Why Are There So Many Protestant Denominations?

I have always been fascinated and disgusted by how divided the Christian church is. How can we all be reading the same Bible when we believe so differently from each other? Go to any large city on Google Maps and type in the word “church” and you will be shocked by how many different churches there are. Roman Catholics blame sola Scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice, for this division. I will argue in this article that denominationalism is not caused by sola Scriptura, but because of the abandonment of it combined with the elevation of human tradition. The effects of sin, pride, tradition, and fear of man keep us from fully embracing and applying all of Scripture.

The Bible is written in such a way that those who do not want to believe in what it says can always employ a rescuing device to escape conclusions they do not wish to accept. That is why the truths of Scripture are evident to the little children of God who simply trust and obey while others lack the faith to see. The Bible is written in plain language to be understood by all of God’s children since all of them have the indwelling Holy Spirit who enlightens their minds (1 Cor 2:10-16). Denominational division is not because of sola Scriptura, but because of unbiblical man-made traditions that are added to the Bible which obscure its meaning (Matt 15:6). If every Protestant truly believed in sola Scriptura, denominations would disappear because the Bible does not contradict itself. The problem is not with the clarity of Scripture, but with our darkened hearts. If each of us would simply adopt the prayer life and Bible reading of George Muller or C. T. Studd, the divisions among Christians would disappear.

The discipline of systematic theology is like putting a puzzle together. Unless we have all the pieces of Scripture, we will have an incomplete picture of what the Bible teaches about each doctrine. That’s why we need to take into consideration all of Scripture when doing Christian theology. Walking along the path of truth is an extremely delicate art. It is so easy to overemphasize the truthfulness of one doctrine to the neglect of another and so distort the Bible’s teaching. Hyper-Calvinism is a prime example of this by trying to be more logical than biblical. It emphasizes God’s sovereignty to the neglect of human responsibility and the necessity of inviting the lost to embrace Christ. We must believe and apply all of Scripture, even if we do not fully understand how its truths relate together. A person does not have to fully understand the Bible to believe and obey it.

I love what William Chillingworth had to say on the sufficiency of Scripture and the unity that exists among all true Christians:

“The BIBLE, I say, the BIBLE only, is the religion of protestants! Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it, well may they hold it as a matter of opinion; but as matter of faith and religion, neither can they with coherence to their own grounds believe it themselves, nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most schismatical presumption. I for my part, after a long and (as I verily believe and hope) impartial search of ‘the true way to eternal happiness,’ do profess plainly that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot but upon this rock only. I see plainly and with mine own eyes, that there are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the church of one age against the church of another age. Traditive interpretations of scripture are pretended; but there are few or none to be found; no tradition, but only of scripture, can derive itself from the fountain, but may be plainly proved either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ, or that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of scripture only for any considering man to build upon. This therefore, and this only, I have reason to believe: this will I profess, according to this will I live and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly lose my life, though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me. Propose me anything out of this book, and require whether I believe it or not, and seem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe it with hand and heart, as knowing no demonstration can be stronger than this; God hath said so, therefore it is true. In other things I will take no man’s liberty of judgment from him; neither shall any man take mine from me. I will think no man the worse man, nor the worse Christian, I will love no man the less, for differing in opinion from me. And what measure I mete to others, I expect from them again. I am fully assured that God does not. And therefore that men ought not to require any more of any man than this, to believe the scripture to be God’s word, to endeavor to find true sense of it, and to live according to it.”

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