Mythology About Church Disunity

We hear the claims that there are over 33,000 different Christian churches, hopelessly confused and at each other’s throats, who can agree on nothing. It is a misleading picture, a false narrative, a useful combination of myths and half-truth.

The number of denominations has increased over the past 20 years, but the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia does list 33,900 Christian denominations worldwide, with 2.1 billion members affiliated with them. But almost 22,000 of these “churches” are independent groups that are virtually all Protestant. Only 9000 of them are traditional Protestant churches, plus 781 Orthodox churches.

But wait: the 33,900 total also includes hundreds of “churches” within denominations that we all know are monolithic. For instance, the number includes 242 Roman Catholic churches (trust me, there is only one Roman Catholic Church), 228 Jehovah’s Witness churches (again, there is only one), and lo and behold, 122 Latter-day Saint churches! The latter two would reject being a part of our historic Christian Church, and rightly so, not to mention 1600 other marginal groups included in the inflated 33,000 church myth.

(A large part of the problem is that in this encyclopedia, “denomination” is defined as an organization within a single country. How much does the picture change when you factor that in?)

Another myth about the historic Christian Church is that all of the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox parts of God’s church fight like cats and dogs with each other. Joseph Smith has contributed to this warped view. In his Pearl of Great Price, as he describes the religion scene in his town when he was a teenager, he pictures “priest contending against priest, and convert against convert… The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their error… On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”

Regardless of whether Christian unity was really that bad in Palmyra NY in the early 1820’s, it is not at all a realistic picture of relations between historic Christian denominations today. In fact, often there is more unity across denominational boundaries than there is between liberal and conservative members within the same denomination. I am a convinced Calvinist, an ordained minister in a Presbyterian denomination known as ECO, yet I attend and am involved in a local Methodist church, and got my PhD in Biblical studies from Concordia Seminary (MO Synod Lutheran). Organizationally, we may be separate, but we function as one.

We are told that there can be only one true Church. The question is, what must it look like to be “one”? Is it determined by human membership rolls? Or are the true boundaries of the Church invisible, to which our human organizational structure is just a poor facsimile? And must we agree in every doctrinal and organizational detail to be one? I doubt that Jesus expects that.

Neither Jesus nor Paul had any intention of putting everyone in a straitjacket when they speak of us being “one” with “one faith.” It’s amazing how the supposed 32,000 Christian churches all believe in one triune God and one salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. On other issues, Paul says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5) Our churches give you choice on whom to align with and work with. Even Paul and Barnabas chose to work separately at one point (Acts 15:36-40). In the LDS church, members are pretty much stuck with the ward they live in, not the one they wish to belong to.

Do we determine who is the true Church based on who is on their best behavior? Both the LDS and the historic Christian Church have plenty of good fruit, and plenty of garbage. The real issue is the fruits of their founding prophet. And chains of authority through the laying on of hands are worthless, if they start with a false prophet, or if the church is permeated with false teaching.

Several weeks ago, an LDS member of a discussion board announced that he was ready and willing to leave and join another church, if someone could prove to him which was the true Church that he should join. The assumptions behind the question lead me to doubt whether the offer was sincere. There is no one right way to run a church. The New Testament gives us the blueprint, but we are free to build a church with whatever details are faithful to the blueprint. If this LDS person has come to believe in the triune God, salvation by grace through the cross of Christ alone, and the Bible as our supreme authority for faith and practice, there are any number of faithful church options he can choose.

Don’t believe the myth that the historic Christian Church is hopelessly divided against itself in self-contradictory confusion. We encompass a huge amount of diversity in expression, but at the core, we have “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism.” And the difference between the historic Christian Church, and groups like the LDS and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is enormous.