Do denominations negate the Christian faith?

By Bill McKeever

Mormons often make a big issue out of the fact that “our brand” of Christianity cannot be true due to the many denominations that have formed over the years. One returned missionary commented to me personally that “if Jesus himself were to come down and see what has happened to the quote ‘Christian World’ he would have to say ‘I am not a Christian’ because there is so much confusion within that religion.” There is no denying that the Christian faith has had its share of mixed messages and that our history is replete with unsavory people who have attached to themselves the Christian label. To a certain extent, I can almost sympathize with comments like the one above. However, to conclude that the Christian faith is wrong because of the rise of various denominations carries with it many flaws. Before I address this, allow me to digress for a moment.

As you know, each year we conduct an outreach to the Mormon people at the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. For as long as I’ve been attending this event, the play has always begun by mocking the Christian faith for its many denominations. The play depicts three groups of people (representing church congregations). Each group is led by a “minister,” each of whom is preaching a contradictory message. Of course this is meant to prime the audience for the coming of Joseph Smith who was allegedly called by God to “restore” the true Christian faith. What seems to be lost on the LDS audience is the fact that all we really have here is another man adding another group to the mix.

When Mormonism began in the early 1800’s, there was a serious movement in the United States to steer the Christian church back to its “primitive” roots. One of those who held this view was Thomas Campbell, an Irish Presbyterian who came to America when Joseph Smith was still barely a toddler. Campbell insisted long before Smith’s “First Vision” that Christianity had collected too much theological baggage over the centuries. He insisted that the faith needed to be “restored” to its original purity. Thomas Campbell left the Presbyterian church; together with his son Alexander, he formed a new church that would eventually move to Zanesville, Ohio in 1814.

Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary lists 19 unique positions held by the Campbellites (The New Mormon Challenge, pp.322-323). Among these are:

  • Belief in the apostasy in the early church.
  • Belief in the necessity of believer’s baptism by immersion for salvation.
  • Dependence on Acts 2:38 for the sequence of saving actions, which include faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and appropriate good works to demonstrate persevering to the end, upon which eternal life can be assured.
  • A rejection of all the historic creeds and confessions of faith of the church.
  • A desire to separate from all other existing forms of Christianity but to unite as the one true church of Jesus Christ.
  • Strong anti-Calvinism.
  • Preaching against “faith only.”
  • Ambiguity as to whether or not the Holy Ghost is a person.
  • The necessity of weekly communion, but avoidance of wine.
  • Against paid clergy and clerical titles.
  • Belief in the establishment of God’s kingdom in America in a more complete form than in any pervious era of church history.
  • A stress on tithing.
  • A renewed missionary zeal.

Does this list sound familiar? It should since Joseph Smith’s new movement included them as well. If nothing else, this shows how Smith was not original when it came to his views of a needed “restoration.”

An important fact needs to be brought out at this point. Though some may argue that Campbell was well intentioned in his desire to unify and “restore” Christianity, his efforts actually resulted in adding three more denominational movements (Independent Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ). Smith’s restoration movement has actually led to approximately 200 splinter groups! (For a detailed study of this, we recommend Divergent Paths of the Restoration by Steven L. Shields.)

A month prior to his death, Smith proclaimed, “I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet” (History of the Church 6:408-409).

Smith’s bragging becomes suspect when we consider the well documented evidence that he had plenty of dissenters at this time. If Mormons wish to point to division within Christianity as proof of apostasy, then consistency would demand that apostasy has also tainted Smith’s new movement.

Some Mormons, though honest enough to acknowledge that other groups exist, negate competing claims of authenticity. In other words, the LDS Church easily dismisses other restoration churches even when they claim to most closely represent the church that Smith had in mind.

If contradictory teaching and bad behavior among adherents negates the entire faith, could we not conclude that Mormonism’s claim to truth also becomes spurious? What makes the truth claims of the Utah LDS Church any more believable than, let’s say, the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS), or any of a number of the polygamist groups that turn to the teachings of Joseph Smith as their foundation?

LDS history is full of division, cover-ups, contradictory doctrines, and abhorrent behavior among prominent members. Standing alone, does this mean Mormonism is false? Even I would have to say no.

Yes, Christianity has had its share of controversy, and sometimes it seems difficult to wade through some of the confusing things professing Christians have said and done. When you have around a billion people currently claiming to be Christian, it should come as no surprise that questionable behavior and teachings will arise. Without doubt one of the biggest problems with the Christian Church is that within its ranks are fallen members as well as outright imposters.

For this reason our standard of truth is very important. Throughout our history we Christians have struggled to properly understand what God has for us in the Bible. We are not an omniscient people, so we must acknowledge that there are times when we can miss what God intends for us to believe. Still, there are core beliefs that Christians have long shared that cannot be compromised. Sadly, it is in these core beliefs where Mormonism clearly goes astray.

Both Mormonism and Christianity accept the Bible as scripture, but Mormonism never hides the fact that the Bible is an inferior source for truth when its leaders contradict it. Debating over who more properly applies correct rules of hermeneutics means virtually nothing when a Mormon insists that his subjective reasoning confirms God’s will even when it opposes God’s Word.

Mormons often blame a lack of clarity in the Bible for the denominational differences we see. However, wouldn’t consistency also demand that since every splinter group of Latter-days Saints uses the Book of Mormon, it must be flawed as well? Personally, my problem with the Book of Mormon is its unbiblical teachings and lack of historicity — not for the division it has caused.

We cannot abandon our faith because of inconsistencies we see among professing Christians or that over the centuries sub groups have formed. The fact that they exist does not make the Christian faith any less true or the Bible less trustworthy.

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