Despite Apostle Paul’s word of “let there be no divisions among you”1 Cor 1:10 there are so many Christian denominations that no one knows the real number. One website says that there are over 40, 000.[I] In fact, though, what they call a denomination is closer to an organization of like minded believers within a region. Closer to the actual amount of divided bodies of believers they report about 300 different traditions. While not 40,000 that is still a lot of division. In any event, the question is still why? The answer is quite simple really, when I began to look at all of the issues that Christians disagree on and form denominations over.
Christians divided on whether baptism was for infants by sprinkling or adults by immersion. They divided on whether the baptism of the Spirit was a second baptism, or it was what spiritually happens when they received Christ. They divide over whether or not abortion is acceptable, whether apostolic succession is a requirement for ordaining ministers, and whether celibacy is required for ministers. They’re divided over whether churches should be governed by an ecclesiastical hierarchy, presbyters, or the congregation. They’re divided over whether the Bible should be interpreted on grounds of which covenant pertains, or which dispensation we’re in. They are divided over whether the Bible is inerrant (completely free from errors in its original form), infallible (free from errors on doctrinal issues), or is purely of human origins and full of errors. There are four different divisions on God’s guidance regarding divorce and remarriage. They’re divided over whether or not you can drink alcoholic beverages, gamble, or seek psychotherapy, even if by a Christian counselor. They’re divided on whether or not to be a part of the ecumenical movement.
There are at least four different views on how events in the End Times are going to work. There are several different viewpoints in the creation versus evolution debate that Christians divide over. Some Christians will teach you that once you’re saved you’re always saved, while others will teach you that your salvation is eternally at risk. Some will teach you that if you don’t give you are robbing God while others will teach you that the Law is over, that giving must be free from compulsion or requirement and to give only from the heart. Some will teach you that healing died with the apostles, while others will teach you that healing happens every day. Some will teach you homosexuality is acceptable, while others will teach you that it is an abomination. Some will teach you that Christian believers were predestined; while others will emphasize that every person simply and purely makes a free will decision on whether to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. Some denominations will ordain priests, while another will teach that all believers are priests, and others ordain ministers as opposed to priests. Some teach that priests are necessary to act as mediators between God and men while others teach that believers have direct access to God already.
Some denominations practice prophecy, while others teach the prophecy is over. Some denominations teach prosperity, that it is God’s will that all people prosper, while others denounce this and say that we must accept whatever God brings our way. Some churches practice two sacraments, others practice seven sacraments, while others teach that baptism and/or communion are not sacraments, but ordinances or memorials, rituals that we are taught to practice because of what they bring to mind. (Some of these believers will call baptism and communion sacraments, but teach differently from Sacramentalists in saying that these rituals have no grace-bestowing power.) Some denominations say that all believers are saints while others have stringent rules for dead believers to be proclaimed saints. Some groups teach that speaking in tongues is proof of the Holy Spirit while others teach that it is proof of devil possession. Some churches teach that bread and wine are converted into the actual body and blood of Christ while others teach that the body and blood of Christ are only represented in bread and wine. Some churches allow women to take pastoral and leadership roles while others teach that these positions are not for women. Some churches teach that you can speak things into being with your faith, i.e., Word of Faith, while others teach that God alone in his sovereignty decides everything no matter what you believe for. Some churches teach that God gave us reason to figure things out while others teach that God reveals things to people directly. Some churches teach that churches are part of the government while others teach their members to stay out of worldly affairs. In the churches, there are at least three canons of Scripture, predominantly the Protestant and Roman Catholic, but also the Syrian.
The above doctrinal differences are for the most part between “orthodox” churches. And even in the issues listed there are more positions than the one talked about so far. And there are many people that follow Jesus who aren’t orthodox. That is another division among Christians and the first issue there is whether or not Jesus is God, and part of a Trinity.
The number of possible variations among Orthodox Christians is in the trillions, and if you include divisions over the Trinity, and other “unorthodox” issues, it is even more.
What makes variations available? Variations occur when there are multiple options available. For example, let’s say that there is a certain kind of sheep called the Pittsburgh sheep. (It’s just an example, it doesn’t really exist.) This sheep can have horns or not have horns. It also can have a light, cream-colored coat or it can have a darker, brown coat. There are two horn options and two color options. The number of variations can be calculated by multiplying the number of choices for each option. In this case, there are four variations possible, (2) two kinds of horns (X) times (2) two kinds of colored fur. The variations are:
- cream fur with horns
- cream fur without horns
- brown fur with horns
- brown fur without horns.
If the fur had three choices, let’s say black, then there would be (2) two kinds of horns (X) times (3) three kinds of colored fur to make (6) six possible variations. Besides the above variations now there would be two more.
- black fur with horns
- black fur without horns
This example illustrates that to calculate the total possible variations you simply multiply the number of options available for each issue to calculate the total number of variations.
The example above shows how to calculate variations with a small number of options. Next we will look at variations within Christianity. It must be said that calculating the number of variations possible in Christianity is by no means an exact science because there is no extensive research into all the issues that divide Christians. For each of the doctrines to which there are variations I have ascribed a number of positions that are found in looking at the doctrine in different churches. But there may be more positions available and there probably are. The point here is not to do an exhaustive search into the maximum number of Christian belief sets available, rather it is just to show that it is easy to see why there are so many denominations and that the number of possible denominations is so huge. It’s easy to see when you just start to look at what the product of the variations on the different doctrines is. The number below is the number of variations within the “orthodox” church, which supposedly allows for these variations in doctrine because they are not “essential”. The number at the bottom of the page is how many more variations become possible when you go outside the “orthodox” church, and consider those churches too.
In reality, the huge number of variations may not be really possible because some of the doctrinal combinations wouldn’t be possible within certain theological schools of thought. For example, no fundamentalist church that I know of that teaches biblical inerrancy also teaches acceptance of homosexuality. Nevertheless, as stated above, the number of possible variations is so huge that it is ridiculous.
|Number of Possible Variations: all are Orthodox(Trinitarian)||4,638,564,679,680|
Number of Options
|Baptism: Infant baptism versus immersion||2|
|Spirit Baptism, available now or not||2|
|Abortion, acceptable or not||2|
|Apostolic Succession, importance||2|
|Celibacy, required for priesthood or ministers||2|
|Church Government, forms||3|
|Covenantism and Dispensationalism||5|
|Divorce and remarriage||4|
|End Times (Eschatology)||4|
|Eternal Security available or not||2|
|Giving Doctrine, is tithing required||2|
|Healing, exists in our time||2|
|Holiness, promoted as a crucial element||2|
|Holy Spirit, manifested in the church||2|
|Inerrancy, infallibility or fallibility of the scriptures||3|
|Ordained ministers lead services||2|
|Psychology accepted as valid||2|
|Sacraments, ordinances or simple memorials||3|
|Sainthood, all believers or those canonized||2|
|Speaking in Tongues as proof of salvation||2|
|Transubstantiation in holy communion||2|
|Women’s Role, women can lead in church||2|
|Word of Faith promoted||2|
|Cessation doctrine (Apostoloc Age ceased, gifts ceased, etc.)||2|
|Sacerdotalism (priests are needed to mediate between God and Man)||2|
|Use of Reason versus revelation||2|
|Integration of the church and government (Church should stay out of politics or participate)||2|
|Canon options (Roman Catholic canon, Protestant canon, Coptic canon, apocrypha acceptance)||4|
|The Deity of Christ and the Trinity (Trinitarian, Unitarian, and Monophysite)||3|
|Possible variations available including Trinitarian options||13,915,694,039,040|
So while it is certainly true that the Lord is at work despite the disputes and divisions among us it is a sad reality that there is a huge amount of disagreement among us and that disagreement could get much worse. We will discuss more about this in future blogs. The only response at this time I can offer is that despite this disagreement we can rejoice together that we know Christ and be thankful that he is in our lives.
© copyright 2009-2022 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved Last Edited 4/26/2023