Summary: Following the reformation, the church fragmented into many denominations. This lesson examines the question of what makes a church a true, biblical church.
So far in our lessons, we have walked through church history and made some very significant stops along the way, examining some of the great creeds and confessions, councils and synods, and some of the great divisions within the church.
Tonight, we are going to be examining the advent of Denominationalism, which was an inevitable by-product of the Protestant Reformation.
We will see in this lesson that, while there are many local churches in the world, there is only one true universal church, the Body of Christ, which encompasses all true believers.
The Historic Root of Denominationalism
As I have already stated, modern denominationalism is the by-product of the Protestant Reformation.
Following the division from Rome, Protestants did not all unite under one leader or head, but rather fragmented under several teachers.
Luther’s students became known as Lutherans, Calvin’s eventually became known as Presbyterians, Wesley’s became known as Methodists, Menno Simons’ students became known as Mennonites.
But it would be wrong for us to say that denominationalism “started” with the protestants.
Long before anyone ever heard of Martin Luther or John Calvin, there were divisions within the church.
Even before Christ, there were groups among the Jews that had risen up and made divisions.
The Essene Community were a group of monastic Jews who separated themselves from the others because they believed that the Jewish nation was in apostasy (It was the Essenes who we believe were responsible for writing the famous Dead Sea Scrolls).
We are also familiar that among the Jews there were differing parties of the Sadducees (liberals) and Pharisees (conservatives).
Likewise, we have already noted that in church history, there have been many divisions prior to the Protestant Reformation.
Early in the church’s history, there was a rift which separated the Western and Eastern Church, which would eventually become a full-on division in AD1054.
We have also noted that prior to the Reformation there were many groups which arose, such as the Waldensians, the Paulicians, the Lollards, the Hussites and others.
We even see the roots of denominationalism in Scripture itself.
1 Corinthians 1:11-15 “For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.”
Paul is challenging those who were saying they were followers of certain teachers, or him or of Apollos, or even those “super-spirited” ones who would say, “I follow Christ”.
This shows us that the desire to make divisions is as old as the church itself; and it was not encouraged by the apostle.
Division for the sake of pride or unwillingness to love is sinful.
Yet, division is sometimes necessary for the preservation of truth.
When the Protestants divided from the Roman Catholics, they were dividing on the subject of truth.
Rome had abandoned the Gospel, and has ceased to be the church in the world.
Thus the Protestants abandoned Rome.
Yet, even now some 500 years later, there is still not unity among the Protestants.
The Difference Between Denominations and Cults
Before we look at the different denominations, it is important that we make a clear distinction.
A denomination is any group which has maintained the essential message of the Gospel.
A cult is any group which has deviated from the essential message of the Gospel.
Typically, we would divide groups as follows:
Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists are denominations.
Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Science are cults.
There is a problem with this designation, and that is it is too broad.
Many so-called “mainline” denominations have abandoned the Gospel and have become cultish.
Likewise, there are certain groups which we often feel uncomfortable about calling cults.
Many people do not like to consider Catholicism a cult. Yet, when we look at the definition as being one who has deviated from the Gospel, then the title certainly fits.
Also, the group known as the historic Churches of Christ are questionable regarding whether or not they have maintained the Gospel, because of their allegiance to the Doctrine of Baptismal Remission.
The Seventh-Day Adventists have a very cultish history, having been established on the false prophecy of William Miller that the world would end in 1844, and perpetuated by the false teachings of Ellen White. They have strict teachings regarding the keeping of Old Testament Law, specifically regarding Sabbath and Dietary Restrictions.
The question which underlies our assertion of whether or not a group is a cult or a denomination is the answer to the question, “Does it possess the Gospel?”