Monday, April 29, 2013
Denominations: They're a Good Thing
Reposted from my old blog, Steve+Theology. Originally published 12/18/12.
Currently I have an ongoing conversation with a lady of the Jehova's Witness variety. This is primarily because currently I have time to chat and I'm interested in what she has to say. I genuinely like this lady, she's friendly and knowledgeable and goes out of her way to knock on my door about once a month. I admire her dedication. However, I'm beginning to tire of her argument that the existence of tens of thousands of denominations the world over means that tens of thousands denominations less one are wrong and thus not preaching the true gospel. In this woman's opinion, the Jehova's Witnesses have the right idea which means that no-one else could. Every one of our conversations start like this and thus I am becoming practiced in voicing my opinions when it comes to having serval denominations. In addition, I have heard that many non-Christians, and even many Christians, find this at best confusing and at worst troubling. Overall, I think having several denominations is a very very good thing. Here is why. Before I begin, I should say that my information is as I remember it from the past three years of seminary. I'm going to go over these really loosely and encourage you to do your own research on the specifics. Otherwise this blog post would become a rather sizable book.
Sometimes we're wrong. There are countless examples throughout history where people were catastrophically wrong. Christians have their fair share of these instances. In fact basic Christian theology hinges upon the fact that we suck. It's called total depravity. This doesn't mean we should be guilty, but I'm not getting into that here. It began with Adam and Eve, the very first people, who ate of the tree of knowledge even though the promised God they wouldn't. If we were always right we'd have no need for God's grace and Jesus would not have had to come, tell us, die, and rise again. As Christians, we believe that from time to time we are wrong. I highly doubt any non-Christian could say anything different.
When we're wrong it's often other people that point it out for us or challenge us to rethink our actions. Example: I'm a sailor and I spent the afternoon sailing today. The winds were very shifty and gusty and confusing. I had a difficult time knowing where the wind was. Fortunately a guy on a colourful catamaran was sailing along nearby. Hey catamaran guy, bet you didn't think you'd be mentioned in a theology blog because you sailed kind of close to another guy today, did you? In the unlikely chance you are reading this, thanks. I had a nice sail with you today. The reason I had a nice sail with catamaran guy was because when I thought I had things right and looked over at him I sometimes realized I was in fact mistaken. By him doing his own thing nearby me, I was able to improve doing my own thing near him. Of course, there are those other times when others find it necessary to force you to confront your mistakes as well. "Grandpa, give me your driver's license," comes to mind for some reason. The moral of the paragraph is that while we can often find our way alone, it just doesn't work the same. If we think we're right we'll just keep plugging along doing what may in fact be wrong. Sometimes we see others doing better and try things their way, other times people will confront us about glaring mistakes. This goes for others too, we're not always on the mistaken side of things.
Denominations work just this way. They each have their own unique history and character which leads them down this path and that. If there was just one denomination we may just continue on doing things the way we're doing them. If there's others around us we'll reevaluate more often and generally take part in growth and conversation. This is not to say that a one-denomination system couldn't have conversation within it, but quite frankly we're all Christians already. Creating a single denomination would be needless reproduction. Different denominations are different voices in the Christian conversation. They each address different regional and theological differences that have cropped up. I don't see what is wrong with this. Again, I actually think it's very important.
Denominations come to be for a whole variety of reasons. Disagreement is just one reason, although to be fair it is one of the bigger reasons. On top of that, it is not always disagreement about what the bible means. My own denomination has a real history of schism and union with various denominations for political reasons. Canada is a country built on immigrants and in the early days lots of denominations with reformed theology and government based on Calvin's model in some form or another came from Europe to Canada with immigrating people. For a while there were a ton of very similar denominations. Eventually a lot of them linked up together as they realized they were doing the same thing separately. This of course took time so there were surely people standing around at the time saying "why are there so many presbyterian denominations for so few people in pre-confederation Canada?" A later schism happened when one of these unions went through and a group of my denomination didn't want to join. There were a lot of reasons for and against joining. Some of them were biblical, some of them were practical, some of them were petty. Now, before someone says that the Bible has something to say about every decision we make, I totally agree. However, I'm trying to make a distinction between obvious deference to the Bible versus good use of God's resources for a wide audience. Perhaps I'll discuss this concept in another blog post. What I'm getting at here is that in a lot of cases different denominations exist not because of disagreement but simply for practical reasons.
One big practical reason is geography. Most denominations are separated by country. I'm not entirely sure why this is, I think it's just convenient. A few are state churches left over from times when state churches were what people did. Mostly, I think, it is simply because denominations are difficult to manage over borders and so no one bothers. So for this simple reason there are probably hundreds of duplicate denominations out there that get along famously, agree theologically, and are for all intents and purposes the same aside from regional differences. This isn't really a bad thing. It's merely a practical consideration.
On the largest scale there are five groups churches fall into: Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Radical Reformers, and Pentecostal. This is a bit of a controversial list, I'll explain in a moment. It could be said that the Orthodox is the closest descendant we have to the original church. It can trace it's roots back to the churches the apostles in the Bible set up. Aside from that I really can't tell you much about the Orthodox churches as I have very little interaction with them. In the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox church. There were a few main disagreements: the nature of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, the importance of the Bishop of Rome (later known as the Pope), and the role of icons. The next split was the Protestant Reformation that was a long and slow process beginning when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. As I understand it things came to a head over the selling of indulgences but this was indicative of a lot of other things. The two main features that I would point to between Protestants and Catholics are the role of the priesthood and faith versus works. At the time the priesthood had been allowed to become corrupt and essentially was selling people's salvation for a price, the reformers did their best to not allow this. Secondly, in Catholic theology one is saved by what they do based on their faith whereas in Protestant theology one is saved by their faith alone that will lead them to be compelled to do good things. In reality it looks like a small difference but it really does have far reaching implications past the scope of this blog post. Around the same time there was what was called the Radical Reformation. This is where groups such as the Mennonites and the Amish find their roots. This reformation said that both the Roman Catholics and the newly created Protestants were corrupt. Lastly, at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century a group came out of the revival culture going on at the time that became known as pentecostals. It is difficult to say whether they are protestant or something new. They are different in that their basis is on gifts of the spirit such as prophesy, healing, tongues, etc. To the outsider this looks quite mystical versus the very studious nature of the churches before them, particularly the main protestant denominations. So in summation the defining characteristics are the link to the original church, faith versus works and structures of priesthood, "otherness" and perceived corruption in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and lastly emphasis on the spirit.
There are smaller theological differences as well. I cannot get into denomination versus denomination but they often centre around various important Christian practices. There are many viewpoints on the last supper. Some say the bread and wine become Christ's body, others say it is representative of Christ's body, others say it is representative of the meal that Christ invites us to. There are certainly more. Baptism is another topic that comes up. Some believe that infants should be baptized into a Christian community and later affirm their faith. Others believe one cannot be baptized without it being a conscious adult decision and so dedicate their infants for baptism later. In addition some believe that one needs to be baptized in order to be saved while others see it as more of a help. Some also take sinning after baptism to be quite a bit more serious leading in the past to only deathbed baptism, though I am not aware of this being the case anymore. Sinning is another viewpoint that differs. In my tradition sin is inevitable and it is by God's grace alone that we are saved which tends to put us more at ease about sins. I should underline that we do think sins are wrong but unavoidable. In other traditions, sinning after baptism is a much more serious thing which creates a lot of fear and a lot more effort at not-sinning. Some view the Bible as a book that must be read exactly literally while others take a more lax approach, also believing it to be the Word of God but the product of the time it was written. I could go on. What is important to understand with these differences is that intelligent and serious people over thousands of years have come to these conclusions for very good reasons. We won't agree but it must be remembered that these viewpoints were not taken up lightly. It also must be remembered that all these viewpoints we encounter are attempting to describe the same thing. As such, particularly at the level of the general public who don't spend their careers debating the minute details of theology, these differences can easily seem extremely superficial. For instance, in terms of Baptism there is always a ceremony for infants and for adults. It is simply the time of the actual baptism that differs. However this is a reflection of very different theology that goes deep into the various traditions.
Another big difference is church government. This is a lot more cut and dry although specific examples can differ. They fit into three groups: episcopal, presbyterial, and congregational. I've heard it argued that church government is unnecessary and unhealthy. However, my counter to that is to look at any other large group of people. It can be argued as to what the form and reach of a management structure can take, however as soon as you get into any group situation you need a method for making decisions as a group. Think about your group of friends. If there are three of you going out for dinner you need a method for deciding where to go. This could be simple conversation until consensus is reached, however this in itself is a system. Of course, if one friend throws a tantrum and everyone else gives in this becomes no fun for anyone. This is why we need systems for group decision making. The larger the group gets the more complicated this gets. Churches are no different. Each of these systems is based on various biblically based precedent and often reflects the theology of the denomination using the system.
The simplest system is the congregational system. This is where each individual congregations makes their own decisions. They can loosely fall into an association of similar minded and/or structured churches or they can be entirely and completely individual. It's left up to the congregation itself, believing that the only true head of the congregation is Christ and therefore they have only Christ to answer to. The strength of this system is that churches are free to explore avenues it may be difficult to convince a larger group to explore. There is a lot of freedom. However, with freedom comes the possible lack of checks and balances.
The most well known form of government is the episcopal system because that is the format the Catholic Church uses, among several others. This is a top-down hierarchy. Christ is the head, then there is a structure of bishops and priests that mediates to the lay people. This system goes: Christ ==> The Pope ==> The Cardinals ==> The Archbishops ==> The Bishops ==> The Priests ==> The People. The Roman Catholic system is a bit larger because it is such a large church and the size necessitates it. There are other examples. The strength of this system is that decisions are easily and quickly made on a large scale. This, I believe, is one of the reasons episcopal churches are so good at responding to need quickly and doing mission work. On the other hand it can be prone to corruption and relegates the lay people to the sidelines.
The third type is the presbyterial system. It is a bottom-up system that uses committees in place of the single bishops that the episcopal system uses. In a way it is a hybrid of the other two. It is very democratic and in some ways similar to the parliamentary system used in Canadian Government. Like the congregational system it begins with Christ being the head of the congregation. The congregation elects (with the aid of the Holy Spirit) a group of representative elders to sit on a committee called the session. In a way, the minister is also elected to the session. In the Presbyterial system the congregation chooses the minister rather than having one appointed. The minister is a special (because of calling and seminary education) yet equal member of the session. The next level is often called presbytery but can be called other things. This is made up of equal amounts of clergy and lay people. There can then be any number of upper levels. My denomination uses this structure: Christ ==> Congregation ==> Session ==> Presbytery (county sized geographical area) ==> Synod (province sized) ==> General Assembly (national meeting that takes place yearly). If there is an issue to be addressed it is taken to the session and goes up to the appropriate level that it needs to go up to. The strength of this system is that everyone has a say in even the highest levels of church government. It is also built on many check and balance systems. It is often referred to as "group discernment of God's call." Having said this, it's weakness is it's convolution. It is often slow to make decisions and prone to breakdown if not maintained well.
So, as you can all see, Christianity is quite diverse. Because it is so old and so widespread there have over the years become many, many, viewpoints. Essentially one can take all of the different larger theological differences and multiply them by the smaller ones, then by the number of countries in the world, and then by the number of church government systems. It makes complete sense that there are so many denominations in the world. However, unlike my Jehovah's witness friend thinks, this doesn't mean they all disagree. If you examine them further you will find a few strong themes and some widely varying opinions but not near the amount of schism that the sheer number of denominations could be seen to indicate. In addition, you will find that each system has it's own avenue for reform which means that when wrongs are realized they are fixed. This can take some time but it happens. Regardless of the numbers of differences, however, I argue that differences are actually quite a good thing. As humans we are fallible and we're bound to make mistakes, grow, and change. Without that other voice of caution or simply entity for comparison or conversation change and discernment would be much more difficult.
In closing, I encourage all of you who are curious about church to do some homework. You'll find there are only a few local choices of denomination and each denomination will have a website explaining their beliefs. In addition while I wouldn't trust it entirely, Wikipedia can be quite helpful for finding out about different denominations. I'm also sure the local church leadership would be happy to chat with you about the traits of their denomination. Within those denominational options each church will have their own personality so don't be turned off of a denomination because of one church. One thing that I have realized is that if we grew up in a church, that denomination can often be the one we feel most at home in later in life because that's the community that formed us regardless of whether we stuck with that community or not. So if you're looking at getting (back) to church you might try starting with your old denomination or the one your ancestors attended. This post has not been meant to educate you about the different options out there but rather to discuss the why of the amount of options. If you'd like to know more about the specifics, I encourage you to go and ask. This is a topic most church-folk are happy to chat about. Godspeed.