There has been a criticism against Christianity that every so often raises its head in conversation. Even Christians are known to level this from time to time and on the surface can seem like a real stumbling block. "If Christianity is true, why are there so many different denominations?" people will ask and it leaves us at times scratching our heads for an answer.
Opponents will often cite the figure that there are over 33,000 different Christian denominations and say that disproves Christianity's radical claim that truth is exclusive. How do we answer this perplexing question when even in Cashmere we have denominations such as Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and even Baptist?
Who has the truth and who is ultimately right? Or are we all wrong?
Firstly, truth is not found within a denomination because that is not its purpose. Truth is to be found in the Scriptures alone. Jesus himself said in John 8:31-32 "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."
Denominations by design do not claim to have a monopoly on the truth, instead choose to express the truth found in Scripture in a particular way. In other words, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and other Christian denominations do not claim to represent the whole church rather they are birthed out of a larger group and members of what is considered the universal Body of Christ.
This may sound rather unusual, especially coming from a Southern Baptist pastor, but I do not see denominations as a bad thing rather I see it as a positive. Denominations affirm the reality that there are going to be differing opinions on form of worship and organization.
In addition denominational structures acknowledge that no man has a final and full grasp of divine truth regardless of what they claim otherwise. Furthermore in non-Roman Catholic denominations there is the continuing conviction carried forth from the Protestant Reformation, that every person is obligated to follow what they believe the Bible teaches. Lastly, denominations show that even though it is possible to disagree over many different points, that we can still be united in Christ and agree on the fundamentals. In fact, if you were to sit a Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and a Baptist down, who all believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone and according to the Scriptures alone, you will find that they have a lot more in common than they disagree upon. However, I don't want to minimize the differences because there are real and substantial differences between denominations. An example would be the difference of expression regarding the nature of baptism that is found between my Presbyterian brothers and my Baptist ones. However, where we can agree on and where we should agree on is the fundamental nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If there is a disagreement there then there is a disagreement with what is considered orthodox or "true Christianity."
There is also another value to denominations that isn't spoke of often especially within local expressions of the church and that is denominations are to test our love and grace to fellow Christian brothers and sisters.
I have a dear friend who is part of a denomination that would be considered by most to be very Pentecostal. Although we differ on how the Holy Spirit manifests particular gifts, we can agree on what matters most - that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and we can offer each other loving fellowship and a deep sense of unity. Again I believe this is missed by most because of an unfortunate sectarian approach to the local church that is; that all of truth belongs to our particular group and no one else. When that attitude arises within a local gathering it can be deadly because not only does it damage a public witness about the love of Christ but it borders dangerously on cultic behavior.
Truth is to be found in the Scriptures not solely within a denomination and yet what denominations do provide is a diversity of expression within the Christian faith. There is a real need for unity amongst Christians, especially within these days. The Moravians would call this Unitas Fratrum, or "unity of the brethren" and so we must remember when it comes down to it: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty and in all things, charity.