One argument I keep hearing against Protestantism is that there are so many Protestant denominations and surely God is not the God of confusion and would not let His church become so fractured. The implication is that Protestantism cannot be what God had in mind. This is in opposition to churches that feel they can trace their founding back to the first century as though having such a history is somehow a guarantee of orthodoxy.
This begs an important question. Should we expect, on earth, to find a perfect church that represents everything God had in mind when He started the church? If we look at the history of Israel, we see how even a near-theocratic nation, led by God, could get fractured. Israel had false prophets, false teachers, unbelieving Jews, legalistic Pharisees, doctrinally challenged Sadducees and a history of wandering from the faith. God always preserved a remnant, but the preaching of the Prophets shows God time and time again calling His people to repentance and more than once they were sent into captivity as a judgment on their sins.
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?2 Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. (Romans 3:1-2)
Despite having the Prophets, the Temple, the Scriptures (OT), and a cultural history of walking with God, the Jews often strayed and divisions existed. Unlike Judaism, which resided almost exclusively in Israel for centuries, Christianity spread beyond Israel almost from the start. It spread to Greeks and Romans, Egyptians, and people from all over. It spanned many languages and cultures. While it completed the message of the OT, it still brought change such that everyone was a convert at first. Being a Jew before becoming a Christian was not always an advantage as we see personified in the Judaizers. Some Jewish Christians brought the Law with them and attempted to add it to the Gospel. Many were initially uncomfortable with a faith without a Temple and a ceremonial law. It was a cultural shock to see Gentiles, once among the lowest of the low, suddenly on equal footing in the worship of God. In some ways, it was easier to come to Christ from a pagan background.
Not only were the Judaizers an early thorn in the side of the church but so were the Gnostics who tried to marry Platonian philosophy with Christianity. There were also false teachers and those who thought the gifts of God could be purchased. These things plagued the church while the Apostles were still alive. How much more so would they attack once the Apostles were gone? God did not spare the early church from division and strife. Paul wrote extensively to combat the false teachers and to address the divisions in the very churches he had established. These things were happening while the Apostles still lived. If God planned to preserve His church in unity, we don’t see evidence of it. Divisions existed right from the start.
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)
To expect to find a church today that lacks division or false teachers is a failure to learn from history. Paul warned us that there would be false teachers. Men who would tickle our ears. The Apostles battled false teaching by writing down the real teaching of the Lord and having it circulated among the churches. Their written record not only served as a hedge against false teaching 2000 years ago but serves that same purpose today.
There was never an earthly church preserved from error. Not even while the Apostles were alive. Jesus described tares growing up among the wheat to be separated on judgment day. Israel never had perfect unanimity and neither did the church. God always keeps a remnant though and that remnant is not confined to any one church, people group, social, or cultural group. It is comprised of those who cling to the truth, who study and show themselves approved, and who search the Scriptures.
In Biblical times it was not as easy to start a church as it is today. Most people walked to get to church. Most cities had but one church. You attended that church or none at all. Under different conditions, other churches might have sprung up like we see today.
What started on the Day of Pentecost, was the CHURCH, not a church. It was the church universal not to be confused with any particular church or denomination. The only sure teaching we have are those of Scripture. Anything else, no matter how godly, is the opinion of men. Only the Scriptures are divinely inspired. The writings of the early church fathers, while important and illuminating, are not on par with Scripture. If there were false teachers and false doctrine while the Apostles still lived, there certainly were 50, 100, or 200 years later. Even among these early writers, we see differences.
Does this leave us with no trustworthy faith? No! We often confuse that which is essential with that which is non-essential. In criticizing the many Protestant churches, the focus is always on their differences while turning a blind eye to their overwhelming similarities. A church’s style of worship, choice of eschatology, practice of speaking in tongues or not, … are not serious disagreements on the Gospel. Does one church’s decision to only sing hymns and another’s use of contemporary worship music constitute wholly different churches? Must all churches fall under one organizational structure? Where does Scripture teach that? We must not confuse the NT’s teaching on the church universal with that of the church local. We all want to claim we are THE church as though God confined all truth and righteous worship to just one group forever preserved from error. He did not so preserve Israel. He did not prevent division and false teachers in the Apostolic church. Why do we claim so now?
I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
What did Jesus mean by “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it?” Prevailing means overcoming and defeating. That would be the case if the truth was silenced and God had no remnant. That verse does not teach his church would not be attacked, not have divisions, and be preserved from all error. The tares will still grow among the wheat. Satan will not prevail against God’s church (the church universal). Satan will never stamp out faith on earth.
Sticking to a liturgy or structure for centuries is not a guarantee of truth. There was error mixed with truth from the very start of the church. We must always test all things against Scripture and distinguish between that which is tradition and that which is Scripture. Between that which is prescribed and that which is preference. OT worship was highly prescribed, yet it still did not stop false teachers and those with false hearts. The Pharisees were experts on what was prescribed yet added to it and were more concerned with the form than the substance. Jesus rightly called them empty tombs filled with dead men’s bones. He told us that the Father seeks those who worship in spirit and in truth. Having a tightly prescribed form still produced the Pharisees. It was not a guard against error. Truth was found in the Scriptures. The Pharisees neglected them and created a legalistic, manmade religion. They did not worship “in spirit and in truth.”
Would the Father prefer we had just one church we all belonged to? Perhaps but He is more concerned with preserving the wheat and keeping a faithful remnant. We worship in different languages in different places. We follow different liturgies or lack of liturgies. We sing different songs and have different histories but if we hold to the Gospel and worship in spirit and truth, those differences don’t matter. They are not the substance. There is nothing in Scripture that should make us assume there will be one church, preserved from error, that will endure. Instead, we see THE CHURCH, the church universal, that will prevail. That Jesus promised.