The Rise of Denominationalism

by Andy Sochor
via Unmasking Sophistry, Vol. 4, No. 3, July-September 2024

In the previous article, we discussed the Reformation Movement, which came when the Roman Catholic Church was a religiously and politically dominating force. Over the centuries, it became increasingly corrupt until Martin Luther challenged some of the errors and abuses of the prevailing system.

The focus of this movement was not to restore the New Testament order of things. Luther and other reformers did not see this as necessary. Instead, they aimed to reform the existing system by correcting what they believed was wrong. While their motives may have been good, this approach made it inevitable that they would fall short of the pattern handed down by the apostles. Furthermore, it opened the door to forming a potentially unlimited number of denominations.

What is a denomination?

A denomination is a group of churches that have united behind a set of practices and doctrines that distinguish them from other “Christian” groups. They may have various leadership structures or ways to decide which doctrine points they agree upon, but they all have their own organization and creed that differentiates them from others. This division is a necessary component of denominationalism.

Since the time of the Reformation Movement, new denominations have continued to come into existence. To form a new denomination, a reformer (or group of reformers) would attack some error (or perceived error), and the number of followers would increase to the point at which they could break away and form their own body. This new group would adopt a formal statement of faith and practice (a creed). This has recently happened in the United Methodist Church over that denomination's acceptance of homosexuality. Many members and churches in that denomination saw this error. When it was clear they could not correct it within the denomination, they broke off and formed a new denomination – the Global Methodist Church. This has happened so many times over the last 500+ years that there are an estimated 45,000 denominations worldwide today.

The First Protestant Denomination

The first major denomination to arise after the start of the Protestant Reformation was the Lutheran Church, which, of course, was named after Martin Luther, the chief catalyst of the movement. To be fair, Luther protested this, not wishing for his followers to carry his name. Yet they adopted the name and still wear it to this day.

After separating from the Roman Catholic Church, Luther's beliefs and criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church were written out in the Augsburg Confession of Faith in 1530, with the help of his co-laborer, Philip Melancthon. Luther's followers adopted this, which became the standard they followed. The problem with this should be apparent. After rightly opposing the authority of the Pope, they adopted the words of men as their authority rather than simply going back to the Bible and following its teachings. The fact that the Augsburg Confession fell short of the teachings of the Bible can be seen when we compare it with the inspired word of God.

One example of this is Luther's idea of justification by faith alone. In the Augsburg Confession, it says this:

“In the first place, our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. Instead, this happens through faith alone when a person believes that our sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who alone is the mediator to reconcile the Father. Now all who imagine that they can accomplish this by works and can merit grace despise Christ and seek their own way to God contrary to the gospel.”

This idea of justification by ”faith alone,” apart from works, was first promoted by Luther and remains popular among religious people today. Yet, it is not biblical. We are indeed “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), but not by faith alone. In fact, James stated very plainly, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). The New Testament teaches that we are saved by the grace of God when we meet the conditions that God has set forth, including repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; I Peter 3:21). Luther's creed says this is “contrary to the gospel,” even though it was what the apostles taught. Paul emphatically warned against those who would teach a different gospel than what was handed down by the apostles: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8). By teaching justification by “faith alone,” Luther was guilty of preaching “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).

Other Major Denominations

The formation of the Lutheran Church was just the beginning. While the opposition to the Roman Catholic Church was necessary, how the opposition was made – forming a new body united around a manmade creed – made it practically inevitable that the Reformation Movement would splinter into myriad Protestant denominations. Let us briefly notice a few of the major ones that came into being during this period.

The Presbyterian Church

John Calvin is sometimes regarded as the founder of the Presbyterian Church, though it may be more accurate to say that his teachings (Calvinism) were the foundation of this denomination. It was started by John Knox, a follower of Calvin, in 1560. The name comes from the Greek word for elder (presbyteros) and signifies a church governed by elders. The church adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1643. As this denomination is rooted in Calvinism, they believe in the Calvinistic doctrine of individual predestination and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit in conversion (among other things).

The Church of England

This denomination began in 1534 when the king of England, Henry VIII, severed ties to the Roman Catholic Church. The king wanted to divorce his wife, but the Pope refused to allow him to do it. So King Henry broke away from the authority of Rome, and the Parliament declared him to be head of the Church of England. It kept many of the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church,
even though it had become a separate entity.

The Baptist Church

This group developed when a controversy arose over the practice of baptism. Because of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, infant baptism was standard practice, even among the early Protestant denominations. Some became convinced of the New Testament teaching that baptism is for believers (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-37), which means infants are not proper candidates
for baptism. When they began to practice baptism for believers, they became known first as Anabaptists (for engaging in the practice of “re-baptism”). From this beginning, many different Baptist and Anabaptist groups emerged.

The Methodist Church

John Wesley was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. During his time at Lincoln College, he became associated with a group of young men who were frustrated over the empty ritualism of the Church of England. They formed a group known as the “Holy Club” due to their emphasis on holy living. To promote spiritual vitality among their group, they strictly followed a habit of regular prayer, Bible study, meditation, and helping those in need. Wesley's original intention was to reform the Church of England, yet opposition led to the formation of the Methodist Church. The Methodist Discipline is the creed they follow, which has been revised many times over the years.

No Denominations in the New Testament

Since the start of the Protestant Reformation Movement, about five hundred years ago, and thousands of denominations are now in existence, many people think this is perfectly normal and acceptable. They cannot envision a religious landscape without different denominations made up of those who profess to be Christians.

However, in the first century, under the leadership of the apostles who were directly guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 16:13), there were no denominations. Local churches were autonomous and overseen by elders (I Peter 5:2). No higher authority ruled over the elders except for Jesus Himself (I Peter 5:4). Churches were not named after a human leader (like the Lutheran Church), an organizational structure (like the Presbyterian Church), or a particular practice (like the Baptists). Instead, they were identified as belonging to God (I Corinthians 1:2; II Corinthians 1:1) or as the church in a particular city (Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; et al.). The apostle Paul called the churches with whom he associated “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). There is no more concisely accurate and expedient description for sound local congregations than that.


The Reformation Movement gave rise to all of the various Protestant denominations we see in the world today. Though many see nothing wrong with this, it is not the Lord's plan. Jesus' prayer was for those who believed in Him to be united: “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” ( John 17:20-21). The effort to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church – and then the various denominations that arose later – would never bring about the unity Christ desires. To obtain that unity, men would have to do more than reform these man-made churches. They would need to leave these churches and restore the doctrines and practices found in the New Testament. There was a movement that attempted to do just that. Lord willing, we will discuss that in the next part of this series.

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