I ran across a statement recently that gave me pause for thought: “Christians are often known for their squabbles and divisions.” However, that statement needs to be taken in the context of the article for a clear understanding since “squabbles and divisions” can happen in any group of people and not just among Christians. The article is titled, “Why Are There So Many Christian Denominations?” published on StartingPoint.com, which is a part of North Point Ministries founded in 1995 by Andy Stanley, communicator, author and pastor. The article is quite informative:
During Jesus’ ministry, he prayed that his future followers would exhibit a special kind of unity that would be a testimony to the world. So what happened? Rather than unity, harmony, and cooperation, Christians are often known for their squabbles and divisions. Even when they appear to get along, they divide up into hundreds of different groups, churches, and denominations. For those who are not Christians, it seems confusing. Why can’t they agree on anything? Why are there sometimes four different churches on the same street? Even for believers, the question often arises: Why are there so many Christian denominations? Before we explore this issue, let’s survey the landscape. Within Christianity, there are three main branches: Eastern Orthodoxy (which is chiefly practiced in Russia and Eastern European countries), Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. In the United States, we’re most familiar with Roman Catholic churches and Protestant denominations. While virtually all Roman Catholic churches have the same beliefs, form, and structure, Protestant denominations can vary. These include Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and numerous other groups. In addition, some churches consider themselves within the Protestant stream, but do not affiliate with any specific denomination (such as Bible churches or community churches).
So, why are there so many different denominations and types of churches? There are several reasons. For starters, let’s not forget that denominations are made up of churches and churches are made of people; and sometimes people just don’t get along. After all, just because people are Christians doesn’t mean they always agree. Moreover, Christians still struggle with pride, selfishness, and stubbornness, and this means they sometimes respond to relational conflict poorly. This has often led to debates and divisions within churches and denominations, which in turn leads to the creation of new churches and denominations. It’s an unfortunate situation, but a reality given human nature. Maybe this is why Jesus focused so much on unconditional love and forgiveness as an expression of the kind of people he wants us to be.
Another reason Christians are sometimes divided is legitimate disagreements about secondary areas of belief or practice. What does baptism mean and who should get baptized? How should local churches be structured? Who should fill leadership roles? How often should communion be practiced? How should certain passages in the Bible be interpreted? These are good questions and the answers aren’t always clear in the Bible. Perhaps this is the reason the Bible exhorts us to exercise wisdom and humility when it comes to secondary issues where genuine differences exist (Romans 14-15).
A third reason that so many different groups of Christians exist is differences in personality, passions, and talents. Some people are more inclined to worship God through the exercise of their minds. They therefore focus on analytical thinking and biblical knowledge. Others are more artistically or creatively wired and the way they express their faith is quite different. Still others are more engaged in their relationship with God when they serve others. They find the greatest fulfillment when they can work with their hands or actively serve people with special needs in their communities. While all of these things are important, it’s no surprise that different churches and even whole denominations would emerge in light of the unique personalities of their adherents.
Another example relates to the role of tradition. Certain types of people appreciate the structure and heritage of worshiping God according to traditions passed down over generations or even centuries. Thus, a more traditional church in the Episcopal or Lutheran denomination might feel more comfortable to them. Other people, however, prefer to explore fresh, innovative ways of growing in their relationship with God and often feel boxed in by long-standing rituals or traditions. Therefore, a nondenominational church might suit them best. Of course, these are not the only reasons that different churches and denominations exist, but such practical matters like the role of tradition in a worship service can often play a large role. A lesson we can learn from such diversity is that various churches and denominations can learn from each other and that together, they make up the larger community of faith known as the people of God.
Finally, people from different cultures will express their faith and worship God in their own distinctive ways. It shouldn’t surprise us if churches in a middle-class Midwest American city are extremely different from those in a war-torn, poverty-stricken village in Africa. Consequently, various churches and whole denominations will vary greatly depending upon the geographical location and cultural values of the people themselves.
Despite these differences, there are a few central tenets that bind all Christians together, regardless of their particular church, denomination, culture, or geographical location. Christians believe in God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), that all humans are sinful and in need of grace, and that only Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to have a relationship with God through his death and resurrection. Christians also believe that the Bible most clearly reveals who God is, how we can have a relationship with him, and how we can extend God’s love to other people. While other beliefs and practices are important, and often the cause of disagreements, they are secondary. God’s story is bigger than our differences, and if we continue to seek him according to the longing and desires that he has given us, we can all begin to find our places in his grand story. (Quote source here.)
“God’s story is bigger than our differences, and if we continue to seek him according to the longing and desires that he has given us, we can all begin to find our places in his grand story.” And that is the key to our relationships within the Church and with each other. The causes of our disagreements are secondary and should never take “front and center stage.”
One area of confusion among Christians today centers around the difference between legalism and grace. Matt Slick, President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), gives us the definition of both in the following statements on CARM:
What is legalism?
In Christianity, legalism is the excessive and improper use of the law (the ten commandments, holiness laws, etc). This legalism can take different forms. The first is where a person attempts to keep the Law in order to attain salvation. The second is where a person keeps the law in order to maintain his salvation. The third is when a Christian judges other Christians for not keeping certain codes of conduct that he thinks need to be observed. Let’s examine each one more closely.
The first kind of legalism is where the law of God is kept in order to attain salvation. This is a heresy, a completely false doctrine. We are not able to attain salvation by our keeping the law. Rom. 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Rom. 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” It is simply not possible to keep the Law enough to be saved. Therefore, to try and gain salvation through one’s efforts is a false teaching. It is so bad that those who hold to it cannot be Christians since it would deny salvation by grace through faith.
The second kind of legalism is where a person tries to keep or maintain his salvation by keeping the law. This is also a false doctrine. We receive our salvation by faith (Eph. 2:8-9), not by our ability to be good because no one does good (Rom. 3:10-12). As Rom. 3:28, 4:5, and Gal. 2:21 clearly show, we are justified by faith, not by faith and works. Furthermore, there are strict warnings about attempting to keep the law in order to maintain salvation: Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” And James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” So, if a person is seeking to be either saved by his works (Law) or maintain his salvation by his works (Law), then he is under obligation to keep all of it, and if he does not then, he is guilty before God. Furthermore, consider Jesus’ words in Matt. 7:22-23, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” Jesus condemns them because they were appealing to their salvation based on their faith and doing good. So it should be obvious that we do not keep our salvation by our efforts.
The last kind of legalism, where a Christian keeps certain laws and regards other Christians who do not keep his level of holiness with contempt, is a frequent problem in the church. Now, we want to make it clear that all Christians are to abstain from fornication, adultery, pornography, lying, stealing, etc. Christians do have a right to judge the spirituality of other Christians in these areas where the Bible clearly speaks. But, in the debatable areas, we need to be more careful, and this is where legalism is more difficult to define. Rom. 14:1-12 says that we are not to judge our brothers on debatable issues. One person may eat certain kinds of foods where another would not. One person might worship on a particular day where another might not. We are told to let each person be convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). As long as our freedom does not violate the Scriptures, then everything should be okay. (Quote source here.)
What is grace?
Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is where God shows us mercy, kindness, and patience instead of the judgment that we deserve for sinning against him. God’s grace cannot be earned by our actions or sincerity. It cannot be lost by our rebellion or sin. Grace is based on the character of God and not on our sincerity, performance, or ability to keep the law of God. Otherwise, grace would not be grace.
- Rom. 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
- Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
- 2 Timothy 1:9, “who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”
If it were not for God’s grace, we would never be saved from his righteous judgment. It was the grace of God that worked in Christ who bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), so that we might be forgiven and justified by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1). Because of God’s gracious kindness, all who put their trust in his work on the cross will receive forgiveness, salvation, regeneration, and the eternal love of God. Again, God’s kindness to us is based on his character not on ours. His grace to us is completely and totally an act of his free will and not based on any ability, merit, or performance of our own.
God’s grace is manifested to unbelievers also. Ultimately, all people deserve the judgment of God because all people have sinned (Romans 3:23). However, God does not execute his judgment upon all people right away. Instead, he is exceedingly patient and kind towards them. Please consider what Jesus said regarding loving our enemies even as God loves the unrighteous in Matt. 5:43-48:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Quote source here.)
One last item I want to mention comes from a book titled, “How Now Shall We Live?” (1999), by Charles Colson (1931-2012), founder of Prison Fellowship, and Nancy Pearcey, Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. It has to do with the difference between Christians who actually practice their faith as compared to Christians who primarily use it for their own purposes. The following is taken from Chapter 32 titled, “Don’t Worry, Be Religious,” on page 314:
Gordon Allport (1897-1967) [Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, 1930-1967], the great psychologist of religion, drew a distinction between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” religion. Extrinsically religious people use religion for external purposes, like the politician who attends church to gain respectability or the person who prays for purely materialistic benefits. But intrinsically religious people serve God without ulterior motive: They pray in order to communicate with him and understand his truth; they give without utilitarian calculation. In Allport’s professional experience, improved mental health [one of the topics in this chapter] correlates only with intrinsic religion. The benefits go to those who genuinely believe, not to those who use religion for ulterior purposes. (Quote source, “How Now Shall We Live?” p. 314.)
So the question we should ask ourselves is this one: “Are we intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?” I’ll end this post with the refrain from the song, “From the Inside Out,” sung by Phillips, Craig and Dean: And my heart and my soul, well, I give You control . . .
Consume me from the inside out, Lord . . .
Let justice and praise become my embrace . . .
To love You from the inside out . . . .
YouTube Video: “From the Inside Out” by Phillips, Craig and Dean: