In Defense of Denomination

There is one Body, and there is one Church.

There is really no way to get around it—it’s right there in Scripture, coming from the mouth of Saint Paul himself.

But unity doesn’t equate to homogeny.

This is an issue that the Church universal has struggled with before Christ was even crucified. When the disciples ran to Jesus whining, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us,” Jesus did not respond and say “Well, then make him a convert and be sure that his theology is aligned with yours.”

Instead, he said, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.”[1]

It’s funny to think that the Son of God didn’t care what clique the man belonged to; he didn’t care if he worshipped with hymns or a full band; he didn’t care whether or not the man believed in a God who might have formed the earth through evolution. Jesus didn’t even care that the man wasn’t in his immediate group of followers.

The only thing that mattered was that he obviously believed in the power of the name Jesus Christ. And instead of saying, “Bend him to your own personal beliefs,” Christ replied, “Let him be. He is not hurting you and he believes in the power of my name.”

While the matter seems cut-and-dry in this instance (as with much of what is obvious in Scripture) this is a tragically contentious point. In the midst of major and minor denominations that cater to any whim, fancy, or preference, many in the Church have been quick to forget that there is one Christ, and there is one God. And perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do as a Christian is to assume that we have figured God out—that our human minds have truly encompassed the magnitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The minute we preach our denomination over our Christ, we have committed blasphemy, for we have shaped God in our own image, and are telling people to worship him. At the moment we force theology over the unimaginable love of that Jewish Rabbi, we are idolaters, erecting a golden calf and dancing around it like a bunch of loons.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a definite line that we can call heresy, but only that we need to be careful where we draw it. There are many voices within the Church that can be heard calling for a single, unified Body, when what they mean is a single, homogenized congregation—a church stripped of the intricacies of a Body and reduced to a hand, or a foot. It would be akin to saying that America should be reduced to a single state.

Instead, let the Church stand in defense of denomination, and not as something to be looked down upon. Many of the differences of the Church only serve to shore it up against attack and illness. When the limp-wristed theology of Joel Osteen or Rob Bell is preached, the commanding figure of a Pope—a Pastor of pastors—is incredibly useful in correcting what is clearly a misuse of the incredibly useful message of Christ. When Church leadership becomes corrupted or misleading, the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura can help right a listing ship that may steer towards human teaching instead of Divine wisdom. When people become flippant or lazy in their worship, the solemnness and intentionality of Orthodoxy can step in to fill the gap.

And this doesn’t even begin to cover personal preference. When the Samarian woman asked Jesus where one should worship God (being that the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem and the Samaritans elsewhere) Jesus does not even address the question, for to do so would only further enhance a cultural and religious chasm. Instead, he replies with all the depth and simplicity only the simple Carpenter could manage, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”[2] The emphasis here isn’t on the differences between Jews and Samarians (although it is addressed), but it instead points to dominance of the Father over all said differences. It doesn’t matter what the House is made of, as long as it can withstand the storm outside.

And practically speaking, the call for a homogenous church is simply foolish; when the Lord returns, there will perhaps be a consistency in the way worship is conducted—it is entirely His prerogative. But until then, how can I—a young man raised in the Alaskan cold—expect an African, or a Filipino, or even another young man from Georgia, to have the same church experience I do? Just because a person doesn’t like grape juice Communion doesn’t make them wrong; just because someone abstains from alcohol entirely doesn’t make them right. It just makes them different. Our God is the God of nations, and we must be careful that when we say “our” God, we are not implying ownership.

And our differences—miraculously—are what have allowed the Church to stand and grow. The diversity that our variations provide help guide and balance the Christian community. There is a reason that purebred dogs succumb to disease and illness and die younger than their fellow mutts. And if the Church is anything, it is a beautiful collection of mutts, from the 12 Disciples to the modern Church.

For there are many parts to the Body, but there is one Head, and no man should be disdained for being a foot, and no foot should criticize the hand for having fingers. If we believe—truly believe—in Jesus Christ, we are freed from our endless arguing and spatting. We don’t have to worry about being infallible; we only have to trust that Christ stands with his family—with the wise and slow, weak and strong, Old Earth and Young Earth folk. And we all stand beneath him: one Body, under God, indivisible and wonderfully different—a collage of grace and love.

[1] Luke 49-50

[2] John 4:23

On Smart Christianity: Not Just Interesting Ideas

There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.

In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,

If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.

As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.

Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.

When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.