How many christian denominations? Who cares? And why do they care?

Almost 6 years ago I posted on How many christian denominations worldwide. I had been asked this question by an internet friend (not a christian believer) who was tired of hearing unsupported claims.

It has become my most visited and most commented page, accounting for almost half the visitors to this site.

I can’t help wondering why the interest in such a subject.

The facts

Two different authoritative sources have estimated that there are more than 40,000 christian “denominations in the world today. A “denomination” is defined as “an organised christian group within a country”

We can see that these “denominations” are defined in terms of being separate organisations, not necessarily separate beliefs – beliefs are not part of the definition. Three quarters of these “denominations” are independent African churches.

What the critics say ….

Most critics want to discredit christianity by pointing to so many disagreements among christians. It is a curious fact that I have seen many on their blogs quote my page as their source, and they say something quite different to what my page and the sources say.

Their arguments boil down to these three:

  1. If the Bible was really the Word of God, christians would agree more.
  2. If there was a God, he’d do better than this and all the christians would believe the same things.
  3. Christians argue with each other too much, which shows how unpleasant they are.

I’m not a great fan of the modern western church and would be more likely to criticise it than defend it. But do these three arguments have merit?

Evidence for disagreement

Because these “denominations” are defined by being separate organisations, they are no more an indication of different beliefs than the existence of 40,000 football teams would be evidence of that many different sets of football rules.

Any argument needs to be based on facts, but I’ve never seen any facts on the extent of different beliefs among christians, certainly they are never quoted by the critics I have seen.

No doubt there are many different beliefs among christians, but how may, and how many that are important? Wikipedia lists about 40 major divisions within world christianity, but I don’t know how you’d even go about defining which different beliefs matter nor how many there are.

An argument against the Bible?

I think this argument has a point, but overstates it.

Yes, if the Bible was clearly words directly from God, you might expect them to be clear and unambiguous. But there are several problems with this:

  • Christians believe Jesus was from God, yet his words are often cryptic and unclear, requiring his listeners to ponder their meaning. The christian God doesn’t necessarily speak absolutely clearly all the time. Perhaps he wants to provoke a response more than give timeless truths, sometimes at least?
  • Not all christians believe that the Bible is given word for word from God. This is not an argument against the Bible many believe in, including me.
  • Those christians who do believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God are just as prone to arguing about doctrinal matters as other christians. If there is a problem, it seems to be with the people, not with the book.

So there may be some superficial argument here against believing the Bible is less that a perfect book spoken out by God. But there are many more obvious ways to argue that – see for example Should christians accept everything in the Old Testament as truly from God?

An argument against God?

To make an argument against God, I think you’d have to show ….

  1. The extent of diversity of belief. What beliefs matter, and how much diversity is ther eon those beliefs?
  2. That God wants uniformity of belief. I think you could mount a good case for a small set of core beliefs being important, but the diversity in the world and among people suggests God likes diversity.
  3. That the unacceptable diversity is God’s fault, not people’s. Perhaps God values freedom more than uniformity?

I’ve never seen anyone actually present an argument like that, thoroughly and logically and offer evidence, though I suppose it must have been done somewhere. But it is noteworthy that most critics I have seen just jump from 40,000 organisations to 40,000 beliefs, and then assume that must be bad without ever making a decent argument.

Christians quarrel too much

This is a much easier argument to run. It is difficult to disagree that christians often argue with each other about what seems like trivial differences.

The problem, I think, isn’t the differences. Diversity is good, certainly on non-core matters. Who cares if you think the bread and wine becomes Jesus’ actual flesh and blood whereas I think that it remains simply bread and wine? It is quite possible for us to both participate in the ritual without worrying about what the other believes.

And quite possible to get on with the job of loving our neighbours as ourselves without even discussing our beliefs on this matter (and many others).

The problem is quarrelling.

You can disagree with me if you like, but let’s not be quarrelsome. Paul says in Romans 14 that we should avoid quarrelling with others and let God sort them out. We can express our views, but avoid being divisive.

The critic doth protest too much, methinks

In the end, the facts don’t bear the weight being placed on them and the argument has superficial attraction but little force.

The church can and should be criticised for many things, including quarrelsome behaviour and petty argumentation. But 40,000+ organised christian groups within a country are hardly the evidence that it is often claimed to be.

There are bigger fish to fry, as Salmon Rushdie should have said. A recent film gets it right – For The Love of God – How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined. A documentary film in production on the influence of Christianity on the West.

Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

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  1. Good points. I was not aware of the number of churches that are in Africa and simply count as separate denominations.
    I think we all agree that churches are too quick to claim others are heretical. The most obvious to my mind is the Filioque dispute between Catholics and Orthodox. Where we draw the line is not easy. Some people would say people might not believe in God or might not believe in the resurrection and still be Christian. But I do agree with you that Christian detractors often attempt to make a bigger deal out of the differences then is warranted.
    It seems very much like they think the bible would be better if it was a gigantic list of rules that told us exactly how to act in every circumstance. Almost like a near infinite computer program that would flawlessly tell us each move in every situation. The truth is Christians have the guidance they need its just that it is often hard to follow.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. Yes I think christians are far too divisive. The Bible says there is one Lord, one Faith, etc, and we should let God judge his people, but we so easily seem to think that we should judge, and divide.
    I think one problem is the use of the word “doctrine” or “teaching”. Often when the NT uses these words it is referring to behaviour, not what we today would call doctrine, and when it is about what we call doctrine it is about core doctrines about Jesus, etc. But we transfer the same strength of opposition from those important matters of behaviour and core teaching to relatively minor matters. And so we divide over differences that we could easily live with.

  3. The Apostle Paul proclaimed in the Book of Ephesians: TO MAINTAIN THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT (4:3)…UNTIL WE ATTAIN THE UNITY IN THE FAITH (4:13). It is the Holy Spirit who testifies to our spirit that we are God’s children and as sons (and daughters) of God belong to the same FAMILY OF GOD THE FATHER, the same FLOCK OF GOD THE SON and the same FELLOWSHIP OF GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT. This is the UNITY TO MAINTAIN.
    Paul continued with UNTIL we attain unity of the faith. To Paul, this is something we will not attain in this life. And therefore there will always be different points of view as to the “knowledge of the Son of God” hence different denominations. Shalom.

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