Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Are There So Many Denominations?

Why do we have so many denominations? If you look at Christianity, you’ll see that there are many denominations, both great and small. And there are groups that can’t rightly be called denominations because they lack a hierarchical structure, but that hardly matters, there are a lot of different denominations. In recent years, many people have taken hold of the idea that the various denominations should work together. After all, “aren’t we all working to get to the same place?” Well, in a word, no. That’s part of the problem.

I spend time hanging around writers in cyberspace. Many of them are Christians and what I’ve seen is that many of them seem to see no problem with bringing several denominations together. In some cases, they have participated in corporate worship in the form of having communion together at a writers conference. Not only does that remove the Lord’s Supper from the oversight of the church (and by that I mean a local visible body of baptized believers, which is how the term is used most consistently in the new testament), but it seems to indicate that these authors don’t see a valid reason for the various denominations.

So, why do we have so many denominations and why can’t we all just get along? Can we find common ground? While it’s desirable for all Christians to be united, the means by which people are going about it is all wrong. Too many people have forgotten church history. Sadly, many people have never learned it, so we may be doomed to repeat it. This isn’t the first time that people have tried to unite the various denominations. Way back in the early 300s, the Roman emperor Constantine got this bright idea that he would unite the various Christian churches. The resulting unified “church” became the Catholic Church. But not all churches agreed to join that organization. Many of the non-joining churches were later call ana baptist, which comes from the Latin anabaptista, “one who rebaptizes.” They earned the name by rebaptizing believers who came out of the infant baptizing Catholic Church. Today, most of that line of churches is simply called Baptist, having dropped the “ana” over the centuries. But Constantine’s desire to unite the churches became a grand failure. The “church” that he created has split many times over the centuries.

Even if you’ve paid little attention to the Baptist side of church history, you are probably aware of the Catholic side. The first big split came with the division between the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox. Later, you will recall that Martin Luther nailed his treatise to the church door and with that the Protestant Reformation began. Martin Luther, and those who came after him, came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong. As a result, new denominations formed. Though it may not have been their desire for new denominations to form, their differences in belief were so great that they could no longer work together.

Now, fast-forward to today and ask yourself what happens when two denominations agree to work together. It seems like a logical thing. It’s easy to believe that we have much in common, since we all believe in the same Jesus. But consider an issue like one of the ones that divided the catholics from the rebaptizers in Constantine’s day, that of infant baptism. One reason that some denominations practice infant baptism is that they believe baptism cleanses a person from original sin. By that belief, a child who is baptized will go to heaven, or at least purgatory, because he no longer has original sin. But the rebaptizers had a different view. They practiced believer’s baptism. They didn’t see baptism as cleansing a person from sin, but it was an outward show of an inward transformation. By being buried in the water and coming up out of it, they showed their death to sin and resurrection to new life that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Because infants were too young to believe, they were not baptized. Only those who had accepted Christ were baptized.

Those two beliefs don’t reconcile. At best, the two sides could agree to disagree on the subject. But what would that mean? Suppose the two groups decided to work together. While they’re doing that, a member from the Catholic side goes to the Baptist side and wishes to join the church. By the Baptist doctrine, such a person should be rebaptized because they don’t believe the baptism the person received as a infant is valid. But that would likely offend the people on the Catholic side. Likewise, the people on the Catholic side think the people on the Baptist side are risking sending their children to hell. Both sides has strong reasons for believing this. For the two sides to find common ground, one side must either change its mind and agree with the other or both sides must compromise on strongly held beliefs. In other words, they must agree to avoid any conversation about what the Bible says about baptism, in order that they avoid getting into an argument. That in itself would cause a problem for a devout Baptist because Baptists place great importance on the Word of God. For Catholics it would cause a problem because they place great importance on the traditions taught by the Pope.

In essence, bringing two denominations together doesn’t reconcile the differences, but it creates a new belief system. If you could find two denominations that agreed except on the issue of infant baptism and people within them agreed to work together by avoiding the issue, what you would have is a group of people who held to the core doctrines of their denomination, but they don’t believe baptism is important enough to be an issue. If you could bring people from all denominations together, with all that separates them, and they agreed not to disagree, what you would have is a group of people who don’t believe any of the doctrines of Christianity are important. Perhaps you could agree on a few things, like that Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin, that he died and rose on the third day, but some Christian denominations don’t agree with that either.

Remove all that divides us and you won’t have much left. When you consider that the Bible goes as far as calling some people dogs because they aren’t teaching what is right, I’m pretty sure that isn’t the attitude the Lord wants us to have. Rather than trying to get along with people who disagree with us, we should be trying to figure out what the truth is. It isn’t our place to dismiss what the Lord has told us as unimportant just so we can get along with people who aren’t doing what is right.