The world of Christian denominations can be very confusing and messy for individuals at large, but particularly for those who have come out of a religiously abusive group. If you were told that your group was the only group, and that all other groups or denominations were a sign of the enemy’s work, and therefore sinful, then now that you are out, considering which denomination to be part of is likely going to cause a great deal of anxiety and fear.
In Naomi’s own experience (beEmboldened’s founder and executive director), she herself has felt these emotions and struggled with this question:
“After I exited my father’s cult, I was afraid of the buffet of denominations. I didn’t know how to think about them or how to navigate their similarities and differences. I actually started out at a non-denominational church for that very reason; it seemed safer. But was that true? Was everything else unsafe?” - Naomi Wright
When Naomi was introduced to Dr. Roger Olson in late 2021, she knew he would be the perfect person to help educate others on the subject of Christian denominations. He has served as an instructor and professor of Christian theology at Oral Roberts University, Bethel University in Minnesota, and Baylor’s Truett Seminary. He holds a PhD in religious studies from Rice University, and is a graduate of North American Baptist Seminary. Roger has also studied cults, new religions, and Christian denominations for many years, and is the editor of the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States.
Let’s get clarity together with Dr. Roger Olson on the real deal of Christian denominations and how we should approach them.
What does denomination mean in the context of the Christian church? How many are there?
Dr. Olson: A denomination is any network of churches with what I call connective tissue, that have fellowship with each other, and somewhat of an exclusion of outside churches. This exclusion isn’t a radical exclusion, it could be that they cooperate with other churches, but within themselves they see that they have certain particularities that are special to them.
In terms of how many denominations (and there’s a lot of disagreement about this, given some don’t identify themselves as a denomination), there are around 250 networks of churches in America that count as denominations. Some may argue that there are many more than that, but the 'denominations' would be really small and regional.
When looking at worldwide denominations, you’re also looking at many indigenous Christian churches (like in Nigeria and South Korea, for example) that really are denominations because they have more than one congregation.
Generally speaking, how did Christianity come to have so many different denominations?
Dr. Olson: In distinguishing between differences in theological beliefs, there are three categories that have caused the vast number of Christian denominations we see today: understanding of essential beliefs, interpretation of doctrine, and opinions.
First of all, the understanding of the essential beliefs have resulted in different denominations. For example, when looking at the essential belief of salvation through Jesus, protestant denominations believe that salvation comes through faith in Jesus by God’s grace alone. On the other hand, Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxes believe we are saved by grace through faith and works. This difference of works in the place of faith alone was a big cause of the reformation, and is one of the reasons for the growth in the number of Christian denominations.
Secondly, we have to look at doctrinal interpretations: Who should be baptized, when, and under what circumstances? How should we celebrate the Lord’s supper, what is it actually, and what’s happening in the Lord’s supper? When will the second coming of Christ be, what will it be like, and when will it happen? These types of questions have also caused different denominations.
Thirdly, opinions have also come into play. For example, things like whether pews or chairs should be used in the church, and what style of music should be played during worship, have both caused differences. No churches really divide over details like these, but they do disagree. It is important to note that these details don’t impact salvation, and are really boiled down to opinions and preferences. These aren’t 'issues”'to be concerned about or argued about, but rather simply boiled down to a matter of preference.
Historically speaking, how did the denominations we see today come to be?
Dr. Olson: It really all began with a man named John Huss one hundred years before Martin Luther. Though Huss was a Catholic priest, he began to preach that salvation is by grace alone and that you’re not saved by works. He began to preach that the Bible is the authority over all human traditions—all the things that we connect with Martin Luther and the reformation, but John Huss was preaching them a hundred years before Luther and was killed for this preaching.
So there already was a protestant group before Luther, and in fact, Martin Luther was called the Saxon Huss by his enemies. During Martin Luther’s reformation, protestants tried to get together as a unified denomination but that failed because of additional differences in doctrinal interpretations and opinions, which led to denominations stemming off from Martin Luther’s reform. The denominations that stemmed from the reformation agreed that salvation comes through faith in Jesus by grace alone (and not works, unlike the Catholic denomination), but found differences in other non-salvation matters.
So following the reformation beginning in the 1520s, you had many protestant groups dividing over non-essential issues and going their separate ways. That began a process that has continued on and on.
But let me end this historical explanation by saying that many of the 250 denominations in the United States agree completely with each other. The only difference is regional or ethnic, or something like that. For example, you have many African-American churches that agree completely in doctrine and practice with white Baptist or Pentecostal churches, but the ethnic difference is present and they want to gather and worship in their own style, for example. So a lot of the differences among denominations have to do only with preference of worship style, ethnic diversity, and background from where they came (i.e. founded by immigrants).
In my professional studies and my own personal research of attending different denomination churches near my home, I find it fascinating how similar all of these protestant denominations really are, with the exception of differences in aspects like worship style. - Dr. Roger Olson
Without giving specific examples, do you think there are certain denominations that are questionable in some way? Whether it be through their theology or perhaps even veering toward being heretical?
Dr. Olson: One of the things to look at is whether the denomination has a book that they consider absolutely essential for understanding the Bible. Usually the book they turn to was written by a self-proclaimed prophet. I won’t name any names as you said, but there are large denominations in the United States that some would even call cults or new world religions. These denominations have some book that they insist you must have and read or you can’t possibly understand the Bible.
In the cases I’m thinking of, these books are considered equal in authority with the Bible for their denominations. That right there is a mark of something to stay away from. I would encourage Christians to run the other way from denominations with this practice.
To be clear, I am not referring to useful commentaries that are written by Biblical Christians or anything like that. I am talking about churches that preach from their own texts that they deem to be just as important and equal to the Bible. When a church is claiming another text has the same authority as the Bible, that is dangerous. I certainly would not go there or even consider visiting that church.
There are many other signals that you can find on a website of a church, for example. You can find these by visiting the church’s website and looking at their Statement of Faith. If their Statement of Faith says anything that contradicts the essential Christian beliefs found in the Bible, then that’s heresy, and you should steer clear from that church. Even if it is only one contradiction, that is enough to tell you that it is a church that is not true to the Bible, and should be avoided at all costs. They might have pure intentions and be nice people, but they’re not believing the Bible.
Before you even begin to look at what church you should go to, it’s important to know what Biblical Christianity believes. When you know these things, you will find non-essential differences among churches that you can agree on. In other words, find a church with the essential Christian beliefs, and watch out for churches that don’t believe in those essentials (or add something to the essential beliefs). The non-essential doctrines and opinions of the church you attend should (ideally) match what you believe. - Dr. Roger Olson
What are some good resources to help people exiting a cult to know what the essentials of Christianity are, in order to avoid revictimization?
Dr. Olson: I encourage all Christians to read books of doctrine that are not highly technical (though obviously highly technical books are not wrong). There are some great books out there that present the essentials of Christianity very well. One that comes to mind is Basic Christianity by John Stott, which is a wonderful place to start. He was considered a real spokesman for evangelical Christianity across denominations. Another great resource is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, as well as all of his books, actually, because he very much was a Biblical Christian, so we can trust his writings.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I wrote a book called The Mosaic of Christian Belief. In each chapter I explain the Biblical and historical essential belief about each chapter’s subject. I also discuss points of legitimate diversity of opinion among Biblical Christians, and what really serious aberrations or heresies to watch out for.
What are the essentials of Christianity?
Dr. Olson: Christianity of any denomination has four major hallmarks:
Belief in basic Biblical beliefs, such as:
Jesus Christ is the Savior
Jesus is God incarnate, the second person of the trinity, alongside God the Father and the Holy Spirit
Salvation is by faith in Jesus by grace alone
Belief in a change
In order to be saved, you have to have a right relationship with God by repenting of sin (which we are all born with) and brokenness by trusting in and believing in Jesus. It is important to note that this doesn’t have to necessarily be an emotional experience, but rather a change of heart and mind.
Belief that the Bible stands as the authority over all as the Word of God
Nothing has more authority than the written Word of God, which is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 16).
Belief that Jesus’ death on the cross is the only basis for salvation
We are only saved because we believe Jesus died on the cross because of our sin. Even people before Jesus’ time were saved by what he was going to do by trusting in God’s promise to send a perfect sacrifice—which was Jesus. Jesus is our substitutionary atonement. He died an atoning death; He was our substitute when He took our place on the cross and suffered the punishment that we deserved.*
*Also, Jesus was resurrected on the third day, having defeated death so that we may have eternal life. He ascended into the heavens and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. We can pray to Him directly and He continues to intercede on our behalf, along with the Holy Spirit, as the Father also desires for him to do, until Jesus returns at an unknown time and puts an end to our suffering.
For those who fear the idea of different denominations, what would your response be? Do you think there should be any sense of fear?
Dr. Olson: I don’t think there needs to be fear, but I think healthy caution is called for when there are so many denominations that are not healthy or good for people. For example: I know of a group of churches that is trustworthy in the doctrines, so I have no quarrel with what they believe and preach, but they consider themselves the only really 'good' Christians, to the exclusion of everybody else.* This group I’m thinking of is fairly small, so it makes me wonder how they can think they are the kingdom of God to the exclusion of everyone else. A certain loyalty mentality arose in the group over the years that got out of hand.
I would say this is a dangerous opening to the abuse of people. To say, “You either join us or you might be going to hell,” when it’s not really a matter of salvation. This is entirely Biblically unsound and inaccurate. *
*Note: This mentality can be counted on being present in a cult.
When it comes to things like these, we have to remember where our loyalty ultimately belongs: our loyalty belongs to Jesus Christ, not to our denomination. - Naomi Wright
So even if you’ve been in a church where you have established relationships, if you fear these is heresy, you don’t necessarily have to get up and leave. Perhaps you can have a conversation with someone at the church, sharing your concerns about how this belief doesn’t align with scripture. There is always hope for them to recognize where they may have fallen short of the Word. However, if the leader shames you for bringing this to their attention, that is spiritual abuse.*
*Please leave, if possible, and seek support. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can listen to Naomi and Dr. Roger Olson’s entire conversation on Christian denominations (including a special Q&A session and a step-by-step example of how to find your home church), here.