Posts Tagged With: heresies

If Christianity is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 4, Ultimate Questions

We have been looking at the phenomenon that confronts our world today, that there are scores and scores of separate churches within the Christian faith. We talked about what happened exactly, looking at some major events through the lens of history, and the root cause of the sinfulness of the human mind which prevents us Christians from being of one mind on things. That leaves us to consider the ultimate reason for the divisions that exist. First of all, I, as a Christian, am bound to believe that what has happened has happened strictly in accordance with the inviolable will of the sovereign God. The God of whom it is said, The lot is cast in the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD, (Proverbs 16:33) is the same God who rules and governs all of creation, working His sovereign will in whatever happens. This is especially true of what happens to the Church of Jesus Christ. And although Christians often have little but the faintest glimmer of the reason why things happen, that is, the ultimate purpose is of everything we are experiencing here and now, in this case God himself gives us a clue in the Bible. We read:

1 Corinthians 11:19

For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

The word, heresies here is used in the pure Greek sense of schisms or divisions from the Greek word, heresis. The point is that even those divisions which occur in the Church of Jesus Christ are according to God’s ultimate purpose, in order to distinguish those which are approved by God from those which are rejected. This is a hard teaching in many ways, but it does especially help to explain those divisions which come from a serious departure from sound Christian beliefs or behavior. But what about other cases in which the differences are more subtil and Christians still embrace one another, yet different churches lack substantive fellowship because of doctrinal differences? In cases where you have two genuinely Christian Churches which must remain separate, what could be God’s purpose in it?

I would like to submit that the reason God has allowed the churches that make up Christianity to split over so many different topics is in order to keep us humble. There is a tendency in any human institution (not in this case an institution founded merely by humans, but one which is nevertheless made up of sinful human beings,) for the inertia and pride of the institution to overshadow the mission. In the case of the Church of Jesus Christ, if there were only one united Church on earth, Christians might start to think that this Church is incapable of error (infallible), and depend on it more than on God. We see pride in the decadence of the Church of Rome in the age of the Renaissance, when popes sought worldly gain with impunity, by the sword or by selling indulgences1 to poor uneducated peasants to build the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica. It is seen in the various television empires which were built in the 20th century by popular preachers who grew to love the world more than Christ and His word. If there were not any divisions, pride in our churchly institutions would grow unchecked. But since we are so weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, divided in to hundreds of tiny sects by common parlance, can there be any doubt where the strength of Christianity lies? It’s not in us, but in Him. Because we are so divided for some good reasons and many not so good reasons, we must depend on God who gave His Son to die for us.

It is my belief that God has ordained that the Christian Church be divided because God’s glorious grace is magnified in the weakness of His people, as He says,

God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:27-31

1Indulgences were sold by travelling pedlars in Europe: slips of paper signed by the pope with the promise that those who bought them would procure release from suffering in Purgatory for themselves or others on whose behalf they purchased them. The funds raised were used to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

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If Christianity Is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 1, Defining Differences

The vast array of denominations and sects within Christendom is dizzying and admittedly wearying to inquirers and those new to the faith, let alone to your average longtime church-goer!
Some may wonder whether Christianity can be the true faith, considering that there are so many divisions and disagreements between professing Christians. Why are Christian churches divided into so many different labels and groups?

1.  Defining differences

First of all, there are differences, and there are differences.  The first type is fundamental and essential differences in the faith.  The Apostle Paul in Holy Scripture writes about these when he says:

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. 1 John 2:18, 19

When division occurs in the church over an essential doctrine like the doctrine of Christ, there is a distinction being made between true and false religion, between that which is Christian and that which is Antichristian. This is the kind of division John is describing in the passage above. Many divisions in the Christian Church throughout history have been of this kind. (Ever since the resurrection of Christ, we have been in the “last time” that John refers to.) For example, in New Testament times there was a gnostic movement which attempted to blend Christianity with Greek philosophy in order to make Christianity more attractive to Greeks. Eventually the gnostics denied that Christ had come in as a real human being with a human body, since this idea was offensive to Greeks. It was a denial of Christ the Mediator, God come in the flesh. In such cases where there is a split over essential Christian doctrine, one group continues as the true Christian church and the other is a false church or religion of some other kind.  John calls them, “antichrists.” Many other divisions of this essential nature happened in the first millenium of Christianity, especially during the debates over the Trinity and the person of Christ, leading to such breakaway heretical groups as the Arians, the Sabellians, the Nestorians, and the Monophysites. Some modern groups which have followed in the mold of the ancient heretical groups are the Mormons, the Jehovah’s witnesses, and the Oneness Pentecostals. It’s uncanny how closely these modern groups resemble the ancient heresies. And a few of the ancient heresies themselves are still around in isolated pockets around the world.

In other cases, there are differences or divisions which do not involve an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, and different churches may continue to recognize one another as true churches of Christ, yet there are some limits of various degrees on the amount of fellowship they have with one another, either intentionally or otherwise. In this category would be many of the churches that trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, who still adhere to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, and believe that righteousness in God’s sight comes through faith in Christ alone, but they remain separate for various reasons. In some cases there are doctrinal differences which do not reach to the essential doctrines of Christianity, but they are held distinctly out of a desire to be in full obedience to God’s revelation in Scripture, and two particular Christian churches have not come to agreement on them. Into this category would fall the debates over whether baptism is best administered by sprinkling or immersion, or degrees of difference in understanding the church and the sacraments which do not undermine the good news of the grace of God in Christ for sinners by faith in Him unto salvation.  They are united on first tier essential Christian doctrine, but divided on other issues.  How is it that after two millenia and one common book, so many true Christian churches (not to mention individuals) remain divided on some of the important but second tier issues? To be continued…

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