Christian TraditionsChurch History

Discerning Division, Undertaking Unity

If you drive through any appreciable stretch of the United States, you are bound to come across churches. In some sparse locales, these places of worship are few and far between, much like the dwellings of those who attend them. In other places, churches abound, with nearly every street seeming to possess its own house of God. When my wife and I lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of our favorite pastimes was driving through the rolling forests that lay between our city and the Appalachian Mountains. On these drives, we grew to appreciate the term Bible Belt, as we would pass countless small, country churches on every drive. On one stretch of road no more than five miles long, we encountered some ten different churches, at least five of which included “Baptist” in their title. Likewise in Saint Louis, where we now live, church steeples dot the cityscape with peaceful regularity, directing commuter’s eyes heavenward.

If we pay attention to this preponderance of churches, it leads us to ask an important question: Why are there so many churches? In response to this question stands one relatively easy answer: there are lots of churches because there are lots of Christians. But close behind this query often follows its slightly more sinister cousin: Why are there so many different churches?

Recognition of differences among Christians is nothing new. At least since the days of the Apostles there have been different brands of Christianity. For example, the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, while demonstrating the Apostolic Unity of the young Church, also points toward different approaches to evangelism and emphases of the faith among early Christian leaders. (Lest you disagree, do not forget to read verses 36-41 of Acts 15, where Paul and Barnabas disagree to the point of parting ways.) After the deaths of the Apostles, the history of the Church contains numerous instances of difference and division, the first major partition following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. Most influential for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions was the Great Schism (commonly dated to 1054 CE), which continues to divide East and West today.

It was not until the sixteenth century that the Protestant Reformation took hold in Europe and the Western Christian Church truly became divided. What began as one man’s quest for theological and scriptural integrity eventually became each person’s right (or duty, depending on your viewpoint) to stand for their own theological understanding and interpretation of scripture, too often at the detriment of Christian charity and unity. According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, as of 2010 there were approximately 41,000 different denominations of Christianity worldwide, divisions of divisions of divisions. The legacies of the Reformation are divisive indeed.

In recent decades, Christians around the world have sought to combat rampant denominationalism through inter-denominational dialogue and statements of practical and theological unity. Some of these have been so broad as to border meaningless (i.e., various World Council of Churches statements). Others have been more substantial but lack authoritative gravitas for the faithful (i.e., the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification). On a practical level, many people are either no longer interested in the slight differences between denominations or are simply unaware of how one denomination is different from the other. Just this past weekend, I was asked about the differences between the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Even for someone who has spent extensive time in both denominations, the differences between even major church bodies are often subtle and nuanced. These types of realization make affiliation with one denomination over another (and the attendant “my church is better than your church” conversations/name-calling) seem increasingly insignificant.

At the heart of these inter-denominational interactions stands an important question: Should Christians focus on that which divides or unifies the Church? Answers to this question are complex and, quite frankly, differ considerably based on who provides an answer. Contrast the perspectives of a hyper-fundamentalist preacher who believes that anyone outside of his church is going to hell and the hyper-liberal academic who ceases to believe and practice Christianity in any meaningful way apart from attending a church service twice a year. These two people—despite both being labeled as “Christian”—hold distinct (and generally opposed) worldviews and would answer my question on division and unity rather differently. Yet many Christians of different beliefs and denominations continue to dialogue together, serve together, and worship together. How does this happen? I suggest three attitudes (or recognitions) for fostering effective and faithful answers to questions concerning Christian unity.

First, recognize the history of the Church, including its divisions. Figure out how we got where we are. Do not gloss over divisions and distinctions as if they do not exist. Learn about the past and come to terms with the fact that Churches on both sides of any divide have made mistakes. Conciliar Post Author Benjamin Winter did a stupendous job of this recently during a discussion concerning the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, noting that “there are leadership differences (our fault) and national divisions (something the East could work on)….” It may be that a historical disagreement no longer holds sway in the modern world. Or it may be that historical problems are still relevant. Either way, learning more about the history of the Church will clarify the situation.

Second, recognize different types of doctrine and practice. Not all doctrines and practices are created equal. Come to terms with the fact that confessing “Jesus is Lord” is more important than the color of the carpet in your church and act accordingly. Eddie Kaufholz did a fine job of outlining the need for critical thinking in this area in his article “Do Denominational Differences Really Matter?” In this piece, Kaufholz asked that we consider three questions when examining the differences between denominations: What’s Core to God? What’s Core to You? What’s Core to the Church? Although I would suggest reversing the order of the last two questions, these are important considerations when ascertaining how far Christian unity can and should extend.

Third, recognize the importance of faithful and critical dialogue (and then talk about it). After you’ve learned about the history of denominations and come to terms with the fact that not all differences are equally important, find some people to talk with about division and unity in the Church.  Important for meaningful dialogue is commitment to faithfulness and critical thinking. That is, do not just talk for the sake of talking, but talk with purpose, to learn about yourself and Truth. To be shamelessly self-promoting, the dialogue that occurs here at Conciliar Post would be a great place to start, especially through Round Table discussions. Sustained engagement about important issues is hard work, but it is a highly informative and rewarding experience.

In closing, I leave you with one of my favorite quotations on the issue of discerning divisions and undertaking unity. In Latin, it reads “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.” As propagated by Richard Baxter, in English this statement reads, “In necessary things unity, in uncertain things freedom, in everything compassion.” May this be our attitude as we dialogue with one another.

Photo courtesy of Adrien Sifre.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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