We will start today’s column off with a short quiz. Are you ready? “Name a Christian doctrine that has divided churches.” Too many to name? Would it be a more difficult question to ask, “Name a Christian doctrine that has not divided churches?”
We are in the midst of counting the days and weeks that pass from Easter Sunday to the Day of Pentecost, the traditional beginning of the church. The Jewish background for our counting lists through the 50 days after Passover to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, remembering the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. This year, the Day of Pentecost falls on June 9.
Wander with me back to the upper room where Jesus gathered with His disciples before His crucifixion. During the events of the evening, Jesus shared the Passover meal with them and He instituted what the church has later designated as “The Lord’s Supper.” In this application of the Passover meal, the disciples were given an explanation that pointed to the body and blood of Jesus.
Following their time together, Jesus spent some time praying for the disciples. John records much of the prayer in his gospel. In John 17:20-21 (CEV), we read:
20 I am not praying just for these followers. I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. 21 I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.
How well have we done in keeping to Jesus’ prayer? Is the church really “one” today? What did Jesus mean when He prayed that the believers be one? What benefits would there be if the church were united?
You don’t have to drive very far down the main streets of our communities to see different churches representing differing beliefs. We can’t even agree upon the standard from which belief and doctrine is supposed to be determined. Is it the Bible? Do we include the Apocryphal books? Should we use a creed? Once people differed, they separated – divided – to worship with those who believed similar things.
The World Christian Encyclopedia, published by Oxford University Press, comes up with six major church blocs, divided into 300 major church traditions, and places the number of distinct denominations at over 33,000 world-wide. The number is more than a bit inflated. For example, many Baptist, Christian and Community churches are not members of a denomination, so the Encyclopedia counts each one an independent denomination of its own. That group alone accounts for 22,000 of the number. The study also includes some marginal groups that we would have a hard time classifying as Christian, like the “Hidden Buddhist Believers in Christ” and the “British Israelites.”
How many denominations are there? The number would be impossible to ascertain. To argue how many actually becomes a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many. Any division in the body of Christ is a scandal.
How did the church become so divided? Folks have left churches over the selection of a preacher or the color of carpet to be used in the sanctuary. Very few people, though, even those later determined to be heretics, actually set out with the intent of splitting the church. Though there are many explanations for the divisions, this simplistic analogy helps me clarify the splits. I hope it helps you as well.
The church seeks a standard by which belief and behavior can be taught, and to which people can be held accountable. The church accepts the Bible as the standard, but the question comes regarding how one interprets the meaning of the Bible.
Picture a pendulum on an old grandfather clock. When the pendulum is strictly perpendicular, the line is the accurate interpretation of the Scripture. It is true to what God intended the message to be. The interpretation follows the context of the passage, is consistent with other Biblical teachings, and it flows with the literary flavors of the text.
But sometimes things happen to shift the interpretation from the center. Sometimes the shift is in a direction that makes the interpretation more palatable – more accommodating – to the non-believer or non-obedient believer. Sometimes the shift wanders the other direction holding traditions – the beliefs or practices of someone within the church – as equally authoritative as the Bible. Usually this shift occurs in an attempt to keep out the world’s influence, or to show respect for the belief or interpretation of a church member.
The shift can occur so slowly that the believer doesn’t even realize they have left the center. Ever have your children playing in the ocean in front of you while you were on the beach? With the waves and the tide and the fun, it doesn’t take long for the children to be several yards away from you and they don’t even notice it.
The prayer by Jesus in the upper room wanting unity is echoed by the writings of the Apostle Paul. He tells the Ephesians:
4 All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God’s people. 5 We have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. 6 There is one God who is the Father of all people. Not only is God above all others, but he works by using all of us, and he lives in all of us (Ephesians 4:4-6 CEV).
Over the next several weeks, we will try to examine the essential truths about Christianity that we should all agree upon. We will leave everything else – from the color of the carpet to the meaning of the millennium – in the realm of opinion.
Maybe we really do have more things that unite us than divide us.
— Tom May is a freelance writer and educator, and a columnist for the News and Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.