Why so many denominations?

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Why so many denominations


“Why are there so many denominations of Christianity?” – Katrine Numme, Everett, Wash.

Rosanne: Until the time of the Reformation, there was only one Christian church within the western tradition, which had many different religious orders. At the time of the Reformation, we see differences in theological interpretation of doctrine, practices and beliefs; claims to leadership power and authority; and ethnic diversity, which become perhaps three of the major reasons for denominational differences within the Christian tradition. Such reasons, however, are not exclusive to the Christian tradition. Many major religious traditions – Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – all have splits that reflect these differences of doctrine, beliefs, practices, ethnicity and struggles for power in leadership. 

There are nearly as many reasons as there are denominations, but I’d say that there are fundamentally two. First, because of sin – the imperfection resulting from that tremendous and dangerous gift of free will – we are often willing to break relationships rather than compromise what we perceive to be fundamental truths. It’s not that we should all simply “go along to get along,” but when we can’t, one group becomes two (and two becomes four, and so on).

Second, it’s important to remember that when we talk about all that the Christian faith involves, we’re talking about a lot. It’s been said that villagers who live on opposite sides of Mount Everest describe completely different mountains – because their perspectives are so different and because so few have climbed over the mountain from one side to the other. Faith can be like that. What I haven’t experienced from your perspective I can’t understand. That doesn’t make every perspective right – but it does demand humility in dealing with others. Who among us completely understands all the mystery and wonder of the faith?

More importantly, as grieved as God must be that we put so much energy into sustaining – and justifying – our divisions, I think it’s a mistake to see different denominations as a bad thing. What one person may find essential to the full experience of God may simply interfere with another’s. Different denominations, different expressions of shared fundamentals of faith, permit the full participation of more people in the life Christ offers.

The ELCA is committed to fostering unity among the children of God for the sake of the world. Learn more about our ecumenical and inter-faith work, relationships and partners at Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations.

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Acting ecumenically for the sake of the world
Stronger together than apart
Coming together as church

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