For most of my adult life, I’ve taken for granted that denominationalism within Christianity is a bad thing. Like many others, I’ve often railed against the “splits & schisms” within the Christian faith, and against the fact that we’re not all unified. After all, didn’t David write, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1)? And what about Paul’s statement to the Corinthians:“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10).
Unity of spirit, doctrine, mind, and behavior is an ideal that simply cannot be achieved in today’s Christian world. Only Jesus himself could bring about such Christian unity, and he hasn’t yet chosen to do it. So we’re left with what we have – a world of differing, competing, bickering denominations, each of which seems to believe that it has the corner on the market of truth. Well let’s not go that far; let’s just say each grouping believes itself to be “truer” or “more authentic” than the others.
Maybe it’s really not such a bad thing. Remember when there was only one official Church – the Roman Catholic? Remember the Inquisition? Remember forced conversions? Remember the Crusades? Banned books? Book burnings? The flat earth doctrine and Galileo’s problem with same? Remember when the pope said, in effect, “It’s my way or the highway to hell”? Do we want to reconstitute such an all-powerful, coercive religious entity?
Of course the Protestant Reformation gave birth to many of today’s established Christian denominations. In the beginning, they fought amongst themselves, killing and being killed. Christians tortured, imprisoned and burned at the stake other Christians who simply believed something different than they did. It was Catholics against Protestants, and Protestants against Protestants. Some were even murdered for translating the Bible into English.
Checks & Balances
Denominationalism, as it currently exists, tends to function as a system of checks and balances on the larger Church. It provides Christians with choices. Those who have no hope of doctrinal reform in one denomination may find it in another (though that is highly unlikely).
If we narrow the focus to the Churches of God Pod, what choices are there? Basically, you have variations on the theme of Armstrongism, vs. a version of Evangelical Protestantism. If you add the Church of God, Seventh Day, to the mix, you have Sabbatarian, Protestantism Lite. For me, Armstrongism is no longer an acceptable “package.” I do not believe that it accurately reflects the beliefs and practices of the original Church. But then, neither does Protestantism, its claims notwithstanding. In short, I can’t find within the Pod my “ideal” denomination. I find pockets of truth and pits of error. No one, in my view, has the perfect “package.”
Truth comes in Fragments
Does anyone offer a perfect, utterly authentic, expression of original Christian faith? I think not. Within the Church – in the largest sense – truth is a fragmentary phenomenon. You find some here, you find some there, but no one seems to have it all together.
That being the case, what difference does it make which denomination you align yourself with? The chance of being a change agent for doctrinal reform in any of them is slim to none. If you agitate too much, or advocate the overthrow of any part of the status quo, you’ll soon be drummed out of the denomination as a heretic or trouble-maker. Denominational leaders find comfort zones from which they do not wish to be dislodged. There is a deep sense of security in believing that one’s group has it all together and that it has fully embraced “The Truth.” Those who rock the boat are not welcome in the boat.
Doctrinally speaking, the Church (largest sense) is a humanly irreparable mess. Once you acquire some exegetical skills, and become familiar with theological literature, you will soon realize that there’s no perfect Church. Denominationalism is the natural outgrowth of theologians and church leaders disagreeing with each other on points, and then institutionalizing those disagreements.
How Denominations Start
In the early years of the original Church, “…they continued stedfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Just in this statement alone we find the seeds of controversy. It’s clear enough what “apostle’s doctrine and fellowship” means: “doctrine” means “teaching,” and fellowship means they hung out with the apostles. But what’s “breaking of bread”? Many scholars believe this is a reference to the Lord’s Supper. But how would you prove it? The term can simply mean that they ate their meals together. Yet the context seems to indicate religious activities: doctrine, fellowship, prayer…
The people who believe that the Lord’s supper should only be celebrated once a year, at Passover, would disagree on that basis with the idea that taking the Lord’s supper was a frequent occurrence in the early church. On the other hand, those who interpret Paul’s statement, “…as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (I Corinthians 11:26), as indicating more frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, will disagree with the Passover people.
Those who think theologically will tend to draw up their arguments on both sides of the fence. Some will seek to “prove” that the Lord’s Supper should be observed only once a year. Others will demur and claim that once a week, at church services is appropriate. Still others will say, “You can take the Lord’s supper any time you want – at church, in your home, anywhere…”
Within the Roman Catholic tradition, the Lord’s Supper is viewed as a “sacrament” – from the Latin sacramentum meaning “oath.” There, it is called “Holy Communion” or the Eucharist. It is viewed as a liturgical rite that must be administered by a priest. The word “mass” in Catholic tradition is from the Latin missa, which in turn comes from mittere, “to send.” The whole liturgy and worship service in which the Eucharist is celebrated is called the “mass.” Traditionally, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, this is the dismissal”) was said at the end of the service.
The specifics of the Catholic mass are different than the Protestant’s versions of the sacrament, of which there are many variations. The issues are many and varied: whether to use a round wafer for the service, or a broken piece of unleavened bread; whether the people should drink the wine or whether only the priest should drink it; whether actual wine, or grape juice, should be used in the ceremony; whether and how unused portions of the bread and wine should be destroyed; etc. etc.
You can see how one simple statement in the Bible – “in breaking of bread” – can give rise to much discussion, disagreement and even early manifestations of denominationalism. How many readers of this article, for example, would feel comfortable participating in a Catholic mass? How many Catholics would feel at home keeping the Lord’s Supper in the Armstrongian way? How many from either of those traditions could accept the more casual, random approach of many charismatics who take the symbols almost any time, anywhere? (Incidentally, Catholics don’t consider them “symbols” but literal.)
The Birth of Deadly Dogma
This discussion is a microcosm of the larger problem that gives rise to denominationalism. Once the leaders of a given group calcify theological speculation into doctrine, and then into dogma, lines are drawn, wagons are circled, and an “us vs. them” mentality is created. Denominational distinctives begin to accumulate, then they are formalized and set in concrete, and another “true Church” is born.
To the “consumer” of churches, it’s all very confusing. Most new Christians don’t have the exegetical wherewithal to determine which denomination is right or wrong about which doctrine, so they go with their gut. If their gut tells them a given group is “right for them,” they link up with it, and membership swells by one person. That’s how denominations grow. Or they grow because people are attracted to the charismatic personalities of their leaders.
Once a denomination grows large and powerful, it’s leaders and members often feel they have all the more reason to believe that it is right, because, after all, God has “blessed it” with growth. So, again, might makes right. Right? Not necessarily. How many readers believe the Catholic Church is right simply because it is old and large?
The Leadership Issue
Add to all of the above the issue of leadership. Many people claim the right to lead a flock of God – large or small – on grounds that they are “anointed” to do so. For others, it is by right of succession that they lead. The popes, for example, claim the right to succession based on a lineage going back to the apostle Peter, whom, they claim, was the first Bishop of Rome. For others, leadership is based on nepotism. Some denominations are actually family businesses inherited by each generation of family members. Sometimes leadership emerges from sheer force of personality and dominance.
Again, what is the basis for determining who is a legitimate church leader, and who is not? Certainly the issue of fruit born is a factor. Poorly “qualified” leaders may end up producing much fruit. Others, whom on paper appear to be more qualified, my turn out to be duds when it comes to producing good fruit.
Sometimes we assume that because a church leader wears a white suit, has a large following, and lives in a mansion, that he’s true man of God. We may believe that the presence of a large and obsequious entourage is a key indicator of authenticity. Perhaps the ability to draw vast crowds is the criterion? If a spiritual leader has his own TV program, does that prove that he’s God’s man? If you don’t understand that question, think Peter Popoff, or Margoe Gortner.
Subjectivity in Religion
Let’s face it; there’s a great deal of subjectivity in religion. It is often difficult to nail things down with absolute certainty. The more dogmatic someone is, the more I tend to suspect them of not knowing what they’re talking about. The more wishy-washy they are, the more I think they never study. They are those who are “ever learning, but never able to come to acknowledge of the truth.” The fact of the matter is: there are some things we can know, and others that we can’t (Deuteronomy 29:29). As Paul put it, “We see through a glass, darkly…” All is not clear, but then again, all is not obscured either. What we need to know is available to us. Most of what it means to be a real person of God is clearly spelled out from Genesis to Revelation. The question “how shall we then live?” is answered in Scripture.
Binding Error and Loosing Truth?
Other questions are not. In the areas where Scripture does not clearly spell out doctrine and practice, there is room for study, thought, speculation, commentary (midrash) and judgment calls. This is what is meant by “binding & loosing.” This is the area of halacha (a decision on a point of law).
Even then, denominational leaders can only make binding decisions for their denominations, not for others. Ultimately, that becomes an issue of accepted authority. Many such decisions have been bogus, based not on sound exegesis or a valid application of Scripture, but upon the wants and needs of the denominational leadership. This, for example, is the case with many decisions regarding tithing and “church government.”
Point is, denominations within Christianity function as safety nets for those who become alienated from the group to which they’d attached themselves. They offer alternatives to unsatisfactory status quos. They provide forums for ongoing discussion of difficult issues such as homosexuality, gay marriage, and the ordination of women, homosexuals and transgendered people and the appointment of yellow dogs as deacons.
As I have often written, the Salvation Supermarket offers something for everyone. But as with a real supermarket, you may have to shop around the periphery to find the healthiest fare.
The true Church of God cannot be organizationally, or doctrinally, identified. Yet the spiritual organism called in Scripture “the body of Christ” can be manifested across and outside of denominational boundaries. A real Christian is one whose primary relationship is with God in Christ. The true faith is portable. It can be lived and applied anywhere. On the other hand, there are well-respected denominational Christians who are no more spiritual than church mice.
Until Jesus Brings Unity…
When the Lord returns, Torah – Instruction or Direction – shall usher forth from Mt. Zion, where Messiah will reside (Isaiah 2:3). Until that time, we’ll probably be saddled with competing Christian denominations. Each contains some truth and some error. Some are overthrowing God’s moral law and replacing it with lesser standards from prevailing cultures. Others have adopted unscriptural black, feminist and liberation theologies. Still others have mistranslated Scripture to accommodate the ideologies of special interests. The denominations of Christianity are embroiled in something approximating doctrinal chaos. Unity is an elusive chimera, an idealistic dream that cannot be fulfilled so long as the Church continues to abandon its Jewish roots, and so long as money, power and politics undermine objective scholarly processes within the Body.
The thousands of denominations that make up the world of the Christian faith are a product of centuries of unresolved conflict between Christian leaders. The Church continues to fragment. Marginal Christian groupings continue to spin off into cultic backwaters and esoteric sects. Any given Christian may wander through this cacophony of uncertain sounds, picking up a pure note here, a sour note there. This situation, despite its seeming disarray, is probably better than one in which a single, apostate church/state system can impose its will on an unwilling populace at the point of a sword or gun.
Those who zealously desire pure truth are still free to search for it. The “pearl of great price” may be buried deeper today than it was in Jesus’ day, but it can still be excavated with patience and diligence. Those who are willing to research seriously the Jewish roots of the Christian faith will be rewarded with many exciting nuggets of exegetical truth. Of course the Enemy has thrown a few red herrings across even that trail, but with a little experience, we can learn to recognize and avoid them.
A final thought: I’d rather be faced with a myriad of choices among a confusing array of denominations than be confronted by a single, tyrannical, religious system that says “Do it our way, or die.”