“Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists, Oh my!!!” As we have seen, all Christian churches should have much in common in terms of their biblically mandated three-fold purpose of worship, nurture and outreach. Yet, even with this common purpose, over the centuries the church has been divided into hundreds of fragmented splinter groups.
This is a global phenomenon, with each group claiming to hold the essence of Christianity with respect to faith and practice. Arguably there should be a lot more unity within the church than is apparent. Even so, there are still tenets of faith that seem to be held overall as the essence of Christian belief.
Some of the central truths to which most Christian churches hold include: the existence of God in a trinitarian form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; man’s adherence to God’s written revelation to man which is the Bible; the fall of man through sin and rebellion against God; the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ; salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; the general sacraments or ordinances of the church including baptism and communion or Eucharist; the future return of Jesus Christ to rule and judge the earth; and eternal destinies of heaven for the believer and hell for the unbeliever.
Again these tenets are extremely general and even some churches would take exception to some of these.
With so much in common why then is there so much division within the church? To work through this question we really need to go back and unpack some history.
Conflicts from the get-go
The first major disagreement in the church is documented in the New Testament. The Book of Acts and some of Paul’s letters to various churches seem to address an early conflict regarding what it really means to be a Christian.
Since most of the early Christians were Jews many within the church suggested that to become a Christian a person would first need to conform completely to Judaism. This conformity included participating in the rite of circumcision, abstaining from various foods and keeping certain festivals and holidays.
Through the apostle Peter’s vision in Acts the dietary restrictions were lifted for the church, and through the apostle Paul’s confrontation of Peter the rite of circumcision was rescinded. In other words the early church came to early agreement that to become a Christian a person did not have to conform to Judaism. In essence the early church clearly determined that the Gospel of Jesus Christ wasn’t just for the Jews but for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
Further, dividing points within the early church included discussions about which books of the Bible should be included (canonised) and which should be left out, what is the essence of trinitarian belief (is God three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit?) and in particular what is the nature of the person of Jesus Christ (is He divine or human or both?).
As early as the 200s the New Testament was already taking shape and by 367AD Athanasius had catalogued the list of the New Testament books that we have today.
By the late 300s the doctrine of the Trinity for the church was well established over Arius’ view that the Christ was not of the same essence as the Father. At the exclusion of the Arians, the church moved forward holding to Trinitarianism, which became a core doctrine of Christianity.
Building blocks for agreement
Under this doctrine there is but one God who has been made manifest through the co-eternal persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God was said to be one in essence and three in person.
With respect to the nature of Jesus Christ it took four major church councils to fully articulate what would become the doctrinal centrepiece of Christianity. In 325AD the council of Nicea proclaimed that Christ is fully divine. In 381AD the council of Constantinople proclaimed that Christ is fully human.
You see where this is going. In 431AD the council of Ephesus put forward that the Christ is a unified person. And in 451AD the council of Chalcedon argued that the Christ is human and divine in one person. Thus it was determined from biblical authority that the mystery of the Gospel was that Christ was one person with two natures, divine and human.
Growth and persecution
Through establishing these rallying points for the church so early on in its existence it began to grow and spread rapidly. By the 300s the church had already grown westward to Britannia, eastward to India and much of North Africa. Through the demise of the Roman Empire the church really took off and grew in leaps and bounds across Europe. There was much persecution against the church but this served only to fuel further growth.
Some of the sensational accusations against the early church included claims of cannibalism and sexual orgies. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Because the Eucharist included the idea of consuming the body and blood of Christ through partaking of the bread and the cup, understandably some people thought the church was associated with pagan cannibalistic rituals.
On top of this the early gatherings of the church were often called “love feasts” where each member greeted each other with a “holy kiss”. But the slander against the church over this was so horrendous that it quickly abandoned the practice. And the only love feast taking place was that the followers of Christ enjoyed great fellowship through eating together. But for the most part the church continued to grow with almost reckless abandon.
This growth took place because of the impassioned belief that God had intervened in history through the person of Jesus Christ bringing with Him the hope of forgiveness, salvation and redemption. The Gospel was touching the hearts of people who were in great need of hope in a dark and dismal world.
Early Christians were incredibly loving and self-sacrificing, often taking care of people who no one else would. Lastly the persecution of the early church also provided the lightning rod for rallying to the aid of a great cause.
These same attributes should be at the heart of the church today. Today’s church needs to continue to remind the world that God has intervened in history. And that the good news of forgiveness, salvation and redemption has been made available through faith in Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ’s love for us, Christians should be the most loving and self-sacrificing people in the world. This kind of Christ-like love should be pouring out of the church pews and into the streets of our world.
Paul suggested that the world will know that we are Christians by our love. Oh that we would love the way that Christ has loved us. As the church we still have a lot of loving to do.
– Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.