Tuesday, August 3, 2021

So. Many. Churches.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Why are there so many denominations? Does the existence of all of those denominations, the fact that Christians can’t agree on anything, prove Christianity isn’t true?

The existence of denominations causes many Christians a lot of angst. Jesus wants his people to be united. Denominations are proof we aren’t, right? I’m not sure that’s true.

Unity and uniformity are not the same thing. To borrow from an earlier metaphor, the body needs eyes, ears, muscles, and bowels. That lack of uniformity doesn’t stop the parts of the body from being unified. Christians disagree on a lot of the finer points of our theology. The greatest divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants is over whether good works play a role in salvation. That is a great divide, and that’s the reason for the Protestant Reformation 
 we have a fundamental disagreement over a very basic part of Christian theology.

Protestants, then, disagree over things like what exactly happens during the Lord’s Supper, when and how to baptize, and how to govern churches. These are important, but they’re not fundamental issues. Many of the things we disagree over make it difficult to do church together. For example, if you are convinced baptism is for believers only, it’s hard to be in the same local church body as those who teach and practice baptism for the infant children of believers. It’s not that you cannot get along; it’s that running a church like that would be difficult, chaotic even. It’s easier on everyone to separate into different local bodies over that issue.

You can be separate churches and even separate denominations and still act like a family who loves each other. Believers from different denominations can and do work together to preach the gospel and to show the love of Christ to people in need. That, I believe, still demonstrates the unity Christ was praying for.

The problem is when we don’t act like that. Some people divide over a host of tertiary issues (or worse)  eg, a particular view of the end times, worship styles, or which Bible translation to use. It’s not unheard of to find a church that teaches that the salvation of anyone who disagrees with them on these things is suspect. That is not keeping the unity of the faith. As one old theologian put it, in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.1

Many skeptics today will say that the vast number of denominations, the fact that we seem to disagree about every conceivable point of doctrine, proves Christianity isn’t true. Does it?

What is untrue is the allegation that we disagree about every conceivable point of doctrine. Yes, Christians today disagree over many things. What we agree about is more important:
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried.
He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. Amen.
All Christians everywhere can recite the Apostles’ Creed. The Eastern Orthodox churches disagree with one phrase of the Nicene Creed, but otherwise we can all attest to that. The majority of what I’ve written here in this project would be agreeable to traditional Christians across the branches and denominations. For all there are supposedly thousands of Protestant denominations, we agree on more than we disagree.

So we don’t disagree about everything, but we do get lost in the weeds of the details sometimes. It’s understandable that people want to dig deeper into their theology and ask “what does this mean” and “how does this work”, but sometimes we take our tentative answers too seriously. That’s on us. We can do that without losing the unity Christ demands and desires. We just need to obey the words of the apostle:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).

1 It may not have been original to him, but it’s widely attributed to Rupertus Meldenius (1582-1651).

Part of Christianity 101

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