Acts 19:8-10 – “Then Paul went into the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But when some of them stubbornly refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way, Paul took his disciples and left the synagogue to conduct daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that everyone who lived in the province of Asia, Jews and Greeks alike, heard the word of the Lord.”
While estimates vary widely based on how a denomination is defined, some estimates put the total current number of Christian denominations worldwide (2022) as approximately 43,000-45,000. Even if this number is exaggerated by a factor of 2, that would still mean over 20,000 different denominations. Why is this the case?
The passage in Acts 19 above illustrates to me why there are so many. As was his common practice, when Paul went to a new area to spread the gospel of the kingdom, he would typically begin in the local Jewish synagogue. Some might believe and trust in Messiah; most wouldn’t. In this case, the text says that “some of them [the Jews of the synagogue] stubbornly refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way…” They were not only not being receptive to the message that Paul was preaching, they actively began a campaign of discreditation against Paul and the believers.
To protect the disciples of the believing sect, what was becoming known as the Way, Paul decided to separate himself from the corrupt activities of the Jews against them and “took his disciples and left the synagogue to conduct daily discussions in the lecture hall…” What they did was essentially created a separate sect within Judaism, distinguishing between those who were Messiah believers, and those who were not.
The results of this separation bore much fruit for the work of God, as the final verse mentions that “this continued for two years, so that everyone who lived in the province of Asia, Jews and Greeks alike, heard the word of the Lord.”
While it seems counterintuitive, sometimes separation is the only way to maintain the integrity of the truth. The fruit in the blossoming congregation in Ephesus bore witness to the testimony of the effectiveness of this type of action.
However, today I believe the issue of most dividing congregations and denominations stems less from a stand for the truth and more from an affinity for particular opinions. Believers have historically split on differing opinions of doctrinal issues such as baptism, spiritual gifts, views on end times, etc., yet more and more commonly they will also split over non-essential things like worship styles and modes of attire. Yet each of these issues are spelled out in God’s word and have a specific significance, or they would not be in there in the first place.
So how can we tell the difference between a legit truth split and an opinion split? One key way is to ensure that any distinctions are focused on those who believe Messiah, and those who don’t, much like the Ephesian congregation as described here. Another significant way is to become so familiar with the whole of God’s word that clear understanding becomes readily apparent through the Spirit of God. Another way is to see the fruit or results in the lives of each of the groups who had split: which group is actually flourishing within the kingdom and which is fading away with only bitterness over having lost a portion of their fellowship?
Division is never an easy event to endure, and sometimes you may find that in order to “keep the peace” of the congregation, that you are the one who has to move on as your views have grown and perhaps theirs have not. One thing is certain, division over doctrine is nothing new and is destined to continue. Our focus should remain on what the clear uniting features are of God’s word, and allow those seeds to bear fruit wherever they can be planted and received as they are, the word of God. As Yeshua taught:
Matthew 7:6 – “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”
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