Truth with a Capital ‘T’

Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

When I finally had the chance to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the largest and arguably most important church in the world, there were three things in particular that I wanted to do: 1) I wanted to gaze in wonder at Michelangelo’s Pietà. 2) I wanted to stand on the same red porphyry tile on which my distant ancestor Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. 3) I wanted to pray for the reconciliation of the Church.

The basilica did not disappoint. We got there early enough in the morning that it was not yet packed with tourists, so the place was quite peaceful. I was unfortunately not able to get close to the Pietà as the chapel was blocked off, but I did see it from a distance. I confused my husband thoroughly by making him take my picture standing on the porphyry. I tried to explain in whispered tones the significance of this rare holdover from the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, but in the end I suppose it was just a reddish piece of stone.

We had made our way through much of the sanctuary (no small task, especially when you are stopping constantly to take pictures) and were about to head down to the grottoes when I chose my moment to pray. I had many altars to pick from, but all featured relics or icons of some saint or another to which Catholic pilgrims were praying, and I would have felt somewhat of a fraud kneeling there. Therefore, I picked an obliging spot near the Altar of the Transfiguration – roughly halfway between the bones of Saint Peter and Saint Gregory – and squatted down to say my prayer.

My husband was confused by what I was doing and urged me to stand before one of the guides shooed me along, as I couldn’t simply sit down wherever I chose. He did not realize that I was praying. Thus, the moment was somewhat interrupted, but I quickly said my peace and moved on to the grottoes.

Why was it so important for me to pray that prayer in that location? I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus it was not truly a homecoming. Indeed, I have rarely felt more Protestant than when I was in Rome and the Vatican, for everywhere I looked there were reminders of my “otherness”. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and you do not need to be Catholic to feel the inspiration of all that amazing history. No one made me feel unwelcome, but it was quite clear that I was the foreigner in more ways than one. Rome is lovely, but prayers are not somehow more effective there than they are in the Sahara Desert, or the Himalayas, or the Amazon Rainforest.

No, I wanted to pray for Christian reconciliation in Saint Peter’s Basilica for two reasons. First, Rome is still the heart of Western Christianity on account of its history and the many great names who have walked those streets. It holds the allegiance of more Christians than any other group. But more importantly, the church that now stands at the heart of Vatican City, which is meant to be a towering monument to the one true Church built upon the rock of Saint Peter, actually has a more complicated legacy.

By the late 15th century, it was clear that Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, the church built by the Emperor Constantine I, was in disrepair. After a few decades of debate, Pope Julius II took the decision to level the place and build a new church that would be the greatest in Christendom. It took more than a century for the new basilica to be finished, with the design being completed by such artistic masters as Michelangelo and Bernini. Yet, a project of that size is not cheap, and the papacy set about coming up with fundraising efforts.

"The Delivery of the Keys" by Pietro Perugino, circa 1481-1482

“The Delivery of the Keys” by Pietro Perugino, circa 1481-1482

One of the methods of raising money was to sell indulgences. An indulgence is essentially a written note that makes use of the Church’s power to “bind and loose” (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) to exempt donors from a certain amount of penance, either in this present life or in Purgatory.  Such indulgences were particularly marketed in the Holy Roman Empire, which largely overlaps with modern day Germany. An Augustinian monk named Martin Luther became concerned that the indulgence sellers were taking advantage of parishioners by misrepresenting the purpose and “efficacy” of such indulgences. He believed that they were ignoring the need for repentance.

Luther wrote the famous 95 Theses, which were then sent to his superiors and eventually distributed throughout the empire. The document did not call into question the authority of the Pope, the existence of Purgatory, or the ability of the Church to bind and loose. Its concern was that the indulgence sellers were acting as poor representatives of Rome, and that if the Pope knew what they were saying in his name, he would be equally offended. As it turned out, Luther had misjudged, for Rome was not particularly interested in a dialogue on this matter. The next few years saw this previously unknown monk progress in his theology to the point where he no longer saw the papacy as the true herald of the gospel, and that caused him to break from the Church.

Now it was time for Rome to misjudge Luther, or at least to misjudge the rising tide of rebellion against its authority. It was at times slow to respond, at other times heavy-handed, but at all times unaware of just how deep was the fissure that had been created. By the time the Council of Trent was held to deal with the issues raised by the Reformation, the horse had already left the barn. The division had already been made permanent.

Thus, when I look at Saint Peter’s Basilica, I do not see a monument to Church unity so much as a living proof of our disunity. This is not to blame everything on Roman Catholics – there is blame enough to go around. After all, the Great Schism in which the Orthodox churches of the East had ceased their communion with Rome was already old news by the time the Protestant Reformation occurred. As I have written elsewhere, there has never been a time in Christian history at which there was not some major disagreement or controversy threatening to pull us apart.

How in the world does this fit in with the scriptural notion that we all ought to be one? Is this the Church that Hades itself could not overcome: this broken thing that reeks of discord? Is this the spotless Bride of Christ that is stained by the blood of Christians killed and maimed not by pagan emperors, but by their fellow Christians? Can we speak of a universal Church when we have within the United States of America a different church on every corner professing a wide variety of beliefs that may or may not have anything in common?

Let’s set aside the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches for a moment – both of which contain far more division than they would care to admit – and focus instead on the sad state of Protestantism. Now, there are some who claim that there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations, but this has been proven to be an outrageously inflated number based on one source, the World Christian Encyclopedia, that uses about the broadest definition of “denomination” imaginable and then only cites 9,000 Protestant denominations. However, in an article in which he magnanimously refutes this claim, the Catholic writer Eric Scott Alt has also written the following that must be addressed:

Catholics need to stop cit­ing this num­ber, not only because it is out­landishly false but because it is not the point how many Protes­tant denom­i­na­tions there are. The point is the scan­dal of divi­sion and the love of pri­vate judg­ment that has caused so much of it. The scan­dal would be no less if there were two denom­i­na­tions, and no greater if there were two mil­lion. Any divi­sion in the body of Christ is a scan­dal.[1]

I agree with Mr. Alt wholeheartedly. Let us take just a few of the major branches of Protestantism and examine the division that exists only within the United States. Some of the largest denominational groups include Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. They are not the only major groups, but they are some of the oldest and most institutionalized, and thus the easiest to track.

A chart displaying the development of the major branches of Protestantism, by Wikipedia users Lokal_Profil and Hogweard

A chart displaying the development of the major branches of Protestantism, by Wikipedia users Lokal_Profil and Hogweard

Within Episcopalianism, we have some denominations that are part of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church, and others that are not, such as the Anglican Catholic Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church. Among Baptists, we have the Southern Baptists, the National Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches, and a whole host of independents and smaller groups. The largest Methodist denomination is the United Methodist Church, but we find also Free Methodists, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Wesleyan Church, Church of the Nazarene, etc. and so on. The largest Lutheran denominations are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but there are certainly more. And among the Presbyterians we have the Presbyterian Church USA, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and then others like the Christian Reformed Church  and the Reformed Church in America that are sprung from a similar root.

Now, I have listed a number of different denominations, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could fill a whole book simply listing all the splinter groups, and I could spend my entire life attempting to explain the sometimes minute differences between them. Heaven help us! For shame, for shame! Our Catholic friend is correct: this is a scandal of epic proportions.

Yet, we spend most of our time not ashamed in the slightest, because we live in an individualistic, consumer-driven society. If you can go to Starbucks and choose from fifty different ways to take your coffee, or indeed choose instead to go to x, y, or z coffee shop down the road, why should church not be the same way? Why should you not go to whatever place is best for you and your family? Freedom of choice is the American way. We can’t even agree on the proper name for carbonated beverages. (Is it soda, or pop, or soda pop, or just Coke?) We are a democracy. We believe in individual rights. We fill up social media with every last opinion that comes out of our little heads.

All of this means that we do not truly appreciate the discord that exists between us. How many other churches do we pass on the way to church each Sunday morning? Do we spare a thought for them as we do so? Do we even know why we originally disagreed, or if we ever did? We may be more united than that long list of denominations would suggest. We may share statements of confession, formal alliances, and the like. We may send our students to the same seminaries, sing the same songs, and see each other once or twice a year at conferences. But the fact remains that there are very real divisions among us, and even one division is too many. Consider the warning of the Apostle Paul.

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 1:10-13

From left to right: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, John Calvin by René Boyvin, and John Wesley by William Hamilton

From left to right: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, John Calvin by René Boyvin, and John Wesley by William Hamilton

Perhaps this passage would hit closer to home if we inserted the names of some more modern thinkers: “I am of Luther,” “I am of Calvin”, “I am of Wesley,” etc. I have no wish to demean those people, but I think they themselves would be made a bit nervous by the fact that we now refer to ourselves as “Lutherans”, “Calvinists”, and “Wesleyans”. As Paul went on to say,

For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth, Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his labor.

1 Corinthians 3:2b-8

I do not exempt the Orthodox and Catholics from this criticism. True, they do not have as many formal distinctions among them, but we should not mistake that lack of institutional division for a lack of division overall. Both branches of Christianity are what we might call “big tent parties” in politics. They include a wide range of views, cultural differences, and the like. They do not always agree on every doctrinal point. All too often when we look at history, we find that “unity” was maintained by simply kicking out those who didn’t agree, or obfuscating to the point that they broke away of their own accord. And you are unlikely to get agreement between the Orthodox and Catholics as to which side was chiefly responsible for the Great Schism. If one division is one division too many, that’s a pretty big one.

The many Protestant denominations are a result of the advent of pluralistic societies. If you go back and read the writings of the Reformers themselves, they did not envision that they were breaking away from Rome to let everyone run off and believe whatever they wanted to believe. They wanted to reform the Church, but they still believed in one Church, at least those who actually held to the truth of scripture that we have already seen. The splintering that has occurred is the result of more open societies where personal choice is often emphasized over corporate responsibility. Yet, just because things have turned out this way, and just because we have the freedom to church hop until the end of time, does not mean that this is in line with what Christ intended. In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Alright then. How do you propose we fix the problem?” Well, I will admit first of all that this side of Heaven, the problem will never be completely fixed. Even those who have the Spirit are still subject to the temptations of the flesh and are still prone to error. We are perfected neither in knowledge nor in our desires. Therefore, division is bound to occur, and should anyone abandon the truth of the gospel, division may well be necessary. After all, if I could sacrifice my life right now to bring about unity in the Church, that would be the noblest of noble deaths. But if I ever sacrifice the gospel to bring about a supposed unity, I am no friend of Christ. I have chosen the false peace of the world rather than the true reconciliation that comes from God Himself.

Let me throw a Latin phrase at you: “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.” This sentence was apparently first used by Marco Antonio de Domnis, Archbishop of Split in his work De Repubblica Ecclesiastica, released in 1617. However, it has been attributed to theologians as early as Augustine and adopted by Catholics, Lutherans, Puritans, and others. So what does it mean? The closest rendering is something like, “In necessary things unity, in uncertain things freedom, in everything charity.”

That is a very nice sounding phrase, but it is deceptively simple. How do I know this? Because the man who apparently first wrote it was a most controversial figure. He was a Croatian archbishop who had a falling out with Rome over the authority of the papacy, then sought refuge from the Inquisition in England. He eventually became as fed up with the English Church as he was with Rome, and attempted to make a return to Catholicism, but that didn’t quite work either, and at the time of his death he had been declared a heretic, though he died of natural causes. Clearly, Archbishop Marco struggled to follow his own decree, or at least to convince anyone else of its truth. However, his phrase was picked up by the English theologian Richard Baxter and has made its way down to the present day.

I may turn out to be no more successful in making this point than the archbishop, but I will nevertheless try. I will branch out ever so slightly from the original phrase and propose that all self-declared Christians can be divided into one of three categories: 1) those with whom we fully agree, 2) those with whom we fully fellowship, and 3) those whom we fully love.

"Pentecost" by Jean II Restout, circa 1732. It was a simpler time.

“Pentecost” by Jean II Restout, circa 1732. It was a simpler time.

Full agreement would be that magical situation in which your views are 100% in line with someone else’s, maybe not when it comes to your favorite ice cream flavor or the best James Bond movie, but at least on the subject of doctrine. I think it is necessary to state that this is a somewhat rare occurrence. When I look back at things that I have written in the past, particularly the more distant past, I find that I do not even agree with myself 100% of the time. I certainly do not agree with my husband 100% of the time, and we are “one flesh”. I have attended churches in more than one denomination, and I do not believe that I agreed with any of the teaching pastors 100% of the time.

Now, some of this is a matter of getting too nit-picky, and I would submit that you do not have to agree with someone 100% of the time to “fully agree” with them in the way that I mean. You simply need to agree with them on every issue of importance. You don’t necessarily have to agree on whether or not there will be dogs in Heaven, or if they will be the same ones that were here on earth, or if they will finally be able to speak human.

Beyond this point, there are those with whom we do not fully agree, but nonetheless fully fellowship. This means that we would not hesitate to visit one another’s churches, allow each other to take part in communion, participate in Bible studies together, and generally do all the things that Christians do together. These are people with whom you may disagree on minor doctrinal points, but not ones that are necessary to salvation or compromising to the central gospel message. You do not have to be in the same denomination in order to have fellowship with one another.

We do acknowledge that there are some who call themselves Christians, but who nevertheless have abandoned certain gospel truths. Perhaps they do not believe that the Bible is really the Word of God. Perhaps they do not believe that Jesus was really the Son of God. Perhaps they think you can earn your salvation by committing various righteous acts, without the need for Christ’s atoning work. Perhaps they deny the doctrine of the Trinity, the full humanity of Christ, the literal Resurrection, or any number of other fundamental doctrines. These are all severe errors and ones that we ought not support. Nevertheless, we must realize that all us are lost apart from grace and God calls us to love every person and hope for the best in terms of their future: that they might see their error and be drawn back to the gospel truth. We must oppose such beliefs with a compassionate spirit.

As I mentioned in a previous essay, I believe that we can divide things into “truths” and “Truths”. All Truths are truths, but not all truths are Truths. That is rather confusing, but suffice it to say that a Truth (with a capital ‘T’) is such an important principle that we cannot compromise it. It is severe enough that we have to break fellowship, for to continue meeting together would be to grant tacit approval to something that goes against the Word of God. The terminology here is mine, but the concept is scriptural.

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the young pastor Timothy, he gave him this admonition. “Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of healers.” (2 Timothy 2:14) What did Paul mean by wrangling about words? He makes that fairly clear a few verses later when he says, “But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produced quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23) Therefore, Paul is saying that there are some things that are simply not worth fighting about.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul goes into detail regarding certain areas in which we must show grace to one another rather than causing dissension.

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Romans 14:1-10

Ceiling mosaic at the Basilica of Santa Prassede (author photograph)

Ceiling mosaic at the Basilica of Santa Prassede (author photograph)

This passage establishes that there are some issues that are not Truths. Perhaps they are truths, but certainly not Truths. In fact, something that is right for one person may actually be wrong for another.

I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.

Romans 14:14-21

I believe that what Paul is getting at here is issues where scripture is not explicit – where it is not even clear whether or not something is a sin, and our Christian liberty comes into play. Now, it is certainly true that we all at times attempt to ignore certain scriptural commands or make them seem ambiguous to give ourselves a loophole for bad behavior. That is not what Paul is talking about here. He does not mean we should compromise on an explicit teaching of the Word of God. He is saying that there are some things that are not explicit, and there we need to show grace and put the needs of others above ourselves.

Now we have seen what Paul has to say about things that are not explicit, but what about things that are explicit? Here I must refer again to Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.

Galatians 1:6-10

Therefore, if something is a Truth (with a capital ‘T’), we must never forsake it, even if someone should come and preach something different to us. If we are told something contrary to the explicit words of scripture, we may first pull the person aside and kindly attempt to reveal the truth to them, as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos when he was preaching only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:24-26) This intervention was successful, and Apollos went on to become one of the most important leaders in the early Church, and in this writer’s opinion, the most likely author of the Book of Hebrews.

If they persist in proclaiming a different gospel or contradicting an explicit biblical command, then we must distance ourselves from their words and/or actions. Paul had to deal with this in regard to the church in Corinth, which was apparently a real hotbed of doctrinal inaccuracy. He addressed the case of a man who “has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1), i.e. is involved in some kind of incestuous behavior, most likely with his step-mother. Now this may not seem like a doctrinal issue so much as a behavioral issue, but if you read through the whole of 1 Corinthians, it becomes clear that this church had some very wrong ideas about human sexuality, and the actions of this man in particular were going directly against an explicit biblical command. Therefore, Paul writes to them,

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

1 Corinthians 5:9-13

The Apostle Paul as envisioned by Rembrandt van Rijn and his workshop, circa 1657. Perhaps he was writing to the Corinthians?

The Apostle Paul as envisioned by Rembrandt van Rijn and his workshop, circa 1657. Perhaps he was writing to the Corinthians?

The Apostle Paul teaches us that if there is a Christian who is acting against the explicit command of scripture, that is not someone with whom we can have fellowship. He even goes so far as to note that is better to be around non-believers who sin than believers who do, and here I think his concern is partially the association with someone who claims to represent Christ but is a very poor representative. This is a hard truth to accept and may seem contrary to reconciliation, but Paul is not suggesting that such a person needs to be shunned as some form of revenge or a way to make ourselves feel superior. He actually writes, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)

By this, I believe he means that when this person is cut off from Christian fellowship, they will be miserable. They will not have the consolations of Christian community. However, in time, they may come to see the truth. The good news is that the person in question apparently repented and was admitted back into full communion with the church, as Paul describes in his second epistle to Corinth.

But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree – in order not to say too much – to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.

2 Corinthians 2:5-8

So we see the pattern that we ought to follow when we encounter something that appears contrary to the explicit teaching of scripture. As the Apostle John warns us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1) The test to which everything must be held is the gospel truth of scripture. That is how we determine if something is a truth or a Truth, and how we know whether we fully agree, fully fellowship, or fully love a person. (Here I must note that we ought to fully love everyone, including those with whom we agree.)

In all the research I conducted for this essay, perhaps the most helpful Christian author I came across was John Calvin. Now, if you have ever ended up on the wrong end of a debate with a Calvinist, you may not see them as the champions of Christian unity. Yet, I think we can truly benefit from seeing what Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

When we say that the pure ministry of the Word and pure celebration of the sacraments are sufficient signs by which to recognize a Church, we mean that we should not write it off as long as these exist, even though it may be riddled with other faults. There may even by shortcomings in the administration of the Word and sacraments, but this should not cut us off from fellowship. Doctrinal matters are not all of equal importance. Some are essential to true faith: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on God’s mercy, and so on. There are other matters, which can be controversial, but do not destroy the unity of faith… I am not condoning error, however trivial, nor trying to encourage it. I am trying to say that we should not leave a Church because of some minor fault, provided it maintains sound doctrine over essentials and practices the sacraments instituted by the Lord. Then we must try to change what is wrong.”[2]

Calvin seems here to be taking a very practical approach, and one that we should adopt ourselves. He acknowledges that, “If the Church is founded on the teaching of the apostles and prophets and through them believers are told to look for salvation in Christ alone, if that doctrine is shattered, the Church cannot continue to stand. The Church inevitably falls whenever essential doctrine gives way.”[3] However, he also noted quite succinctly, “If we refuse to acknowledge any Church that is not absolutely perfect, we will have no Church at all!”[4] Amen, frère Jean. Amen.

Consider that if we were living in the first century A.D./C.E., we would probably not have the option of going to another church in town if we didn’t like something. Where you went to church was determined by your location, and there were not separate denominations. Therefore, if you ever did not get along with someone or had some minor doctrinal dispute, you really could not form another denomination. You had to find a way to get through it and live the Christian life together. Only severe heresy would be enough to split a church, because they were in a fight for survival as a persecuted minority. They clung to each other and supported one another. We will never return to that simplicity in this life, but it is worth remembering that our divided condition is symptomatic of the fact the Christianity has become a majority religion in much of the world, and we have in a sense become too cozy and consumeristic.

Therefore, as we seek to pursue reconciliation within the Body of Christ, let us take a self-sacrificing approach in which we show no concern for our own pride, but all concern for the gospel. Let us learn to distinguish truths from Truths.

In this essay, I have spent quite a bit of time on doctrinal differences. Yet, it saddens me to say that very many divisions in the Church are not caused by any major doctrinal dispute. I have seen with my own eyes both churches and individual relationships between Christians come crashing to the ground not because of a disagreement over the Virgin Birth, but because of a simple lack of love. As many splits occur over political (in the sense of church politics) and personality issues as anything else. This is actually where we may have more hope to make a long-term impact, for while we cannot compromise the gospel, we can make a great many compromises in regard to our own sinful pride. That is the issue we will take up next.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] Alt, Eric Scott. “We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denominations”. National Catholic Register (blog article). 9 February 2016.

[2] Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1987), pg. 236.

[3] Calvin, pg. 241

[4] Calvin, pg. 239

Other articles in this series: 

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#7 – Impossible Questions

#8 – True Love

#9 – The New (Old) Commandment

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just