Read part 1.
Before discussing the significance of beliefs as it relates to denominationalism, I will first make some observations about the nature of belief itself.
Perfect certainty of anything is impossible. Even if truth is objective, as humankind we have no universally agreed-upon way of determining whether something is true or not. In other words, proof of truth is subjective. We choose our own ways of being convinced.
Ultimately, we choose to believe whatever makes the most sense to us. Thus we can’t tie people’s beliefs to their character. Just because someone believes something mistaken doesn’t mean they have evil intentions or a bad heart.
Beliefs are things we choose; they aren’t something that just comes to us and we can’t help but accept. Nor are they merely something we arrive at through a pure act of intellect; they are not independent of our desires. No two people believe exactly the same things because they have had different experiences and their minds work differently.
Beliefs are things you try out, like food or clothing. Good beliefs will cause you to live well, and bad beliefs will cause you to live poorly.
Beliefs aren’t something that we have to “get right.” They are a gift from God to help us relate with him. For example, if you think God is angry with you, your relationship with him will be unnecessarily strained. But if you know he is always in a good mood, you will approach him in a completely different manner.
Jesus nor the apostles never stressed theology (although many modern theologians have used the bible to stress theology). This is because it is possible to love God while holding wrong beliefs. They recognized that theology is only significant to the degree that it affects your living. And in the end, that’s all that really matters. Loving Jesus. As we daily encounter God, our beliefs will naturally align with his as he reveals himself, Truth, to us. He may want us to change a belief we have, but ultimately that’s so that our actions will change for our own benefit.
In light of this, it isn’t biblical to expect everyone to believe the exact same things. Why assume that there is a body of “correct beliefs” that God wants everyone everywhere to believe? What if God leads different people to “understand” the same things in different ways – ways which we would interpret as “different beliefs”? What if he gives people different wordings of the same concept? What if different understandings benefit different people to different degrees?
I’m not claiming there is no absolute truth. I’m saying since we can’t fully know or understand absolute truth anyways, trying to get everyone to agree isn’t as important as it has been made out to be. Yes, heresies are real and they are destructive. But we don’t need to go heresy hunting because lies will be made evident in the lives of those who believe them. Heresies will hunt themselves.
Alright. Now let’s see how this relates to denominationalism.
To reiterate, denominationalism separates people according to beliefs. This is done on two levels. The first is to distinguish your own belief system as the best compared to all others among christians. The second is to define a minimum set of beliefs necessary to be considered a christian.
There is a problem with both of these.
The first, viewing your beliefs as the “best theological system,” is plain arrogance. Most beliefs of people who claim to be christians come from their interpretation of the bible. It needs to be accepted that people will always have different interpretations and that no one has it all right. We are all heretics to some degree. Nobody can fully intuit or articulate what is true.
The second has historically been espoused by many. Augustine wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Vincent of Lerins stated, “Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all.” C. S. Lewis called it Mere Christianity – “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
But say we want to define such a minimum set of beliefs. How could people ever come to an agreement? Indeed, although this has been attempted many times historically, it has never been accomplished. There will never be full agreement among all people.
The quotes I gave are pointless because they are self-referential by containing the word “christian.” How do we historically determine who was a “christian” so that we can know what is essential, what has been held always, what has been common to all? Most would do so by examining what they believed. But what beliefs are required for them to be considered a christian? We are back to the original problem. Some might switch the criteria to whoever claimed to be a christian, but this is equally useless.
The reason denominationalism places so high a value on beliefs is because it insists that beliefs are an integral part of one’s identity. This is why some people get offended when you refute their beliefs – since they identify themselves with their beliefs, they take the refutation personally. Denominationalism says that beliefs speak louder of who we are than the Christ who lives in us.
In the end it isn’t our job to make judgments on who is and isn’t a part of the church; we still love all people the same, albeit in different ways.
In part 3 we’ll take a closer look at the denominational mindset to see why denominations are merely an illusion.