How can there be one Bible but so many different denominations? People who have given this question a lot of thought have also noted the problems that have arisen because of the existence of so many denominations. How all the different denominations came to be is an interesting topic, but perhaps it would be better to ask if creating denominations is something Jesus intended for His followers to do. Before we go further, lets make sure we understand what a denomination is.
What is a denomination?
The word "denomination" isn't found in the Bible, therefore we can't look to it to find out what a denomination is. As a matter of fact, the modern concept of a denomination is a notion completely foreign to the Bible. Here is the dictionary definition of a denomination.
de·nom·i·na·tion [di-nom-uh-ney-shuhn], n, 1. the act of naming. 2. a name. 3. a class or kind having a specific name or value: as coins of different denominations. 4. a religious sect.
Thus we see that inherent in the concept of a denomination is the idea of giving something a name in order to classify it or distinguish it from some other similar entity. A denomination is a distinct religious body with clearly defined marks of identification; chiefly a particular name. Therefore in a religious context, we create a denomination when we give a church a name. This is true even if the name the group goes by is chosen from the Bible. To name something or give it some other clear mark of identification is to denominate it.
The dictionary also says that a denomination can be a religious sect. A sect is a group characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership or any group united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader. Sects tend to be exclusive and might hold the view that only those who accept their beliefs will be able to go to Heaven.
Regardless of whether a group is a denomination, a sect or both, the result is typically division. Names do not serve to unite, but rather to divide. Division does not necessarily equate to denominationalism. Assigning a name or some other mark of identification to a group is what makes them a denomination. Regardless, names only serve to point out differences and division is exactly the opposite of what Jesus wanted!
Jesus prayed for unity
Jesus didn't want His disciples to be divided. In John 17, Jesus was praying for His closest group of 12 disciples. He also prayed for those who would become His disciples later because of the efforts of the 12. He prayed in verses 20 & 21, "...I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." Jesus said that if His followers were united, it would be easier for the world to believe in Him. Sadly, those claiming to be Jesus' followers have largely divided along denominational lines.
Division was also a problem for the very first Christians. A disciple of Jesus (who was also one of His special emissaries) named Paul wrote a letter to the Christians who lived in the city of Corinth in ancient Greece. The disciples in Corinth were arguing among themselves about religious matters and divisions had formed. Paul rebuked them for their divisive attitudes and behaviours. Paul goes so far as to say that division amongst disciples is a trait of those who are spiritually immature. You can read Paul's remarks about this matter in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians.
Can I be a Christian without joining a denomination?
Is it wrong to be a member of a denomination? The Bible does not say that it is wrong, but the Bible does condemn division. Is it possible to be a member of a denomination and at the same time not be divisive? This probably depends upon each person's heart and attitude. Where does your allegiance lie? Is your allegiance to God, His son Jesus and your fellow disciples or to a denominational organization? Are you loyal to learning God's truth or to the creeds and doctrinal statements of a denominational body?
The earliest followers of Jesus were simply known as "Disciples" or "Christians" and knew nothing of the denominational concepts so common today. Is it possible to be a Christian like they were without joining a denomination? Is it possible for you to be a Christian, and nothing but a Christian? Many people are attempting to! This is actually what Jesus intended. How can this be achieved? Simple - just be a Christian without placing formal membership in any sect or denomination and don't refer to yourself as anything other than a disciple or a Christian. If a group of Christians (a.k.a. a church) uses the word "member" to refer to those whom they consider part of their spiritual family, more power to them! This is a healthy and Biblical concept. Sadly, far too many congregations have a different idea in mind when referring to their "members". All to often the concept of church "membership" differs little from the act of placing membership in a club or some other organization. It is not thought of simply as a familial relationship. This kind of "membership" is foreign to the Bible.
This doesn't mean you can't attend formal assemblies on Sundays and be invovled in the group's activities. In fact, today's religious landscape makes it very difficult to avoid assembling with other Christians outside of a denominational setting. In such a setting, why not look for opportunities to politely encourage others to drop denominational affiliations, view each other as members of a family and focus all of their loyalties upon Jesus?
Why not give God's way a try?
In the hundreds of years since denominations first appeared, they have never been conducive to unity. As a matter of fact, the concepts and practices of denominationalism have a long track record of being counter productive to achieving the results that Jesus desired. Since denominationalism hasn't worked out so well, perhaps we should try something else. Why not do what Jesus taught the earliest disciples to do? Let's just be Christians and Christians only. Wouldn't it be exciting to put into practice the plan that Jesus envisioned for His followers? Lets trust the wisdom of Jesus and try it His way.