Fourth in the "Tough Questions" Series
NIV Matthew 16:16, 18; Ephesians 1:22-23 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Why so many Denominations?
Why are there so many Christian denominations in the world? I mean, really! Does God care if I’m a Baptist or a Methodist or a Catholic or a Pentecostal? How many times have you heard that question? Maybe you’ve brought it up yourself. It’s a good question. It’s a fair question too. Because it’s a question that really gets at the heart of who we are as human beings, and who God is and what God means in our lives. But in order to understand the answer to the question, we’re going to have to understand the history behind the splits in the first place.
So let’s first take a look at all the church splits down through history and why they happened.
The first one I want to suggest to you, you won’t find in any history book. It took place before the church was officially called the church. Look at those first followers of Jesus, twelve men with different ideas about who Jesus was. Before they ever got to “graduation.” Before Jesus’ ministry on Earth was finished, one of them split off from the rest. Judas had his own ideas about what Jesus was supposed to do and who Jesus was supposed to be. When Judas’ ideas were not realized, he split from the rest of the disciples. In essence, Judas was the very first split in the church. And it was exemplary of almost all of the church splits that would follow, because it was about the misunderstandings between humans and what God’s intentions for us are.
But let’s get into the divisions that took place after the initial formation of the church. We commonly acknowledge that the church was born on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples and many new members were taken into the faith. From there the church grew across the known world primarily by the missionary journeys of Paul and some of the other apostles. Over hundreds of years, Christianity went from a new religion on the fringes, to a religion for which one was persecuted and martyred, to the official faith of the Roman Empire, to an established faith in the entirety of the Western World. And while there were controversies during this time of growth and development, none of them actually split the church like those that were to come.
In 1054 we find the first major split in the church, what is now referred to as the Great Schism. It split the church East ad West, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The primary cause of this split was over power and control of the church. (Anybody surprised at that?) The Eastern Orthodox Church would experience its own divisions, (Russian/Greek/etc.) but let’s continue to focus on the Western Church.
The next major split in the Western Church took place in 1517 when a Catholic Monk named Martin Luther published his 95 theses of protest against the practices of the Catholic Church. Luther and others were particularly concerned with doctrines concerning purgatory, indulgences, devotion to Mary, the sacraments, and the power of the Pope. Because of the nature of Luther’s statements, protest, this new movement was dubbed the Protestant Reformation.
Four prominent church traditions arose from the Protestant Reformation, Lutheranism, the reform movement led by John Calvin which became Presbyterianism, the Anabaptist movement, and the Anglican Church, otherwise known as the Church of England. Let’s look at each of those a little bit and see where they lead us.
First, the Lutheran Church.
The Lutheran church has certainly had its share of controversies and divisions, but overall, it remains rooted in the teachings and reformed doctrines of Martin Luther. Lutherans celebrate communion every Sunday and believe that the communion elements are actually the body and Blood of Christ. Lutheran churches also baptize infants. In fact, doctrines aside there is not a great deal of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.
Let’s look at the Calvinists and Reformers
John Calvin also began the reformed theology movement in the sixteenth century. Calvinism and reformed theology are probably best known for the doctrines of predestination and election. I spoke a bit about these last week, so I’m not going to recover that ground this morning. Suffice it to say that reformed thinkers primarily believed that “man is incapable of adding anything from himself to obtain salvation and that God alone is the initiator at every stage of salvation, including the formation of faith and every decision to follow Christ.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinist
As concerning communion and baptism, the reformed churches including the Presbyterians again, differ little from the Catholic Church. They practice infant baptism and Holy Communion.
So let’s look at the Anabaptists
The Anabaptist movement also began in the 16th century. The term "Anabaptist" comes from the practice of baptizing individuals who had been baptized previously, often as infants. Anabaptists believe infant baptism is not valid, because a child cannot commit to a religious faith, and they instead support what's called believer's baptism. Today the Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ are the most common bodies referred to as Anabaptist. And apart from believer’s baptism, the Anabaptists also have a different view of communion. In these churches, communion is often seen simply as a memorial meal. It is celebrated as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, nothing more.
Which leaves us with the Anglicans
The Anglican Church or the Church of England has much deeper roots than other Protestant denominations. It is believed that the English church began sometime in the 5th or 6th century with missionaries from Scotland and Ireland. It remained a part of the Roman Catholic Church until the 16th century and King Henry VIII. Because the Catholic Church would not allow Henry to divorce, Henry decided to declare that the English crown was the only supreme head of the Church of England. This action made the Anglican Church officially separate from the Roman Catholic church. The Anglican Church is the parent of such denominations as the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist church. And again, Anglicans of all manners celebrate infant baptism and Holy Communion. In most Anglican based churches, communion is celebrated as a Holy Mystery wherein Christ is present in the act in a way that is not wholly understood.
Now in all honesty, this is a very very brief overview of how we’ve moved from one Church to many church denominations. I have not touched on many of the controversies that caused these splits. I haven’t looked very much into the differences in doctrine and sacraments. I’ve really only scratched the surface. If I were to go deep on the subject of Church History…. Well, suffice it to say that it is a full two semester course in seminary. I couldn’t cover it in the space of one simple sermon.
And that’s not really what my intentions are today anyway. Because in looking back at our history, the question resurfaces: Why are there so many denominations? Why can’t we all agree on the tenets of the faith? Isn’t this whole Church thing about something more?
Yes, it is about something more.
But first I’d like you to consider something important. For all its value, for all its importance in the world, the Church is a man-made institution. It is run by human beings. It is governed over by human beings. And just like any other human institution, it is a mess. I suppose it’s a matter of our fallen, sinful nature, but we cannot even take an institution ordained and started by God incarnate and not mess it up! I guarantee you folks, it was not God’s intention to have all these splits in His church. God knows it’s not a very good witness to our unity of faith to come from so many different perspectives. I can tell you this morning without a doubt in my mind God does not want us to divide over our differences. God wants us to unite over our commonality.
We are not called to many little bodies of Christ. We are called to be the whole body of Christ for the whole world. The Christian Church is not just a human organization: Its strength and authority come from Christ! Jesus Christ came to earth to give us an insider’s view of the Father’s love and to establish our personal relationship with Him.
When the time came for his return to the Father, he made provisions for bonding his disciples together in a special organization. This organization came to be known as the Church. It is a collection of those who are called out from the secular world to serve Christ. Jesus told Peter that the Church would be built on his confession of faith. As the big C church, we are more than the sum of our parts. The Church is not a building, it meets in buildings. The Church is the entirety of believers, all who confess Christ as savior.
Christ is the head of the church: We are the hands and the feet of Christ called to do His work here on earth. In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote: We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." Very plainly, Paul sees the Church as the people of God, not the institutions and structures that humanity has placed on the practice of Christianity.
Jesus also came to earth to establish the Kingdom of God. His life and ministry focused on building that Kingdom. What is a kingdom? Well, we often think of landmass, a monarch or a castle. But a kingdom is none of these. Rather, it involves people subject to a ruler. So the Kingdom of god exists anywhere you find people who give god control of their lives. That’s what we mean when we pray the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that says: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking God to do his will in our lives as fully as it is done in heaven. The Church then manifests the Kingdom of God on earth. Every group of believers, every denomination, is a branch office.
Critics often look at the church with its flaws and its problems and conclude that it has drifted far from its roots. Not true! The Book of Acts and most of Paul’s epistles document all manner of problems with the early church. Anytime a group of imperfect people come together, problems soon follow. As one evangelist once said: “The only way to have a perfect church is to throw out all the current members and don’t take any new ones in.”
The genius of the Church is not that it is trouble free but that the Holy Spirit works to resolve our problems. The world should see a difference in the way we live. And I guess that’s where I’m really going this morning.
We’re not perfect. But we are forgiven. We are called to work for unity in the Church and in the church. So I’d offer you some food for thought this morning.
How can we be more unified as a church?
And, how can we be more unified with God’s church in the world?
I know that right now there are rumors that our denomination might split over a controversial issue. And what kind of witness to the "United" nature of the United Methodist Church are we if we cannot avoid a split over controversy?
How can we work toward keeping our unity and our unified witness?
What will it take for us to be the complete Body of Christ in the world?
Can we do it?
Can you do it?
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