There is a figure often thrown out by Catholic apologists to demonstrate just how fractured and untenable Protestant Christianity is: 33,000.
33,000 is the number of allegedly different Protestant Christian denominations around the world. It’s a staggering figure and it isn’t surprising that apologists would latch on to such a dramatic example of the failure of Protestantism to bring about Christianity unity.
Except, it isn’t totally true.
In a discussion between two of my favourite apologists, Randal Rauser and Trent Horn, the figure comes up right away. It’s actually Rauser, an Evangelical apologist, who brings it up to ask Horn, in the face of so much Christian diversity, why Catholicism should stand out.
Trent Horn, a Catholic apologist, first charitably corrects Rauser on the number.
The figure of 33,000, he explains, is a misleading statistic. To arrive at 33,000 different denominations the “same religious group existing in different countries” is counted as different denominations. So a Baptist affiliated church in Uruguay is counted as a different denomination from a Baptist affiliated church in Canada even if they’re under the same Baptist umbrella or association. What’s more, the number includes different rites in the Catholic Church. While these are different expressions of our universal faith these are not different denominations as they’re all under the authority of the Pope, united in the Catholic Church.
Giving up the mythical 33,000 figure is charitable, to say the least, but Horn did his research and it’s a massive demonstration of integrity to admit that the number is bunk. There aren’t 33,000 different Protestant denominations, so how many are there? And does it matter?
Well, it does.
Horn goes on to say that even if there were only hundreds of different denominations—a far cry from 33,000—it wouldn’t make any difference. The number isn’t important because Christ prayed for unity. So even if there aren’t 33,000 different Protestant denominations even a fraction of the number is too many.
John 17:1-26 captures what’s commonly referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. It’s his last recorded prayer in the gospels and an intimate glimpse into the heart of God for his Church on earth. In it, Jesus prays fervently that his Church “might be one even as we are one.”
That the Church, he prays, might experience the same unity of oneness as the Godhead: God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Friends, you can’t get any closer than that. Literally.
As a non-denominational believer, I’ve been in the orbit of enough Protestant church leaders to understand the process that creates denominations. With the Bible as the ultimate source for understanding the faith different interpretations inevitably spawn different denominations. If one group of believers reads the Bible and sees no reason why women can’t serve in leadership in the church and another group reads the very same Scriptures and decides the opposite who is to say who’s right?
It’s down to personal interpretation. It’s down to me, or me and you, or me and you and some others deciding what we think Scripture means. We may try to wrestle out the context or the historical significance or see it through a Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman lens but ultimately we are deciding for ourselves no matter what external, and non-authoritative, sources we try to consult for the context.
And when we differ in our decisions we split, we fracture, we create new denominations.
Even two or three hundred is a far cry from the kind of unity Christ prayed for. Right?
Instead, the Catholic Church offers a kind of unity which seems, for all accounts, to be exactly what Christ intended. Through a lineage of bishops which traces itself back to the original twelve apostles, the Church is governed by an authoritative framework which has the ability, given by Jesus, to “bind and loose.”
To teach, authoritatively, and to interpret the Scriptures.
While there can, and is, fruitful discussion and wrestling with the Scriptures there is, at the end of the day, an appeal to the authority of the Church that cannot be overstated.
It is an authority which unifies.
And which looks an awful lot like what Christ seems to have intended.
Trent Horn is right (no surprise, Trent!). Catholic apologists need to surrender the figure of 33,000 different denominations—it simply isn’t true—but this does not weaken our case in the least. Because at the end of the day, even two or three hundred different denominations is too many and that kind of struggle for unity, that kind of way of using the Bible, that kind of interpretation which spawns chaos, needs to be looked at much more critically by those that believe it.