We all have encountered different Christian denominations along our own spiritual journey, and may have even been a part of multiple as we develop as believers. Each denomination has its key qualities and attributes that make it distinct. The Pentecostals’ use of the spiritual gifts, most notably tongues, or the Baptists’ emphasis on the sanctity of the Bible and their exegetical teachings of Scripture are main examples.
The differences between denominations can be anything ranging from major theological disagreements, to contrasting opinions on ministry, and even how one should practice their faith. These differences, varying in degrees of seriousness and subject, have the potential to make or break the unity Christians are supposed to share.
Personally, I have experienced denominational conflict in many ways. I did not grow up in a set denomination, and often bounced around different Christian schools all my life. I began at a Baptist school from pre-k to first grade, then moved to the non-denominational school at Calvary Church in Santa Ana, and spent a year at a Lutheran school in sixth grade. I switched to public school for junior high and high school, and finally landed at Vanguard University (VU), an Assemblies of God (AoG) Pentecostal school. As a result, I have been exposed to many walks of life and ways of expressing faith. I have seen very quiet, personal ways of connecting with God as well as loud, vibrant ones; both of which I think are beautiful and pleasing to God.
However, it has been my realization in recent years that not everyone agrees. Believers have always fought over denominational conflicts—creating deeper and deeper divides between them. While there are reasons behind differing beliefs, we are still called to be one under Christ. Galatians 3:28 easily sums it up:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Why Conflict? Why Denominations?
As the first Christian church was forming following the death and resurrection of Christ, there was conflict even then. The Jews felt the Gentiles could not be saved due to a lack of adherence to the law because they weren’t circumcised, they were a different race, and other reasons.
In fact, the Apostle Paul was falsely arrested for bringing a Gentile into the temple when they were not allowed to enter anymore. At the time, the Gentiles could only enter the outermost area of the temple called “The Court of the Gentiles.” This court was separated from the rest of the temple by a fence called the “soreg.” The Jews were so intent on keeping the temple pure, that the wall had inscriptions in Greek threatening Gentiles with death if they were to go beyond it.
Yet, Paul makes clear in Ephesians 2:11-22, that Jewish and Gentile Christians are now to be united under Christ and His sacrifice. He even refers to the soreg, stating in Ephesians 2:14-16:
“For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity.”
In Ephesians 2:18, Paul even addresses that both Jews and Gentiles access God the same, saying, “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
From this passage, Paul makes it clear that the separation between Jews and Gentiles is gone. It could be said that this was the first denominational conflict of sorts, before the church had even really grown.
Today, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, there are estimated to be more than 200 Christian denominations in the United States and about 45,000 globally. In light of these numbers, it is clear that believers will never agree on everything. There are many different beliefs between denominations, and this can cause the conflict.
As far as the question, why does denominational conflict exist—here’s a few ideas.
Pastor Mike Whitford, Vanguard University’s Pastor and Associate Dean of Spiritual Formation, recalled wanting to seek Christian unity before becoming a pastor, as a teenager. Pastor Whitford remembered asking himself, “Why can’t we just go to church in one place?”
When I asked him the reason for denomination conflict, he explored the question with me on several levels.
From a historical-political context he explains that, in his eyes, Martin Luther, “opened the spiritual door… to denominations rising.”
However, from a more spiritual viewpoint, Pastor Whitford stated that denominational conflict comes down to individuals having contrasting, strong beliefs.
He stated, “These are deeply held beliefs so people when they disagree on deeply held beliefs, there’s going to be conflict.”
Pastor Whitford went on to say, “I think that’s where a lot of denominational conflict comes out of, is when people are culturally Christian but not spiritually Christian, meaning they identify more with their denomination than they do with Jesus, and there’s a difference. You can have denominations and it be healthy, so long as everyone’s focused on the one for whom that denomination exists.”
He emphasized that everyone’s beliefs must be grounded in spiritual truth. If everyone is in spiritual truth, denominations can easily get along together. It is when believers become so focused on their denominations beliefs and rules, and they forget that all Christians believe in Jesus Christ, that conflict can occur.
Associate Pastor of Vanguard University Krystal Matthews shares her views on the causes behind denominal conflict as well. She has had personal experiences with conflict over women being in ministry, as well as other issues.
Pastor Matthews stated, “I think the thing that causes the most denominational conflict is theological differences. For example, some have disagreements on women in ministry, the moving of the Holy Spirit, and who we pray to, just to name a few.”
Assistant Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Culture and ordained Assemblies of God minister John Mark Robeck shared his ideas behind the causes of denominational conflict as well.
“I think there are a lot of things that lead to denominational conflict,” Professor Robeck explained. “Sometimes it has to do with differences in theology. […] Sometimes these differences have to do with who gets to serve in ministry. […] Still other issues have to do with standards of holiness.”
He went on to say, “It is also the case that some issues are more significant than others. When we focus on our differences, we tend to want everyone to be like we are. This often keeps us from seeing the things we have in common.”
Now that we’ve established some of the reasons conflict exists between denominations, let’s look at a few of the main conflicts in specific.
Some individuals decide to argue over theological views, such as the common one between Pentecostals and others about spiritual gifts.
As Professor Robeck explained, “The AG is a Pentecostal denomination and believes that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available for believers to today. Other denominations believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were only available during the time of the disciples.”
Whitford pointed out another theological issue believers have, “Calvinism, it’s this idea [of] predestination, that God’s already chosen everybody that is going to be saved. Meaning that poor souls who aren’t chosen aren’t going to heaven. Where the AOG would say, we believe in the sovereignty of God. So, God does choose but we believe it’s based upon foreknowledge.”
Matthews highlighted the issue women in ministry poses for some denominations with her own personal experience regarding this issue, “The last college I worked at and VU are Assembly of God schools which are big supporters of women in ministry. Well a few times the last college I worked at sent me to preach at a few churches that were not AG churches and when I arrived and they saw that I was a woman they did not allow me to preach.”
Even within the same denomination, differences in Scriptural interpretation can lead to major conflict. With differences in understanding Scripture, comes different views of life and goes back to having different theological ideas.
These are just a few of the many topics that denominations conflict on. There are many more, including ‘pettier’ ones that really should never come in between people.
One of these that Pastor Whitford mentioned is the issue over different worship styles. He stated, with some irony but also seriousness, “People literally have church splits over whether or not to have an organ.”
How Do We Achieve Unity?
Despite all the reasons believers use to remain divided, there is a solution to denominational conflict.
Pastor Whitford, Pastor Matthews, Professor Robeck and I all concur on one point. Students at Vanguard joke that this is the answer to every question — however, when it comes to achieving unity, this IS the only answer:
I do not want to oversimplify this deep discussion about conflict that our religion has dealt with for centuries. But, when it comes to seeking God’s will about a matter, sometimes the answer can be simple.
We, the many different denominations of Christianity with all sorts of contrasting beliefs, all have one thing in common that ties us together: the belief Jesus Christ is the savior of our souls, the one who died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the grave. If we can be united under this fact, the rest is trifling in comparison.
Pastor Whitford stated:
“My Pastor in Washington DC says it this way: It’s not about the name above the church door it’s about the name above every name, Jesus Christ. So, it’s not about the denominational name, it’s about the name of Jesus Christ. To make him famous. Whether you’re Baptist, Prebysterian, Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic…. that if Jesus is glorified—that’s what it’s about.”
“So long as we agree that Jesus Christ is the son of God, crucified on the cross for our sins and risen from the dead. If we can agree on the majors, then in actuality we’re in unity. Not by way of what church building we go to or even what denomination we’re a part of, but by way of what we believe in our core values.”
Pastor Krystal explained that we can be united:
“By pointing our eyes to Jesus! Though we may have theological disagreements we can all agree that Jesus is our savior. We have to uphold truth always, but also have a heart to listen and learn in the midst of disagreement. If we spent time looking at what we agree about and less time on what we disagree with we would have less conflict.”
Professor Robeck also addressed this:
“We will always have differences with others, but if we begin by focusing on the things we share in common, and listen to each other’s journeys of faith, I think we can begin to make some steps toward reconciling with one another. It’s something that matters to God, and so I think it should be something that matters to us.”
In addition to these wise words, both Whitford and Robeck quoted a key Scripture from John 17:20-23 as evidence for unity being a key part of God’s plan for his followers. The verse reads as follows:
“My prayer is not for them alone. 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Whitford and Robeck both shared with me the importance of this verse, it being one of the last prayers Jesus prayed before His death. They emphasized how God calls us to unity, stating it clearly in more ways than one. Therefore, as believers we ought to do our best to achieve this unity.
We should not let ourselves be torn apart by anything. Theological differences, views about ministry, contrasting opinions about the Holy Spirit, diverse expressions and rituals pertaining to one’s faith—none of it is big enough to outweigh the unifying love of Jesus Christ, our Savior.
After all, how are we to go out and spread the Gospel to non-believers if we can’t even agree amongst our brothers and sisters in Christ?