The Protestant bogeyman of thousands of churches

Ecclesiology Theology / Biblical Studies

Is it really true that Protestantism is made up of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hopelessly fragmented so-called churches with nothing uniting them?

A thread over at Theologyweb has had me thinking lately. I’ve added some of my own comments, and I thought I’d sum up some thoughts here.

From time to time, Catholic warrior apologists1 like to argue that since there are so many Protestant denominations, there must be something inherently wrong with Protestantism. In particular, so the argument often goes, the fact that there are so many denominations – about 33,000 of them we are told – shows that sola scriptura must be false, as it results in so many widely divergent interpretations of various parts of Scripture, and what we really need if we want unity is for people to accept Scripture and Tradition – specifically Roman Catholic Tradition, as passed on by the papacy.

I care a great deal about the unity of the Church and it troubles me no end to see people starting up new churches left, right and centre. This is not the way it should be.

I should say first of all that there is a fundamental misrepresentation of a historic Protestant attitude to unity that normally accompanies this sort of polemic tactic. Whether I am a Protestant or not, I care a great deal about the unity of the Church and it troubles me no end to see people starting up new churches left, right and centre. This is not the way it should be. I should also point out that these new churches have no historical connection to the Protestant Reformation, so it is polemical bluster to lump them in with the Protestant movement at all. But that said, I want to focus on the claim about 33,000 churches for now.

Using this source is disastrous to the anti-Protestant apologist’s cause at this point. The number actually includes all denominations – including 781 “Orthodox” Churches, and 242 “Catholic” Churches.

Firstly, when you hear an argument like this you should always check the source. 33,000 – that sounds like a lot, right? It is. Where did a number like that come from, you might be wondering. It came from the World Christian Encyclopedia. As it turns out, using this source is disastrous to the Catholic apologist’s cause at this point. The number actually includes all denominations – including 781 “Orthodox” Churches, and 242 “Catholic” Churches.

But isn’t the anti-Protestant argument supposed to be that sola scriptura is what causes diversity of denominations? Does this mean that there are 780 Orthodox Churches and 241 Catholic Churches that teach and practice sola scriptura? Surely not! The only option other than this for the anti-Protestant apologist is to say that the source he is using has multiplied the Orthodox numbers by 781, and the Catholic numbers by 242. That’s a pretty big margin of error! Let’s see, 33,000/781 = just over 42. It’s a little different from 33,000, to put it mildly. So it’s a fair assessment that using the “33,000 denominations” arguments will come back to haunt the anti-protestant apologist who uses it. The encyclopedia is treating all Catholic rites as separate denominations.

In fact this source gives the number of Protestant Churches as only 9,000. It also lists Anglicanism separately, containing 168 denominations – fewer than the Catholics. Oops.

How can we justify including on a list of churches that hold and practice sola sciptura, among other things, churches that believe in continuing revelation today, or churches that consider their organisation to be the sole true prophet in the world?

The second thing to address there is the unfounded assumption that sola scriptura is what caused this array of denominations. What is the evidence of this? How can we justify including on a list of churches that hold and practice sola sciptura, churches that believe in continuing revelation today, or churches that consider their organisation to be the sole true prophet in the world? Bear in mind that this figure includes hundreds of denominations from Mormonism, Gnosticism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Does it really seem fair to blame sola sciptura for this, given that these movements do not practice sola sciptura at all? Is there any honest sense in which we can assume that all non-Catholic (and non-Orthodox) churches are even Protestant? Answer: No.

The third thing to address is the skewed standard of unity that this anti-protestant argument assumes. By Catholic standards, if you are in communion with Rome, that is, if you can, in clear conscience and with the Church’s approval, take communion at Mass, then you’re not separated from Rome. If Catholic apologists applied this consistently, their argument against Protestantism would come down like a house of cards. Consider the fact that the source they draw on treats different Presbyterian branches as different denominations. The fact is, in virtually all cases, a member of one of those branches could happily take communion when visiting a congregation of a different branch. By Catholic standards, that means they’re in unity with them. The same holds, I daresay, for most evangelical Protestant churches worldwide.

Fourthly, the theological divides being supposed here simply are not as great as one might think. Ponder for a few minutes what the real theological disagreements between Protestants are:

1) Soteriology (i.e. Calvinist-type views vs. Arminian-type views)

2) The proper subjects of baptism (i.e. infant baptism vs believer’s baptism)

3) Church government (the main divide being between episcopal and non-episcopal forms)

4) Slight variation in the sacraments (particularly the case with Lutherans)

5) Pentecostal / Charismatic Churches on the one hand and… normal churches on the other.

You might be able to think a little harder and come up with more, but it’s not easy, and I think any one familiar with evangelicalism would agree that these are the main ones. It kinda whittles down the rhetorical impact of “Wow, thirty three THOUSAND denominations!” Moreover, consider that in all but fairly extreme cases, no difference on the issues outlined above is going to earn the charge of heresy. Then consider that between the “Apostolic” churches of Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, there are disagreements on the nature of the Trinity, the authority structure of the church, the Catholic concept of a “merit” system, and other things beside, which are not small matters but some of which actually do carry the charge of outright heresy between the Eastern and Western Churches. In other words, the charges of doctrinal disunity here are really a case of using differing weights and measures.

Fifthly and lastly, logic can help us to deflect this argument without even considering the above counter-arguments. The fact (even if it were a fact) that sola scriptura enabled the creation of 33,000 denominations does not show that it is false. This is a monstrously invalid inference. The laws of physics also enabled the creation of every denomination that exists. But this hardly means that we should stop believing in, say gravity. It may well be that sola scriptura enables some things that are undesirable.  This cannot show it to be a false belief. If it is a true doctrine, this only means that we need to be more careful and wise than others have been. When sola scriptura exists alongside arrogance or hubris, one can easily imagine how the arrogance and hubris, rather than sola scriptura, would be the catalyst more to blame in the case of people who feel free to start their own churches.

I guess the long and short of my advice to those who have heard this “33,000 denominations” argument is: Be unimpressed. Be very unimpressed.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. By this term I mean those Catholic thinkers whose apparent interest in Catholic theology is about making polemical attacks on Protestantism, rather than positive explanations of theology. Although they may prefer the term Catholic apologetics, in my experience their endeavour is anti-Protestant polemics. Fortunately, most Catholic theologians are not like this at all. []
{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Nigel September 18, 2007, 7:18 pm

    I understand the gist of your argument. However, I think you might be misinterpreting a few things.

    You are grossly exaggerating the differences between Catholic groups by labeling them as “denominations.” They are not denominations at all but rather slight, non-doctrinal variations within the universal church. You also claim that the differences between ancient rite traditions and protestant sects are no more vast than differences between variations of ancient rite traditions themselves. I have to disagree here as well.
    First of all, it’s true that some protestants can take communion at other sects’ churches (when they actually practice communion). There are several different branches of protestantism that contain sects which are more or less similar to one other. However, there are many different branches of protestantism, and the differences in practice and doctrine between these branches are vast. On the other hand, the presence of nearly 1 billion Roman Catholics and 300 million Orthodox Christians practicing extremely similar rites in communion with one another testifies to the fact that the disunity present in protestant faiths simply isn’t present in ancient rite traditions. A mass in Uruguay might differ somewhat from a mass in Ukraine, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is significantly more doctrinal unity among believers in antiquity than in followers of the reformation. You are erroneously downplaying the similarities between different “denominations” within the ancient church. The fact of the matter is, the liturgy, doctrine, veneration of the Virgin and of the Saints, and even architectural styles of Orthodox churches in Serbia, Coptic churches in Ethiopia, Syriac churches in Lebanon, Assyrian churches in Iraq, and Roman churches in Ireland are much more similar to each other than the practices of methodism, the baptist faith, pentecostalism, episcopalianism, and calvinism are to each other, primarily due to the maintenance of the traditions of the early church fathers rather than an emphasis on revisionism and Sola Scriptura. Some of these differences revolve around matters as simple as whether or not Greek or Latin is the language of the mass.The most extreme difference concerns the primacy of the papacy. Among those who adhere to the Roman rite, the Pope is the vicar of Christ. Among those who adhere to the Orthodox rite, the Pope is one of several vicars in communion. Though this difference is fairly significant, it pales in comparison to the differences between various branches of protestantism. All of the ancient rite traditions practice the sacraments of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick. Furthermore, all profess belief in transubstantiation, though that belief might be expressed using different terminology depending on the group at hand. All venerate the saints. All profess tradition as the interpreting tool of scripture. All acknowledge apostolic succession. All support monasteries and convents and the ascetic nature of the Christian experience. How you can argue that these groups represent separate “denominations” in the same sense that presbyterians and baptists are separate denominations? The baptists and presbyterians don’t even agree on something as essential as the presence of free will (which you seem to dismiss as a minor squabble, even though it is one of the most essential questions in the history of philosophy). Pentecostals speak in tongues and whip themselves into irrational frenzies and almost completely lack formal theology. Quakers don’t practice infant baptism and methodists do (Of course you also dismiss the necessity of conformity in regards to baptism, even though it is perhaps the most essential sacrament). Unitarians believe in everything and lutherans and anglicans ordain gays and women. Even southern and northern baptists split over whether or not God supported the enslavement of Africans. Unfortunately for the reformation, protestant churches don’t even have to implode over biblical disputes. To the contrary, class, race, and regional segregation have disintegrated any hope for unity among the different sects. The end result is a complete disregard for theology and doctrine, and it’s no suprise to me that “non-denominational” churches abound. After all, if there’s no chance for unity in doctrine, why not just water the religion down into a simpleton’s creed and go play basketball in the church gymnasium? That way instead of investing in a church library we can have lock-ins, so-called “Christian Rock” bands, and pizza parties. It’s precisely the presence of tradition that has maintained unity and communion among ancient rite traditions and the absence of it which has led to the severe disunity among protestant sects.
    With all that said, we don’t even have to look at the differences between the various sects of protestantism to see the flaws of Sola Scriptura. Many protestants seem to believe that the bible appeared intact out of the blue, as if it were the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A cursory knowledge of ancient history will reveal that it was the early church fathers and ancient rite traditions (which existed prior to the compilation of the Bible) which compiled and edited both the new and old testaments. The bible without tradition is like binary code without a computer. The untrained, unlearned, “believer-priests” are lacking not only with the theological training, but also the general liberal arts education necessary for interpreting even a sonnet, much less a religious masterpiece.
    When protestants remove the Bible from tradition, it’s analogous to removing Macbeth from the Elizabethan era of Shakespeare. A clear interpretation is lost. The frame of reference becomes the person’s own contemporary culture and experiences, which couldn’t vary more from the context of the early church created by Jesus Christ.
    Sola Scriptura doesn’t just contradict a more rational form of Christianity, it contradicts common sense and reason in general. If in a world religion class students were required to read the Koran and not study the history and traditional cultures of Islam the professor would be hailed as an ignoramous, yet protestants expect to come up with the accurate perspective of a near-eastern religion without knowing the context. That’s the confused nature of heresy.

    I look forward to your response.

  • Nigel September 18, 2007, 7:27 pm

    Well, I guess I came across as a little harsh. I apologize. I still look forward to reading your response.

  • Glenn September 18, 2007, 10:54 pm

    Nigel, thanks for your comments.

    Your first point directly confirms one of my own points. I anticipated the objection that there really aren’t hundreds of Catholic denominations. My response was that if a Catholic wishes to claim this, he will have to discard the method used to support the claim that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations. Remember – the claim that there are hundreds of Catholic and Orthodox denominations was not my claim – it’s the claim of the source that Catholic apologists use when attacking protestants. The very same source claims that there are hundreds of Catholic and Orthodox denominations.

    Your next point seems to skim over what I said so that you could get to your claim that while some Protestant churches are in communion, they have a “vast” difference in practice and doctrine. I guess here is where the ball is yours. I’ve already pointed out that the important doctrinal differences are relatively few, and the large number of small differences are differences that can occur within the Catholic Church as well. So what’s behind this claim of yours? What kind of major doctrinal differences do you have in mind, Nigel?

    You state as though it were an obvious fact that the various Catholic and orthodox groupings are more similar to each other than, say, Methodists are to Presbyterians. But this simply fails to interact with the fact – and it is a fact, that differences between Catholic and Orthodox views on, say, the persons of the Trinity carry with them the charge of heresy. No small matter!

    With respect, comments like the ones you made really give them impression of not having read the post you responded to. The arguments are already anticipated there. I’ll refrain from responding to some of your unfortunate comments implying that those who hold sola scriptura are untrained and unlearned, both traits that can easily exist in Protestant and Catholic individuals alike. I appreciate your apology for resorting to that kind of thing. Thank you.

    Your final paragraph commits the fallacy of attacking a straw man. I have yet to encounter an advocate of sola scriptura who says that we should not look at issues of historical practice and theology. Your suggestion is a common one – that Protestants simply have no access to the facts of history, and all they can do is fly blind. This is obviously false. Protestants are as literate as anybody else, and have access to the work of all the Apostles, Fathers and Councils that you have access to.

  • Matthew Flannagan September 21, 2007, 12:57 pm

    Glenn

    Isn’t one interesting issue that withing Catholicism there is diversity of belief and practise. Augustinians and Molinists for example would exist within the Catholic Church where as Methodists and Presbytarians would be considered different denomintions. Yet in reality the differences between the former are the same as the differences between the latter.

    Matt

  • Glenn September 22, 2007, 5:42 pm

    Exactly, Matt. Often the Catholic complaint that sola scriptura results in “doctrinal chaos” (on all sorts of things like human nature, divine sovereignty and free will, eschatology etc) rings pretty hollow, when that very diversity or “chaos” exists within Catholicism itself.

    I sometimes think that the complaint really just boils down to “Protestantism is bad because it results in a bunch of churches that aren’t Catholic.”

  • Anonymous January 21, 2009, 12:06 pm

    Any one like the idea of forcibly putting every protestant pastor in a big (BIIIIIIIG)Confrence room to sort out all the doctrinal chaos (then do the same to the Catholics and then the Orthodox, respectivly rhen both???
    because i got the idea there’s going to be a civil war in the spiritual side of things…

  • Glenn January 21, 2009, 5:33 pm

    Anonymous – why “forcibly” do anything to any of them? If we can’t persuade one another in the normal way, there’s little chance of doing it in some sort of competitive forum.

  • Jay January 3, 2010, 10:32 am

    Two responses:
    (a) It is empirically true that many protestant denominations differ more in organization than in doctrine. In my life I have shuttled between Southern Baptist, GARBC Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God, etc, and have found the doctrinal differences minimal. Not non-existant, but minimal. Catholics have internal disagreements also. I’m not sure how you would measure “degree of doctrinal disagreement”, but it’s not at all clear that the differences between a Sothern Baptist and a GARBC Baptist are greater than the differences between a liberal Catholic and a “Catholics United for the Faith” Catholic.

    (b) Even if the claim of doctrinal diversity is true, so what? The whole point of “sola scriptura” was to say that each Christian has the right and responsibility to read the Bible for himself and not just accept whatever someone in authority told him it says. Of course this results in differences of opinion. It’s like “charging” that a free press results in more differences of opinion than a single state-controlled media. Of course it does. That’s the point. Protestants believe that the way to find truth is to hear and study the arguments for each side. Catholics believe that the way to find truth is for a small group to decide what the truth is and for everyone else to take their word for it.

  • Ozy Mandias March 31, 2011, 9:57 pm

    Agree Matt. From my experience with Cathloics, the beliefs at grass roots level is often far different from the ‘official party line’ from Rome on a number of issues.

  • Sandra March 31, 2011, 10:04 pm

    By Catholic standards, if you are in communion with Rome, that is, if you can, in clear conscience and with the Church’s approval, take communion at Mass, then you’re not separated from Rome. If Catholic apologists applied this consistently, their argument against Protestantism would come down like a house of cards. Consider the fact that the source they draw on treats different Presbyterian branches as different denominations. The fact is, in virtually all cases, a member of one of those branches could happily take communion when visiting a congregation of a different branch. By Catholic standards, that means they’re in unity with them. The same holds, I daresay, for most evangelical Protestant churches worldwide.

    For me, this nailed it. Catholics who use this flawed argument are not really measuring anything meaningful. They should not be measuring the subtle differences in the wording of church signs, but rather the actual unity that Protestants have with one another. We have great unity in spite of our diversity. Being able to share the Lord’s supper counts for a great deal. It’s shocking that we should have to point this out to Catholics. The problem is that so many Catholics lack the ability to imagine unity without a papacy. We don’t have their brand of unity, therefore, they assume, we don’t have unity. Wrong.

    This, together with comment #5, totally destroys this anti-Protestant argument (to say nothing of the dishonest and selective use of numbers that James White identified).

  • Glenn March 31, 2011, 10:28 pm

    No argument from me there, Sandra! 🙂

  • Eric Chung February 25, 2013, 4:43 am

    I just want to point out that the 242 Catholic denominations are in fact counted on a per country basis. Which means for example that the Catholic Church in USA and Catholic Church in Canada would be counted as 2 denominations erroneously. So the number of Catholic denominations would need to be reduced accordingly by the number of countries in the database that has a Catholic presence.

    Barrett’s Encyclopedia states this explicitly:

    “As a statistical unit in this Encyclopedia, a ‘denomination’ always refers to one single country. Thus the Roman Catholic Church, although a single organization, is described here as consisting of 236 denominations in the world’s 238 countries.” (Barrett, et al, World Christian Encyclopedia, volume 1, page 27, in the “Glossary” under definition for “Denomination” [later updated to 242],

  • Glenn February 25, 2013, 6:49 pm

    Fair enough. Of course the same will be true of the scores and scores of Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians etc, divided up by country, state, county, who knows?

  • P.O.B. February 12, 2016, 11:03 am

    Thought you might be interested in this Catholic’s agreement with you. I just saw your name there and lit up with recognition.

    http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations

  • Glenn February 15, 2016, 12:24 pm

    Thanks Peter!
    (Note, we use real names here.)

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