Important Distinctions

This past Easter, a friend of mine converted to the Roman Catholic Church.  

That’s not what this blog is about. That’s a deeply personal decision that he’s made for his own reasons, and if I have a problem with it, I should discuss it with him personally and not on a public site where he can’t defend himself and the rest of the world can see it.  No, this blog is about explaining and defending a problem he and others have had with the Protestant church, or indeed with Christianity in general.  The problem of continuous divisions.

When my friend announced his intention to join the RCC, he did so in a blog post entitled “Problems with Protestantism” (I’d provide a link but I feel I should ask permission for that).  He said that one of the major difficulties that left him unsatisfied with the Protestant “church” (which, as he rightly points out, is more a system of thought than a unified institution) is that there are so many different denominations and so many different subdivisions OF those denominations–each with their own particular doctrine–that it’s nearly impossible to know which is the “real” one.  Truth should be unified, says my friend. The Christian faith follows one God, not many.  We should all be centered in one faith.

My friend has a point.  There’s not a church today–not even the Catholic Church–that doesn’t suffer from internal divisions of one form or another.  And he’s not alone in lamenting this, either, many Christians have noted it, arguing for a re-integration of the faith, a “Worldwide” church that encompasses all denominations (which has its own share of problems).  The divisions are a favorite target of atheists, who see in the sectarianism proof that religion is an inherently divisive force.  Never mind how Protestantism brought the Swedes to the aid of Germany, Catholicism united most of Europe in the wake of the Roman Empire, Islam tied together many of the warring Arabic tribes in the Middle East, and Buddhism was extremely helpful to the emperors of China in arguing for a single State.  Crusades!  Religion==conflict!

Pictured: Conflict! (photocredit:insideislam.wisc.edu)

But in a way, they’re right.  I’m a big fan of objective truth, which holds that truth IS unified, and IS one.  We don’t have many “schools of thought” regarding gravity or atoms.  There aren’t separate doctrines on the correct way to build a bridge.  There are, however, varying opinions on the BEST way to build one.

I’m fairly familiar with church divisions.  My family used to be part of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), but shortly before I was born left it to join an independent Reformed Church, and then left that one to join with the United Reformed Church (URC), a splinter of the CRC.  My parents formed a Christian school with members of the Protestant Reformed (PR) church, another splinter of the CRC–and it was considered a pretty major accomplishment to get the PR church to work with URC.  When I went to school in Pennsylvania, I attended a church belonging to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)–which my father characterized as essentially similar to the URC.  And now, I’m going to a church belonging to the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), which many people consider to be very similar to the OPC.  So I’m familiar with varying denominations and the occasionally thin lines that separate them.

To an outsider, the situation looks something like this:

I’m sure you’ve never seen this before. (PhotoCredit: SAJI)

Humor, by it’s nature, relies on oversimplifying the issue and taking things to extreme.  But this one especially reflects a deep and basic misunderstanding of the nature and role of division in the church.  Obviously no church thinks “Jesus is lucky to have us.”  That goes against the very concept of worship.  But most churches–certainly no one that I ever attended–don’t think of themselves as innovators who finally got the Bible “right.”  If anything, most churches look at themselves as historians, GOING BACK to the days when people had the Bible “right.”  The very word “Reformation” implies reform–returning to the way things were.  So, by the way, does the word “revolution,” most people in the Rennaissance (“RE-Awakening) didn’t see themselves as innovators but as archaeologists.  Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers weren’t out to pioneer a bold new way of worshipping–their whole point was that this was how people had ALWAYS worshiped.  So the graph should really look something more like this.

Sorry, no punchline.

Most churches see themselves as returning to the true faith described in the Bible.  It’s not about them breaking off from the church so much as the church breaking off from them.  My parents left the CRC because they didn’t agree with many of the recent changes in the church’s doctrine, not because they had this new revelation on how worship ought to be done.

And here’s the other thing.  Note how the “us?” is off-center?  I don’t think any church I’ve been in, or any one that I know of, would claim to have the Bible absolutely “right.”  MAYBE the Catholics, but that may be my bias talking.  Most Christians are more post-modern than they realize.  They believe absolute truth exists, they just don’t think they can ever fully grasp it on this earth.  After all, we are mortal, how can we ever fully grasp the divine mysteries?  Catholics agree on that much at least–God is knowable, but it doesn’t follow that he can be adequately described by human language.  In Literary Criticism, we debate about whether writing can really convey THIS world, never mind the next.  As far as I know, no theologian would claim to have complete and absolute knowledge of the Bible. Even Paul states that God is “beyond knowledge.”

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:17b-21)

Because of this, there’s more tolerance than one might think within the Church of opposing viewpoints.  Other denominations may be incorrect, but so are you, in some way that you can’t quite grasp.  Part of the reason I’m writing this tonight is our minister, Rev. Najapfour, spoke tonight on the differing takes on the Lord’s Supper.  He disagrees with the Lutheran doctrine of Consubstantiation, but at the same time he respects his Lutheran friends.  He doesn’t think they’re going to hell.  They’re not evil or damned, they’re just wrong.

Kinda like this (photocredit: wikipedia)

That PR/URC/CRC division I was talking about up there?  I have friends in all three denominations.  Heck, I have family in the CRC.  I don’t consider any of them to be going to hell.  I do think my PR friends are a bit TOO picky about an obscure point of doctrine called “Common Grace,” but that’s an intellectual disagreement that won’t affect their salvation.  If I thought for a second that it did, I’d be out there furiously trying to win them over.

So why all the different sects?  Why all the infighting, the tensions, the debates and breakups?

Here’s the thing.  Whether or not it’s possible to get doctrine ABSOLUTELY right, it’s still important to TRY.  Scientists may never fully understand the universe, but the quest for knowledge is still vitally important.  No one’s perfect, but you still try to be better–you don’t continue in sin that grace may abound.  I may not be able to fully understand the nature of God, but I can still DESIRE to, and I can still work as hard as possible–and debate with others as long as necessary–to come to a closer understanding of God.  My friend acknowledged this in the same post, stating that doctrine and sound theology MATTER, they can’t just be brushed aside.

And it’s impossible to remain in a church that you consider wrong.  Well, possible, but dangerous.  If you’re constantly communing with fellow Christians who you’re always disagreeing with, then you’re going to start thinking that the faith they represent is wrong also.  If you can’t respect the teaching of the church you’re in, then you’re going to find it hard to believe in the God they worship.  I, personally, would have a hard time worshiping at a church that didn’t believe in six-day Creation.  I would also have major problems partaking in Mass or in acknowledging the pope as Christ’s representative.  My friend (and another friend) who converted to the Catholic faith did so largely because they could no longer respect the churches in their area.  

I don’t know how long I could stand that song. (photocredit: atwistedcrownofthorns.com )

But see, without divisions in the church, they wouldn’t even have that option.  It’s BECAUSE of the divided nature of the Church today that I have a choice beyond “Christian or Reprobate.”  Because there are so many different denominations out there, I can worship Christ alongside people I respect and agree with, in a manner I honestly believe to be true.  What’s more, in order to make an intelligent decision about which one I agree with, I am compelled to study God’s word (another thing that would have been impossible without the Reformation) to determine which one I believe best fits the doctrine described therein.  Which, again, is an incredibly important thing.  My family’s been through a number of churches, but that’s precisely because of the high value they place on Christian doctrine, and precisely because of how seriously they study and evaluate that doctrine.  Doctrine is crucially important.  Isn’t it a good thing that we’re forced to examine it and make an intelligent decision, instead of going with the only one available?

Mind you, my friend is right in a way.  Truth is one, there is ONE way to Christ, and the Church SHOULD be one solid, complete Body.  House divided against itself cannot stand, etc.  Martin Luther definitely agreed with this–again, “REFORMATION.”  He didn’t set out wanting to create a church named after himself, he set out wanting to change some doctrinal issues within the Roman Church.  (Calvin wanted to make a whole new church, but that’s something else.)  And according to my college history teacher, Reformers and Catholics alike WANTED a common church.  “Bloody” Mary I of England and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire earnestly tried to get a giant council together for them to come up with a single doctrine.  

Ideally, the Christian faith should be a single united faith.  But also ideally, we should hold all things in common and fight no wars.  We’re not in an ideal world.  We ate the Fruit, we all fell with Adam and Eve.  We’re mortals, and we get things wrong.  We mess up, we make mistakes, and we don’t completely understand the wonderful plan that Christ has for us.  And because of that, our church isn’t perfect, and it divides.  This isn’t just good sense, it’s actually biblical.  I’ve been meaning to write this blog for months, and the reason I finally did it was a verse that jumped out at me in church today: 

“I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (I Corinthians 11:18-19)

Divisions in the church can be painful, ugly, and as the Thirty Years War taught us, violent.  But to some extent, they’re inevitable, and necessary.  Even the earliest church had them.  And despite common belief, most churches do NOT think all other denominations are hell-bound.

So what DOES make or break a Christian?  

It’s in the name.  Christ.  

You knew that was going to be an answer SOMEWHERE in here. (photocredit:topwa11papers.blogspot.com)

When I was in high school, I was greatly distressed to discover that my hero, JRR Tolkien, had been a Catholic.  You know in the Inferno, how Dante puts all the great pagan philosophers in the top circle of hell, because he can’t bear to think of his heroes being eternally tormented for living before the Church?  That was more or less how I felt about Tolkien.  Except I hadn’t really read the Inferno then, so I didn’t get the parallel.  

Bilbo’s going to hell? (photocredit:powerofmoms.com)

Anyway, I asked my minister whether Catholics went to heaven.  And he looked at me thoughtfully and said: “Not unless their faith is in Christ.” And in a way, that was a comfort to me. Mind you, it wasn’t until college that I learned that Catholics, as important as good deeds are to their salvation, still believe that Christ’s work is essential for their salvation.  And it wasn’t until AFTER college that I got the story straight from a Catholic’s mouth, that Christ and not deeds were the source of salvation.  At the time, I had this strange idea that Tolkien was probably a “good” Catholic who would have believed in Christ and just not realized the problems with the Church.  And that’s key.  You can disagree about the BEST way to build a bridge–and it’s important that you do–so long as you know the RIGHT way.

Either way, I’m not worried about my friends.  I know them both well enough to realize that their faith is in Christ, and that accordingly, their salvation is assured.  I still consider them to be incorrect.  But I’d rather they truly respected the church they were in, so long as they have their essentials–Christ–in order.


One thought on “Important Distinctions

  1. Great post, John. I agree wholeheartedly. And it reminded me of that article (or something?) in Lit Crit that tied Protestantism into deconstructionism.

    Like

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