Why Are Denominations Dangerous?

Jesus wants us to live in unity but instead our manmade denominations divide us

Denominations divide us. Jesus unites us.I recently attended a friend’s ordination ceremony who had graduated from seminary and became a minister. It’s not the first such occasion I attended, and it won’t likely be the last. It was, however, the first time I really listened to what took place.

Integrated into the liturgy of the proceedings were a series of questions posed to the new minister. Early on one of the queries caught my attention. I’ll purposely not quote the question to hide the identity of the guilty denomination, but I will paraphrase it.

In essence the denomination asked the young minister to pledge his loyalty to it and do his best to promote its mission locally and around the world.

My friend’s expected response affirmed his willingness to do so.

I don’t think I would have agreed to such a condition. Shouldn’t we pledge our loyalty to God and do our best to promote his mission locally and around the world?

With 43,000 Protestant denominations, why does each one work so hard to preserve and promote its own brand of Christianity, often at the expense of others? Why not ditch the denomination and instead work hard to promote Christ?

With this still bouncing around in my brain, a second item caught my attention as the ceremony wound down. In this part of the proceedings, my friend promised to take various actions. One such action has him pursuing unity within the church. My friend promised to do so.

Assuming that by church those words refer to the universal church of Jesus, as opposed to the denomination, I see a contradiction of intent, that my friend promised to pursue two mutually exclusive goals.

Our Protestant denominations divide us, whereas Jesus wants us to be one, to get along with each other, and to live in unity (John 17:21, 23). When we consider this carefully, our manmade denominations are the antithesis of the unity Jesus prays for.

If my friend would indeed pursue unity as he promised, he should seek to dismantle the denomination, because its very existence opposes unity.

[This is from the April issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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There Are Two Sides to Every Story: Which Side Are You On?

Gamaliel offers wise advice for whenever religious factions stand in opposition

Christians Fear What They DontUnderstandPaul’s in jail, imprisoned for doing what God told him to do. This isn’t Paul’s first incarceration for his faith in Jesus, and it won’t be his last. When his trial finally begins, his detractors levy four charges against him, which they use to justify their actions.

They say, “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him, (Acts 24:5-7).

Let’s break this down:

  • A Troublemaker: This depends on perspective. To Paul, he’s simply involved in a new movement of God and is excited to share the news with his people. To his accusers, Paul’s messing with their traditions and upsetting the status quo. To them, he spells trouble.
  • Stirs Up Riots: Though riots do seem to occur where Paul goes, he doesn’t incite them. The people who take offense at what Paul says stir themselves up. The riots are their fault, not Paul’s.
  • A Ringleader of the Nazarene Sect: They accuse Paul of heading up a subset of Judaism (a sect), which could simply imply that Paul is a leader among those who follow Jesus, the Nazarene. If so, Paul would likely say “guilty as charged,” but the reality is that Paul’s detractors actually oppose Jesus. It’s just that Paul’s a present target. Jesus isn’t.
  • Tried to Desecrate the Temple: Regarding the event in question, Paul was doing everything by the book, literally. But people jumped to a wrong conclusion and made false accusations.

Paul’s detractors accuse him using twisted facts, half-truths, and lies. People fear what they don’t understand, often going to extreme means to oppose it. So it is when God does a new thing inside his church.

God’s followers too often find themselves in opposition to each other. Instead of fighting one another, they should heed the advice of Gamaliel: “If it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:39). And no one who loves God wants to end up fighting against him.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 24, and today’s post is on Acts 24:5-7.]

3 Lessons from the Early Church

Dr. Luke describes 3 characteristics of the Acts 4 church

3 Lessons from the Early ChurchThe book of Acts unfolds as an historical narrative of the early church, the activities of the first followers of Jesus and those who join them. For the most part, Acts simply describes what happens, with little commentary and few instructions for proper conduct.

While we can look to Acts as a possible model for church life, we would be in error to treat it as a requirement for right behavior. In this way Acts can inform us today, but it doesn’t command us. For example, if I wrote, “My church went to a baseball game after the service,” no one (I hope) would think I was saying that attending baseball games is prescriptive of church life. No. It was merely descriptive of what one church did one time. We would never build our theology on a statement like that.

So it is with the book of Acts. Yet we can learn from it. Luke writes three things about that church:

Unity: The Acts 4 church is of one heart and mind, just as Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:21). Their actions are consistent with Jesus’s prayer. Jesus prayed it, and the early church does it; I hope unity describes every one and every church.

Community Minded: In the Acts 4 church, no one claims their possessions as their own. It isn’t my things and your things; it is our things. They have a group mentality and act in the community’s best interest. While we might do well to hold our possessions loosely, notice that this isn’t a command; they just do it out of love.

Willing to Share: Last, the Acts 4 church shares everything they have. Not some things, not half, but all. This would be a hard thing for many in our first-world churches to do today but not so much in third-world congregations. Again, this isn’t a command (and later on Peter confirms that sharing resources is optional, Acts 5:4); it is just a practice that happens at this moment of time in the early church.

While these three characteristics should inspire us to think and behave differently, and can provide a model for church life, we need to remember that the Bible gives us no commands to pursue a communal-type church. We can, but it’s one option. Of the three only unity rises as an expectation because Jesus yearns for it to be so. That should give us plenty to do.

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 4, and today’s post is on Acts 4:32.]

Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?

Arguing over what is true has divided Jesus’s church for centuries

Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?I’m a huge advocate of Christian unity, that as Jesus’s followers we should all get along and live in harmony. Denominations and theological perspectives don’t matter; Jesus does. In the book of John Jesus prays that his future followers will play nice with each other, that we will be as one. This is so others will get to know him. In praying this Jesus realizes that discord among his people will serve as the biggest deterrent to growing his church (John 17:20-26).

Paul likewise writes that we need to strive to live in unity. He commands it (Ephesians 4:3-6). He says there is only one body; there is only one church, not 43,000 variations that we call denominations. This disunity is the downside of the Protestant Reformation.

When I tweeted about the importance of unity, one person messaged me with the stipulation that the basis for unity must be truth. The problem with using truth as a litmus test is agreeing on what is true. In effect this person was justifying disunity. Specifying a requirement of truth provides an excuse to avoid being one church. Christians have used this pretext for five centuries and divided the church of Jesus into religious factions as they argued about what is true.

The Age of Enlightenment, part of the modern era, brought with it the assumption that over time, through ongoing iterations, human thought would eventually converge on a singular comprehension of truth. This didn’t happen. The opposite occurred. Truth became multifaceted, the product of each person’s individual logic and bias.

Christians have fallen victim to this thinking over the past few centuries, with otherwise well-meaning people assuming their comprehension of spiritual truth was correct. Ergo everyone else was wrong. As a result we have separated ourselves into denominational schisms, subverting the intended unity of God’s church in the process. How this must grieve him. It certainly grieves me.

Spiritual truth is important, but we must hold it loosely. After all, our comprehension of what is true just might be wrong, mine included.

[This is from the November issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

As Followers of Jesus We Need to Live in Harmony

Jesus prays for the unity of his followers and Paul commands it, yet we don’t comply

As Followers of Jesus We Need to Live in HarmonyThe last thing Jesus does before his arrest and execution is to pray. The last part of his prayer is for the unity of his future followers (John 17:20-26). Yet two thousand years later, we still wait for Papa to answer this imperative request from his Son. We are not one, far from it.

When John records Jesus’s prayer for unity, he uses a poetic flare. But when Paul later writes about the necessity of unity, he is direct and unequivocal.

Paul says we must “make every effort” to live in unity, to pursue peace. To underscore this essential need for us to live in harmony, Paul reminds us that there is one church and one Spirit. We have one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (that’s a hard one for many folks to accept), and one Father God.

With all of this oneness that surrounds our faith, why do we feel a need to divide it and divide us? It is our sin that causes division. It is our human nature that results in us moving in direct opposition to Jesus’s prayer and Paul’s command. Our selfishness and lack of godly righteousness has resulted in a plethora of churches to pick from on any given Sunday and the 43,000 denominations in our world today. That’s a lot more than the one that Jesus and Paul envision and desire.

Jesus prays for our unity. Jesus and his Father model unity. Paul commands unity and then explains why a lack of unity makes no sense. Yet we persist in our division with ungodly fervor and in unbiblical error, when we should make every effort to live as one.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Ephesians 4-6, and today’s post is on Ephesians 4:3-6.]

The Downside of the Protestant Reformation

For all its good, the Reformation also spawned a wave of disunity that continues to this day

The Downside of the Protestant ReformationTwo weeks ago was Reformation Day, October 31, which celebrates the Protestant Reformation. I love the Reformation even though it was actually a spiritual revolution against the established status quo. (But perhaps that’s part of its allure.) After all, the root of Protestant is protest.

Though the actual reformation isn’t fixed in one date, on one person, or from one location, as a matter of convenience Martin Luther emerged as its posterchild, Germany became its setting, and Luther’s posting of 95 points of contention on October 31, 1517 set the date. Hence we have established Reformation Day to communicate our celebration of this much larger movement.

I understand that Luther didn’t intent to spark a religious revolt. What he sought was to bring about needed change within the established church, a most admirable and lofty pursuit. Though most of the changes he advocated did eventually occur; they didn’t happen quickly. Instead it took decades. In the meantime impatient change backers, anxious to correct religious errors, set out to form a new church, a reformed practice with the Bible as its anchor.

This was fine, except that not one new church emerged, but many, all variations on a theme but lacking tolerance and love for one another. They argued, they fought, and they killed one another in the name of their brand of religious theology. Each variation of Protestant thought assumed it was right, which implied everyone else was wrong.

Today, almost five hundred years later, we’re still stuck in this mindset. Each person and each preacher and each church establishes their sincerely held view of spiritual thought and then rejects all others who disagree.

But that’s not a problem, they say. The dissenters, the ones rejected, just go out and start their own church, complete with their own spiritual litmus test of who’s in and who’s out. As a result we now have 43,000 Protestant denominations.

How deeply this must grieve Jesus who earnestly prayed that his followers would live in harmony, that we would be one. And, for all the good it produced, we have the Reformation to thank for this most unbiblical result of division, dissention, and disunity.

God help us all.

What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?

Most Christians carry unexamined criteria that others must agree with before they’re accepted

What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?I was once interviewed for a volunteer position at my church. The pair of interviewers cranked through a series of pre-assigned theological questions to determine my supposed worthiness to lead.

For some queries the answers were straightforward; others, not so much. On these tougher questions, instead of responding with simplistic answers, I shared a more complex perspective, one packed with more questions but backed by biblical support. I answered with shades of gray, but my inquisitors wanted black and white responses. I knew what they wanted to hear, but instead I was honest. I suppose that in a sense I should have responded with the religious equivalent of political correctness.

For my candor I earned a one-on-one meeting with the senior pastor. He had five areas where he sought clarification. We worked through the first four without issue; he accepted my grayscale answers.

Though I don’t remember what it was, the fifth area was problematic. As he drilled down I realized I was at a tipping point. If I gave the pat answer he wanted to hear I was in. If I vacillated, I was out.

I wanted to serve my church in this capacity and, more importantly, I felt God had called me to do so – more succinctly, he told me to. With only a tinge of guilt I gave the easy answer that would assure my acceptance. Pastor smiled and shook my hand. I was in. I passed his spiritual litmus test.

We all have spiritual litmus tests. Though I try not to, I know I do. So do you. Of a larger concern, churches have their litmus tests, too. These litmus tests are why our world is saddled with 43,000 Protestant denominations. After all, if we agreed on everything there would be no reason to take the unbiblical step of separating from one another, of dividing the church that Jesus prayed would experience unity.

While most everyone draws a spiritual line in the sands of theology that cannot be crossed, none of this should matter. Whether it’s disagreeing about baptism, communion, which version of the Bible is best, the song selection, pews or chairs, the color of the lobby, or even if men need to wear ties to church, Jesus wants us to be one. Unity is more important than theology (and personal preference). That’s what matters most.

Are You of More Noble Character?

Examine the Scriptures every day to see if what people say is true

Are You of More Noble Character?The book of Acts tells about the early church, with the latter two thirds of it focused on Paul’s travels and interactions with the various city branches of Jesus’s church. One brief stop is in the city of Berea. Luke writes this about them: “The Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica.”

Note that he doesn’t say they have a noble character, merely that they are more noble than the folks in a nearby city. Depending on the level of the Thessalonian’s character, this comparison could mean little (if the Thessalonians have no character) or much (if the Thessalonians have great character).

Regardless the church in Berea is affirmed for their more noble character. There are three reasons why:

1) They Eagerly Listen to Paul: They seriously consider what he says. They have an open mind but aren’t gullible.

2) They Verify What He Says: They check to make sure that what Paul says about the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) is true. They confirm he’s not misquoting the Bible or taking things out of context.

3) They Believe What Paul Says: After listening and verifying, they act. They believe in Jesus and set an example for others.

For these reasons their character is assessed as being more noble.

Today many people aspire to be noble like the Bereans, yet they fail to measure up. When they listen it is to find fault; they seek to argue over the meaning of words. When they read the Bible it isn’t to find agreement with others but to seek reasons to disagree. They look for any way to reinforce their theology and reject the interpretations of others. This is a huge reason why we have 43,000 Protestant denominations today: people choose to make distinctions and divide the church of Jesus.

If only they would be more noble like the people of Berea: they listen, verify, and believe.

What else can we learn from the church in Berea? How can our Bible reading be used to advance unity in Jesus? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Acts 17-19, and today’s post is on Acts 17:10-12.]

In Jesus We Are the Same: It’s Time We Start Embracing One Another

In Jesus We Are the SamePaul writes that when we follow Jesus there’s no real difference between being Jewish or Greek, slave or free, male or female, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, or uncivilized (1 Corinthians 1:10). Stop to think about this, to really contemplate the ramifications. He tells us to break down all divisions over ethnicity, social status, gender, and religious practices.

Paul wants us to function as one and live in unity. In the same way Jesus wants us to live as one, just as he and his Father exist as one (John 17:21).

Today we need to apply this vision for unity to the church Jesus started. We need to add that when we follow Jesus there’s no real difference between being Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant; Mainline, Evangelical, or Charismatic.

But to our shame we divide Jesus’s church. We live in disharmony. We fight with each other over our traditions and our practices and how we comprehend God. We spar over worship style, song selection, and a myriad of other things that relate to church practices and right living. Or to avoid these errors we simply ignore one another, and that’s almost as bad.

But the world is watching, and they judge Jesus through our actions. They test what we say by the things we do. And we fail their test.

With our words we talk about how Jesus loves everyone and with our deeds we diminish our brothers and sisters in Jesus with a holier-than-thou discord. If we can’t love those in the church, how can we love those outside the church?

It’s no wonder the world no longer respects the church of Jesus and is quick to dismiss his followers. We bring it upon ourselves with our church splits and 42,000 Protestant denominations, with our petty arguments over practices and theology and everything in between.

But with a couple billion Christians, mostly living life contrary to God’s will by not getting along with each other, what can you and I do to truly make a difference?

We can change this one person at a time. Find another Christian who goes to a church radically different than yours (or who has dropped out of church) and embrace them as one in Christ.

If you are a mainline Christian, find a charismatic follower of Jesus and get to know him or her. If all your friends are evangelicals, go to Mass and make some new friends. If all the Christians you know look just like you, find some who look differently. Diversify your Christian relationships to expand your understanding of what following Jesus truly looks like.

It’s time we embrace one another. The whole world is watching.

How can we live out Paul’s command to break down our divisions? What is the biggest obstacle to us living in the unity Jesus prayed for? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Why We Shouldn’t Argue Over Theology

When Paul writes to his protégé Timothy, he instructs Timothy to warn the people not to quarrel over words. Isn’t that what most theological debate is, people arguing about words? People who claim to follow Jesus end up arguing about the meaning of certain words. They build their own theology around their understanding of these words and then reject everyone who thinks otherwise. This is the primary reason why the world has 42,000 protestant denominations. People who should know better quarrel over words and then storm off in a huff to form a new denomination of people who think just like they do.

Why We Shouldn’t Argue Over TheologyDon’t they read what Paul wrote? He says quarreling over words “is of no value” and “only ruins those who listen” (2 Timothy 2:14).

Later on he says to not “have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments,” which only “produce quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).

This isn’t the first time Paul tells this to Timothy. In Paul’s first letter of instruction he talks about false teachers and their “unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words.” The result is “envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions” (1 Timothy 6:4).

So we must stop fighting over words. The Bible says to. Nothing good ever comes of it.

Isn’t quarreling about words the source of our theological debates and divisions? We need to stop arguing about theology and instead unite to tell the world about Jesus.

Can you think of a theological debate that wasn’t a quarrel over words? How should we treat those we disagree with? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.