In a previous post, I began exploring the question of what makes Lutheranism different from other Christian denominations, and why that is appealing to me. I think it’s especially interesting to people because I have spent time studying and teaching about religion and theology, and because I have spent time worshiping at and with many Christian denominations.
And I do want to dive a little more deeply into that question. But first I want to address a concern that arose in the comments of the post linked above, regarding the many divisions and differences that exist in the One Universal Christian Church with its countless denominations (and “non” denominations), and why that seems like a bad thing.
So yes, there are many churches within the greater Church – both individual congregations and larger organizations of congregations (denominations) which differ from one another on points of doctrine (teaching) and practice. And yes, it may seem like Christians can’t even agree among themselves what Christianity is. And yes, this might possibly be something that turns people away from Jesus, which is the opposite of what we as Christians want to happen.
However, while I do think that we as Christians do much to turn people off to Christianity, I think it has far more to do with being unloving, self-righteous and phony than it does with theological divisions. I just don’t think the average person understands or cares about the nuances and minutiae of arguments over complications of doctrine.
I think the more likely reality is that denominationalism is one of many excuses for people (especially Christians themselves) to attack (other) Christians. I have met far more Christians who love to tell me that it doesn’t matter what church you go to or if you even go to church at all, because (fill-in-the-blank). But at least non-Christians don’t think it’s important because they don’t believe. Christians don’t have much of an excuse, when the Bible says that Jesus established the Church, the Apostles started local congregations throughout the known world, and the Bible says that everyone should be a part of a church and go regularly. But I digress…
The harsh truth is this: if you are looking for the perfect church, you are not going to find it – because there are no perfect people. And if you are criticizing Christians for not agreeing on every single point of theology, you are not being even remotely realistic. I challenge you to find me any two human beings on the face of the planet who agree on everything – or even on one thing in every detail. You and I might agree that bacon is the best food on the planet, but we might disagree on whether bacon makes everything better – or if everything else makes bacon worse…*
Christians are not Christian because we have it all figured out, or because we think we are better than anyone else, or because we feel we have somehow mastered ‘good’-ness. To the contrary, we are Christian because we see, recognize and understand that we are broken sinners in need of a Savior; we are Christian because we know that we are no better than anyone else; we are Christian because we are not good people – but we desperately want to be. So we do the best we can with God’s help – we look to Him for direction, and we trust in His forgiveness when we inevitably mess it all up.
So, while division and argument are not good for the body of Christ (and I’m not arguing that they are), like most things the presence of different churches and denominations is a far more complicated issue than black and white, or who is right or wrong. Because yes, of course it would be wonderful if all Christians were united in the one, true Church. That is, after all, a unity toward which we should all be striving.
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them (Romans 16:17).”
Unfortunately, though, it’s not that simple. We do not belong to the Church because we live as we ought; we belong to the Church because we are sick, broken sinners who want to live as we ought, but can’t seem to stay out of our own way.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15).”
So, in spite of ourselves, God uses our sinful divisions for good, by using the countless denominations and congregations and differences in doctrine and practice to be all things to all people.
Take, for example, that there are people who need to feel a certain way in order to let go of their egos and trust in God. A charismatic worship service, full of spontaneity and driven by emotion appeals to that need. There are others, however, who need order in their otherwise chaotic lives, and a traditional service that is full of ritual and ceremony appeals more to them. And even though these two types of people would be miserable in the other’s worship service, they may still love each other and even work together for good, feeding the homeless or praying with shut-ins alongside each other. And, in fact, having two smaller congregations of each style may be more effective in the bigger picture by serving separate needs in the same community. This type of ‘division,’ as long as it doesn’t become a point of contention between the two churches which distracts from their mission, can actually be a good thing, even if it looks like a bad thing.
See, what our modern culture has largely forgotten is that we may still love and enjoy each other, even if we do not agree. I have friends and family whom I love – who think differently, vote differently and live differently than me – and yet we can still find ways to enjoy each other’s company, and even work together toward common goals. So I certainly do not need to attend the same church as my sisters and brothers in Christ in order to be their brother in Christ. And I may still love and pray for my neighbor, even if we do not agree.
All of that said, it does not mean that all churches are equal, or that it doesn’t matter which church you attend, because they’re not and it does. Although it may sound insensitive to say it, the reality is that some churches and even some denominations are wrong. Some churches are teaching a false religion. And some pastors are false teachers. Harsh? It’s just reality – we can’t all be right, especially if we are teaching contradictory things, which some churches are. Some churches tell people what they want to hear, and whatever will get people in the door. And some pastors will say whatever makes them popular. But that’s nothing new:
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Timothy 4:2-4).”
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15).”
Do you want to feel good about yourself for an hour or do you want to learn more about how to live every day? Do you want to be promised riches and a happy life if you just believe enough – even though Jesus and the Apostles lived in poverty and were killed for their faith? Do you want to be comfortable or do you want to be challenged? Are you hungry for God’s Word or are you content with pithy sayings? Do you want to be told you’re perfect just the way you are or do you want to be told you’re not okay – and that’s okay? Do you want to be screamed at about hell or be reminded that you are forgiven? Do you want to be promised your best life now or be encouraged that the best is yet to come?
It all matters. It matters because the truth matters. Integrity matters. You matter. But so do the people around you. So do some research. Explore the teachings behind the message. Read and study God’s Word and test what you see and hear against it to see if it’s faithful. And ask questions, no matter how scary it may seem. And you need to actually go to church, on more than just Christmas and Easter, too. Go every week, and get involved. Be a part. Because the Church is not the building or the organization, it’s the people. Be a part of a people – be a part of a church. Find a church you can call home; where you can feel like you’re among family – keeping in mind that family isn’t perfect, they’re just yours.
But do find a place where you can feel welcome to come as you are… but also a place that will challenge you enough that you won’t stay that way. Because it’s where you belong – in Christ’s Church, where we’re all in this together.
And next time, I’ll explain more about why I have found my place in the Lutheran Church. Until then,
*A special shoutout to my friend Alex, who shared with me the brilliant insight that adding bacon to everything may not, in fact, be the answer…
2 thoughts on “A Tangent: Denominationalism”
This is an excellent column and gives us much to think about. But, I do have a problem when there is reference to “The Lutheran Church,” because the fact is that there no longer seems to be “A Lutheran church.” I think at last count there were over 20 DIFFERENT “Lutheran” churches, and they all claim to have the “TRUE” Lutheran faith. LCMS claims it, Wisconsin claims it, ELCA claims it. and all the other little minority “Lutheran” Synods do too. A yet they are all supposedly followers of Luther. And each “Lutheran” denomination claims they are basing their beliefs and practices on Holy Scripture. But their “theologians” and “scholars” do not agree as to what Scripture is telling us. This to me is a scandal. Why can’t they get together — at conferences and seminars and Bible studies — and hammer away at these differences? There doesn’t seem to be any effort to even TRY to reconcile our differences. We just go our separate ways, condemning the views of other “Lutherans” and thus, the divisions continue. We used to at least attend each others Conventions — and bring “Greetings” — but we don’t even do that anymore. These fellow “Lutherans” seem to be an anathema toward each other. I have an atheist friend (he used to be Catholic), who scoffs at Christianity now, in large measure because he says “You Lutherans can’t even agree, through your scholars and theologians as at what the correct interpretation of your Bible is. So if your Bible is that hard to understand and interpret, even among followers of Luther, why should I believe it?” And he does speak reality here. So I am waiting to hear what the meaning of “The Lutheran Church” is.
It’s coming on Monday – just hang in there! Well, OK, the first part of the answer comes Monday, but the difference between Lutherans themselves is coming in a few more weeks. But here’s a little:
Unfortunately, the primary division comes from one crowd being hyper-rational and the other being hyper-emotional – and it’s a family feud at its heart. But when one group (the ELCA) sees the Bible as a historical document produced by fallible humans and the other (LCMS) sees the Bible as divinely inspired and inerrant, where is the middle ground from which to work?