The Rise of Denominations in the Church

extracted from

The History of the Church
Howard A. White

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|

The church of our Lord was founded upon the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ. Its pattern is to be found in the New Testament. It was characterised by unity of doctrine, name, worship, and organisation. True to warnings given by inspired writers, a great apostasy took place. The organisation of the church was changed; a system of strange doctrines were introduced; and out of the ecclesiastical heirarchy which developed came the pope of Rome who was finally recognised as the head of both the church and the state. Voices that were raised against the power of the pope and the corrupt practices of the clergy were stilled by the hand of persecution. But, in the early part of the 16th century Martin Luther defied the authority of the pope and started a movement which was destined to shake the world, unchain the Bible from the pulpit and again place it in the hands of men and women who had long been hungering and thirsting after righteousness.

As we engage in a study of this kind, we may not only learn how and why so many denominations exist today, but we may also come to appreciate the sacrifices that were made by Luther and others who had the courage to stand for their convictions at any cost. As our hearts swell with gratitude for these great men, we must not overlook the fact that they were human and, therefore, were subject to making mistakes. We should accept what they taught only when it is the truth.


Another great reformer, whose work led the way to the overthrow of the power of Rome in England, was William Tyndale. He was born at Worcester about 1484. It became his chief desire in life to give the common people the Bible in their own language. He said to a religious teacher of his time, "If God spare my life, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost."1 He fulfilled this purpose.

The story of the sacrifices and persecutions which Tyndale suffered in order to translate the Bible into English is one of the most touching accounts in the lives of the reformers. Of course, Tyndale made many enemies. Some of them thirsted for his blood. In May, 1535, he was betrayed by a man who posed as his friend and invited him into his home to dine. Upon arriving at his home, his would be host had him arrested. "On Friday, October 6, 1536, he was strangled at the stake and his body then burned to ashes. At the stake with a fervent zeal and a loud voice, he cried: ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’"2 Thus ended the life of William Tyndale, but his influence as an apostle of liberty lives on.

ULRICH ZWINGLI (1484-1564)

Ulrich Zwingli was a noted reformer who lived in Switzerland about the time of Martin Luther. He was born about 1484. He was slain on the battlefield by Catholic soldiers while serving as a chaplain in the army which was defending Zurich, Switzerland.3 The principal difference in the attitudes of Luther and Zwingli as reformers was that Luther wanted to retain in the church all that was not expressly contradicted in the scriptures, while Zwingli wanted to abolish all that could not be proved by scripture. Therefore, Zwingli’s reformation was the more complete.

JOHN CALVIN (1509-1564)

John Calvin, who was born in France, entered Switzerland and became Zwingli’s successor as a reformer. The principle doctrines set forth by Calvin were predestination, particular redemption, total hereditary depravity, effectual or irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. "Calvin’s Doctrines were taken by John Knox to Scotland and resulted in the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in that country."4


As the great Reformation movement gained momentum it soon became evident that the work of each outstanding reformer would result in the beginning of a new religious group. The general spirit of the movement was not to restore the New Testament order of things but rather to reform the then existing system of religion by attempting to correct the undesirable features. Each reformer directed his efforts toward some particular error or errors and as his followers increased in number a formal statement of faith and practice was adopted and thus a new religious denomination was born.

Let us now consider a brief account of how and when the leading denominations came into being. This account is based upon such facts only as can be supported by reliable authorities in the field of church history. The author’s only desire in presenting these facts is to impart information and help the interested public to have a clearer understanding as to why there are so many religious groups in existence today.

As all New Testament students know, denominationalism was unknown in New Testament times.5 The first few denominations were off-shoots from Catholicism. As time passed many others appeared as "off-shoots" of the "off-shoots" until there seems to be no end to the number that may come into existence.


The first prominent denomination to come into being after the Protestant Reformation was the Lutheran church. It resulted from the work of Martin Luther in 1521. This group adopted the Augsburg Confession of Faith in 1530. The establishment of the Lutheran Church was a vast stride from Rome, but it was far short of Jerusalem. The people who became members of the Lutheran Church merely experienced a change of religious masters; they freed themselves from the Pope, but bound themselves by a manmade creed.

Some of the chief doctrines of the Lutheran Church are as follows: 1. Justification by faith only. This doctrine contradicts the teaching of James and Paul.6 2. That the denominations are branches of Christ or of the church. This is refuted by Christ’s statement in John 15:1, 6. 3. That the ten Commandments are binding upon men today. But the Bible teaches that only such commandments are binding today as are incorporated in the teaching of Christ and his apostles. 4. That the mode of baptism is non-essential. But, the New Testament plainly teaches that baptism is a "burial."7 5. That baptism in the law of Christ takes the place of circumcision under the law of Moses. But, it cannot be established by the Bible that baptism takes the place anything. It is a commandment of the gospel of Christ given as a condition of forgiveness of sins. An interesting fact about Luther’s attitude is that he pleaded with his followers to leave his name alone and be content to call themselves "Christians".


As has been stated, the Presbyterian Church was an outgrowth of Calvinism under the leadership of John Knox about 1560. Presbyterianism became the established religion of Scotland in 1592. The name ‘Presbyterian’ unlike ‘Lutheran,’ is not derived from any man’s name, nor does it describe any set of doctrines. It is rather descriptive of the form of church government. It is the anglicising of the Greek noun Presbyteros, which means elder, therefore, signifies a church governed by elders, in the literal meaning of the term."8

Among the doctrines taught by Presbyterians are to be found 1. Predestination; 2. direct operation of the Holy Spirit; 3. infant baptism; 4. and that it is not necessary to eat the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day. All of these doctrines are out of harmony with New Testament precept and practice. "The creed now regarded as standard among nearly all Presbyterians is the Westminister Confession of Faith, formulated by the Westminister Assembly, which met in London in July 1643 and continued its sessions for six years, meeting for 1163 times."9

As late as May 1938 the Southern Presbyterians voted 151 to 130 to strike out two sections of their creed on predestination. Has the truth changed? If the Presbyterian Creed was right before 1938, why did they vote to change it? If it was wrong before 1938 what assurance can they have that it is not still wrong on many things? In the next lesson we shall give an account of the beginning of other prominent denominations. Already we can see that for men to impose uninspired creeds and confessions of faith upon others only results in division and confusion. We must never lose sight of the New Testament pattern for the church. We can know that we are meeting with divine approval in our religious endeavors only as we adhere to the teachings of Christ and his apostles.

|The Early Church| |Apostasy in the Early Church| |Development of Papal Power| |Reformation Movement| |Rise of Denominations| |Spread of Denominations| |Restoration Movement| |A Warning|


  1. Fisher, History of The Christian Church, 346, 347.
  2. Shepherd, The Church, 88.
  3. Fisher, History of The Christian Church, 310.
  4. Pack, Church History, 27.
  5. 1 Cor. 1:10; Jno. 17:20, 21.
  6. James 2:21-26; Rom. 5:1.
  7. Rom. 6:4.
  8. Pack, Church History, 28.
  9. Ibid.

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