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Why are there so many denominations but just one Bible?

In this article I hope to explain why there are some many denominations and groupings within Christianity. I have heard people say, "We only have one Bible, there should be only one understanding." Yet we have so many different interpretations.

Most Christians see this as a problem, even a deep wound, within Christianity. Yet in my study of church history over the past 20 years, I have arrived at two conclusions: (1) Christians view the same Bible verses differently, and (2) Christians usually arrived at their different understandings by honestly seeking God’s will for their lives. So, how can Christians arrive at different conclusions if they are reading the same Bible and praying to the same God? I have come to realize that it can be boiled down to one word. This word may bring you closer to not only understanding why Christianity has so many groups, but that it is alright for it to be so.

I developed this word-concept about while teaching one of my religion classes. It was borne out of a desire to explain the vast number of Christian groups to not only the Christians in my classes, but also non-Christians. These are people who look at Christians as nuts anyway, and the vast numbers of Christian groups only "confirms" that to them. So I developed this word to explain why it is OK to have different interpretations.

Now, as soon as you see the word, think of the first thing it means to you. Here we go, the word is: "bat." That’s it, bat. So, what did you think of? Part of you will think of a baseball or cricket bat, and part of you will think of a flying animal. But here’s the kicker: who is right and who is wrong? You can only know if I tell you what I am thinking. And if I never tell you? You will think your way is right. And so there we have it.

The Bible contains a lot of "bat" words. Christians take the same words and phrases and go in different directions. Need an example? Consider Communion, which is also known as the Lord's Supper and Eucharist. Jesus said about the bread at the Last Supper: "This is my body." (Matthew 26:26) Some Christians say, "Ah, this means that the bread actually turns in to Jesus’ body." Some Christians say, "Ah, this means that the bread is significant and holy in some way." Some Christians say, "Ah, this means that the bread is a symbol of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross." Some Christians say, "Ah, this means that we are not to focus on the bread, but live in spiritual awareness of God." One verse, four interpretations. [The first way is Catholic, the second is Lutheran, the third is most Protestants, and the fourth is Friends and the Salvation Army.] Jesus is not physically present to be asked, so Christians have different ideas.

We can find this same thing happening outside of Christianity. Consider the phrase "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." (Second Amendment) Does it mean that anyone can own a gun, or that only the government has the right to arm its citizens in order to defend the government? Same phrase, but which way is right? The founding fathers are not around to ask, so both sides think they have the correct understanding.

So the reason there are so many denominations is simply because there are so many interpretations of the words and phrases in the Bible. Now, some ideas are foundational to all Christian groups, such as the Incarnation and Trinity, but many ideas--such as baptism, communion, and how to organize a church--are open for interpretation. And since there are many ways to interpret these words and phrases, there are many different groups within Christianity.

©2010, 2016 Mark Nickens