Why are there so many churches? This question seems innocent enough. After all, when I look out my window, I can see the roof of the Methodist Church a few blocks over where my son is attending daycare. From there, I could see the Baptist Church, and this pattern could possibly continue all over Marshall County.
The average person who hears this question is unaware of the real question that is being asked. To the average believer, all of these churches may have different doctrines, creeds, worship styles, and leadership structures, but they all believe in Jesus and would generally be considered Christians by each other, despite what little fellowship there may be.
But this isn’t what the questioner has in mind. The real question that is being asked is, “Why are there so many false churches who have founders other than Jesus?” Now, if this question is asked plainly without taking advantage of the confusion surrounding the word “church,” then I would dare say that one major answer would be: “There are?!” Because most people do not view the one who started their heritage as the “founder” of their church any more than those in the Churches of Christ think of Alexander Campbell as the founder of their church. Christians understand that the Jesus is the chief cornerstone, that He is the one who founded the body of Christ, even if they do not use that specific language.
The confusion arises through conflating the various definitions of the word “church.” In one sense, it is assumed by the innocent bystander as communicating the idea of congregation or even denomination; whereas, the one asking the question is talking about the universal body of Christ versus those who are apparently of a different body with a different head.
Allow me to demonstrate what I mean:
QUESTION 1: Why are there so many churches? Definition: Why are there so many congregations?
Answer: “How are Christians expected to ‘go into all the world’ if we must attend one specific congregation every first day of the week? Shouldn’t we expect to find a congregation wherever a Christian may live? So, there must be many churches to accommodate the population.”
In this scenario, the person being asked the question is confused because in a large population, one would expect different church buildings to pop up. In the first century, after all, one could hardly fit 200 people into someone’s house, so obviously multiple congregations would be required (see the various houses in Romans 16). Worded like this, the question is not all that important. Yet, this may be how one would answer the original question without knowing any better.
QUESTION 2: Why are there so many churches? Definition: Why are there so many denominations?
Answer: “Well, people have different opinions, worship preferences, and traditions. Perhaps, people began following one preacher they liked and their descendants attend those same denominations because that’s what they know. All the people they know and love attend there.”
This question gets closer to the root of the intention of the original question, but it still seems innocent enough to the average person. The assumption that those within denominations are bound for eternal Hell may not be an assumption held by the person being asked the question.
For example, Thomas Campbell, in his thirteen propositions for Christian unity, explained, “That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate from one another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them, to the glory of God…” (Declaration and Address, p.44).
QUESTION 3: Why are there so many false churches who have founders other than Jesus made up of people who are not real Christians?
Answer: “There are?!”
The confusion in this answer reveals something about most believers: the majority of people who are even aware of the vernacular would consider Jesus as the founder of their church as well as those around them (the few exceptions being cult-like groups). One of my friend’s father is the elder of a congregation in Rainbow City, Alabama called Harvestfield. I attended there a few years ago and enjoyed his Bible-based message and their wonderful worship service. They describe themselves as a Southern Baptist congregation “with distinctions.” Now, most Church of Christ charts (see Appendix) I’m aware of have the Baptist Church being founded by Joseph Smyth in 1609 and the Southern Baptist Church being founded in 1845 by William Bullein Johnson. Despite this, Harvestfield has this to say about the founding of the church:
Christ has established a visible church who is called to live in the power of the Holy Spirit under the regulation of the authority of Holy Scripture, to preach the gospel of Christ, to observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and to exercise church discipline.https://harvestfieldchurch.org/new-to-hfc/our-beliefs
Now, it doesn’t say AD33 like the cornerstones on some of the buildings of the Churches of Christ may read, but I daresay that there are few in the Churches of Christ who would dispute the general attitude of this quotation. Though they acknowledge their lower-case “h” heritage, they chiefly claim the universal upper-case “H” heritage of all Christians. Several other churches I looked up on Google have similar statements about the church.
The point of all of this is to show how the question “Why are there so many churches?” is borderline deceptive through taking advantage of the various definitions of the word church, and, in doing so, alienates other believers from the body of Christ who claim no founder but Jesus and no body but the body of Christ.
I wanted to add some information from the history of the Stone-Campbell movement to shed light on perhaps where this question came from and why it morphed into what it is today.
When I type this question (Why are there so many churches?) into Google, the very first link takes me to a website sponsored by World Video Bible School (WVBS), a Church of Christ affiliated media production company that does ahve some good material. On the homepage, you can find a timeline covering the history of various Christian denominations (pictured below). Interestingly enough, Churches of Christ are left off this timeline while the Disciples of Christ and Christian Church are found at 1830 and 1906 respectively. This is interesting because all three groups came out of the Stone-Campbell movement which really began in or before 1804 with documents such as the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery (1804) and Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address (1809).
In the years following the writing of these founding documents, the Stone and Campbell movements united during a meeting in which “Raccoon” John Smith delivered a powerful message of unity. During this time, three descriptions, or names, were used among these Christians: Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, and Christian Church. Some had preferences and opinions, but they all lived in relative harmony until the death of Alexander Campbell near the close of the Civil War. Following his death, Editor Bishops, as Leroy Garrett called them, began developing strong opinions on what they called “essentials.” These differences eventually erupted in division in Sand Creek, Illinois in 1889. When the division began to grow between these two, eventually three, groups, a preacher named Daniel Sommer exclaimed, “The Church of Christ will be entirely separated from the Christian Church. Hallelujah!”
Finally in 1906, the unity movement was shattered when David Lipscomb sent reply to the Census Bureau to list the Churches of Christ and Christian Church as separate groups. This division went against everything the movement originally stood for. Viewing those of differing opinions as enemies was never the original intention of men like Stone and Campbell. In an article written in 1837, Campbell, responding to a dear sister asking about the requirements to be a Christian, wrote, “But who is a Christian? I answer, Every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will” (Millennial Harbinger, 1837, p.411).
I do not quote this to say that Campbell is a higher authority than scripture or something absurd like that. I simply wish to show that the tactics, attitudes, and exclusive doctrines of those who may ask questions like the one discussed in this article are not true to the Stone-Campbell movement and have abandoned, if they ever truly had, the reformation principles espoused by those great men of the early nineteenth century who sought to inspire all believers to “consider each other as the precious saints of God…love each other as brethren, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same Divine love, bought with the same price, and joint-heirs of the same inheritance” (Decleartaion and Address, p.47).
May we stop asking others “Why are there so many churches?” and begin asking ourselves why we aren’t doing more to fellowship our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who love the Lord, believe in Jesus, and obey Him to their best ability.