J. Warner Wallace tackled the question, Do Denominational Disagreements Falsify Christianity? recently from an apologetic angle. A common challenge to Christianity is that we don’t all agree. If Christianity is true, why so much disagreement? Why so many denominations?
I like the way Wallace tackles the issue. He starts by observing that truth is often complex, and finite beings such as ourselves often disagree on the complexities. This is true not just in Christianity, but even in science. Wallace lists some of the various “theoretical camps” on the origin of the universe and the various types of atheists who don’t agree with each other in their atheism.
Wallace observes that disagreement doesn’t negate the truth. Truth remains truth whether people understand it or agree on it. Paul is saying the same thing, basically, when he says, “Let God be true though every one were a liar.” (Romans 3:4) We can’t judge God by the way people act, and we can’t judge the truth of Christianity by the way the Church acts.
On that last statement, I can imagine someone saying, “Now wait a minute! Shouldn’t we hold the Church to a higher standard? Shouldn’t the Church, of all institutions, be better than secular ones? If Christianity is true, shouldn’t we expect more harmony in the Church?
I actually agree with these criticisms. What about the inquisitions, and Christians burning other Christians at the stake for heresy and Puritans burning Puritans at the stake for supposedly being witches? That sounds like a lot of infighting for a group of people who are called to be “one in Christ”!
These are serious charges against the Church and Christianity. Wallace is right, that every human institution under the sun has disagreement, but shouldn’t the Church be different? If God is God and Christianity is true, shouldn’t the Church stand apart?
Jesus called his followers to be like a city set on a hill, like a beacon of truth. He said the world would know his followers by their love for one another, and he prayed for them to be one with each other as he and the Father are one.
We don’t have to dig very deep, or look very far, or think very long before we find examples in history and in current events today that paint a very different picture of the Church. The Church, universal, is fragmented. Even denominations, within themselves, are divided. Division and dissention occur in our local churches on a regular basis.
The skeptics put up a serious challenge to believers when they make the claim that our penchant for disagreement calls into question the truth that we stand for. How do we respond?
Yes, disagreements in the Church do not negate the truth, but how do we put them in perspective? How do our disagreement fit the truth that is revealed in Scripture? (That the world should know us by our love for one another) How do we reflect the love of God to the world as a fractured and broken Church?
I don’t believe I have a complete handle on these things, but I have some thoughts on how we can square the disagreement in the Church with Scripture and how we should respond as believers to this challenge.
First of all, as Wallace points out, disagreement is part of the human condition. No group of humans is one hundred percent in agreement (except for maybe cults). In fact, this is to be expected of finite beings such as ourselves.
One thing that sets Christianity apart from other religions is its candid assessment of human beings. We are not only finite, we are fallen and sinful. Our tendencies are to “miss the mark” (which is what sin means, literally) – even the people of God.
The history of the people of Israel – the people God chose from among all the nations of the earth – reveals this tendency to miss the mark. God demonstrated miracles on a regular basis to them when He brought them out of Egypt – from the parting of the Red Sea, to manna in the desert and literally hovering over them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Still, they habitually grumbled, complained and bucked against God.
The entire history of the nation of Israel, from start to finish, is marked by their habitual turning away from God, doing the wrong things and failing to do the right things. They had the Law, but the Law only accentuated their failure. The Law proved their need (and our need) for a Redeemer to rescue them (and us) from themselves (ourselves).
Yes, but now we have the Holy Spirit. Things should be different, right?
One would think so, but human tendencies remain, and they are strong. Even Paul, the great apostle, confessed that he desired to do the good he knew he should do, but he struggled to carry it out. (Romans 7:15-24) This strong tendency to go our own way and miss the mark is universal, and it doesn’t just go away when we are born again. We must continually be yielding to the Holy Spirit our entire lives to conform to God’s image, and often we fail.
Jesus also warned that tares (fake believers) would grow up with the wheat (true believers), but he said he would not remove those tares lest he take some of the wheat with them. (Matthew 13:24-30) I believe that much of the disagreement in the Church can be attributed to weeds growing up among the wheat, causing dissention and strife.
Of course, the tares look very much like wheat. The illustration above doesn’t do justice to the concept because the real difference between between true Christians and “fake” Christians is at the heart level. Though we can judge (somewhat imperfectly) by the fruit, only God sees and knows the heart. The real issues are below the surface in the hearts of people in the Church who are all at different stages in their “walk with God”, and some of whom are “imposters”.
A key point of the parable is that we will have difficulty distinguishing. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that we have issues in the Church. It’s human nature. It’s an inevitable characteristic of finite beings. It’s our human tendency to miss the mark, even people who are dedicated to God. Finally, we have imposters among us, and we always will.
So, what do we do about it?
We can start by loving each other. While Jesus prayed for unity (knowing, perhaps, that we would struggle with unity), he said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35) Peter said, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8 (NIV))
Love is not a doctrine; it’s an action and a way of life. In my opinion, we focus way too much on doctrine and dogma, and not nearly enough on loving each other deeply and from the heart.
We make it complicated when it is really very simple.
Many of the denominational differences involve organizational structure and forms of worship. Various denominations have presbyters, deacons, elders, priests, ministers, synods and other layers of organizational hierarchies. These are peripheral things compared to the substance of Christ,. God is love, and love is what matters most. (I Corinthians 13)
The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest is like it: love your neighbor. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your brother”, by the way; he said love your neighbor, and he extended instruction to enemies as well, just in case we missed the hint.
While worship was prescribed in detail for the Israelites, we have comparatively little in the way of specific instruction for how we should worship in the New Testament. Jesus said simply that God is looking for people who will worship Him in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
Though God gave many details for worship for Israel to follow, we find that God was ultimately more interested in their hearts and how they lived. Justice, mercy, and refraining from idolatry are the overarching themes of the Prophets.
God ultimately didn’t want their sacrifices, feasts, “vain offerings” and Sabbaths. (Isaiah 1:11-15) He didn’t want their fasting, worship and singing. (Isaiah 58:1-5) God wanted repentance from the heart, demonstrated by doing good, seeking justice and correcting oppression. (Isaiah 1:16-17) God wanted them to feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless and care for each other. (Isaiah 58:6-7)
The forms of our worship are less important than the substance of our living and our love for each other (and our neighbors). Our worship, doctrines and dogmas are not the litmus test for our salvation, and they are not the measure for how well we are living.
Yes, we have to be careful about heresies. Paul confronted heresies in the early church, but he emphasized the centrality of Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2) This was his response to division in the Corinthian church over whether to follow Apollos or Paul. (1 Corinthians 3) We should not allow personalities and doctrines to divide us if we are in agreement on the key things – Christ and him crucified.
We can have our various denominations and favored ways of worshiping, and we will. We can have our disagreements, but we should learn to disagree well. Love should be our overarching desire and objective, and everything else should be secondary.
Cults have unity and unanimity. Cults have charismatic leaders that everyone follows without question. Cult members are programmed to believe the exact same things. This is not the model for unity in the Church.
The truth is more complex than that. We can expect that we will always have disagreement because truth is often far more complex than we like to think it to be, and we are just finite beings with limited perspectives. This reality demands humility.
As a cold case detective, Wallace would tell you that stories that match up exactly with each other in court suggest conspiracy, not the truth. Disagreement is an inevitable characteristic of finite beings such as ourselves. Having disagreement in the Church is, frankly, a good and healthy thing. There is room for disagreement, but disagreement should not divide us or pit us against each other.
The truth is that the world is watching us. Jesus desires us to be that city set on a hill, a shining example to all the world. This is the ideal, but more important than unity is our love for each other. Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our unity (though Jesus prayed for us in that respect); he said the world would know us by our love for each other.
We can be unified in our love for each other even while we disagree with each other. In a world in which the standard for disagreement is tolerance, we are called not just to tolerate each other, but to love each other deeply, from the heart. If we can do THAT we will be the city set on a hill God intended us to be!