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Does the Bible guide us to break into denominations? There are plenty of verses about unity and the church but then there's the 12 tribes of Israel.

From a biblical standpoint, are denominations our way of making Christianity fit our needs or are they options that are meant to attract more people to different parts of Christianity? Does the Bible approve of denominations?

  • Given that in the book of revelation the Seven Churches are each addressed by the author, and the Apostle Paul wrote letters to different churches, this question has sufficient merit (since "denomination" is an after the fact characterization) that it should not be closed. – KorvinStarmast May 9 '17 at 19:49
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    This has all the characteristics of a truth question. Questions about "what the Bible says" are inherently truth- and opinion-based. This question should indeed be closed. – Lee Woofenden May 9 '17 at 21:24
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    I could not disagree with you more. "What the Bible says" is so germane to the subject of Christianity that there would not BE a Christianity apart from the Bible and what the Bible says about--oh, I don't know--sin, redemption, repentance, God, Jesus Christ, sanctification, the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, fellowship, prophecy, spiritual gifts, confession, church discipline, the Day of the Lord, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the Ten Commandments, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, King David, the Kingdom of God, covenant . . .. I think you get the point (I hope). Don – rhetorician May 10 '17 at 0:22
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The 12 tribes of Israel were separate but still part of God's one people, and part of the family of God. I would consider them more analogous to different traditions in a church (different cultural practices under the same theology), but not denominations (which remain separate because of theological differences, primarily).

Jesus prayed that we may be one (John 17:20-23). The analogy of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) and being one, as well as the analogy of the vine and the branches (John 15:5) also indicate that we are to be together, and not separated.

Denominations have split off because of human sin in general (with culpability on all sides), and not because it was Biblically appropriate. There was one church in the first centuries. It is because of human sin that people broke away. That is why we pray for unity and encourage interdenominational dialogue and reconciliation.

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    Good answer. I'm not sure it's quite right to say there was one (uniform, united) church in the first centuries though. Churches in different locations had different issues and different characteristics, which is why Paul's letters to (say) the Corinthians are so different from his letter to the Romans. So while it perhaps wasn't intended/encouraged that different churches should have different practices/beliefs/etc, it's clear that some such differences existed even in the very early church. – Waggers Dec 8 '11 at 15:53
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    @Waggers, that is a good point. It is true, however, that Apostles were more or less "in charge" of all of them. I'd characterize differences as more of an individual nature (apostasy, rebellion) than an official and organizational difference. – Paul Draper Jun 22 '14 at 15:44
  • So is the answer, no, Christianity was not intended to have separate denominations? – guest37 May 14 '18 at 16:29
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To answer your question we must agree on (a) what "Christianity" is; (b) what we mean by "denominations"; and (c) whose intent we are referring to when we ask, "Was Christianity intended to have denominations?"

Christianity

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines "Christianity" as "the religion based on the person and teachings of Christ." If we hold this particular definition, then we would say that one who holds beliefs contrary to the teaching of Christ would not be considered a true Christian - at least in the dictionary sense of the word.

Denominations

Following the COED once more, a "denomination" is defined as "a recognized autonomous branch of a church or religion". Here, we could classify such denominations as:

(a) Denominations which hold no beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christ

(b) Denominations which hold some beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christ

The Intent for Christianity

We would say here that those denominations which hold no beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christ (a) are truly Christian denominations; whereas those who hold some beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christ (b) are not truly Christian denominations.

We recall from the Acts of the Apostles that those first called Christians were the disciples and they were first so-called in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Except for Acts 11:26, the word "Christian" appears only on two other occasions in the Bible (Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16). Other than that, everywhere that we might use the word "Christian" today, the word "disciple" (Greek mathētēs) is used. Occasionally we find reference to something called the Way (e.g. Acts 9:2), where we might use the word Christianity.

We know from the Acts of the Apostles that those disciples who were of the Way did, in fact, branch into "denominations" in the above dictionary sense - recognized autonomous branches. We read in Acts 2:47 that those such as should be saved were added to the Church daily (the Greek uses the definite pronoun), but we also know that there were local branches: the church that was at Antioch (Acts 13:1), the churches that were confirmed in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), the church at Caesarea (Acts 16:5), etc. Paul, in writing to the Romans, writes, the churches of Christ salute you (Romans 16:16).

As far as we know from the New Testament Scriptures, these churches held beliefs that were entirely consistent with the teachings of Christ. We know that when they could not agree on some point of doctrine, the Church leaders met in council to resolve their understandings (e.g. the council in Jerusalem, Acts 15:2-35). The Church, being the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), cannot abide in untruth.

The second class of denomination - those that hold beliefs contrary to the teachings of Christ - had, however, no place whatsoever in the early Church. The inevitability of such denominations arising was well anticipated: Paul wrote, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be manifest (1 Corinthians 11:19). But this in no way implies that the Apostles sanctioned their existence. Adherents to these divisions would not have been considered true disciples of the Way (i.e. "Christians").

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  • I'm not sure if I would consider the churches that Paul wrote to to be "autonomous." They were all accountable to the apostles. – Samuel Bradshaw May 11 '17 at 23:48
  • @SamuelBradshaw - I would agree. They were autonomous, though, in the sense that they had local episkopoi appointed over them. Most of the churches mentioned in the New Testament that still exist today belong to various jurisdictions within the Orthodox Church, Rome being the notable exception. The point I was making was that these are the sort of denominations which one should expect to exist - i.e. "denominations" which share common beliefs. – guest37 May 12 '17 at 2:02