I’ve thought over this question for quite some time. Within Evangelical Protestantism, there are myriads of denominations. There are so many, that the Catholic Church has given many spurious critiques of modern Protestantism. They argue that there is such disunity among the church that we can hardly call ourselves the true church. In fact, Catholics really do consider themselves to be the only true church!
But are numerous denominations within the evangelical church necessarily a bad thing? I really don’t think so. In fact, as opposed to the Catholic church, I think that denominations enable unity within the larger body of Christ. And I want to consider a few reasons why.
First, Protestantism, even with all of its differing denominations, agrees on the essentials (if you can’t agree on certain essentials, you would be considered unorthodox or heterodox as opposed to “evangelical”). All Protestants agree that men are saved by Christ alone through faith alone. They all agree on the Trinity. They all agree that the Bible is the Word of God. They uphold the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Christ. These (and more) are essentials that all evangelicals must hold to in order to be considered orthodox. And because of this, there is much more unity than diversity. Even with John Wesley and George Whitfield’s massive differences (and although they parted ways eventually) concerning the order of salvation, they both heartily agreed with one another on the condition for salvation — faith alone in Christ alone. This is what binds all of Protestantism together!
Second, the reason there are so many denominations is not because we simply can’t get along. Rather, the reason there are different denominations is because we all treasure the Word of God. We all agree that God has revealed himself to us by his Word (I recognize that within Protestantism, the doctrine of inerrancy, which I hold to, is debated — however, that God inspired the Bible is not argued). We have unity on the source of the scriptures — however, we do not have unity on the interpretation of certain scriptures. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, will all have differing views on controversial passages. For instance, while we all agree that Paul is speaking of election in Ephesians 1, we cannot all agree on the meaning and nature of election. Calvinists argue for unconditional election, Arminians argue for condition election, and others (some Arminians and Methodists) argue for corporate election. What none of us disagree on is that Ephesians 1 reveals to us God’s saving intentions for mankind — instead, what we disagree on is exactly what Paul is saying. Because of this, while there is much difference concerning specific doctrines, we have agreement on the Word of God: that the Bible is inherently divine revelation.
Third, while differing denominations can agree and have unity on essentials, we also must affirm that because we disagree on some things, it is not inherently wrong to serve in a church with which you agree. While a Methodist Church and a Baptist Church can work together to reach a community with the gospel, it could also be a challenge to work together within the same congregation (I’m not saying it’s impossible, but there are challenges — some churches are interdenominational and work together well!). Many Methodists, for example, ordain woman pastors, while many Baptist congregations see it as biblical to only ordain men pastors. It would be quite a challenge for complementarian Baptist pastors to work alongside some egalitarian Methodist pastors. The same is true when it comes to doctrinal issues. If a Prestbyterian and an Arminian Episcopal work together, how will they teach Romans 9? While they can agree that it is part of the canon, they disagree on the interpretation. For this reason, operating within a certain denomination isn’t wrong, and in fact it is practically helpful to the progress of the gospel. Denominations don’t affirm disunity within Evangelicalism; actually, denominations exist because we agree on essentials, and uphold the Bible as the Word of God!
For this reason, I am pleased when I see a fellow brother in the Lord standing on biblical convictions — as long as they affirm essential biblical doctrines. I may disagree on certain other doctrines, and this may cause us to desire to work within differing denominations — but we can both agree on the essentials of the gospel, and that God’s Word is true.
One day we will all find out who was right. The Lord will clarify our misunderstandings, and we will worship him forever. Until then, we must stand on his Word, and wait for his coming.