Why Do We Have Denominations? + Funniest line in the Bible? #246 Part 1
Hello friends and happy Saturday to you! Today we are going to grapple with some Catholic theology and discuss denominations. Oh boy! Our readings for the day include some more fascinations from 1st Samuel (chapters 21 and 22 + Ezekiel 1, Psalms 37 and 1 Corinthians 3.) It has obviously been quite a while since I’ve read 1st and 2nd Samuel from cover to cover – maybe dating back to my seminary days – because I keep being reminded of remarkable things every day in this book! Today we have what has to be one of the funniest lines in the Bible. David is fleeing from King Saul, who wants to kill him, so naturally he goes to GATH. Yes – Gath, as in the stronghold of the Philistines, the Israelites enemies and the hometown of Goliath, the Philistine’s hero. What was that, you ask? OH YEAH, I’d almost forgot – David KILLED Goliath in front of all of the Philistines, so why did he go there, you ask? Actually, I didn’t almost forget about that, because I am not an insane person, but it is almost as if David did forget about it until he got to Gath, and quickly discerned that maybe being chief bad guy of the Philistines meant that maybe David shouldn’t hide there? This is sort of like Nick Saban getting in trouble with the president of the University of Alabama, and going and hiding out in Auburn to get away from him; or Wonder Woman having a squabble with Superman, and hiding from him in the headquarters of the Legion of Doom. Pretty crazy stuff, but once David realizes that maybe this isn’t the best idea – he gets another idea that is almost as crazy as the first (except that it works!) and he decides to act like an insane person. Yes, a full on loony, drooling down his beard and scribbling on walls and gates and such. Which leads to what has to be one of the funniest lines the entire Bible, and it is delivered by none other than the king of Gath:
14 “Look! You can see the man is crazy,” Achish said to his servants. “Why did you bring him to me? 15 Do I have such a shortage of crazy people that you brought this one to act crazy around me? Is this one going to come into my house?”
1 Samuel 21:14-15
I honestly can’t wait until my next opportunity to say, “Do I have such a shortage of crazy people around that you bring this guy to me?!” Anyway, none of that is what we are focusing on today – you get all of that for free. Today our focus is on unity in the body and denominations in christendom. How many Christian denominations are there exactly? It turns out that this is a hard number to pin down, because part of it consists of determining what a denomination is, and what groups actually represent Christianity, and which don’t. Many Catholics like to say that there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations, but that number appears to be too high…the real number seems to be in the 5-11000 range, which isn’t much better. I found an excellent article on this question, written extremely well by a Catholic (former Protestant who converted in 2011) that is really quite fair and balanced in dealing with Protestants. He says:
There are not—repeat with me—there are not 33,000 Protestant denominations. There are not anywhere close to it. It is a myth that has taken hold by force of repetition, and it gets cited and recited by reflex; but it is based on a source that, even Catholics will have to concede, relies on too loose a definition of the word “denomination.”
The source is the two-volume World Christian Encyclopedia (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson; Oxford University Press). Take note of the passage where the 33,000 figure comes up:
World Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed [sic] of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries (Vol. I, p. 16).
So according to the WCE, the 33,000 figure represents “world Christianity.” Now unless a Catholic wants to suppose that “world Christianity” means Protestantism, the number would have to be something less. 33,000, according to the source from which the number comes, means the whole of Christianity, not Protestantism specifically.
The WCE then goes on to break down “world Christianity” into the following broad categories:
- Independents: 22,000 denominations
- Protestants: 9000 denominations
- Marginals: 1600 denominations
- Orthodox: 781 denominations
- Catholics: 242 denominations
- Anglicans: 168 denominations
Thus the immediate problem is that the WCE only classifies 9000 denominations (27% of the whole) as Protestant. To get to 33,000, one must add in the Independents, Marginals, Anglicans, and 232 of the Orthodox.So the WCE comes up with 438 Presbyterian denominations and 647 Methodist and 1017 Baptist. I think the number is inflated. Moreover, Independent Baptist congregations, who have a high doctrine of the local church and govern themselves, are each counted as separate denominations, even though they may all believe the same doctrine. There are 8,142 such congregations named by the WCE, whether Baptist or not, whether Protestant or not.
I think the number is inflated.
Among the 23,600 “Independents” and “Marginals” (70% of the whole) are large numbers of groups one would have a hard time calling Protestant. They include Mormons (122 denominations), Jehovah’s Witnesses (229 denominations), Masons (28 denominations), Christadelphians (21 denominations) Unitarians (29 denominations), Christian Science (59 denominations), Theosophists (3 more denominations), British Israelites (8 denominations), Prosperity Gospel groups (27 denominations), Oneness Pentecostals (680 denominations), “Hidden Buddhist Believers in Christ” (9 denominations), wandering bishops (12 denominations), Independent Nestorians (5 denominations), occultists (3 denominations), spiritists (20 denominations), Zionists (159 denominations), even “Arab radio/TV network” (19 denominations), “gay/homosexual tradition” (2 denominations), and schismatic Catholics (435 denominations). It is a strange and eclectic list. (See here and here.)
However strong the temptation some may have to characterize anything not Catholic or Orthodox as “Protestant,” you can’t do that. All that tells Protestant apologists is that you don’t know what Protestantism is, or what its distinctives are—and they would be right. And why would they take anything you say seriously after that? If you don’t know what Protestantism is, who are you to be talking about its errors? Not only are Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Unitarians, Prosperity Gospel believers (included among 23,600 Independents and Marginals) not Protestant, they are not even Christian; they adhere to a false Christology. Protestants and Catholics are in agreement about who Christ is; these other groups have other ideas.
Many Catholics like to cite the 33,000 figure because the number is so outrageously large they assume it is a particular embarrassment to Protestants. Look at all this division in your ranks! But the result has been that Protestants consult the source, take note of the problems with it, claim a few thousand denominations at most, and scoff at the wild exaggeration. Catholics look foolish for insisting on a ridiculously high and easily-refuted number, and Protestants imagine they can sleep the sleep of the just because the real number is nowhere close. See! they say. No denomination problem here! Thus the real issue gets lost.
Catholics need to stop citing this number, not only because it is outlandishly false but because it is not the point how many Protestant denominations there are. The point is the scandal of division and the love of private judgment that has caused so much of it. The scandal would be no less if there were two denominations, and no greater if there were two million. Any division in the body of Christ is a scandal. To argue over how many is a red herring. It is an argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The real point is St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:4–6:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.
By “one body,” St. Paul means “one Church,” as is evident when you compare Ephesians 1:22-23a and Colossians 1:18, 24. Protestants don’t need to answer to an Encyclopedia; they need to answer to St. Paul.
Some very interesting words from our Catholic friend, and he raises some interesting points that we will deal with today and tomorrow. First, however, let’s go read our focus passage today, 1 Corinthians 3.
Strong words today from the apostle, and I think our Catholic friend Scott is absolutely right that we all have some explaining to do as to how the church has become so very divided over the nearly 2000 years since the ascension of Jesus. Interestingly, that division was already happening within a few short years of the ascension of Jesus, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3 here:
In fact, you are still not ready, 3 because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? 4 For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans?
1 Corinthians 3:2-4
Being divided and following human leaders (instead of Jesus) is a sign of immaturity and worldliness in Christians, because these human leaders – no matter how important their role, or how good their teaching – they are nothing says Paul in vs. 7:
7 So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
1 Corinthians 3:7
This is an important passage – Paul is saying that neither he, nor Apollos, nor any other human (including you, me and the Pope(!) is anything to follow and be divided over…but only God who gives growth)
One area that Scott and I quite agree on is that the original intent and purpose of Jesus and the Apostles is that there would be one church and one body – we see this crystal clear in John 17:
20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word.21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.
And that is a fitting place to leave off part one of this discussion of denominations, which we will pick up tomorrow in more depth. Jesus prays for and calls His people to be united in the kind of oneness that He and the Father have. Instead, we have thousands of denominations and church splits every year. How big of a problem is this for us? Stay tuned tomorrow – same bat time, same bat channel for more.