One question that often comes up is the continuing expansion of denominations and interpretations. If God is the author of the scriptures, as we have already proven, then why are there so many different interpretations of the scriptures? Why are there so many different denominations? Shouldn’t there simply be one answer?
People Are Not Careful To Read The Scriptures
One of the most obvious problems that I see in the religious world is that people are not careful when reading the scriptures. Context is often ignored. How many passages are frequently used completely out of their context which gives the wrong meaning! One of most common commands taken out of context is “Do not judge” in Matthew 7. Yet by reading the rest of the context one will find out that we are to judge as long as we are using godly standards and we have first examined ourselves to those godly standards. The book of Revelation has all sorts of different interpretations. But one of the reasons why is because the book is not carefully read. The first verse of the book tells us how to read the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ that God gave Him to show His slaves what must quickly take place. He sent it and signified it through His angel to His slave John, who testified to God’s word and to the testimony about Jesus Christ, in all he saw.” The book was put into signs by his angel. So when you read the book, you are reading symbols. Yet this first verse is skipped over and people think that there will be literal beasts and dragons to come.
The Bible is simply not read. I think this is a discouraging thing. People do not read the Bible. Religious people and religious leaders do not read the Bible. People just simply follow along with whoever is before them speaking, accepting whatever is said as the interpretation of the scriptures. Further, when the Bible is read, it is often not read carefully.
Allow me to show you another passage which is often missed which shows why there are so many denominations and interpretations. Moses is speaking to the nation of Israel just before he about to die and just before Israel is going to enter the land of Canaan. In his final speech, Moses recalls what happened at Mount Sinai. “And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone” (Deuteronomy 4:13). First, Moses says that God commanded the people to keep the covenant, also called the ten commandments. Notice a little further on his speech what Moses says: ” And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (Deuteronomy 5:1-3). The covenant, the ten commandments, were made with the nation of Israel alone and not with anyone else. The point is that only the Jews were to keep the first covenant, commonly called the Old Testament.
So many religious groups, however, go back to the first covenant for their rules and laws. Churches today are using mechanical instruments to worship God. But that command is only found in the Old Testament, a law given to the Jews. The law of Christ does not have this command. Rather, we are commanded to sing. We see some religious groups having priests. We read about the appointment of priests in the Old Testament, a law given to the Jews. Nowhere in the New Testament do we read about a separate order of priests. Jesus is the high priest and every disciple is called a priest of God. We see every religious group and denomination commanding the people to tithe. The tithe was a command to the Jews given in the Old Testament. The law of Christ commands that each person be a cheerful giver, giving as each has prospered. To many of us who have, we would be expected to give more. To others who do not have much, God expects less. We see many religious groups keeping the Sabbath. Some even have redefined the Sabbath as Sunday. However, the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. God commanded the Jews to rest from work on the Sabbath in the Old Testament. That command is not in New Testament. We are even beginning to see people follow the eating requirements of the Old Testament. I have seen books about what would Jesus eat and things like this. The eating requirements were given to the Jews, not to us. But I hope we are able to see what happens when we do not carefully read all of the scriptures.
Now, you may say what is the big deal if we follow some of the Old Testament laws. The problem is that we are not going to be saved by following the laws of that first covenant. “Then he said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will.’ He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:9-10). We are made holy by the second covenant, the covenant of Christ, not the first. The first was not given to us. But Christ set aside the first when he brought the second covenant.
People Want To Worship God Their Own Way
The second reason that there are so many different denominations, religions, and interpretations is because some people want to worship God the way they want to. Rather than do what the scriptures say, some people want to do things their own way, calling it worship to the Lord. Jesus identified this very problem taking place in the first century.
5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (Mark 7:5-9)
This is the second problem that arise. The leaders were more interested in keeping their traditions rather than keeping the commandment of God. In the religious world there are people with ulterior motives just like in Jesus’ day. Some people are not going to do what the scriptures say because they have too much invested in their particular religion. Perhaps their parents always were part of a particular denomination. Some will not change to the scriptures because they simply cannot admit that they are wrong about their teaching. Rather than accept the truth and change, people will continue the error in an effort to save face. We would like to think that people are better than that, especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus. But the Pharisees, chief priests, and Sadducees were doing the same thing in the first century.
Why would religious leaders want to keep their traditions over the commands of God? Unfortunately, I think the ultimate reason is that we want glory for ourselves and are not interested in glory for God. We want to be in charge. We want to have power. We want to have ego stroked.
Why would people want to keep their traditions over the commands of God? Because we are not interested in being pleasing to God but want to please ourselves. We want a church that babysits our children so we can go to the movies. We want a church that does not teach hard things, but keeps us feeling happy every week. We want a church to entertain us with music, where we can play ping pong, and have a gymnasium so we do not have to pay to go to one. The religious world is turning into a place where you get all of your comfort and entertainment needs filled rather than a place to worship and serve God. Notice that Jesus said that the worship being offered was “vain” because they were not keeping God’s commands, but their own rules.
Some people want to keep the Sabbath regardless of what the scriptures teach. Some people want the tithe to be in effort regardless of what the scriptures teach. Some people want priests. Some people must have mechanical instruments. We must be aware that many of the interpretations and denominations do not come from an honest disagreement from the scriptures. In some circumstances they do not want to see what the scriptures say.
We must be very careful to not become these kind of people that Jesus condemns. It is easy to grow accustomed to doing things the way we have always done it, not repeatedly checking to see if we are doing things according to the scriptures. We can do this with what may seem to be new teachings. We must always have an open heart so that if we hear something that we have not always believed, that we do not reject the teaching outright. We need to listen and consider. Then we must study the scriptures to see if the teaching is built upon the scriptures. Change is difficult. Leaving churches that we may have loved is hard. But we must make sure that we are doing what the Bible teaches and that we are working with others who are striving to only what the Bible says. We also must make sure that we are not becoming people who want to be entertained in worship. Worship is not about us but about praising God. Christianity is not about making ourselves feel good but about giving our service to God. It is shocking to see God be turned into a selfish pursuit. God’s word is all we need to follow and we will not follow creeds, traditions, or anything else that interferes with the scriptures. Our focus needs to be on God and if every person on the planet put their focus upon God, we would see less division in the religious world.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
But we also need to consider that religious error is not simply people in selfish pursuits. There are also times where people are trying to do what is right, but in the process go into error themselves. I call this “swinging the pendulum.” A person or group sees error, and in an effort to fight the error, the person or group swings the pendulum to the other extreme, which is just as wrong. An excellent historical example of this is what took place during the reformation. Martin Luther was a priest in the Roman Catholic church who saw some errors being committed, particularly the sale of indulgences. He nailed 95 objections to the cathedral door in Whittenberg, Germany, sparking the beginning of the reformation. But in an effort to fight some of the false teachings in the Roman Catholic church, doctrine was developed which also was unscriptural. The Roman Catholic church contends that you cannot know if you are saved. John Calvin swung the pendulum to the other extreme in the 1500s declaring that you are saved no matter what you do and never can lose your salvation.
We have the tendency to do this as humans. In an effort to correct a wrong we feel we must go to the other extreme, as if two extremes make it right. We need to not go to extremes but simply come back to the truth. Brethren in past, who in their noble efforts to fight false teachings about the kingdom, swung the pendulum too far teaching that the kingdom is the church and nothing else.
Very shortly after the death of the apostle John and the end of the first century, this New Testament pattern and practice began to change. Among the elders of most churches there arose one man who was considered “the Bishop” while the rest were still called “elders.” The motive for this departure was justified in an effort to fight against the rise of “gnosticism,” a strong movement within the church that is spoken of in 1 John. If a church could appoint a strong bishop who could control the teachings of that church, the church could be saved from the false teachings of the gnostics. It was all the better if this bishop could claim to have some connection to one of the apostles. If he could say he was a disciple of the apostle John, he would carry more weight. Maybe he was a disciple of a disciple of the apostle John. He could then claim that his interpretation of the scriptures was correct because of such a connection and without bothering to make strong biblical arguments.
By the end of the 2nd century, the bishops in the larger cities had increased in power and were influencing bishops and elders in the smaller cities. In fact, it was not long before these stronger bishops actually became the overseers of the smaller churches around them so that the smaller churches no longer had bishops. Soon, these powerful city bishops began to meet in synods to discuss differences in doctrinal issues. The bishops also found a way to increase their power but establishing a succession of bishops back to the apostles. By 190 A.D., Victor of Rome claimed to be the universal bishop, but he was ignored by the other churches as most believed all the bishops were equal. In the next three centuries the Roman bishops increased in power with the argument that Peter had appointed the first Roman bishop which started a succession leading to him. The first pope came into power around 600 A.D.
It is important to realize that this departure came about as well-intentioned men attempted to fight the dangerous doctrines of the gnosticism. But instead of fighting with biblical argumentation, they cheated. In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, Paul tells us that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in casting down arguments that are against the knowledge of Christ. In other words, we are to use the word of God to defeat false teaching, not worldly methods. What is especially interesting is that in an effort to destroy one false teaching, these well-intentioned men created a monster bigger than the false teaching they were trying to defeat. One extreme begat another. We cannot do something contrary to the scriptures to fight error. The end does not justify the means, which seems to be forgotten when it comes to religion. It is not okay that John Calvin had good intentions. His doctrine is still false.
This is also why we have to pay attention to how we discuss the scriptures. We need to use the language of the scriptures and teach only the principles found in the scriptures.
These are the reasons that I see why there are so many different denominations, religions, and interpretations. This should not cause us to lose faith in God but should cause us to be disappointed in our fellow man. For something as important as forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and relationship with God, we need to do a better job in learning God’s will and acting upon it. We need to carefully read the scriptures, all of us, so that we can be found obedient. Salvation does not come from sitting in pews at the right building. Salvation is coming from God when we learn God’s will and submit to His teachings. Second, we need to worship God his way, not our way. Let us not change God to meet our comforts, but change ourselves to be like God and obedient to God. Finally, many people have had good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. We must do what the scriptures teach.