Question: Why So Many Divisions in Christianity?


Full Question by Tim:

There are over 30,000 denominations why can’t we get them back into one faith?

Answer:

First off, it must be said that this is not what Christ intended for His Church. When Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane He prayed that “they might be one.”

It is through human failure, and the consequences of our fallen nature, that we have reached a point in history that there are thousands of denominations in Christianity.

For a more detailed look at the Church being one, see my post The Four Marks of The Church; One.

Division

Let’s take a look at the divisions that have appeared in the Body of Christ over the centuries. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but more of just a background to our current tens of thousands of Christian denominations.

The first major split was after the Council of Chalcedon, a disagreement about the relationship between the two natures of Christ led to the oriental orthodox breaking from the rest of the church.

The next, and much larger break of communion, in the body of Christ occurred in 1054AD with what has been called “The Great Schism.” This schism was brewing for centuries and was really centered on cultural and political differences between Constantinople and Rome. The culmination of this break that took centuries was the Filioque, this addition of the words “and the Son” to the Nicene creed was just too much for the eastern churches to stand.

The Ultimate Schism

Then we come to largest and most damaging of all the schisms of the Church; the Protestant reformation.

This is where the number of individual churches (or “ecclesial communities” in official church language because there is only one true church) begins to start multiplying exponentially.

With Protestantism came the idea that I’m my own authority, and with it the jettisoning of any kind of central hierarchy. Sure some churches like the Lutherans maintain what they call bishops, but these “bishops” are severed from apostolic succession, and even reject the concept itself. (For more on how the Church is apostolic, see my post: The Four Marks of The Church; Apostolic)

The dual doctrines of sola scriptura and self interpretation spelled disaster for any kind of unity in Protestantism, this is why you see so many divisions today. In the Eastern Orthodox Church they maintained a sense of unity by retaining apostolic succession and a system of hierarchy, and although there have been splits in unity amongst the orthodox it is largely along ethnic and national lines and they remain in a somewhat close communion. But in Protestantism if you disagree with a pastor or church doctrine then the next logical step is to split off and form your own church, this happens at the denomination level and at the local individual level. You will be hard pressed to find a Protestant church that can go longer than ten year without a schism, it’s just the way their system works.

I don’t mean to sound harsh towards my Protestant brothers in Christ, not the least of all because more than half of my own family is Protestant, I’m just pointing out a fatal flaw in the system of belief that is held by approximately 900 million Christians.

How to solve this problem of disunity?

So that’s the background of how we arrive at tens of thousands of “churches” when we started with one ( I place churches in quotations because there is one body and one church, we are all just temporarily separated). How do we return to communion?

  • Prayer

Prayer can accomplish all things, especially if we pray in accord with the will of God, and we know it’s His will that we be one because he said so!

And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
John 17:11,20-21

Disunity in the Body of Christ is a scandal, this is why Christ prayed that we would remain one. When a non-believer looks at the thousands of churches and thinks “how can they all be right” it weakens the Gospel message, but what if we were all united with one voice? That would give a great witness to the power of the Gospel.

The next time you pray the Our Father, when you say the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” think about the will of God for Christian unity and offer your prayer for that unity.

  • Recognize our shared baptism

All Christians (defined as those that profess belief in the triune God, and are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) share the same baptism, and are members of the same body of Christ.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  1 Corinthians 12:12-13

We may have differences of doctrine and practices, but we must recognize the baptism that we share, and that binds us together and to God. If we fail to recognize this key point we will have a much harder time even seeing each other as brothers, never mind working towards communion.

Christ established one church, this one church exists today in the form of the Catholic Church, there are no others. Anyone professing the name of Christ is a member of that church. Some in an incomplete or imperfect way, and it is our job to heal the wounds and misunderstandings of the past to bring about reconciliation between all Christians.

  • Dialogue

So how do we bring about this reconciliation without compromising the truth? By talking and listening to each other in a prayerful way.

If you look back at the three major schisms, that I mentions earlier, you will notice that all three stemmed from misunderstanding:

In recent years the oriental Orthodox have said they have no problem with the Chalcedon definition of Christ’s divinity.

Eastern Orthodox don’t so much oppose the Filioque on theological grounds, they don’t like that the Nicene Creed was altered outside of an ecumenical council.

And many of Martin Luther’s 95 thesis were rooted in misunderstandings. Even though he was an Augustinian monk, he lacked a deep understanding of the Church’s teaching on justification. This misunderstanding, coupled with local corruption and scandalous behavior by local clerics, gave the devil an opportunity that he didn’t pass up. An opportunity to tear apart Christianity in the western world.

If we take the opportunity to talk and share our beliefs with other Christians we will see that far more unites us than divides us, if we focus on what unites us we will have an easier time bridging the divides.

Also it must be said that when we get past misconceptions, and sometimes deliberate distortions, of Church teachings there is sometimes less room between the Catholic and Protestant positions.

Take the issue of justification as an example; Martin Luther held that the Church taught justification through works, so he pulled in the opposite direction and taught “sola fide,” or faith alone. But neither is correct. He was mistaken in his opinion that the Church teaches works based salvation, and the Bible specifically says that we are not saved by faith alone in James 2:24 (Some early Lutheran translations goes as far as to add the word “alone” to the end of Romans 3:28). The truth is more nuanced, in that we are justified by Grace, working through faith.

If we talk TO each other, rather than AT each other, we can bridge some of these divides when remaining true to our faith.

  • Progress

If you look at recent history you’ll see that much progress has been made toward unity. Just recently, Pope Francis attended a ceremony in Scandinavia that celebrated the begging of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation.

A lot of people misunderstood this gesture by the Holy Father as celebration of this terrible wound to Christianity and wondered how he could celebrate such a thing, but it wasn’t the wound that he was there to mark, it was the great progress we’ve made in the centuries since an Augustinian monk nailed his protest to a German church door.

Catholics and Protestants fought wars and killed each other all over Europe, we printed books and pamphlets, we burned each other at the stakes, so for the Pope and the head of the Swedish Lutheran church to peacefully meet and shake hands is itself a great step.

Also with the Eastern Orthodox churches there has been great steps towards communion, so much so that in certain circumstances a Catholic can receive communion in an Orthodox Church, and vice-versa.

  • Conclusion 

Will we ever see full communion between all Christians again here on earth? Only God knows the future, but judging by how far we’ve came I’d say it’s more likely now than it was 100 years ago, even more so now than just 20 years ago.  Even though unity is uncertain it’s still a goal we should strive for and constantly pray for.

One thing I know for sure is this: there won’t be segregation in heaven. We will all be united with God, with nothing separating us from Him or each other. This is something we can all look forward to.
(To ask you own question about anything at all related to Catholicism please go to this page; Questions)


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2 thoughts on “Question: Why So Many Divisions in Christianity?”

  1. It would help if Catholics quit claiming to be the “true” church because that means the other churches are all false. And it should be noted that only the Catholic church tortured Christians and then had them burned alive. The Romans did things like that but Christians never did. That only happened after Rome took over the church.

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    1. Christ only founded one church. That one church exists today, as it has for 2000 years as the Catholic Church. As to your charge that only Catholics burned people at the stake; this is not only false but easily proved as such. Have you never heard of the Salem witch trials? Or how about John Calvin executing any Christian that didn’t agree with his view of Christianity when he ruled Geneva as a theocracy. Take a moment and study the Catholic persecution in England, Ireland and Scotland after Henry VIII declared himself supreme ruler of the faith. Do all these examples not count as Christian on Christian violence?

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