is home. And within that home, we have the freedom to admire, borrow, and learn from what the other magpies old dear.

Different traditions have beautiful expressions of faith that we can all learn from.

Different traditions have beautiful expressions of faith that we can all learn from. If one group of Christians cherishes a secondary issue to the point that they will find a different corner of the nest to protect it, that doesn’t give another group the right to try and kick them out of the nest or to accuse them of not caring about the preeminence of the Gospel. Christianity is a large family, and we have much to learn from other brothers and sisters, even the ones who are not like us.

Within the nest of orthodoxy, denominations don’t have to be divisions. The go-to “anti-denomination” text is 1 Corinthians 1:18-30 (“I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos”). Their argument goes something like this: if we divide into denominations, we will divide the Church and forfeit the unity Christ prayed for (John 17:11-12, 21-23).

However, true division would come only if a Lutheran were to say something like, “I follow Luther” as opposed to following Jesus. Division would erupt if a Presbyterian were to claim that the Westminster divines were crucified for her. Such madness wouldn’t be able to see the nest for the baubles. And the result would be division.

But Paul is not arguing against learning from and leaning into the faith of different teachers who follow Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Hebrews 13:7). We need to imitate the faith and practice of our leaders. Rather, Paul is condemning the elevation of a tradition or a human teacher above person and work of Christ. No one should be baptized into the name of Calvin, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

But if the Gospel is of first importance in a denomination, the Church will not be divided by denominations. The Church is a beautiful bride and she is adorned in many colors. Each color has as its base the blood of Jesus. And if she keeps her eyes on Him, the Church can dance to a hundred expressions of the same truth.

Top Comments

Margo Rose


Margo Rose commented…

Except that Jesus prayed that all people would be one just as He and the Father are One. And that there is only one Church that offers the fullness of Christ, even His very Body, Blood, Soul, & Divinity through the Eucharist. God desires that we all be united into His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, not separated into millions of denominations.

T.j. Tomazin


T.j. Tomazin commented…

In John 6 when so many disciples returned to their former ways of life because they didn't like Jesus' instruction to eat His Body and drink His Blood, He didn't chase after them and say "hey guys, come back and dance to your own expression of the same truth."He let them go.There is only one truth, and one expression of that truth.Everything else is made-up fantasy.




Will commented…

I personally like denominations. They may not be as flexible or open to change as non-denominational congregations, but they do have institutional accountability and discipline. That means that they're pretty good about staying within doctrinal bounds. You would be hard-pressed to find a denominational pastor who preaches the prosperity gospel, for example. The higher-ups in the denominational hierarchy would smack a pastor down for teaching something blatantly un-Biblical. There's not necessarily the case for a non-denom pastor preaching to his congregation.



brandon commented…

I totally agree with "keeping the main thing the main thing". This is vital to all Christians and all denominations but what happens when we change the main thing? Like when some denominations decide to not accept eternal security as a part of salvation? That totally changes the meaning of the gospel whether you believe in that or not. So how can we even say all denominations are the same gospel? These are huge issues that separate denominations that are nearly impossible to resolve and only tear apart the already broken church and cant possibly be good...

Victoria Webber


Victoria Webber commented…

We can have differences on secondary issues.. But what do you consider secondary issues? As some issues may be secondary to one they may also be primary to others

David Armstrong


David Armstrong commented…

I understand and can respect the central point of this article. However, denominations are an affront to Christ's prayer for Christian unity in John 17. The fact is that most denominations are, in fact, schismatic--they exist because one group of Christians decided that they did not need or would not continue to follow Jesus alongside another group of Christians. Saying that one is against denominations is different than saying that one is against traditions. When I say, for example, that I desire the unity of God's church, that does not mean that I desire that I and the other 80 million Anglicans the world over give up the elements of our spirituality and liturgy that are distinctly Anglican. It means that I desire that we come to full dogmatic agreement with the rest of the world's Christians (or at least most of them) and enjoy sacramental unity. The same principle would work for other Protestants. The liturgy and the spirituality aren't what needs to change, primarily; it is fundamentally an issue of dogma and polity.

Paul Appleby


Paul Appleby commented…

Being in a denomination will never save you, and allow you to spend Eternity with Christ and his Fathef, however accepting the Lord Jesus Christ the son of God, into our hearts and confessing that we are sinners saved by grace, will imedistely make us a child of God, therefore a part in the body of Christ, therefore we will be the bride of Christ to the Glory of God. We must uphold the Word of God as it is His inspired word, unfortunately many denominations have either added to, or taken away, which is absolutely forbidden in the scriptures. His Word is as strong today as it was in the Apostle Pauls day, let us hold His Word close to our hearts.

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