Divisions in the church go back to the first century. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul lamented that strife and divisions had resulted in some saying, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos” ( 1 Corinthians 3:3 ).
Denominations, which could be called “formalized division,” began a little later in the Apostolic Church, when orthodox1 believers defended the teaching of the apostles against the distortion of the gospel with false teachings based on pagan2 or Jewish3 traditions.
Eventually the true church was firmly established on a foundation of essential doctrinal truth: belief in the deity of Christ and the Trinity, and acceptance of the established Canon of Scripture. This universal agreement of the early church was characterized by the Greek word katholikos, which meant “according to the whole.” The English term was “catholic,” and it meant the true church as accepted by genuine followers of Christ. Outside the catholic church were sects that denied important elements of truth: Gnostics, Ebionites, Montanists, Arians, Pelagians, and others. These were considered “unorthodox” (not accepting the right doctrines).
The two terms, catholic and orthodox, eventually came into common language as indicators of true Christian belief. Sadly, however, they also became the names of the first denominations: A separation occurred within the church in 1054 when the Greek-speaking church of the east separated from the Latin-based church in the west over a number of political and cultural differences, along with some relatively minor doctrinal disputes. The church in the east became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the church in the west was called the Roman Catholic Church. These main divisions continue to the present.
Later, reformers among the Roman Catholics felt a need for spiritual renewal and correction within church. They especially protested the addition of non-biblical tradition to the Bible as essential to the faith and practice of Christianity. These protesting reformers eventually brought about a second major separation. From this “Protestant Reformation” came Lutheran, Calvinist, Baptist, and other denominations.
Finally, in the first part of the 20th Century, the Pentecostal Movement came into bloom. This group of Christians were convinced that all the gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the followers of Christ at Pentecost (the dramatic moment when God’s Holy Spirit descended upon the Christians fifty days after Jesus’ ascension) must be evident in the life of believers today. The Greek word for divine gift is kharisma; hence the term “charismatic” is often used to describe this group of denominations. The additional bestowal of some of these gifts after one accepts Christ as one’s personal Savior is often referred to as the “second blessing.” 4
While there are differences between the denominations, most of the basic doctrines agreed upon by the early catholic church are still accepted by all. For example, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, most Protestants, and most charismatic groups believe in the Trinity and in the Deity of Christ—established by the church councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. All orthodox Christian denominations agree that Jesus Christ, the God-man, died to atone for the sins of the world, and was raised from the grave to break the power of Satan and death.
With the exception of the reference to Christ descending to hell, the principles contained within the Apostles’ Creed, taken primarily from the old Roman Creed, are also universally accepted. This creed is recited in hundreds of thousands of Christian churches around the world every Sunday, regardless of denomination:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
It is important not to become so preoccupied with the minor differences between the denominations that we overlook their broad areas of agreement. While some of the doctrinal differences that exist have produced serious perversions of the Gospel, there are other aspects to the presence of a wide range of viewpoints that are positive. Because of denominational differences, there are a variety of practical approaches to Christian living. While this fragmentation makes it more difficult for the world to see the unity of the Body of Christ, it’s also true that these groupings make it harder for the church as a whole to become mired in ritual and formalism than would be the case if one denomination dominated Christian life. As a source of more information regarding Christian denominations, we recommend A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker (Scribners). We also recommend the books of outstanding historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette.
- Orthodox is a term taken directly from the Greek language. It simply means “correct belief.” Any church is considered to be orthodox in the broadest sense if it accepts the formulations of doctrine that were made by the major councils of the early Church such as those held in Nicaea in 325 and in Chalcedon in 451. These decisions settled such important doctrinal issues as Christ’s Deity and the unity of His personhood while possessing two natures (human and divine). Back To Article
- Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible makes this observation regarding early pagan influences in the church:
About the time the New Testament letters were being written there began to develop a number of sects which later (in the 2nd century) came under the general heading of “Gnosticism.” They varied considerably in detail, but shared the basic belief that “matter” was evil and spirit was good. It followed that God could not have created the world out of matter, nor could his Son have become incarnate in it. So they envisaged a whole range of subordinate beings between God and the world. Humanity shares in the evil of the material world, but they also (or some of them) contain a divine spark which can be set free and thus redeemed. In order to be redeemed they need to have knowledge (Greek gnosis) of their heavenly origin. These views were expressed in fantastic myths and made known to initiates in sects like those of the mystery religions. Back To Article
- The pernicious influence of Judaizers is vehemently denounced by Paul in Galatians 5:1-8 and Philippians 3:1-7. Back To Article
- The doctrine of the “second work of grace” or “second blessing” is rooted in the Wesleyan/Armenian tradition. It maintains that we can, if faithful, experience a special time of spiritual growth and renewal. Because the Bible teaches that sanctification is a progressive experience, it is certainly possible that some people will have a wonderful season of renewal that could be called a “second blessing.” However, Scripture nowhere indicates that all Christians will experience this. Many Christians experience the steady growth in their lives that can only be attributed to the power of God’s Spirit.
The Bible teaches a three-fold aspect of sanctification. First, there is a positional aspect in which every believer is sanctified or set apart for God at the moment of salvation ( 1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 1:1; Hebrews 3:1 ). Second, there is a progressive aspect of sanctification in which believers are being sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures ( John 17:17; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 5:25,26; 1 Thessalonians 5:23,24 ). And third, there is the consummation at the return of Christ when our sanctification will be complete. We shall be in the likeness of Jesus Christ ( Ephesians 5:27; 1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 ). Back To Article