The Divided Church
There is no doubt that Christianity consists of a divided church. There are now more than 45,000 Christian denominations throughout the world. Many of these denominations disagree vehemently on many points of doctrine, while others disagree on very fine points of Christian theology.
These differences in beliefs, church governance, Scripture interpretation, and other matters might seem casual to the outside observer but can be of fundamental importance to churchgoers.
This division has not escaped the attention of atheists. For example, the late prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens aggressively promulgated the belief that “religion spills everything.” He also noted,
Four hundred years and more people in my own country of birth have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were.
Hitchens referred to the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and the bitter controversy since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. While much of this division was due to political divisions, there remains some truth in his criticism.
The bitter controversies between various denominations of Christianity are a big turn-off for non-Christians. It certainly counters the love and tolerance Christ preached during his time on Earth. Moreover, the presence of a fractured and divided Christianity seriously hurts the Church’s witness to the rest of the world.
Disunity among Christians was of particular concern to Christ. He understood how a conflict would affect how non-Christians view the gospel’s central message regarding God’s love for all of humanity. Therefore, Christ would pray to his Father that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. So may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me?’ (John 17:21).
One way to evaluate the divisions among various Christian denominations is to concentrate on the similarities that we all share. For example, there is a specific set of beliefs held by all Christians that make us believers in Christ. There is much more that unites Christians than divides them, and it might be worthwhile to concentrate on these similarities rather than the differences.
The Christian faith involves beliefs, values, and a way of life dictated by the Christian worldview. There is much more agreement among the various branches of Christianity in these critical areas than there are disagreements.
The ecumenical creeds of Christianity formulated very early in its history detail these beliefs systematically. They are excellent summaries of the faith’s basic and essential doctrines. These include the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These creeds broadly represent the teachings of Scripture on such critical areas as God, creation, the Church, humanity and its relationship to God, the future, life, death, and the Resurrection.
Even though the three major branches of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism) still have some very sharp differences in the details, the theological precision and historical continuity of these creeds through many centuries of Christian belief are impressive.
There is general harmony among the various branches of Christianity concerning the Trinity, the Incarnation, atonement, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Second Coming.
Christians also agree on many areas of ethics and how people should live. We show on this site how these Christian values help them live a healthier, vital, happy life that contributes more to society than the non-religious. These uniting beliefs include people made in the Image of God, ethics founded in the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, and Sermon on the Mount. The command to love our enemies, take care of the poor, the sanctity of all human life, the sacredness of marriage, the divinely ordained and social institution of the family (Genesis 2:24). Church (Ephesians 1:22-23) and government (Romans 13:1) are moral ideals that are highly valued throughout all branches of the Christian Church.
The Christian Worldview
Christianity informs a believer’s “worldview.” The worldview is the filter by which Christians view the world around them. Thus, a worldview becomes especially important concerning the most significant life issues, including God, the universe, knowledge, values, humanity, and our mutual responsibility toward each other and history.
The three major branches of Christianity share a mutual worldview that sees reality as an unfolding of history through creation, fall, redemption, and eventual consummation. This worldview means Christians try to live good lives of honesty, goodness, and beauty, not to receive God’s love but to reflect God’s love for us.
Most churches throughout Christianity recite certain creeds; however, many in Protestant evangelicalism do not have formal creeds.
The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo,” meaning “I believe.” Creeds can be just a few words to a few pages in length. According to historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, the purpose of a creed is to provide “a concise, formal, and authorized statement of important points of Christian doctrine.”
Scripture has multiple creeds dispersed throughout its pages. For example, Deuteronomy 6:4 is very familiar to all Jew, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This recitation is called the “Shema,” which is the Hebrew word for “Hear.” The New Testament also has its share of credal statements, possibly the earliest being the succinct statement “Jesus is Lord” (Philippians 2:11).
Creeds summarize the central beliefs of the Christian faith because, as Christian historian Mark A. Noll pointed out, “They were thoroughly, profoundly, comprehensively, and passionately rooted in Scripture.” They are used in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches, allowing the congregation to publicly state their beliefs. Pelikan notes,
Every Sunday all over the world, millions and millions of Christians recite or sing (or, at any rate, hear) one or another creed, and most of them have had a creed spoken over them, or by them, at their baptism.
Some might wonder why Christians would be so concerned about repeating a creed at every service. However, Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “Some truths are so critical that they must be repeated repeatedly.”
Many of the Christian creeds were written to combat heresies that arose in the early days of the Church. Such heresies included Arianism, which denies the full divinity of Christ. At a time when doctrine is termed “dogma” and belief is undervalued, formal creeds can help Christians develop an organized, precise, and theologically correct understanding of the Christian faith.
Denominationalism and the Divided Church
Perhaps nothing so confuses an investigator of Christianity is the proliferation of its many denominations. Non-Christians often just see factions, divisions, and often strife between these denominations. Some even maintain that they are the “true church” and that all other denominations are just wrong and not “true Christians.” Non-Christians (and many Christians) do not understand why there can not be more ecumenism among Christian denominations. Because of this division, many Christians prefer not to call themselves “Christian” but “followers of Jesus.”
There are also thousands of non-denominational churches that do not belong to any organized denomination. Some of these non-denominational churches are the largest churches in America. For example, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston TX
Many view this as an escape from the strife and internal fighting among denominations. However, there are several problems with non-denominationalism which become apparent on closer inspection.
The non-denominational Church is often limited in what it can do outside its community of believers. Denominational usually have worldwide outreaches and missionaries preaching worldwide, which is not generally possible for a single church. A single church has difficulty maintaining itself, let alone trying to have a worldwide impact. Some of the largest churches in America are non-denominational and have tens of thousands of members worldwide. Television and, more recently, the Internet allows non-denominational churches to have a much more significant impact on the world stage than was ever possible.
The most challenging problem for non-denominational churches is having a sound, Biblically-based doctrine. Unfortunately, non-denominational churches frequently have leaders who did not receive formal training in Christian theology and might develop a doctrine contrary to orthodox Christian belief. Possible heretical views become particularly important in religious bodies with a large following or televised ministries with worldwide distribution. Unfortunately, many historical incidents of small non-denominational churches have gone off the deep end with their theology and led their congregations astray.
Some non-denominational churches may also get involved in politics, which is usually not a good practice. Politics will undoubtedly alienate some people in the Church who may have different political affiliations and drive them away. One of the more unfortunate practices of some non-denominational churches is becoming involved in matters outside of their purview. An example would be the several churches in my local area that have become involved with the advocacy of non-approved COVID treatments. Political activity outside their expertise seems inadvisable as the church leaders have no specialized training in medical sciences.
Sometimes denominations can serve as peer reviews of each other. Theoretically, each branch or denomination might learn from the strengths and weaknesses of other groups. For example, an honest debate on secondary controversial issues such as baptism, the significance of the Lord’s Supper, and eschatology benefits everybody when done with integrity and without strife. This fair-minded critique of each other can help improve all branches and denominations when done correctly.
Another frequently overlooked advantage of denominationalism is the ability of congregants to move from one branch, which has become heretical, to another with more orthodox teachings. While there is certainly significant latitude within Christendom on various issues, there is also a point where divergent beliefs become heresy. Some denominations have leaders that doubt the Resurrection or other central Christian beliefs. The aware Christian congregant should leave such heretical denominations as quickly as possible. Many mainline liberal churches have become little more than social clubs and have suffered the consequences of radically decreased membership.
Historically, the tragic heresies of the Catholic Church led to the Reformation resulting in alternative church bodies attempting to return to Biblical Christianity. The Reformation and its twin, the Counter-Reformation, eventually led to a re-evaluation of beliefs and a change in church practices.</strong
Improving Christian Unity in the Divided Church
The world needs a more united and powerful Christian Church to provide a better witness to the world. Many denominations today are quite small with less than a million members. They would have a much greater world impact if they could unite with other churches of similar ecclesiastical beliefs. For example, theologically conservative Reformed denominations share a great deal in common concerning beliefs and practices. In America, these similar churches include the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), and the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC).
Similar recommendations could be made for conservative Lutheran groups, evangelical Wesleyans, evangelical Baptists, Pentecostal churches, and even non-denominational churches. Groups are always stronger when banded together. There are many traditional Protestant denominations that are not theologically liberal and which affirm traditional Christian orthodoxy.
Some church bodies are particularly good in certain areas of Christian witness. For example, the Salvation Army has its strength in feeding and housing the poor and downtrodden – there are none better. While most conservative evangelical Christians might hold different theological views, many members support the Salvation Army’s work. Similarly, Rescue Missions are serving many larger cities and towns throughout America. They give hope, important life instruction, and Christian witness to those in great need who have no one else to support them. Many of these missions have an evangelical Christian belief system that might differ from some denominations. Still, supporting these missions provides a Christian witness to those unreachable by other means.
Summary of the Divided Church
The divided Church has always been a difficult topic for non-believers to understand. How could God’s Church on Earth become so fragmented, with many widely divergent churches all claiming to represent the truth?
There are certain fundamental beliefs that a Christian church has to have to be considered “Christian,” such as a belief in the Resurrection and the deity of Christ. Just about every other doctrine and belief in the Church has disagreement among different church factions.
While this may seem insurmountable, it does not need to be. Christian groups can become united behind a certain cause. One modern example is the heroic fight against legalized abortion from the Catholic Church and many evangelical Christians. Although these two groups disagree on many doctrinal issues, they have been able to pool their resources behind a common fight.