On this page, we are basing the discussion on the Christian faith. But the same thoughts can apply to other religions, too.
Within Christianity there seems a never-ending list of different denominations and variations within each denomination, all professing to worship the same God, and one has to wonder what God thinks of all this. Why do we have all these different denominations?
Opinions differ and some Christians have the un-Christian attitude that "My Jesus is better than your Jesus"1. In some cases this is quite understandable. When a group denies the Divinity of Christ yet proclaims to be the "True Christians", such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, it's no surprise that questions are raised about their definition of "Christianity".
Because we are human, our beliefs, understandings and definitions change. What is right, what is proven, takes time to decide. Meanwhile, we follow what our conscience tells us what feels right.
The word 'denomination' is also used in reference to various values of currency. "He paid $1,000 cash, in small denomination bills." The currency is still the same, and the total value is the same. Shopping would be very difficult if we didn't have different denominations.
One day, everyone will pay for things in a standard electronic way or through some other virtual instrument, which will make bills and coins obsolete. That day will come.
One day, everyone will pray for things in a standard way, too, which will make denominations obsolete. That day will come.
Ask any religious leader, and he (it's usually a male2) will say that his church's doctrine was directed by God. Which leads to the question: Is it likely that God would give different instructions to different people?
We are all different. We have different cultural and family backgrounds, different environments, attitudes and interests. Take music, for example. Some of us like symphony and choral music, some of us prefer rock'n'roll, and some people even like rap! And please notice how these analogies are relatively modern. The music of two thousand years ago isn't so popular these days. Neither is the language. Not many people converse in ancient Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
Different styles appeal to different people. Some people are awed by an approach to the mystical nature of God, whilst others put more emphasis on sacredness found through chanting, incense burning and bell ringing. Then there are those who focus on evangelism and those who devote more of their efforts on deep study of the Bible. Most Christians enjoy a blend of these activities, but naturally tend to emphasize some more than others. Salvation, devotion, good works; the choice is yours.
Whilst the fundamentals of Christianity are the same, peripheral elements have changed over time. So much so that we have great diversity in the Christian religion today. The same goes for other Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.
Diversity is natural, and not only harmless but usually beneficial. For example, if we didn't have diversity in music, if the only music was that from a bamboo flute, then nice as that is, fewer people in the world would enjoy and benefit from music. If the only denomination in the world put emphasis on glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and handling poisonous snakes, then a great many people would miss out on the blessings from being Latin Rite Catholic, Amish, Evangelical Methodist and so on. (See list of denominations.)
This natural diversity has prompted discussion between adherents of different denominations, and this has led to a deeper understanding and conviction of one's own faith and understanding of Scripture.3
Things were relatively stable in Christianity until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. As you can see in the list of denominations, from the four major Protestant divisions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican) a multitude of smaller denominations have spawned since that time.
Each denomination was founded on a slightly different doctrine from its 'parent', but in accord with the founder's sincere understanding of the Bible and God's will. Denominations have also developed different styles of worship to suit their doctrine. However, one thing which has remained constant (for most denominations) is the basic understanding that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation. It was Jesus Christ who was sacrificed to save mankind. Not Martin Luther, not John Wesley, not the pope, and not a television evangelist6.
Denominations do run the risk of weakening the Church. It is not surprising there are differing interpretations of Scripture, since they were compiled in ancient languages by cultures so different from today. (Indeed, it is miraculous that they make any sense at all today!7) Different thoughts on baptism, sin, creation, etc., are certainly not minor issues and have led to strong points of contention. But these issues are peripheral to what is at the core of Christianity.
The Christian's duty and privilege is to love one another8 with the goal of uniting as one in Christ4. In this, they are all in the same Church.