The 33,000 Denominations Myth

A Call to Roman Catholic Apologists to Repent of the Use of Simple Dishonesty in Their Presentations

   If you have ever listened to a Catholic convert on EWTN talking about their “journey home,” you have heard the argument. If you have read on-line “conversion stories,” you’ve seen it repeated, ad nauseum. “There is only one true church, Rome! Look at Protestantism! 33,000 denominations, and more coming on line every day! And why? Because of sola scriptura!” You’ll find this claim in conversion books like the Surprised by Truth series edited by Patrick Madrid. Al Kresta, one such convert, in the first installment of that series, wrote,

I wondered how Protestantism, which has splintered into over 20,000 denominations worldwide, could be what Jesus had in mind in John 17:21, when he said that the world will know that the Father sent the Son by the unity of his disciples. (Al Kresta, Surprised by Truth, p. 266)

   Kresta was writing a while back, before the number grew to today’s 33,000. From 1998 we find this from Catholic Answers:

The one thing they reject, though, is any binding authority outside the Bible. As a result, each time a new survey of Christian denominations comes out, there is more division, not less. Today there are more than 26,000 different denominations, sects, and independent churches throughout the world. They have split over issues as central as the Lords Supper and as trivial as what musical instruments may be used at church. Each Christian, Bible in hand, must find his own Christian truths. He may choose to rely on the teachings of his local pastor, a television evangelist, or the formal teachings of his denomination, but he is not bound by any of these teachings. There is ultimately no binding doctrinal authority in hislife outside his personal interpretation of Scripture (sola scriptura).

   Notice now the number is increasing? Tim Staples has been really big on this particular statistical argument. For example,

But isn’t it also telling that since the Reformation just 480 years ago — a reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle — there are now over 26,000 denominations that have derived from that principle? The 1982 World Christian Encyclopedia projected in that year that there would be 22,190 denominations by 1985. The present net increase,it noted, is 270 denominations each year (five new ones a week). If we extend that projection to our time, we have well over 26,000 denominations by now.

   Here in Envoy Magazine we find the source to which these men are referring, the World Christian Encyclopedia, the current edition of which is from 2001, as we will see. Note Staples directly cites the source. Keep that in mind. Elsewhere Staples has said,

According to Scripture, the Church is the final court of appeal for the people of God in matters of faith, morals, and discipline. It is telling that since the Reformation of almost 500 years ago–a Reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle–there are now over 33,000 Protestant denominations. In John 10:16, Jesus prophesied there would be “one flock, one shepherd.” Reliance on sola scriptura has not been effective in establishing doctrine or authority.

   Here Staples has updated his numbers, post-2001. Same source.
   Steve Ray is quite fond of this argument, too. In his response on the Assumption issue he wrote,

Our source of authority is not the Bible alone. We can thank God and the Catholic Church for that. Just look at the mass confusion this invented doctrine of sola Scriptura has inflicted upon Protestants as theyve split and scattered into over 33,000 different competing groups with biblical interpretations that go all over the map.5

World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 2001), pg. 10.

   Now please note, Ray gives the direct reference, even the page number, to which he refers. Next, note that he is directly asserting that the 33,000 number is about Protestants only. What is more, he blames sola scripturafor the 33,000 denominations. And to make sure this is in fact Steve Ray’s position, we note his words here:

Now what? Who knows! Tomorrow they may split again and make the FIRST New Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and the Second. And then it will probably split again into the NEWEST First New Progressive Missionary Baptist Church or the Holy First New Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. And then we will add multiple sects to the already 33,000 Protestant denominations.

   Note “Protestant denominations.” And just last week Steve Ray said to Kevin Johnson:

Hello Kevin: Thanks for sharing your name it was not on the post. I wish I had time to dialog but unfortunately I am swamped and not able to take on detailed debates. Back in the old days I had plenty of time but such is not the case now. I hope others jump in to dialog with you. One of the problems I face Kevin is that you are one of 33,000 denomoninations [sic] that have sprouted out of the Reformation and to take the time to understand the various details that each of you hold with a multitude of beliefs and traditions would be impossible.

   So, Steve Ray has repeatedly made the assertion that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations. He has repeatedly said this is due to sola scriptura. And he has made it clear where he is allegedly getting his information, from the World Christian Encyclopedia. Specifically:

World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world
Second Edition, David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, Todd M. Johnson Oxford University Press, 2001.

   So let’s test this oft-repeated argument, one that is found in the talks and writings of a wide range of Roman Catholic apologists.

The First Error: Simple Logic
   Before looking at the source of this argument and the problems associated with it, it should be made clear that the entire argument being presented here can only be identified as “bogus.” It fails scrutiny at every possible level. The leaps in logic and argumentation are vast. Let’s just focus upon two of the obvious problems.
   First, how does the Roman Catholic apologist go about demonstrating that sola scriptura is the source of these divisions, specifically? For example, when we see division in the ranks of Rome, and see strong disagreements on key issues, does it follow that the Roman magisterium is to blame for the differences of viewpoint? If a Christian believes the Scriptures a sufficient rule of faith, how does it follow that an abuse of such a sufficient source is an argument against its sufficiency? Such simply does not follow. The Scriptures can be perfectly suited to their purpose, but men are still sinners. Men are still imperfect. Men are still ignorant. And, most importantly, men still have their traditions. So while these apologists pretend it is a “given” that sola scriptura is to blame for these divisions, that assumption is insufficient to prove the argument.
   Second, and related thereto, is the painfully obvious observation that only a small percentage of “Protestant” churches today self-consciously even seek to profess, let alone confess and practice, sola scriptura. In fact, a large number of non-Catholic churches embrace all sorts of concepts that violate sola scriptura, so how can the principle be blamed for the actions of those who do not even believe in it?Obviously, it can’t be. In reality, those churches that specifically seek to profess, confess, and apply sola scripturaare significantly more united in their theology than those churches that look to some external, inspired/guided source of either interpretation or revelation.
   So, while the “33,000 Protestant churches and it is all sola scriptura’s fault argument is common, that doesn’t make it at all valid. But there’s an even more basic reason to reject this argument so often used by the likes of Tim Staples and Steve Ray.

The Second Error: It’s Just a Lie
   Whenever you find a convert to another religion citing a source, here’s a word of advice. Read the source yourself. And when we do that with the World Christian Encyclopedia, we discover that almost anything said by Steve Ray or Tim Staples or others in their circles should be taken with a grain of salt–always. On page 10, the source cited by Ray, we read,

26,350 33,820 denominations/paradenominations
1,391,020 3,445,000 congregations/churches
composed of
1,130 1,888 million affiliated Christians
dichotomized into
the 2 global categories below

   The first number is from 1970, the second from 2000. The two “global categorizations” offered are “denominationalism” and “postdenominationalism.” It is vital to realize that the 33,820 number, used by Ray and Staples and the other RC apologists, combines all the “denominations” included in bothlists. But if these men would just do a small amount of reading on the very page they cite, they would realize that this is not a listing of “denominations” arising from the Protestant Reformation (though, again, for clarity I note, this is exactly the claim of Steve Rayas documented above). 21,990 of these denominations are in the “postdenominationalism” category, 11,830 in the denominational. And please realize, the denominational number includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants! In fact, amazingly, this source lists 242 Roman Catholic denominations! If these ever-so-careful researchers had bothered to read on to page 16, they would have discovered:

  • This source lists 781 “Orthodox” denominations (i.e., Eastern Orthodoxy), predicting 887 for 2025.
  • This source lists 242 “Roman Catholic” denominations for 2000, predicting 245 for 2025.

   Do either of these groups arise from the Reformation? Of course not! Instead, continuing on page 16, the over-arching group “Protestant” is listed as having 8,973 denominations in 2000, predicting 9490 by 2025. If we stop just here, this means Steve Ray and Tim Staples are off by 24,000 denominations in their oft-repeated claims, i.e., the actual number in the source is only 27% of the number they give. They are inflating the number by more than 300%! Why? Are they simply going on second-hand references without ever even looking at the sources? Or are they being dishonest? Which is it?
   But this isn’t the entire picture. As you begin to work through the list of “Protestant” denominations, you discover that they include non-Trinitarian groups such as the Oneness denominations, as well as other groups like the Seventh-Day Adventists! Some of the other denominations listed openly embrace “revelation” in the modern period, hence meaning that they would hardly hold to any meaningful doctrine of sola scriptura to begin with.
   After the Protestant groups you have “Independent” groups, followed by “Marginal Christian” groups. But all of these are added into the 33,820 number! Please realize, this includes “Gnostics” (!), Mormons (122 denominations worth!) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (228 denominations)!
   So the serious-minded reader is left with one conclusion: Steve Ray, Tim Staples, and the rest of the Roman Catholic apologetics community that throws the 33,000 number around like a football are embarrassing themselves to no end every time they repeat this myth. Not only is it painfully obvious that sola scriptura is not to blame for this 33,000 number, but in this source, read in its own context, the large portion of those listed in the 33,000 number do not even confess the doctrine, let alone practice it in their theological enunciations and development! Even amongst the Protestant groups listed, how many seriously know the issues surrounding the doctrine, let alone make a conscious effort to apply the truth? So no honest person could possibly, in light of this information, continue to make use of this number the way Ray and Staples and others do with regularity.
   Ironically, on the page after that cited by Ray (p. 11), we find a chart relating to martyrs during the history of Christendom. It claims 11,000,000 martyrs have died as Roman Catholics since AD 1000 (are they including the Crusades?–we are not told). It likewise lists 3,170,000 Protestant martyrs, and 838,000 “Catholics prior to AD 1000.”
   But, in the next section it lists who was responsible for killing these martyrs. Secular governments and atheists score big, with 55,597,000 and 31,519,000 respectively. The Muslims are high-performers on the martyr-production scale as well with 9,101,000 to their credit. Animists come in fourth with 7,469,000, and guess who is #5 on the martyr-producing hit parade? Yes, Roman Catholicism, with 4,951,000! I wonder if Ray and Staples will be quoting that statistic anytime soon? And if not, why not?

   In light of these facts, I would like to call upon Steve Ray, Tim Staples, and all other Roman Catholic apologists who have taught, by spoken word or in written form, that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations, to openly and publicly retract their errant assertion, apologize, and explain how it is that they could actually provide a citation to a source that, upon examination, actually refutes their application in its entirety. Did they just not understand what they were reading? Did they actually even look at the source? Were they just offering the citation as taken from someone else? What is the explanation? Inquiring minds want to know.

—in the defense and confirmation of the gospel