I Don’t Get It (Church Division)

I have often said, and now once again confess, that I am not the sharpest bulb in the drawer, or the brightest blade in the box. There are many things about which I am confused, and when someone explains them to me I want to say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?” So, the following conundrum may not be a problem to you at all. But for me, well, I’m stuck . . .

The problem to which I refer was illustrated by a recent conversation when, in a room full of individuals representing many different churches, a person said, “We are all Christians, we may have different labels, but we all believe the same thing, believe in the same God, believe in Jesus.” To which I thought to myself, “Um, no we don’t.”

You see, in my limited intellectual capacity, you either believe something or you don’t. If you believe something, it is important to you and you are at least willing to defend it as a personal belief, or you are willing to discuss your belief in the hopes of arriving at a better belief. Let me state a necessary deduction to my way of looking at the world:

Those who claim that all “Christians” believe the same thing and are simply divided by different “labels” are either (a) ignorant or ambivalent about the beliefs of their own church or are (b) ignorant about the beliefs of other churches or (c) are of the opinion that said beliefs are totally irrelevant.

If you hold position (c), then my only question is why do you affirm any of your current beliefs? If such beliefs are irrelevant, then it seems to me you would discard those beliefs and accept the beliefs of other who are utterly and totally convinced of the importance, and correctness, of their beliefs. So, let’s look at positions (a) and (b), which are really just two sides of the same coin.

To be as honest as I can, and to be as gentle as I can and still be clear, it is simply impossible for followers of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and various other stripes of free church theology, to be “united” in any realistic sense of the word. For example –

If you are a Roman Catholic, and you firmly believe in such dogmas as Papal infallibility, apostolic succession, transubstantiation (and its related dogmas), the veneration/adoration/worship of Mary (and the perpetual virginity of Mary as well), then it is simply impossible for you to be “united” with those of us who reject those dogmas. Those doctrines are not just incidental to the Catholic faith – they are what makes Roman Catholics what they are. If you reject Papal infallibility, if you reject transubstantiation, if you reject any kind of special place for Mary – well, it is very difficult for you to consider yourself a Roman Catholic. And if I reject those doctrines, how can you say you are in fellowship with me?

Likewise with Lutherans – if you  hold to consubstantiation, if you hold to the doctrine of “faith only,” if you defend infant baptism, then I would suggest it should be impossible for you to consider that a Roman Catholic on one side or me on the other would be faithful Christians. The Catholic should (if he/she is being true to Catholic doctrine) reject the idea of “faith only,” as do I, for entirely different reasons. The Roman Catholic and I both believe we are saved by faith, but I flatly reject (and I have reason to believe the Roman Catholic would too) the addition of the word “only.” Martin Luther added it to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians (and elsewhere) and in so doing completely changed the meaning of the text.

Calvinists (and all their permutations in the Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) are in more of a pickle than Lutherans, in my opinion. If you hold to the traditional TULIP explanation of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) then I am so far away from being a Christian as to be an atheist – I reject every one of those doctrines. But, if you reject any one of those teachings, the house of Calvin folds like a wet paper bag. You cannot hold to total depravity and reject irresistible grace. You cannot believe in unconditional election and reject the idea of limited atonement. In other words, to be consistent, you have to hold all of these concepts in a tight bundle, or your concept of Christianity comes unraveled. I would certainly not be in the “family” as it were.

The point I am trying to make is that when someone makes a statement like, “All Christians believe the same thing and we are all saved by Christ and the only thing that makes us different is our different names,” they either are woefully ignorant of the differences they claim are unimportant, or they do not really believe the fundamental tenets of their respective church.

If you believe that Christ is sacrificed every time the priest blesses and elevates the host, if you believe that Christ’s body is physically present in some form in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, if you believe that an infant needs to be baptized and receives the forgiveness of “original sin,” if you believe that a person is born to eternal salvation and someone is born to eternal damnation – then I suggest that you and I have very little in common except some generic teachings of a wandering rabbi who lived approximately 30 years before the final destruction of the Jewish temple. Jesus then becomes a more pious Plato or Aristotle. If you think that those distinctions are merely “opinions,” then I suggest you need to reject those opinions, because it is those “opinions” that are the main sources of division between churches who claim the name Christ.

I also want to make another point very clear – some of my favorite authors and “mentors” (in an impersonal sense) hold Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed (Calvinistic) beliefs. When I want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines I find that more often than not I am drawn to Roman Catholic authors (or, Anabaptist writers). When I want to learn more about the Old Testament, chances are I will end up with a Presbyterian or Anglican author. If I had to get rid of every book in my library except for one author, I would keep my collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran and someone to whom I am deeply indebted for my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. So, am I making a blanket condemnation of those who hold these various doctrines? No, I hope not – that is not my intention. My only goal in this little exercise in rambling incoherence is to point out that despite our best intentions, and regardless of what sweet sounding words we may use, if we truly hold to the major confessions of our faiths, we are NOT united as Christians.

I freely confess – I am a child of the Restoration Movement and I am convinced that if disciples of Christ would simply return to the teachings “once for all” delivered to the saints (and in my world that would be Genesis-Revelation), then we could call ourselves united. Then there would be differences of opinion (types of worship, perhaps, other truly incidental and transitory questions), but we could at least convey to the world that we are united on the very basic core of our Christian beliefs.

Maybe someone can explain to me how people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints can be said to be one united faith, but until someone does, I just don’t get it.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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