A Question About Denominationalism
December 26, 2022, 12:00 AM

Question: When did denominationalism start?


Answer: I think before we answer this question, we need to define what we mean by denominationalism. The word denomination can be formally defined as a name or designation given to something in order to classify it. We use the word in reference to our currency. For example, a bank teller may ask you if you want your $100 withdrawal in smaller denominations (e.g., a fifty, two twenties, and a ten). But by far the most common usage of the term is to describe a distinct branch of the Christian church. Skeptics will point out that there are over 30,000 Christian denominations in existence in order to bolster their arguments against the faith. We can certainly reduce that number to the three major denominational groupings such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism. Within Protestantism you can further subdivide into groups such as Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist. Then of course each of those sub groups can be divided even more.


Why so many denominations? If we go with our earlier definition of denominationalism, then we can see denominations of Christianity are formed as a way to classify different strands of the Christian faith. They probably weren’t called denominations back then, but idea still holds. Denominations begin, or are formed, when there are theological differences between groups of Christians. This usually causes splits or divisions within Christianity as some favor one side and others favor the other side. 


So one basic answer to your question is denominationalism has been around ever since Christians could argue and split over their theological differences. From the earliest days of the church, there have been “denominations.” Think of what we see in the pages of Scripture concerning a group of people referred to as the Judaizers. It is the name given to a group of people we see mentioned who want to affirm that in order to become a Christian, one must first become a Jew. This would be a theological difference that caused splits and divisions within the church. You also see in 1 John mention of people who deny Jesus came in the flesh. Historically, this teaching was referred to as Docetism (derived from the Greek word dokeō, which means “to seem, to appear”). To be sure, many of these “denominations” involved teaching which was considered heresy by the early church. My point is to show how as soon as you see differences in doctrine or practice among Christians, you begin to see “denominations” form. So it’s hard to give a precise date.


You can make an argument that the first major denomination was formed as a result of what church historians call the Great Schism of 1054AD. What would eventually be called the Eastern Orthodox Church split from what would be called the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of ultimate authority in the church. The western church contended that ultimate authority in the church was centered in Rome and its bishop. The eastern church denied that and felt that authority was evenly split among the major bishoprics of the church (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, etc).


Another major split occurred within the western church, which we lovingly refer to as the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This split was over the matters of doctrine and authority, or Faith Alone and Scripture Alone. The Protestants, as they later came to be called, held that the Bible alone is the sole infallible authority for faith and practice within the church, and they sought to reform Rome’s practices, which they felt to be out of line with Scripture. Obviously Rome disagreed, and thus you had the second major schism within the church.


Now the Protestant Reformers didn’t agree on every point of doctrine, so if you want to know when our modern day denominations began, they began as a result of the theological differences between the various strands of the Reformation. Lutherans began to differ with the Reformed on the nature of the sacraments. Baptists began to differ with Lutherans and the Reformed on the nature and proper recipients of baptism. Presbyterians began to differ with Anglicans (Episcopalians in the USA) and Congregationalists over the structure of church government. Most of these differences started to come to the fore in the late 16th and throughout the 17th century.


You can go on as each of these larger subgroups divided even further over more subtle differences. Each new subgroup in essence becomes its own denomination with its own start date. Obviously if you continue this trend, you will eventually end up with a denomination for each individual because no two people believe exactly the same thing on all points of doctrine. In my opinion, some denominations make sense while others do not. Certain issues of secondary importance can be valid reasons for separate denominations (e.g., baptism and the proper recipients). Others seem to be more trivial. For example, why do the various confessional Presbyterian denominations exist? They all share a common confessional standard, so it would seem their differences fall outside mere confessional subscription. Bottom line because of our fallen nature combined with human pride and the simple fact that we’re not going to have perfect knowledge on all points of theology, has led and will continue to lead to denominationalism. Ideally though, Christians, despite their denominational differences, ought to be able to agree on the basics of the Christian faith and work together for the building of Christ’s kingdom.


~ Pastor Carl