Some critics of Christianity are keen to point out that, according to best estimates, there are roughly 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. This is an astoundingly large figure, and some see it as evidence that Christianity is divided; if Christians can’t even agree amongst themselves, how can they make exclusive claims about absolute truth?
After a quick search online, it’s not hard to find a plethora of blog posts commenting on the large number of Christian denominations and concluding all sorts of things: “Christianity has splintered into pieces”, or that there are “40,000 groups contradicting each other” and “40,000 different interpretations of the Bible.”
If this is true, what does this say about Christian unity? Doesn’t it demonstrate that Christians are hopelessly divided?
Well, there are a few important things to say here.
What does the figure 40,000 really mean?
First of all, people need to check their facts. The World Christian Encyclopedia, one of the two sources from which the 40,000 number is taken, has a very specific definition of ‘denomination’ for the purposes of its study. As you can see here, they define a denomination as an organized Christian group within a specific country. So, for example, although there is only one Roman Catholic Church, over 200 Roman Catholic ‘denominations’ are listed – one ‘denomination’ for each national body of Roman Catholics.
So it is quite misleading to say that there are 40,000 denominations worldwide, if by that we mean that there are 40,000 organised bodies of Christians who are divided against each other.
The actual number of denominations is a far smaller number (they count 300 major ecclesiastical traditions worldwide, grouped into 6 ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs), and even across denominations there is significant partnership and unity.
I’d probably call myself a Reformed Baptist, but I’ve spent a number of years being a part of Presbyterian, non-Reformed Baptist, and independent churches, not to mention the fact that I currently serve full-time in an Anglican church. I’ve spent significant time in my life in 7 different denominations, and never had a problem or serious disagreement with any of them.
Despite institutional and traditional differences, there is a very real unity that exists between all the churches that I’ve attended.
How is that possible?
Real Christian Unity
It’s possible because Christian unity is not the same as institutional unity. Denominations are human institutions, and while different denominations do often represent differences in certain doctrines or beliefs, the vast majority of Christian denominations are united in a common faith in Christ. Christian unity does not require that we be a part of the same institution.
Nor does Christian unity require that we agree on everything. I mean, I could guarantee you that you can’t find a single church in the world where everyone believes exactly the same thing on every point. And that’s okay! While beliefs are absolutely important, what binds Christians together is our faith in Christ and our submission to Him. Christian unity doesn’t mean agreeing on absolutely everything.
So then, if Christian unity is not any of those things, what is Christian unity?
Real Christian unity is a common faith in Christ, and it is not man-made, but God-made and God-given.
In 1 Corinthians 1:2-3, the Apostle Paul defines the church as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” So Christians are those who are sanctified in Christ and called to holiness. And who is it that sanctifies us and calls us? God.
God is the One who both sanctifies us in Christ, and the One who calls us to Himself. He unites us with Christ – “it is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And since it is our common unity with Christ that unites believes to each other (1 Corinthians 10:17, 12:12-13), it can only be God who makes and gives Christian unity. Regardless of denomination, Christians are united to all others who have genuine faith in Christ. That is real Christian unity.
So we need not be concerned by the many denominations around the world. Creating some mega-denomination that encompasses all Christians will do absolutely nothing to create unity among Christians. It never could, because Christian unity does not depend on institutional unity.
Two Big Implications For Us
Once we come to grips with what Christian unity is and is not, it will help us in the way we think about the state of global Christianity today.
Firstly, we have no reason to worry about the many ‘denominations’ that exist in the world today. They don’t indicate that Christianity is broken or divided at all – in fact, it is more a testimony to the truth of the Gospel and the great power of God, to think that even though there are thousands of distinct Christian bodies in the world, such a strong unity can still exist across all among them who call on the name of Jesus.
Secondly, we need to remember the strength of the unity that binds us to Christians of other denominations and traditions. It’s easy to demonize Christians who believe different things than we do, but at root, there is still a strong unity between us and them. I don’t agree with a lot of what Roman Catholics and Pentecostals teach, but I know many people from both traditions who have a true and vibrant faith in Christ. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ, despite the points on which we disagree (of which there may be many).
It should make us rejoice that God has called us together and made us His people despite our differences.
Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians is a fitting one for us to keep in mind as we interact with our brothers and sisters in other denominations:
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all in all” (Eph 4:2-6).
Image by Horia Varlan