It seems inevitable in the work of the church and the preaching of the Gospel that someone will ask why it is that there are so many denominations within Christianity and the church. My usual tongue-in-cheek answer is that God likes the variety. And in some measure that is true. But people who ask this question, I think, are somewhat naive concerning the nature of unity. They feel that since one of Jesus’ primary prayers for the church was that it might be united, this means that Christians should all march by the same drum and worship in the same way, possibly even in the same place in any particular town or city. They may even say that church denominations are of diabolical origin.
Whenever this question comes up I can’t help but ask on whose terms unity is being sought. Because usually those who are most interested in unity are thinking of it in their own terms of reference — often without regard or appreciation for other points of view. In fact, perhaps quite unconsciously, they would like everyone else to come to their particular way of thinking. They are often blind to their own biases.
Having said that some are naive and blind with regard to their interest in unity does not mean that there isn’t such a thing as an authentic desire for unity in the way that Jesus prayed for it in John 17. I agree that Christians should seek to live out the unity that is implied in their common faith in Jesus Christ. Too often the church in general, and in various communities in particular is characterized by sniping and slander towards Christians of another church. I am reminded of the disciple John’s statement in which he said, “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus’ answer was classic. “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me” (Mark 9:38 – 41).
This teaches us that we need to be careful about censoring other Christians who are seeking to also do their work in the Name of Christ. It also demonstrates that there will be people within the church of many different stripes. I have no difficulty with the variety of denominations within the Christian church. I believe God has used differences of theological perspective to create a variety of denominations to emphasize different aspects of His truth. They also exist, I believe, to balance each other’s tendency to extremes. Just as there is one body of believers but many gifts of service, so there is just one church but many different cultural expressions or “personalities” within the church.
We should not be dismayed by the variety of different denominations within Christ’s universal church. Each has a vital contribution to make. Brothers and sisters of various denominations are ultimately united by their common confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. As we have opportunity we should seek to affirm one another’s heritage and unique contribution to the church and the work of the Gospel. But within that fellowship it seems to me that it is also legitimate from time to time to question one another’s theological positions on various matters.
I am sure that Jesus’ prayer for unity did not mean that we all need to think or express our faith in exactly the same way. But at the least it does mean that we should recognize and affirm one another’s faith, and when possible, work together in unity to proclaim the Gospel in our civic communities.