Comes the question,
Has the splintering of the Protestant church into thousands of denominations become a hindrance to our witness to the world? What can we do?
This is an important question that we may not dismiss. Our Lord warned the visible church about the danger of scandals, i.e., doing things that cause the “little ones” to stumble:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And he called a child to himself and set him before them, and said, “Amen I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in my name receives me but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven (Matt 18:1–10; revised from the NASB95).
To be sure, our Lord’s principal point in this discourse is to explain the nature of the kingdom. It is not a realm of self-seeking, of grasping for control, authority, and power. The kingdom is to be populated by child-like trust and humility but contained in this instruction is a stern warning about giving unnecessary offense to those seeking the kingdom. The biblical word for giving offense is “scandal.” It is a great question what constitutes a scandal and that is the question before us. Does the existence of denominations constitute the sort of scandal, the sort of cause of offense about which our Lord warned?
In short, I think not. In my experience, as a practical matter, believers are much more offended by denominations than are non-Christians. Speaking as one former non-Christian, I can say categorically that I was not offended by denominations. Indeed, I was only vaguely aware of them. I think that my experience was not unique.
As a historical matter, we should not think that there was a time when all was unified, e.g., before the Reformation, only to have that blessed unity disrupted by the Reformation. Beneath the surface, the medieval church was a roiling cauldron of theological, political, moral, practical, and spiritual disagreements. There is not space here to chronicle the real state of the pre-Reformation church but it was not at peace. Indeed, just a century before the Reformation, there was legitimate doubt as to which of three men was truly the Pope, the ostensible representative of Christ on the earth. Before that, the Eastern and Western Churches had split in an ugly schism. Thus, against the broader scope of church history, the Reformation was arguably a disruption within the Western church but not as great as some of the earlier crises.
Further, it is often casually assumed that the Reformation gave us the plethora of denominations but as they say on the internet (correctly) correlation is not causation. The Reformation gave us a split between the Papists, i.e., those who acknowledged the Bishop of Rome as the “head of the church,” the “high priest,” and universal representative of Christ on the earth and the Protestants who rejected those claims as contrary to God’s holy Word and who rejected the Roman doctrines of salvation and scripture. Twenty years after the onset of the Reformation the Protestant churches divided between the Lutheran and the Reformed, with the Reformed typically recognizing the Lutherans as churches and the Lutherans rejecting the Reformed as “sacramentarians.” In other words, the Reformation properly gave us two denominations not thousands. The vast number of denominations arose much later. Their cause was not the Reformation. Their cause was Modernity.
By the middle of the 17th century, Western philosophy began to witness a significant shift of the place of authority from God, Scripture (Protestants) or the visible church (Rome) to the self. By the 18th century, philosophers were abandoning any extrinsic source of authority in favor of the sovereign self. Western Christianity was deeply affected by these shifts. Through the 19th and 20th century Christianity witnessed the explosion of denominations that we know today as thousands of sovereign selves asserted their autonomy and authority over Scripture and church. This has been a particularly acute problem in the USA the politics and economic life of which was built on an entrepreneurial spirit, autonomy of the individual and an independent spirit. As virtuous as those characteristics may be for civil life they are disastrous for the life of the church. It is not the Reformation but the American entrepreneurial spirit that has produced the splintering that we can see in our towns.
What to do? The liberal ecumenical response is to downplay truth claims in favor of a kind of universalism. All religion, they say, is really nothing more than different manifestations of the same basic human impulse to find significance in the universe. The denominations, even the different religions are nothing more than different expressions of the same impulse. If only we could see (as they have) that we all want the same thing, we could see that all the denominations are misguided.
Of course, this sort of ecumenism is built on false premises. The Christian religion begins with objective truth claims: Jesus is. He died, was raised on the third day, and he is coming again. He instituted his visible church. He is the only way to heaven. All religions are not essentially the same. They are not all expressions of the human search for significance. Christians are convinced to their core that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that he is the “way, the life, and the truth” and that he is the only way to the Father. This makes Christianity incompatible with competing truth claims. The universalist is one thing and the Christian another.
Nevertheless, it is easy to overstate the differences between Christians. Despite their denominational differences, which are more real than many are willing to acknowledge, there is a genuine unity. We all believe the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (325, 381 AD), the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), and the Athanasian Creed (5th century AD). The Reformed and Presbyterian Churches that still believe their old confessions (e.g., the Heidelberg, Belgic, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards). Even between the confessional Reformed and the confessional Lutherans there is more unity than some would like to admit.
Finally, we should not simply assume that all those groups that call themselves “church” are such. As early as 1561 the Dutch Reformed Churches recognized this problem with respect to the Anabaptists, whom all the confessing Protestants rejected as part of the Reformation altogether. The churches confessed, “for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of ‘the church'” even though they are not actually churches. This is how we deal today with many of the groups that arose in the 19th century as part of the so-called “Second Great Awakening” and the other groups such as the Millerites (who gave us the Jehovah’s Witnesses), the Christian Scientists, the (traditional) Seventh-Day Adventists, and virtually all of the Pentecostal groups that arose out of the Cane Ridge “revivals” (early 19th century) and the Topeka and Azusa Street “revivals” (early 20th century). In 16th-century terms, in the language of the Belgic Confession, these are mostly “sects” and not churches at all since they lack “the marks of the true church,” namely, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.
Could the confessional Reformed churches seek greater unity among themselves? Yes, certainly. We have a basis for this in our common understanding of God’s Word as expressed in our confessions. We do cooperate and meet to discuss ways to cooperate further.
Denominations are a reality but their history challenges some of the assumptions behind the way the question often framed. Will God call his elect to new life and true faith? Certainly! This not excuse for inaction but it does put the problem in a needed context. God has his church and wherever the gospel is preached, even if imperfectly, the Spirit is calling his people to Christ and is at work in them to form his church.