Our discussion of the fact that there are many different Christian churches would be remiss if it did not include a look at the history behind the various splits and divisions.
For the first few centuries of Christianity, there were different churches in different locations, which more or less had fellowship and communion with one another. In those early centuries a hierarchial structure developed whereby the most important cities in Christendom were led by archbishops. The most important centers and archdioceses were eventually Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Now and then councils of bishops were held representing the entire Church to respond to false teaching that had crept up in part of the Church. The councils of Nicaea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451) are examples, which produced what we know today as the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. These statements about the Holy Trinity and the person of Christ are still important and instructive for us today, subordinate to the Scriptures. Those who could not adhere or subscribe to the documents produced by the councils were considered to be heresies or departures from the true Christian faith. The Church which was unified on the basis of the foundational doctrines of the Triune God and of Christ expressed in these documents was in those days known as catholic, meaning universal or as Augustine put it, “that which has always and everywhere been believed by all Christians” and orthodox, meaning that she followed straight doctrine. For the first millenium of Christianity, then, there was basically only one truly Christian Church extending from Britain and Portugal to North Africa and Palestine. Although many things varied between churches from city to city, and province to province, there was a basic organizational unity and fellowship among Christians professing the true faith handed down from the apostles.
The first and the largest split in the history of Christianity occurred in 1054 A. D. when the western church split from the eastern church, known as the “great schism.” Although there was sadly a good bit of political motivation behind the division, on the surface the split involved the question of whether the phrase “and the Son”, known in Latin as the filioque, belonged in the Nicene Creed. It was not part of the original document but it had been added in the West to express the biblical teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Eastern theologians disagreed, and still disagree to this day. There was also a dispute over whether it was proper to use leavened or unleavened bread in the sacrament of Communion, and over whether the bishop of Rome, aka. the pope, was the universal bishop of the whole Church. Ever since the schism, the eastern church has come to be known as orthodox and the western church as catholic.
The next great division occurred in the western church during the 1500’s, known as the Protestant Reformation. Over a period of centuries many false teachings had gradually but powerfully crept into the catholic church to the point where the good news of salvation by faith in Christ had been obscured. Many extra-biblical traditions had accumulated to the point where even the priests were quite ignorant of the Holy Scriptures, not to mention the laity! Mass was only held in Latin, a foreign tongue to many. The lives of parishioners were filled with such things as veneration of relics (dead bones and other objects supposed to be from saints,) prayer to saints, indulgences (get out of purgatory certificates sold to raise funds for the pope), and the addition of five sacraments not given as such in Scripture: marriage, ordination, confirmation, penance, and last rites. Salvation was taught to be a reward for good works and a result of partaking in the supposed seven sacraments rather than being based only on the merit of Christ himself, as Scripture teaches. But when a great movement known as the Renaissance made available such important scholarly material from the east as the Greek New Testament and the writings of the Greek fathers from the time of the great ecumenical councils we mentioned above, young scholars began to learn that the way of salvation revealed in Scripture is purely by the grace of God in Christ unto salvation unto everyone who believes in Him, based on His merit alone and not on any of our own works, following such passages as Romans 1:16, 17:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
Reformers like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer brought and preached the Bible in their home countries including Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and Scotland. The Bible was translated into the languages of the people from the original Hebrew and Greek so that they could understand the Scriptures for themselves. Worship was held and sermons were preached in the common languages of the people. Instead of basing the Christian faith on the great mass of tradition that had accumulated over the centuries, these Reformers looked to the Bible alone as the final authority and standard for the Christian faith. The Reformers kept those traditions which were based on Scripture and threw out the rest so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Since the Roman Church had rejected the Reformers and their teaching, new churches were established in many countries, wherever the gospel was heard and believed in purity. Although divided by geography and sometimes by some of the finer points of doctrine, these churches, known as Protestant, held the basic Christian faith in common. By rejecting the doctrines of salvation by faith alone and the unique authority of the Holy Scriptures at the Council of Trent ( AD 1545-1563), the Roman Church, commonly known as the Catholic Church, departed from the true Christian faith handed down from the apostles. Sadly she still rejects these important pillars of the true Christian faith of salvation by faith in Christ alone and the Scriptures alone as the final authority, even today. The Protestant Reformation birthed such churches as the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches divided by geography and sometimes certain matters of doctrine or practice, but united on the basics of the gospel.
Over the years, further movements and divisions within the churches of the Reformation produced other churches such as the Baptists and Methodists with their own distinctive emphases during the 1600’s and 1700’s. The 1800’s saw a number of cults started by powerful personalities or self-appointed prophets who gathered their own following, especially in the United States, many of which groups continue until this day. In the 20th century, many of the Protestant churches had become infected with liberal theology which undermined the pure faith based on the Holy Scriptures that had characterized the churches of the Reformation. Many churches were influenced by modern trends like evolutionary theory, “higher” biblical criticism, feminism, and sexual “liberation.” But in several cases a remnant of true believers remained to carry on the heritage of faith in those churches or break away and form new denominations to bear the old name and faith. The charismatic/pentecostal movement attempted to recreate the experiences of the apostolic age, counter to a biblical understanding of God’s plan for redemptive history, I believe. And many independent churches were established, with no official ties or fellowship with any other congregations.
Here is a quick summary of the historical circumstances which led to the plethora of churches and denominations that we have today. So here’s what has happened. That leaves us to consider God’s ultimate purpose in it and offer some practical considerations. To be continued.