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…