Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 3)

Read part 1 and part 2.

Some churches get together in an attempt to “create unity.” Identifying people according to beliefs has served to create divisions, so the idea is to not focus on differences but what is held in common. This is an improvement from separating yourself from everyone, but it still misses the good news.

Whether people know it or not, believe it or not, or act like it or not, we are one because Jesus made us one at the cross. We are all united to the same man, and therefore to each other. Unity isn’t something we create but preserve (Ephesians 4:3). Human effort to achieve unity needs to be given up and replaced with the realization that we are all already one in Christ.

Kris Vallotton explains and exposes the nature of denominationalism:

Both the Protestant Reformation and the movements that have sprung up from it all emphasize doctrinal agreement above relationship. This priority has created a culture that constantly threatens to divide people at the very core of their bonding point. While many believers admit that damaged relationships and church splits are costly, the denominational mindset leads them to conclude that the way to avoid this is simply to find ways to enforce doctrinal conformity so disagreements can’t arise. Thus, denominationalism also creates a culture that is critical of anyone who thinks outside the box of tradition, and it desperately fears inspiration. Leaders under this spirit have more faith in the devil’s power to deceive believers than the Holy Spirit’s ability to lead them into all truth. Shepherds in denominationalism resist revelatory thinking because they understand that new ideas spawn disagreements and disagreement attacks the central nervous system of their churches…The lens of denominationalism is primarily defined by the priority of doctrinal agreement, which necessitates a negative view of disagreement in the Body of Christ. Therefore, when someone with a denominational lens approaches Scripture, it requires that biblical terms and concepts support the goal of eliminating disagreement and, ultimately, discouraging individualism. For example, we can see this in the denominational approach to terms like loyalty and unity. In denominationalism, loyalty is often redefined as “agreeing with the leader.” Disagreement is called “disloyal,” and often “disrespectful.” But the truth is that loyalty is actually only tested when we don’t agree. For example, David’s loyalty to King Saul was revealed, not when he lived in the king’s house as his favored son-in-law, but when he lived in the wilderness as the king’s hated and hunted rival. If we agree with our leader over an issue, then we are going to do what our leader wants us to do anyway, because we agree. It is only when we disagree that the fabric of our relationship is put to the test.

There was a time when there were no denominations. It’s not that people all had the exact same beliefs back then. They just thought that those differences were not a good enough reason for people to gather separately. Their reason for gathering was never having the same beliefs in the first place. Their emphasis was not doctrine but Jesus. The essence of denominationalism is identifying yourself with anything other than Jesus. Denominationalism happened when people began to place greater value on their beliefs than on their relationships with other people.

Some who have read up to this point may conclude that I am a non-denominational. I am not. The non-denominational group as a whole has itself become a denomination (unofficial though it may be), marked by the belief that there shouldn’t be any denominations. But in declaring themselves non-denominational, they implicitly validate the idea of denominationalism by creating their own denomination. Being non-denominational is insufficient. Choosing to not be a part of any denomination does not go far enough because it acknowledges denominations as legitimate; you just personally choose not to be part of one.

I will take a step further and claim that denominations do not exist“What the heck do you mean, Ty? Of course they exist! Look at the world around you. There are denominations everywhere!” Just because people act like and think that something is real doesn’t mean it is. Consider, for example, any god of any religion. People have worshipped nonexistent gods for years, but it hasn’t made them any more real.

When I say denominations do not exist I am not talking about human acknowledgment but God’s acknowledgment. Denominations are a human invention, a tradition of man. They are an illusion, a myth, a figment of people’s imaginations. They do not exist in reality. They are artificial divisions within the undivided body of Christ. They were not God’s idea, and when he looks at the Church he does not see denominations. Thus, it would probably be a good idea to stop acting and talking as if they do exist.

I’m not worried about everyone agreeing with me that we shouldn’t accept denominations. Personally, it makes no difference whether we agree or not. I am committed to loving all people regardless of their beliefs. I won’t let someone’s claim to be of a certain denomination affect how I treat them. I just won’t acknowledge them as part of a denomination, or stated differently, separate from me. I have more faith in the unity Jesus has achieved than the false division that I might experience by sight.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 2)

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.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 1)

This is the 1st part of a 3 part series. In part 1 we take a look at the history of denominationalism and how it has affected the body of Christ.

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Last summer I was a leader of a Q&A discussion group at a christian camp for high schoolers. One high schooler asked a question that many would do well to consider themselves:

“What’s with all the different denominations? I mean, they’re not even in the bible.”

In essence this high schooler was asking why denominations exist, whether they are legitimate, and if they are then which one is the right denomination. To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the history of denominationalism.

(Note: I use “denomination” according to its modern usage, to refer to a people who denominate based on agreement on a body of doctrines.)

The first known hint of denominations appeared in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote to them:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

The Corinthians tried to separate themselves according to different leaders. Paul responds with rhetorical questions that point back to what should be everybody’s common denominator – Jesus. So denominations were almost established, but Paul did not allow them to.

Denominationalism in its modern form began to emerge a couple hundred years after Christ when people began to create various theological schools based on the teachings of certain well-known men. People separated themselves according to the teachings they favored and the teachers that taught them.

People further segregated around this time by holding councils to determine the majority vote on what they believed to be right doctrines and thereby declare anyone who believed otherwise to be a heretic.

(Note: Although some would claim that whatever the councils decided must be right, assuming that their meeting and decision making were infallibly inspired by Holy Spirit is just that, an assumption, not to mention an unbiblical assumption.)

But it was during the 16th century that denominationalism gained momentum and became firmly grounded, accompanying the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther and his followers rightly pointed out mistakes such as the practice of indulgences and the teaching of salvation by works, but they separated themselves from Catholics by demonizing them.

Protestants are called Protestants because they were born in a doctrinal protest, and it continues to this day. They are identified by what they placed their highest value on – beliefs. This is why denominations identify themselves primarily by their beliefs, often along with some person who originated that way of thinking (Wesleyan, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc., each of which, if one is familiar with them, conjure up certain doctrinal dispositions).

As time passed, people placed more and more value on getting beliefs right, and as a result the number of issues to disagree over increased. A new denomination emerged with each new disputed doctrine that was considered important enough to split over. Accordingly, separation in the church increased alongside the increase in doctrinal precision.

Contrary to the denominational method of identification, the members of the early church were called “christians” because it was evident to those around them that the person of Christ was most important to them. And if people wanted to describe a group of believers back in the day they didn’t identify them by beliefs but only by physical location (e.g. Paul writes to the church of God at Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, etc.).

Even within denominations people recognize that they don’t believe all the same things (i.e. they may disagree on what is not included in their particular body of doctrine). This raises the question – how significant are beliefs?

We’ll take a look at this question in part 2.