Bible vs. Denominationalism

Bible vs. Denominationalism September 22, 2016

. . . and Against “Primary / Secondary” Doctrines


How much more does Protestantism have to “branch out” into yet more sectarianism; more sects and denominations, before its system and rule of faith is to be questioned, having produced such chaos? Photograph by “aitoff” (6-5-16) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]




[Bible passages: RSV]


Our Protestant brethren tell us that denominationalism is not condemned in Scripture, and that St. Paul allowed disagreement on secondary doctrines — the minor issues over which today’s denominations disagree.

But virtually nothing is more strongly and repeatedly condemned in the Bible than divisions, sectarianism, and denominationalism. The Bible teaches that there is one Church only, with one truth and one unified apostolic tradition.

Doctrinal contradiction of any sort is absolutely at odds with biblical teaching, which repeatedly urges unity and forbids divisions of any kind among Christians. Our Lord Jesus prayed at the Last Supper for Christians to be “one even as we [the Father and the son] are one” and “perfectly one” (Jn. 17:22-23) and viewed the Church as being “one flock” with “one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16). St. Luke described the earliest Christians as being “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). St. Peter warned about “false teachers” among Christians, who would “secretly bring in destructive heresies,” which go against “the way of truth” (2 Pet. 2:1-2).

St. Paul, above all, repeatedly condemns “dissensions” and “difficulties” (Rom. 16:17), “quarreling” (1 Cor. 1:11), “jealousy and strife” (1 Cor. 3:3), “divisions” and “factions” (1 Cor. 11:18-19), “discord” (1 Cor. 12:25), “enmity” and “party spirit” (Gal. 5:20), and calls for Christians to be “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10; cf. Phil. 2:2). He expressly condemns party affiliations associated with persons (1 Cor. 1:12-13: “Is Christ divided?”; cf. 3:4-7). His strong teaching on this topic is well summed up in the following two passages (emphases added):

1 Timothy 6:3-5 If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.

Titus 3:9-11 But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned.

A Protestant might further object by arguing that the entirety of Romans chapter 14 teaches that Christians can disagree with each other. In that passage, Paul writes, “Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Doesn’t this suggest that Christians are allowed a wide latitude in what they can believe, provided they agree on the most important, fundamental doctrines? There are (so we are told) central, primary, essential doctrines, and others that are optional and secondary.

I reply that Romans 14 isn’t a proof text for doctrinal diversity because it has nothing to do with doctrine in the first place, but rather matters of practice: such as what is proper to eat (14:2-3: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains”; 14:14-17: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink”) and esteeming “one day as better than another” (14:5).

As to the general notion of “essential” or “central” and “secondary” doctrines, this is an unbiblical distinction. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any implication that some things pertaining to doctrine and theology were optional, while others had to be believed. Jesus urged us to “observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19), without distinguishing between lesser and more central doctrines.

Likewise, St. Paul regards Christian Tradition as of one piece; not an amalgam of permissible competing theories: “the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6); “the truth which has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim. 1:14); “the doctrine which you have been taught” (Rom. 16:17); “being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2); “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” (Phil. 1:27). He, like Jesus ties doctrinal unity together with the one God: “. . . maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, . . .” (Eph. 4:3-5).

St. Peter also refers to one, unified “way of righteousness” and “the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet. 2:21), while St. Jude urges us to “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Luke 2:42 casually mentions “the apostles’ teaching” without any hint that there were competing interpretations of it, or variations of the teaching. Denominations and all that they entail (particularly, doctrinal contradiction or any sort of theological relativism) are thus clearly ruled out by Scripture.

Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) wrote:

Denominationalism thus represents the moral failure of Christianity. And unless the ethics of brotherhood can gain the victory over this divisiveness within the body of Christ it is useless to expect it to be victorious in the world. But before the church can hope to overcome its fatal division it must learn to recognize and to acknowledge the secular character of its denominationalism.

(The Social Sources of Denominationalism, New York: The World Publishing Co. / Meridian Books, 1957; originally 1929, 25)


Meta Description: Denominationalism as a concept in Christian ecclesiology cannot be squared with biblical teaching: no way no how.

Meta Keywords: Christian division, Christian unity, denominationalism, denominations, ecclesiology, Protestant denominations, sectarianism, sects, The Church, theological chaos

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