Denominations: Dividing For The Right Reasons
Several years ago, I came across this comic called “Tom’s Doubts” illustrated by Saji George, which features a church membership class going over the subject Churches and Christian Movements Throughout History. There’s a complex system of brackets on a board, and the teacher points to one of the lines and says, “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of looking at denominations and church splits.
“Why do you go to that church?”
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re a Christian (If you’re not, still keep reading!). I’m hoping you have a church you attend regularly and would consider yourself a member of. Maybe you’ve wondered, though, why so many churches exist and why all these different names on them. Even among the Stumbling Saints band members and writers, we aren’t all from one church or one denomination, but we still consider each other brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re all Christian, but we’re not all on the same “line.” Why is that?
Two reasons for having different and multiple local churches are preferences and size. Two churches in any town could confess and hold the exact same beliefs, but one has decided they like and will play contemporary music rather than old music which is all the other church uses; one decides they will use a band rather than an organ or piano; one decides casual dress will be the norm while the other is more formal; one has a leader who is more charismatic than the other. (There are things called regulative and normative principles of worship that I won’t get into here, which I would categorize as different from simple preference.)
Size is another valid reason for having multiple churches. If a church has grown past a point of being able to disciple, discipline, lead its members well, and reach new believers, then it may be appropriate to plant a church nearby. I don’t have a single number for what that tipping point is, and there are changes a single large or megachurch may be able to make to shepherd all its members still adequately.
The main reason for why there are so many different churches with different descriptors in their names, though, is that we disagree and differ on what the Bible says. If you’re outside any and every church as an unbeliever or you’re a Christian but haven’t learned about the historical development of the church, this may seem very strange. One group says, “When the Bible says _______, it means _______,” but another group says, “It means _______.” Doesn’t one of us have to be wrong? One of you says, “God affirms _______,” while another person says, “_______ is a sin, offensive to God, and must be repented of.” Are they both Christian? How is that possible?
While there are a few traditions or denominations that would go as far to say that only those who are in their group or believe their exact beliefs are saved and worthy of bearing the label, “Christian,” most of us recognize our “line” is just one part of the body of Christ. In fact, there may be parts of our faith and doctrine that we may not get 100% right. Some traditions or denominations are very minimal on systematizing what theology and doctrines they believe, and they lean into mystery— “God is so big and great; we can’t possibly understand everything he has done” they would say. Some with these views would say Christians shouldn’t even try. Other traditions or denominations have put many resources into studying and interpreting Scripture, and they write and teach so that church leaders and lay people (the average Christian) can understand these vast doctrines.
It shouldn’t surprise you that I (and most of the Stumbling Saints) identify with one of the latter forms of traditions. My Dutch-Reformed-rooted denomination affirms the “Three Forms of Unity” (TFU), or “…Three confessions—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort” as historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines continue to define the way we understand Scripture, direct the way we live in response to the gospel, and locate us within the larger body of Christ.”
Presbyterian denominations tend to hold the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms as their standards. Some Baptists hold to the 1689 (Second London) Confession of Faith. These aren’t intended to add anything to the Bible. They are meant to summarize and explain what Scripture says. The Bible is the sole infallible authority.
“One Bible, but all these different beliefs and positions --- why?”
Some confessions have a distinct purpose or issue they address coming out of a particular historical context. We have to remember that the internet, TV, mass printing, distribution, and access to materials are very recent inventions. As the church was growing and experiencing the influence of the Protestant Reformation across Europe, believers in different regions were doing work among their people, typically, their countrymen and providing doctrinal guidance based on what was most detrimental to the church in their context.
Truthfully, there is a lot of overlap among the confessions I named above. But there are some differences, and some that are weighty enough that we may not be allowed to lead in or become full members in each other’s churches depending on what degree we hold to them. These are things that are not merely a product of trying to defend against a specific cultural threat to the truth, rather these would be doctrinal differences that would make it nearly impossible to pastor alongside men with juxtaposed positions.
As I’ve been wrestling with this topic, I keep coming across more and more ways that respected Christian pastors and scholars think about our differences. Differences or disagreements can be labeled as essentials and non-essentials; as first-order, second-order, and third-order or primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.
A good way to quantify the implications of this sort of doctrinal triage is to think of matters in first, second and third orders... as: you must believe first order doctrines, you must not reject second order doctrines, and you should believe third order doctrines. If this all seems really messy, you’re not wrong. (There’s good reason for the comic image I mentioned at the beginning.)
There are things we must accept, believe, and agree with in order to truthfully bear the label of Christian.
The ancient church wrote things called creeds, because there were heresies—false teachings—rising up. A creed is a statement of faith—again, not adding to the Bible, but saying what the Bible truly teaches. These were necessary because those labeled heretics often claim to also be following the Bible. Three of the most well-known and accepted creeds across Christian traditions and denominations—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed—focus on matters like the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the dual nature of Christ (divine and human), and the church and salvation. These are a big deal. We should be on the same page when it comes to these.
The Athanasian Creed is quite lengthy, but it includes this weighty of language: Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith [that means universal, common, single Christian faith, not Roman Catholic Church-specific]. Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally…Anyone then who desires to be saved should think thus about the trinity. But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully. Now this is the true faith…This is the catholic faith: one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.
Yet, there are non-essentials that we hold, beliefs that fit into the third order, convictions and opinions categories rather than absolutes. There are things that we’ve been taught or read and accepted, which may not be completely true, as well-intentioned as they might be. There are matters that we can take very different sides on and back them up with Scripture, and not fear that salvation is jeopardized. There are interpretations in our finite minds and understanding, that God has determined He’s given us enough but not all the information regarding a specific doctrine.
This is partly why I love one of the rejections in the Canons of Dort that captures how God’s election for salvation is not based on …the intrinsically unworthy act of faith, as well as the imperfect obedience of faith, to be a condition of salvation…For by this pernicious error the good pleasure of God and the merit of Christ are robbed of their effectiveness and people are drawn away, by unprofitable inquiries, from the truth of undeserved justification and from the simplicity of the Scriptures… (First Main Point, Rejection 3). That’s not saying we don’t need faith to be saved, but rather our efforts to the perfection of our beliefs are not what gets us saved. Election is God’s free merciful choice of “certain particular people” apart from what we would do.
“How does anyone make sense of the differences?”
How do we know what to believe then? Does it even matter? Why not just devote ourselves to being decent human beings? Why not just love each other and get along? While it may seem ideal to just shrug off all or most theology and doctrine, that would seriously neglect the gifts and privileges God has bestowed on us. He’s given us brains and minds to think, He’s given us wisdom, He’s given some the ability to teach, He has given every Christian the desire to want to know Him! Those gifts aren’t for us to decide how we will use them all on our own, though.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin prompts the image of a labyrinth—what seems like a difficult maze to find one’s way through, and how the human mind is like that, especially related to spiritual matters.
Suppose we ponder how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions. Then we may perceive how necessary was such written proof of the heavenly doctrine, that it should neither perish through forgetfulness nor vanish through error nor be corrupted by the audacity of men. It is therefore clear that God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom he has pleased to give useful instruction because he foresaw that his likeness imprinted upon the most beautiful form of the universe would be insufficiently effective. Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God. We must come…to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. If we turn aside from the Word…though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance…is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted to it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside of it (I, VI, 3).
To be clear, I’m not saying that to God there is only a single correct way and everything else is wrong; or that if so He chooses, there can’t be multiple faithful and obedient ways of doing things. But we should be careful and slow to divide in the body of Christ. We must be slow to say others are wrong and we are right. We must go to God’s Word and know that it is God’s revelation of Himself for us and for our salvation. He has been pleased to provide us with the Scriptures, and in them, all that is necessary for our salvation and for our good while we are in this mortal life.
When you hear that we are to …Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2), the thing that is to be transforming you—your mind, your heart, your life—is the Word of God. It is …Breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
In their song, “Exile Dial Tone,” Beautiful Eulogy offers this outlook,
So we continue loving this world that so easily rejects us, and passionately press past the lack of their cultural acceptance. And as if there weren't enough problems for us gaining influence, we keep fighting over the issue of what's too worldly of a Christian to make a difference. So no matter how you paint it or politically campaign it, whether you water it down and drain it, it's really all the same ain't it? It's the same frustration, same constant segregation: Christians living like aliens trying to relate with citizens of a different nation. What always makes for a better presentation than bark and bite is a proper understanding of living life filled with salt and light. So we walk this fine line of walking in light of God's kindness, and live with a sense of worldliness without the fear of compromising.
We, Christians, are really good at fighting and dividing and schism-ing. None of this should be surprising or new. The apostle Paul talked about differences that existed in his day, that there are disputable matters or opinions, that some are weak in faith, but still accepted or welcomed by God (Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 8-9).
None of us want to be, or at least think of ourselves as, "the weaker one", the one who it almost feels like God shows extra grace to while saying, “Bless your heart.” Perhaps we need to bear with others on some issues and be borne with ourselves on others. Paul offers this beautiful line, …Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right [his claim to Christian freedom and apostolic authority], but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:12).
May we be willing to confess and practice the same thing. We—at some level—may be divided by our differences, but stand united presenting an unobstructed way for the lost and the found to see and hear the gospel of Christ.
For Further Study: