Many Christians today (including myself) have growing discomfort with denominationalism. It’s troubling that Christians portray themselves as having the greatest truths that the world needs to hear; yet, from the viewpoint of outsiders, Christians appear to be a very divided group. And if you go from a Baptist church to a Charismatic church, it could almost feel like walking into a new religion that believes in the same God. Denominationalism can also fuel a sense of arrogance and narrow-mindedness that is also unappealing to observers.
So, in light of these issues, the ecumenical movement (which seeks to put denominationalism aside and unite Christians of all types) seems to make a lot of sense. But, objectors to this movement have a reasonable concern: The New Testament is loaded with stern warnings to steer clear of false doctrines and false teachers. This is why many Christians who are sure that they know the truth on various matters sometimes feel a need to wall themselves in with other Christians who believe the same way. And thus denominations form.
The interesting thing is that many of these warnings about false doctrines come from the writing of Paul. Yet, Paul himself denounced factions with the church in his letter to the Corinthians:
“I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. Some of you are saying, ‘I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, ‘I follow Apollos,’ or “I follow Peter’ or “I follow only Christ.’ Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!” (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
Paul makes this exhortation of unity among different Christians, but in other parts of his writing, he shows no tolerance for false doctrine. So what should we make of this?
Every now and then in the saga of church history, a growing number of Christians just get really fed up with the arguing among Christians. So, they decide to just set aside all the “human theories” that have pervaded the church and simply teach what the Bible says. But the problem they tend to encounter is that the Bible itself isn’t always as clear as they thought.
In the Protestant Reformation in the 16th-17th centuries, the first reformers such as Martin Luther resolved to trust in the Bible as the sole, sufficient Word of God, instead of relying on the traditions of the Catholic Church. What ended up happening, though, was that the reformers couldn’t agree on what the Word of God really said. For example, John Calvin thought the Bible taught predestination, while Jacobius Arminius thought the Bible taught free will, and these doctrines were seen as fundamental enough to warrant separate movements.
By the 1800s, a large group of Christians in America were fed up with the arguing among Protestants, so they formed a movement called the Disciples of Christ. Their goal was to discard all manmade creeds and theologies invented by Protestants and stick to what they thought were simple truths of the Bible. But they too fragmented within a few generations because their members had disagreements on what the Bible itself actually said.
In the early 1900, the Pentecostal movement began. They believed that in order to correctly interpret the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit must guide you through the Bible. Thus, they saw the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment as the solution to doctrinal dilemmas. But, a century later, Pentecostalism has also divided into many groups, each claiming that the Holy Spirit gave them their doctrines.
What I find interesting, is that in the Scripture quoted above, Paul put the people who say, “I follow Christ” in the same group as the people who claim to follow specific church leaders. I think that church history proves Paul’s statement to be correct.
What many ecumenical Christians say is, “Why can’t we just look beyond our (relatively) minor differences and find common ground with each other?” That sounds like good advice, but unfortunately it’s hard to implement because it’s difficult to determine what qualifies as a “minor difference” when it’s the Word of God that we’re dealing with. Furthermore, many Christians apply what I call “slippery-slope” assumptions about doctrinal errors. They admit that a particular misunderstanding (in and of itself) is not so bad, but they assert that the error inevitably leads to other, more serious errors, and thus, teachers of the “small” error must be shunned to prevent serious false teaching. If we apply this kind of slippery-slope logic, not even the slightest deviation can be tolerated because it sets off a chain reaction of other errors. But is this really the way that God wants us to look at each other? Is there a better way to look at each other’s beliefs? I think there is. This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll resume this topic in a new post shortly.