Where did church denominations come from?

By Ron Thomas — I have always been interested in learning from where church denominations came from. As I was looking through some church history books, I came across a section in the book, Church History in Plain Language (3rd edition, 2008), by Bruce Shelley. In the section “The Idea of Denominations” (pp. 306-308) there is a brief discussion on how the concept of denominations came into being in a religious context. It took root in the 17th century, then grew in the 18th and following centuries. Why did it come into existence in the first place?

“The Reformers [Protestant Reformation leaders, RT] had planted the seeds of the denominational theory of the church when they insisted that the true church can never be identified in any exclusive sense with a particular institution” (p. 307).

This was related to the sincerity having a strong desire to get away from the religious corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and its man-made doctrines and traditions. The sincerity was in place, but knowledge of the Bible was limited. It may have been limited in the minds of many, but what they knew of it, on that they acted. Their desire to get back to the Bible was quite commendable even though their understanding of Holy Writ was limited. However, from this arose a problem.

“The denominational theory of the church … insists that the true church cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure [i.e., church leadership, RT]. No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ” (p. 306).

The two paragraphs give us great information to help us better understand what is known as the Restoration Movement (RM). The RM is an effort that started in America in the 18th century with denominational preachers fed up with man-made institutions. Instead, they wanted to go back to the Bible, leave all opinions behind, bring nothing into the church that does not have a thus-saith-the-Lord to support it. This agrees well with what Jesus said,

Every one therefore that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man, who built his house upon the rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon the rock. And every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and smote upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall thereof (Matthew 7:24-27, ASV; cf. John 8:31-32).

In the words of Jesus is the spirit of the RM. Let those who love the Lord do Bible things in Bible ways, call Bible things by Bible names. Let us understand that if that which is believed is not found expressly stated in the New Testament, leave it out and leave it behind. To bring it in cause confusion and division.

Does the Bible give any attention to an ecclesiastical structure or are people left to their own best judgments on the matter? The Bible does give guidance, concrete guidance that is built on the foundation of Jesus Himself. To the church at Philippi (1:1), Paul addressed his letter to the saints which included those identified as bishops (also known as elders, presbyters, pastors and overseers) and deacons. To the elders of Ephesus, Paul called them to meet him so he could give some encouraging words along with words of warning (Acts 20:17-35). These men were to lead, shepherd the flock (local congregation). Those called were leaders in a single church at Ephesus, that church was led by a plurality of men who were married and had faithful children.

They were not called “pastors” like preachers are called that today, and neither were any of them unmarried! The local church had only to answer to the Lord and His revealed word. There were no larger organizations of men to which they were going to be called to account.

The Roman Catholic Church does not have this; they answer to what they call the “Vicar of Christ”, an 8th century term originating with man not the Lord. The Presbyterian Church does not have this; they have an organization that goes from the local congregation, to a Presbytery, to a Synod, then to a General Assembly. The New Testament does not recognize any of this as outlined in the Presbyterian Church.

My point is not to give attention to each man-made denomination that exists as much as it is to elevate the authority of God’s word above all ideas of man, even those ideas that are motivated with the best of intentions. The RM is a legitimate movement and exhortation that calls upon people to get back to what the Bible says. On that note, not only can it be known there is a church revealed in the New Testament, but it’s a church that people can be part of today, if they desire to submit to the Lord’s way.

I want to be a member of that church, do you?

Ron works with the Sunrise congregation in Chillicothe IL. He blogs at etsop95.com.

Share your thoughts: