The questions and objections presented when it comes to the vast number of Christian denominations can make one wonder, but is the myth of the 33,000 a strong argument against Christianity?
When it comes to arguing against Christianity, some believe the best arguments opposing it come from Christianity itself. The myth of the 33,000 is one such argument. The fable is meant to show that the high number of denominations is a clear sign of disunity and doctrinal inconsistency. “Your argument is not with atheists, but with the other 29,999 sects of Christianity,” is how it’s usually worded. Is this true? And if so, why so many?
To get a full overview of the denominations, this page is definitely recommended reading: The Facts and Stats On “33,000 Denominations.” As it’s quite daunting, I’ll quickly summarize it here.
The World Christian Encyclopedia does say there are 33,000 denominations, but it isn’t that simple. This number is divided into many various sects and groups. The 33,000 is divided into “6 major ecclessiastico-cultural mega blocs” and “300 major ecclessiastico-traditions.” So when citing the numbers, one may refer to the 6 major ecclessiastico-cultural bloc and point to that just as strongly to an opposing argument. The numbers can be taken both ways and by themselves they don’t provide a solid footing for the argument.
But the core of the argument is that each denomination is against each other. When a closer look at the WCE and the page linked above is taken, we find the surprising truth. Denominations are defined essentially by autonomy, culture, and race, not doctrine. Most denominations vary from one another only because of a unique service to a specific location and race, not because of differing doctrines. The best example is the 242 Catholic denominations, which all share the same doctrine, yet serve the specific needs of those in different areas. The page also lists about 22,000 of these denominations as “independent.” These can be as small as one church serving a unique community. While there are denominations that do vary in doctrine, the myth that all 33,000 are opposing each other is false.
With that misconception out of the way, we can now look deeper into the objection at hand.
Essentially, the root of the argument comes down to the idea that the Bible doesn’t bring its message across in a clear, easy to understand way. The idea is that there shouldn’t even be differing doctrines if the Bible truly is God’s word. To that, I have some objections.
Firstly, we’re warned of false prophets and teachers who will twist the message of the written word many times throughout the Bible. 2 Peter 2:1 says, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies….” Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 says, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” What is one to do when handed a doctrine? 1 John 4:1 lays out the instruction, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Questioning and testing any doctrine presented is a must when finding the truth.
Secondly, a lack of understanding is sometimes the product of laziness. 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” We must look to God and His word when testing differing doctrines, but most importantly, we need to do the work. It’s suspicious to me when one says God is silent when it comes to making clear the right doctrine. Christianity involves work on the behalf of the client. I always hold fast to the lyrics of the rap artist Beautiful Eulogy: “I say the mark of a mature man is one who reads God’s Word, understands it, and allows that to govern his decisions and perspective plans.”
The third and final objection I have is humanity itself. We are individuals with different personalities, experiences, ideas, and thoughts. There is no belief system or doctrine everyone agrees on, and there never will be. Even if we take away the denomination’s geographical service, there is simply no way differing doctrines aren’t going to exist. While I may relate most to one doctrine, another may find they best relate to another. This is no way to find what doctrine is true, rather it’s to emphasize individuality.
In the end, what is most beautiful about this reality is the emphasis on love and unity within the church it demands, something essential to Christian doctrine. It’s easy to find unity with people who agree with you, but finding unity with those you disagree with requires sacrifice and a deeper love for humanity. As the apologist, Ravi Zacharias, said, “Unity doesn’t have to be uniformity.” No matter where you’re from, what doctrine you believe in, or who you are, there is always a place for you at the table of Christ. The one who believes unity is idealistic is one who holds their opinions above humanity, and that is a very sad doctrine indeed.