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Q&A: What would Jesus think about all the different Christian denominations?

Jesus wants his church to be unified. Wouldn’t he be appalled by all the different Christian denominations?

In the high priestly prayer, Jesus prays, “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 . . . so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:20,21,23).

The answer is yes!

Jesus desires his church to be unified here on earth. His prayer continues to clarify the reason why: “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v. 23). Jesus clearly says that unity among Christians will best show the love of God to the world. However, we must understand that the unity Jesus describes is not “Let’s agree to disagree.”

The apostle Paul exhorted, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The unity Jesus desires is based on the total agreement in the truths of God’s Word. Jesus commands in the Great Commission: “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20, emphasis added). There can be no true unity with those who teach things contrary to the doctrines of Scripture.

Martin Luther had no desire to leave the Roman Catholic Church, but instead he tried correcting its errors to bring about true unity. When it became clear that unity was impossible, he separated himself from that church body.

So this question can be answered affirmatively and negatively, depending on the perspective. From the perspective of Jesus’ desire for the church on earth, the answer is yes. He would be appalled by all of the denominations . . . because some have walked away from the truth.

The answer is no!

But from the perspective of Jesus’ desire for pure doctrine, the answer is no. He would not be appalled . . . because he wants us to stand on the truth of his Word no matter what the cost. While some Bible passages speak about Jesus’ desire for unity, other passages also speak of God’s desire for us to separate from those who refuse to hold to all of God’s Word. This is called church fellowship. Jesus has no tolerance for wolves that want to touch his flock.

Titus 3:10 says, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” Romans 16:17 instructs, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” Notice who is causing the divisions. It is the ones teaching falsely, not the ones holding to God’s Word.

Even the most liberal of Christians practice church fellowship. They just draw the line at a different point. I remember speaking to people from a church body that denied the inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the fact that Jesus was the only way to heaven (among other divergences from the Bible). But when their church started ordaining homosexual clergy, they had to leave. I remember the common refrain: “That’s not my church anymore!” They practiced church fellowship once their church had strayed far enough away from the truth. Jesus wants us to practice church fellowship, holding to all of his truth.

We must always say two things

Whenever we speak about the doctrine of church fellowship, we always need to say two things. We need to speak about the doctrine of the holy Christian church, the invisible body of all believers in Christ. When we warn about false teaching, we are not necessarily saying that those in false-teaching churches do not have saving faith. We rejoice that wherever God’s Word is, there God’s people will be. God’s Word cannot be without his people, and God’s people cannot be without his Word. What comfort that the Holy Spirit often fights through false teaching with his Word so those people die with saving faith in their Savior! Theologians call that a “felicitous [happy] inconsistency.”

While we rejoice in the reality of the holy Christian church, God still warns that false doctrine can rob us of faith. We need to be alert for those who distort the Scriptures. “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). If false doctrine is dangerous (and it is!), then the doctrine of church fellowship is important. Someone has said that if justification by grace through faith is the lifeblood of the Christian church, then the doctrine of church fellowship is the immune system.

To separate is loving

In our culture, the most unloving thing is to say someone is wrong. Scripture disagrees. “If one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19,20). Unfortunately, sometimes we are to blame when people do not see the love behind correction and separation. John Jeske, a wise WELS theologian, once said, “How easy it is to become straight as a gun barrel and just as cold.” It is a challenge to “[speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

When we need to separate from another group of Christians, it is not a superiority claim. Martin Luther said, “Christianity is just one beggar showing another beggar where he found bread.” If a beggar tries to share what he has found, it would be foolish for the other to refuse and chastise, “What? Do you think you are better than me?” The answer is, “No, that’s not the case. I want you to have the true Bread of Life!”

While some Bible passages speak about Jesus’ desire for unity, other passages also speak of God’s desire for us to separate from those who refuse to hold to all of God’s Word.

Church denominations are valuable because people’s association with them is an outward indicator of what they believe. In other words, it is easier to see the wolves that Jesus warns about in Matthew 7:15. We take people’s words and actions in the kindest possible way by assuming they hold to what their denomination teaches until we know from discussion where they might differ from that confession.

Most important, let’s never lose sight of the positive side of church fellowship: the opportunity for churches to express unity. In the first half of Romans chapter 16, Paul rejoices in his fellowship with fellow Christians and coworkers. True unity among a group of Christians is a foretaste of the perfect unity all Christians will experience in heaven. Rejoice in that foretaste whenever you hear this truth in church: “With all the saints on earth and hosts of heaven, we praise your holy name and join their glorious song” (Christian Worship, p. 166).

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Author: David Scharf
Volume 111, Number 03
Issue: April 2024

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This entry is part 1 of 67 in the series question-answer

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