Which Denomination is the "Right" Denomination... Is There One?
- G. Connor Salter SEO Editor
- 2022 11 Oct
What Denomination Is the Right One?
To some Christians, fitting into the right denomination is everything. Sometimes denominational debates are understandable, but they often descend into bizarre nitpicking. Comedian Emo Phillips sums up the problem in a joke about two Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Great Lakes Region Baptists fighting because one follows the 1879 regional council, the other the 1912 regional council.
While we can all laugh at the joke, what makes it funny is it’s not too far off the mark. Many Christians get into huge arguments over which denomination is right and which ones are wrong. So why are there so many denominations—and how do we pick the right one?
Why Are There So Many Denominations?
The short answer to why there are so many denominations is that people tend to disagree. This is true of small things and big things. It is true of non-Christians and Christians. People are complex, surprising beings struggling to figure out what they believe. When religion is involved, that process can become even more complicated because there are strong consequences about what people choose to believe.
The longer answer is that there are so many denominations because Christians disagree about which beliefs to emphasize. As Liberty University’s Ben Gutierrez explains in the video below, there are a set of core beliefs that all Christians must agree on to call themselves Christians. More details about how to find those core beliefs are covered in the section on how to “seek orthodox teaching.”
Outside the core beliefs, there are what Gutierrez calls “peripheral issues.” Peripheral issues include what happens when we take communion, whether we speak in tongues after becoming Christians, or how we understand the relationship between free will and predestination. Some of these issues get closer to core beliefs than others. In that case, we must think harder about what we believe about that periphery issue. However, it is still a periphery issue. We can get along with other believers, knowing we agree on the core beliefs even as we disagree about periphery issues.
With these factors in mind, we can safely say that we don’t have to worry about finding the only denomination that gets everything right. However, we should consider which denominations get the core beliefs right.
How Do I Pick the Right Denomination?
As you consider which denomination to join, look for these key factors which will show whether they understand and follow Christianity’s core beliefs.
1. Seek orthodox teaching. The term orthodoxy can refer to the Orthodox Church, a large tradition of churches that grew out of the Great Schism between two branches of the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. On a larger level, it refers to the broad tradition of Christian teaching from the early church to today. The language Christians use to talk about their faith has changed over time, and different denominations have taken different stances on periphery issues. However, a distinct strain of thought has defined orthodox Christianity from its founding until today. Various Christian councils created faith statements that defined orthodox Christianity—the most important being the Nicene Creed. You can read these historic statements in many places online. Books like Christian History in Seven Sentences can help you understand the important statements and why they matter. Look for a denomination whose statement of faith fits into the stream of orthodox Christianity.
2. Seek clear descriptions. A denomination’s statement of faith will tell you not only whether it follows orthodox Christian teaching but whether it recognizes Christianity’s history. Does the statement of faith reference the historic Christian statements of faith, or use language (like “I believe in God the father”) that shows it is familiar with those statements? If it provides clear information about its beliefs and practices, it has thought through its position. If it can’t provide clear language, that may indicate it hasn’t thought its position through.
3. Watch out for heresy. Heresy refers to when someone’s theology has elements that don’t fit orthodoxy. For example, orthodox Christianity maintains that Jesus was fully God and fully human. The Bible states various roles that Jesus fulfilled (savior, healer, lamb of God, etc.), which implies he had to be both God and human. A belief like adoptionism—that Jesus was born human and God gave him special powers at the baptism—doesn’t meet this description. Adoptionism implies that Jesus wasn’t fully God from the start, meaning he was not the Word become flesh (John 1:14). Furthermore, as Erik Raymond notes, if Jesus was not fully God, his death couldn’t save us. Hence, adoptionism is a heresy, a claim that misses orthodox Christianity’s full picture. If a denomination’s beliefs don’t quite fit orthodox Christian teachings, that presents a problem.
4. Watch out for blasphemy. Blasphemy specifically refers to insulting or showing a lack of reverence for God. Blasphemy doesn’t mean we can’t be upset when we talk to God. The Old Testament is filled with writers describing their torment, wondering why God seems silent. However, these laments eventually return to telling God they trust him, will wait on his response, or recognize he is greater. Criticizing God directly and staying in that position may become blasphemy (in which case, there is always time to ask God’s forgiveness). Similarly, teachings that treat God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit as something less than what they are can be blasphemy. If a denomination’s description of God doesn’t fit the Bible’s full picture of who God is, that presents a problem.
5. Seek a sense of history. Every denomination comes from somewhere. Where it came from (an older denomination splitting, a denomination’s offshoot in another country adopting slightly different teachings) may not always be a fun story. Sometimes, where a denomination has been (its work with native people in a specific area, its leadership choice) isn’t a fun story either. However, a denomination’s messy history may not be a problem, provided they are honest about where they came from and the steps they take to avoid past mistakes. If a denomination doesn’t talk about its history, that may present a problem.
6. Seek a local connection. A denomination with solid teaching, and a clear understanding of what qualifies as bad teaching, is vital. However, if you can’t find local churches within that denomination, ones who understand their denomination’s background and practice its beliefs well, then you won’t benefit from the denomination’s heritage. The church is universal but also local. Your spiritual growth depends on what you receive from the local church. Suppose you must choose between a dysfunctional local church in a denomination you fully agree with, and a healthy church in a denomination you mostly agree with. Most of the time, the second option is better.
With this final point in mind, we turn to the next big question: how to select a healthy local church.
5 Things to Look for in a Local Church
As you look for a local church, here are things you should watch for. Each factor is important. While the first two may be the most important, each works together to create a healthy church.
1. Solid teaching. Different pastors have different skills. Some are excellent storytellers but not deep Bible scholars. Some are great at delving into a Bible passage’s technical details but struggle to provide practical applications. You will never find the perfect pastor that fits your interests or needs. However, you should seek a local church where the pastor knows the Bible well and communicates it well, using whatever form best fits their strengths.
2. Wise leaders. Even with a pastor who provides solid teaching, a local church will get into much trouble if the leaders (the pastor, the elders, the deacons, and the associated staff) can’t work together. Look for a local church with a clear leadership structure (matching the New Testament’s instructions in books like 1 Timothy and Titus about what elders and deacons should do). See if the leaders work well together, avoid interfering in each other’s roles, and handle conflicts well.
3. Solid children’s ministry. Christians are called to witness to nonbelievers, but churches don’t only grow by evangelism. Churches grow just as much by raising children who will continue in the faith. Not only does raising children in the faith follow the Bible’s commandments for parents to pass on their faith. Raising children in the faith has a practical side: a local church thrives when its members have a sense of history. Multiple generations who have attended a church know what problems routinely come up, what solutions have worked in the past, and have more motivation to keep everyone accountable. Look for a local church with an established children’s ministry where the staff performs their duties well.
4. Defined paths to achieve growth. When Christians say they entered a relationship with Christ when they were saved, that means several things. First, they have become one of Christ’s beloved children, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Second, they are in a relationship now, and relationships involve growth. Specifically, every relationship involves deliberate growth—pursuing activities and values that bring maturity and closeness. Local churches enable members to grow not just through good sermons but through mentoring programs, Bible study groups, and other means to encourage discipleship.
5. Deliberate community involvement. The New Testament doesn’t treat good doctrine and good works as separate things. The writers assume that good works will naturally flow from you if you follow your beliefs well and have a healthy relationship with Christ. Paul routinely ends his letters urging people to remember local concerns—caring for orphans, widows, and others who can’t take care of themselves. Different churches will find different ways to do this. A church in a lower-income urban area may have a great homeless ministry. A church in a middle-income suburban neighborhood may have a great ministry for supporting single parents. Look for what the church is doing in your area, whether they are living out their values in the place God has placed them.
How Do We Get Along with Christians in Other Denominations?
Once we recognize that different denominations emphasize different peripheral issues, we don’t have to worry about finding the one denomination that gets everything right. Once we know what to look for in a healthy denomination and a local church that practices its denominational beliefs healthily, we can seek a Christian community to join.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact we will have friends and family who choose other denominations. What do we do when we’ve taken all the steps and done what is right as best we can, but others don’t make the same choice?
C.S. Lewis provides a useful tool for dealing with denominational differences in his book Mere Christianity. He describes Christianity as a larger hall with doors into various rooms. Becoming a Christianity is entering the hall, but we can’t live in it—inevitably, we must select a room. However, after selecting our room, we must remember we are all part of the same hall—the universal church, Christ’s bride.
“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”—C.S. Lewis, preface to Mere Christianity
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our larger resource library of Christian practices and disciplines important to the Christian faith. From speaking in tongues to tithing & baptism, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about Christian living.
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