Spring Intro Week: Why is the Church so Divided?
Opening / Recap
The Unfortunate State of the Church
- Welcome back to Who Created God!
- This Spring we’re going to be covering a whole new range of awesome topics. While last semester we approached the majority of our topics from the lens of a skeptic as we built up towards the core tenets of Christianity, this semester we are going to be proceeding forward with the presupposition / profession of faith that Christianity is, in fact, true.
- That’s not to say you’re not allowed to say things that bring “core” beliefs of Christianity into question. You guys can ask whatever questions you like! I’m merely letting you know that the talks themselves won’t be approaching it from the lens of a pure skeptic anymore.
- Recap of Last Semester:
- Science & Genesis Talks: The relationship between the early chapters of the Bible and modern science is a lot more complex and awesome than most people assume. In actuality, most of the conflict comes from individuals conflating their interpretations of both scripture and nature with the things themselves. Genesis 1 can, in my opinion, plentifully be interpreted as describing long spans of time and allowing for a description of the world’s history like that which is revealed through modern science.
- Philosophy Talks: The only way for us to have any meaningful discussion in our pursuit of truths is to take it on faith that we are rational thinking beings. While attempted to find an explanation of how it is that we came to exist in such a way we broadened our scope all the way to “Ultimate Reality” - the necessary being which is the default state of existence itself. There we found that any interpretation of this original state of affairs that did not allow for the possibility of a “conscious guiding will” reduced everything (including ourselves and our own rationality) to chaotic uncertainty. To embrace this daunting uncertainty would be “Absurdism,” but we argued that the only alternative to such a void of knowledge is to embrace that reality is not fundamentally chaotic that the very nature of existence itself is, in fact, a personal agent. This would be “God” - the Great I AM - the one who was, and is, and is to come.
- Christian Message Talks: Christianity stands alone amidst the many religions of the world in that it describes an active God who stands beyond all possibility of being reduced down to absurdity of the Unguided Reality, who stepped down into this world and provided both a written revelation of his purpose and plan for the world, and who asks of us only that we trust in him and do our best to follow him (not to measure up to some arbitrary standard). While we have all attempted to go our own way and act independent of our creator, God has offered as a way to be transformed and returned the the eternally fulfilling plan God has for our lives and for all of creation.
The Unfortunate State of the Church
- All throughout this semester we are going to be dealing with questions that I like to call “denomination creators.” Answering these questions has been the means by which several major splits in the Church have occured, and wars have even been fought over some of these things.
- But that’s just the problem, isn’t it. Wars, fought over theological questions! Wasn’t the whole point of our conclusion about what God did through Christ that we now have a means to escape our sinful selves - to die to all the broken things of this world and be transformed into something new? Aren’t we called repeatedly to be beacons of light into a dark world, to be God’s image-bearers and demonstrations of his love? Aren’t we supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Aren’t we supposed to do everything in our power at every moment of our lives to care for every human being - who are all beloved by God?
- This contradiction between the repeated commands of the New Testament and the actions of Christians all throughout history is not missed by those critical of religion. It is, I think, the single greatest reason for rejecting organized religion (maybe not the concept of God itself, but certainly for not attending Church). Especially in a culture now that is trying its best to unearth difficult truths about society and address them, many of these problems seem to be highlighted most severely in practices of the Church.
- If you are looking for reasons to think that Christians aren’t who they claim to be, then they really aren’t hard to find. So many people are smart enough and self-aware enough to recognize this contradiction, and it’s off-putting. Honestly, I have a hard time blaming people who turn away from faith because of the behavior of the Church.
- And nowadays, there are literally hundreds of church denominations and sub-denominations. You’ve got the big ones: the Catholic Church, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, etc.
- And then each one of these denominations also have a large number of what you might call “sub”-denominations. These are separate Church “governments” that, while under the umbrella of the same general theology, disagree on things related to how church should run, how church should invest its time in the world, and the general political leaning.
- The ironic part is that, after so many years of splitting and separatism, there are many cases where a new “Presbyterian” denomination might be more traditionally Baptist than some “Baptist” denominations. It’s all a bit mess, and the individual nature of churches and congregations basically means that you can’t know anything about the specific beliefs of a church until you walk through their doors.
- Everyone is so cut off from one another that most people aren’t even aware what makes certain denominations or congregations different from one another.
- Point is, it seems as if the church is as far from a “unified body and light unto the world” as it possibly can be. The church is regularly seen as a blight upon human history and it can’t even get along with itself in modern times. What gives?
- What do you think are some of the most frustrating things the church has done or continues to do?
Early Church History
The Middle Ages
The Modern Church
- The Disciples founded the Church in Jerusalem but it quickly relocated to Antioch. Christians (at this point just called “The Way” by themselves and “Atheists” by the Romans) were forced into hiding and were subject to great persecution... but in spite of all this the message itself spread like wildfire.
- Roman Emperor Constantine saw Christianity as a useful glue to hold together the Roman Empire (which was fracturing due to lots of civil strife and religious issues). It’s debated if he actually believed in Christianity. He may have just seen it as a means to an end. There is a legend that he saw a cross on a battlefield and won that battle shortly thereafter, but this is likely a fable. It wasn’t until a bit later that Emperor Theodosius actually made Christianity the official religion of Rome.
- Constantine saw that the church was arguing among themselves and producing different sects and so he called the “Council of Nicaea” to force the church fathers to make clear tenants to unify the religious teachings.
- The Church at this time became heavily entwined with the Roman government. The political powers at be could (and did) manipulate and change church doctrine. It would arguably have been in the Church’s best interest to resist this normalization and popularization but when you’ve been under oppression for generations and suddenly you’re being offered comfort and political support... it’s pretty tempting.
- KEY POINT: This is a dangerous cycle we’ll see play out time and time again. Christianity’s most powerful and apparent influence is in places where it isn’t the norm - where it shouldn’t be able to spread. Eventually strong empires or political leaders use Christianity as an ideological means to an end. The Christians rarely put up a fight, become entwined with petty politics, and inevitably tarnish the name of the Church (both passively and actively). Both the political power in question and the Church itself end up on the wrong side of history.
The Middle Ages
- Rome fell in the early 400s (after a long decline) to the Germanic Tribes and several other factors. The resulting “fracturing” of Rome fractured the Church as well, splitting it into an “Eastern Church” (in Constantinople / the Byzantine Empire) and a “Western Church” (in Rome). During this time, lots of the leaders of the Germanic Tribes were converted to Christianity as well - like the King of the Franks.
- The Church in the East eventually fell to the Islamic forces ~1040’s and almost completely collapsed.
- The Church in the West was under the Pope, who had extreme political and theological power. More or less another emperor. Throughout the middle ages the church and the political powers of the western world were so bound together that the Pope had nearly absolute power. It was because of this that they could get away with almost anything they wanted. This era of history is one of the most commonly criticized in regards to the Church’s influence, and I hope you see why its the case. There are no two ways around it: powerful leaders were lying about the message of the Bible to advance their political motives.
- What about the infamous Crusades? Jerusalem (a holy spot for several religious traditions) had long been conquered by the Arabs, who were actually fairly open and quite happy to allow other nations to come and visit the holy land... but that’s not what the western political powers had in mind. The Pope and the Kings were drawn to this region primarily because of the large amount of gold and wealth it contained. The armies themselves were inspired by the mandate that this was a “just war to take back the holy land,” but the true motivation of the political figures at the time was far more material. They were corrupt leaders using Christianity as a means to an end, once again.
- The Catholic Church (i.e. the church of the time) was prominent for most of the middle ages. Because they were in place of such power, they were subject to corruption, selling people “indulgences” (paying to have sins forgiven) and “excommunicating” people (saying that they could no longer be forgiven of sins through the Church, essentially condemning people to Hell). Both of these things are utterly ridiculous inventions found nowhere in the Bible, and in some cases spoken explicitly against.
- Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the church. He didn’t want to create a new denomination, he just wanted to reform the catholic church. This... didn’t work out the way he intended. He ran away to Holland, and, with some other reformers, created the bedrock of what would become the Protestant denominations.
- Around this time, the Gutenberg printing press allowed regular people to read scripture and recognize that the church had - in fact - been abusing a lot of their power.
- Other reformation leaders: Huldrych Zwingli in Holland, and John Calvin in France.
The Modern Church
- By today, Catholicism has gone through multiple intense reformations of its own and is nothing like how it was before. Some die-hard Protestants might claim that Catholics aren’t Christians, but this is just... wrong. They are just another denomination now, one which highly praises tradition and sacraments.
- The US was founded by a diverse array of people groups, several of which were explicitly fleeing from religious persecution. While the US is heavily tied to Christian morals and ethics (individuality and God-given rights) it was not “founded as a Christian nation.” Its main founders were deists (they believed in some kind of higher power but didn’t believe it was clearly revealed).
- But over time... guess what happened? Oh, yeah, that’s right. The church and the government started to get involved with each other. Not to the flagrant degree of corruption that was present in the middle ages, but the church certainly enjoyed some powerful political sway in America for a long time.
- In many places elsewhere in the world, Christianity has lost a lot of its cultural power. While we’re definitely on that same road in the US as well, we’re not quite as far along.
- So we see the vicious cycle: Christians break away from corruption to try and return to what Christ originally desired for his us. They do well for a while and draw in new supporters. In spite of them being a minority or even subject to persecution, their influence spreads and many new people are brought to faith. The presence of these Christians becomes the norm for a particular region, and these new Christians (many generations down the line) develop a sense of political entitlement. Politics and Church bind themselves together... and when the powers of the day inevitably find themselves on the wrong side of history, so does the church.
- You might be tempted to say, “Well then let’s just screw all previous denominations and create our own new denomination, one that swears never to get involved in that stuff!” That’s exactly what all the reformers tried to do, but long after they passed on it fell apart anyways. We could go start a denomination right now, but... two generations down the line it would be just like everybody else.
- What we are seeing, all throughout history, is the cost of trying run a church in a world full of broken humans.
- What do you think is the biggest reason for so much division and disagreement within the church?
The Danger of “Making All Things Clear”
The Danger of Tradition
The People Who Sit in the Pews
Those Who are Called Out
What Unites Us All
- If I had to put my finger on the primary source for all of the passion and extremism tied up within some of the denominational and theological disagreements, it would have to be something that I’m coining as “The Greatest Fallacy of Biblical Interpretation” --> The idea that God intended to make everything clear.
- What do I mean by this? This particular line of thinking is all to common among many Church leaders and members: “God would never want me to be confused, therefore God will never say anything that I cannot immediately understand clearly. The Bible is God's word to me, therefore the Bible will never be confusing to me. Therefore I will find that the meaning of every passage is clear and that there is one single clear and obvious solution to every appearance of a contradiction or paradox.”
- This faulty mindset is that the purpose of revelation is to bestow upon us puny mortals significant divine insight into the many wonders of the universe. When the Bible speaks about something, it is the full, comprehensive, and final authority on the matter. If something isn’t clear, then you’re not researching hard enough.
- This is most evident when you hear people describing the Bible as a “guidebook” or a “manual” for life. If that is your baseline - the way you approach scripture - then of course you’re going to assume that any amount of uncertainty, any question not definitively answered, must have a definitive answer somewhere.
- And while one could spend exceptional amounts of time researching a topic it is far far easier to just take your local pastor at his word when he says “This is the way things are. It says it clearly here in verse blah blah of blah blah. There are some people who think otherwise but they just don’t know what they’re talking about cause look here where it’s made so abundantly clear.”
- WHENEVER anyone says that “the bible makes it clear that...” without citing a specific verse, do not just take them at their word. Try and find where that belief comes from. Try and see if there are any counter arguments. When a specific verse is mentioned, dig into the context and other potential interpretations of the verse.
- If I am successful this semester, you will be surprised just how many doctrines of the modern church are built upon a facade of certainty that the Bible just isn’t keen on providing.
- Pastors are so desperate to preach a sermon with power and authority, that they phrase things with an air of finality that the Bible sometimes doesn't convey.
The Danger of Tradition
- An extremely common statement that irks me to this day is “Study the scriptures with prayer and asks for guidance from the spirit, and you will understand.” The implication is that through actually aligning yourself with God’s will and allowing him to influence your Biblical study, you will end up at the undeniable truth (and, particularly, the truth they have already “found”). Ah, thank you, “oh so enlightened one.”
- BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS!! I am certain that the Holy Spirit does guide biblical study and our pursuit of the many questions we will be asking this semester, but to use it as a litmus test for who does and doesn’t have divine insight? Ridiculous!
- How many people in how many dissenting denominations have said the same thing? So who really has the spirit of knowledge: presbyterians, baptists, catholics?
- But do you see how dangerous this is? If you believe wholeheartedly that God is in the business of making everything certain, and you also believe that you have come to a God-ordained conclusion on a matter of theological significance, then you now believe that you hold unique insight into the nature of God’s will! Not only do you believe that you have the truth, but you also believe that everyone who disagrees with you just hasn’t tried hard enough, or, worse yet that they aren’t even really christians in the first place.
- This is the tragedy of the Church all throughout history, and it shows up as early as Paul’s letters. It’s hilarious, people sometimes act as if church division and conflict is a new thing, but it’s important remember that 2/3 of the new testament exists because Paul had to write letters to churches who were going through division and conflict. Less than a generation after Jesus people are already finding things to disagree on. That’s just how we do.
- We cannot appeal blindly to tradition, as many do all the time. Arguing that because something has been the “dominant view” for a long time that makes it correct is absolutely ridiculous.
- I’m sure the Pharisees (the dominant and powerful Jewish religious leaders), when they had nearly all of their theological conclusions torn down and obliterated by God himself were thinking over and over again “But this is the way things have always been! This is how Judaism is supposed to work! Aren’t we ‘God’s enlightened people’ destined to spread the blessings of the Lord? How could we be so far away from the Truth? No... that’s impossible. It can’t be us. Our tradition has been around for so long. It must be this Jesus guy! Yeah, he doesn't have a clue what he’s talking about.”
- If we humans are capable of forsaking the spoken words of God incarnate in favor of our tradition, I shudder to think how much more we’ve done with the Bible.
- “But we’ve done it this way for so long and it’s worked out!” Yeah, and God isn’t stupid and can use all things to work together for his Good... but that doesn't make all things Good.
The People Who Sit in the Pews
- But something I want to make clear as we embark on our journey of exploring the many topics that divide the church is just how important this actually should be towards your perspective on different denominations.
- We will discuss things which might reveal that particular beliefs you possesses do not align with the official creeds or the majority opinion of the church or group you’re a part of. You might discover that there are some things that your denomination believes that you find absolutely ridiculous. But I want you to realize something very important: The distinguishing beliefs of individual denominations rarely have a significant impact on the beliefs of a large majority of their attendees.
- The vast majority of churchgoers are not interested nor might they even care about their pastor’s particular view on the nature of eternal separation, the particularities of how salvation works. What people care about is the community of the church they are a part of and the atmosphere and structure of the church itself.
- Far and away the vast majority of churchgoers do not choose their denomination based on precise theological alignment but due to... wait for it... tradition
- It’s just easier for people to go to places they are comfortable with. There are many people here at the Wesley who will go on to go to Methodist churches not because they have researched and said “Yes I agree with all this,” but because that’s the “brand” of Christianity they are most familiar with. And who’s to blame them?
- The Church is a large group of people stumbling after God and doing their best to live out his vision for the Church. And because of that there is no such thing as a “purely baptist” or “purely methodist” church.
- There are some things that churches believe that might be considered “make or break” beliefs for a lot of people. But these things usually have to do with who can and can’t participate in church activities (how the church should actually be run), and not the nature of things beyond ourselves.
Those Who are Called Out
- The true nature of the church was never to be a solidly defined organization, and I think God wa fully aware of that from the start. We are imperfect human beings in an imperfect world, and there are many people who are quite happy to use the name of the Lord as a means to attain power.
- When we say “the Church” we immediately think of large organized christian traditions, but this isn’t the vision the New Testament has for it.
- The word used for “church” all throughout the New Testament is the Greek “ecclesia.”
- This is contrasted with the our word for “church” which comes from the scottish / english “kirk” which roughly means “pertaining to the Lord.”
- But the Greek “ecclesia” is something totally different, and no ardent biblical scholar would say that “church” is any way a good translation for ecclesia since our word for Church comes with so much connotative baggage.
- But “ecclesia” really just means “those who are called out.”
- The Church, the Ecclesia - the called ones - we are not just a bunch of disagreeing denominations. The Church, the true Church, cannot be distinguished through any human-made lines of division. THE CHURCH are simply those people who are called out by God and who respond to that call to the best of their ability.
- And this is not determined by denomination or creed or theological knowledge or philosophical insight or political leaning or church attendance or worship song preference. You are a member of the Church if you consider yourself a follower of the teachings and callings of Jesus Christ.
- The True Church has ALWAYS been an ill-defined subset of the larger conglomerate. It has always been those who take issue with blind tradition and complacency who have done some of the most amazing things throughout the history of Christianity.
- As we mentioned near the end of last semester, it’s not hard for people to imagine that there are large groups of individuals who call themselves “Christian” and who attend church but who go about living their lives in a way that reflects little of Christ’s will for us.
- There are (many) individuals within “organized christian religion” who are not really disciples of Christ, and there are certainly individuals outside of organized christian religion who are more dedicated to being disciples of Christ than many of those who regularly sit in the pews.
What Unites Us All
- I think it’s important to make clear a small list of things that every stripe of Christian believes in. These are the things that bind us together. And, not coincidentally, these are the things we spent a large chunk of last semester covering:
- All of reality is ultimately the product of and dependent upon the will of a single and transcendent personal being that we know as “God.”
- God has intentionally revealed information about himself and about the purpose for his creation through the collection of literature we call “the Bible.”
- We have strayed (and repeatedly stray) from the fulfilling purpose and plan God has for our lives in a misguided attempt to seize autonomy for ourselves and act upon our own will. This, however, is only self-deprecating.
- But, it is what God did through the person of Jesus Christ that a return to his original purpose and plan for us and for all of creation is available to all those who would believe.