I have a huge heart for churches from various denominations working together for the greater glory of God the Father in Jesus’ name. God is so good. He loves us despite our various backgrounds of belief. And He is glorified when Jesus loving pastors and their flocks come together for prayer and worship. And this Sunday night at 6:00pm is such an opportunity:
I was talking with a friend last night and he mentioned his non-Christian co-workers have asked the questions, “Why are Christians so segregated? Why do they have so many different denominations?”
Well, there are multiple reasons. Some good. Some not so good. But the heart of this generation is to unite on essentials without dividing over non-essentials.
So here are reasons why there are so many denominations: History of European State Churches and Free Churches having congregants move to America; we agree on 97% of doctrines and tend to divide over 3%; some churches chose to divide over non-essentials; and finally, people tend to hang out with people just like themselves.
History of European State Churches: At the beginning of the Church, the early Christians fought hard for one church with one message. Whenever there was a new doctrine or a group of people claiming to have a new gospel, the leaders of the churches would examine that new doctrine or new gospel by measuring it against the New Testament writings. So when the Gnostics claimed Jesus didn’t really have a body, the Christians across Europe and the globe thought it was ridiculous and refused to recognize the Gnostics as being a part of The Church. When Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire under Constantine, he called for the Bishops of various churches to come together for a council at Nicaea to decide on these various issues and establish official creeds and Orthodoxy (325 AD). In the following years The Church had multiple councils as debates would arise to determine what Christians believed based on the Scriptures of the New Testament. The early Church tried hard to remain “catholic” or united. Eventually the Emperor thought it was a good idea to combine Church and State, which resulted in the Emperor corrupting the Pope and the Pope trying to control the State. This combination of Church and State became known as The Holy Roman Catholic Church, or The Holy Roman Empire, or Christendom.
By the 1500s, the Church had become so corrupted by the State (and by non-born-again-Christians claiming to be Christians and working in influential positions) that educated monks and priests (presumably born again) who saw the contradictions became emboldened to speak out against the Pope. People like Luther and Zwingli and Calvin brought about a Reformation basing the authority of the Church in the Scriptures, not the Pope or the Bishop or a Priest. Many followed these brave leaders, and new churches were established.
For the most part these new churches were State Churches, like the German Lutheran Church, or the English Anglican Church, or the Swiss Presbyterian Church. And in some cases there was still corruption, and when people challenged their leaders they were forced to hide their worship and they went underground forming “Free Churches.”
Many people from the State Churches and “Free Churches” moved to America. The “Free Churches” developed a congregational model because they had a mistrust of authority. That sad reality, though, is that many of these free churches mistrusted people so much that they kept dividing. The main line denominations, however, had a central authority they were accountable to. When they would move to a town they would create “First Lutheran” or “First Baptist” or “First Presbyterian” or “First Episcopalian” church of Boston, or Portland, or Seattle, or Minneapolis, or Boulder, etc. They would tend to speak their mother tongue at the beginning, and would eventually plant churches in which people would speak English.
Now, take the kids and kid’s kids and put them together in a school. Even though their parents or grandparents were staunch German Lutherans or Swedish Lutherans or English Episcopalians, the kids would not understand the differences and would see the divide as being over non-essential issues. At school they would look at each other and say, “Why are we divided? We agree on 97%. Why don’t we just create a new church and worship together?” And hence, for example, the Evangelical Free Church of America was born in the 1950s by combining Swedish Free Church and the Norwegian-Danish Free Church who had Lutheran and Baptist backgrounds.
So when a new denomination is born, it’s not always a bad thing. Often it is because people desire unity. Hence the “Community” or “Non-Denominational” churches that keep springing up. But you need to realize that these churches will eventually realize they need a curriculum to teach their children and people to make disciples, and so eventually they might use Willow Creek material or Saddleback material or Multiply material. And each of those materials has a denominational flavor. And eventually, even if they claim to be non-denominational, as soon as a bunch of churches start using their stuff if becomes an association, which is the beginnings of a denomination.
But we have to realize something, biblical Christians agree on 97% of doctrine.
We divide over 3% of doctrines: The core essentials of the gospel are in the 97%. With these people I can worship. Even with the churches that disagree on the 3% I can worship. But as soon as a pastor says the Bible is not the authoritative word of God. Or as soon as a pastor says Jesus is not the only way to salvation. It is then that we need to divide, because that pastor is not teaching biblical Christianity, rather that pastor is succumbing to human philosophy or elevating human opinion to the level of authority alongside God’s word, and in that situation it becomes a philosophical free-for-all.
A problem, we tend to divide over non-essentials that are not doctrinal: Many people tend to divide over style of music or how to dress or “That person hurt my feelings so I’m moving on to a different church.” This makes me sad. I can understand disagreeing over theological issues that are part of the 97%, but to divide over style issues doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. When we elevate preferences over the value of people, we cease to live by good, biblical doctrine.
People tend to hang out with people just like themselves: This relates to the above. People like to hang out with people who make them feel comfortable. But the church is called to be multi-ethnic, which is hard to do when so many people come from so many different backgrounds. But this is not an excuse. Jesus said, “They will know you by your love for one another.”
This Sunday night is an example of people cutting through the differences and agreeing that Jesus is Lord. I would love to see you there.