Putting Denominational Disagreements in Perspective for the World and the Church

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.

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.

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On the Intersection of Differences and Unity in the Body of Christ

Esau McCaulley interviewed NT Wright on his Disrupters podcast last year.  NT Wright is a British New Testament scholar of some renown who became McCauley’s mentor. McCaulley is an African American from raised a Southern Baptist in the deep south.

McCaulley made a comment after the interview that prompts my writing today. He said, “I feel like I am a mix of a bunch of things. I have this kind of British, evangelical side, and I have this kind of African American church side, and strangely they have coalesced in ways I didn’t expect.”

I think about how interesting and rich the conversation was between NT Wright and Esau McCaulley. The fact that they come from disparate and diverse backgrounds permeates the discussion as they explore the things that unite them.

Esau McCaulley is a New Testament scholar in his own right, now, because of the influence of NT Wright. He has written one book on Galatians, and he is now writing a second. McCauley also became an Anglican, but his heritage and unique experience, personally and communally, as a black man in America remains central to his identity.

I think about the church in the United States and the global Church. I recently heard someone describe an unfortunate, unforeseen and unintended consequence of the Reformation and the great movement to translate the Bible into common languages so that all people can read the Bible in their own tongues. That consequence was the fragmentation of the Church.

First, it fragmented into groups of people who spoke English, French, and other European languages. Over time, the fragmentation rippled out so that today in America we can find Spanish-speaking, Filipino-speaking, and other linguistic, ethnic and cultural huddles of believers that keep largely to themselves based on language and heritage.

The Reformation splintered into many “protestant” groups, and that fragmentation exploded into the New World where Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others splintered apart from each other into various and distinct groups, and many more new denominations sprung up.  The fragmentation continued along cultural, doctrinal, ethnic, ritualistic, racial, governmental, and other lines.

Nowhere is this fragmentation more evident in the world than in the United States. In fact, statistics that show that churches are more segregated than the rest of the country (which is still pretty segregated).

The intersectionality (to use a very loaded term) of the disparate backgrounds, experiences and heritage of NT Wright and Esau McCaulley, and their ongoing relationship remind me of the need for unity in the Church. We need to come together. We need each other.

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Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?

If we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus.

I watched the Chapelstreet church service today and listened to the sermon by Jeff Frazier in Batavia, IL. It was just what I needed to hear. Not that it tills new ground; it covers familiar ground from a new angle. It avoids the ruts of old, tired ways of thinking and finds fresh new ground (for me) from which to approach how we see Jesus.

The sermon today was inspired by Matthew 9:9-13.[i] You can read it in full at the endnote below. In summary, Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth where he was sitting to follow him, and Matthew responded by following him. That was the extent of the initial story

Then Scripture jumps to another scene: Jesus reclining at a table with “many tax collectors and sinners”. We are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the interim. It could be that Matthew invited all his friends, who were naturally other tax collectors and “sinners”, to met Jesus who had just connected with him.

The focus of the new scene, though, isn’t on Matthew anymore. The focus shifts to the Pharisees who ask the disciples why Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.

Before I describe how Jesus responded to them, I want to focus on the fact that the people who had a problem with Jesus were the religious people. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people according to the religious insiders of his day.

This is nothing new. I have written often about the Pharisees, Jesus and tax collectors and sinners. In fact, I wrote on the same subject just two weeks ago. (The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today)

It isn’t a new thing to realize Jesus defied categorization; he shattered expectations and common ways of thinking. He challenged everyone he met to see the world differently, but we sometimes forget the radicalness of Jesus in our routine orthodoxy.

I dare say, if we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus!

Back to the story: in First Century Judea, tax collectors were traitors and sell-outs. They were Hebrews who collected taxes for the Romans and used the authority of the Roman occupiers of the Hebrew Promised Land to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were hated by good Jews. They were outsiders in their own community.

As outsiders, they naturally associated with other outsiders (“sinners”). Thus, for Jesus to establish a relationship with Matthew – and worse than that: to “hang out” with other tax collectors and “sinners” – was scandalous. It was unthinkable!

When Jesus heard the Pharisees challenge the disciples to explain why Jesus was associating with “such people”, Jesus famously responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:12-13

This is a familiar passage to us, but I think the application of the message is sometimes lost on us today. I think we can fall into the trap of the Pharisees in our thinking without even realizing it. Thus, we need to be challenged to see things from a different angle, just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the first century.

Again, these are not new thoughts, but the the change of perspective (for me) comes courtesy of Paul G. Hiebert. Born to missionary parents in India, he became “arguably, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”.[ii]

When he moved back to the west, he wrestled with questions like these: What does it mean for an illiterate, Hindu peasant to know Jesus? How much of their old life and traditions must be left behind?

Having observed missionaries in India, he concluded that the western mission movement was importing too many western traditions and thoughts. He saw the need for thinking outside the western box – like Jesus encouraged the followers of his day to think outside the box…. or rather, outside the circle, as we will see.

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Ritual, Spirit and Truth

Depositphotos Image ID: 23471738 Copyright: ChiccoDodiFC

I was raised Catholic. I say that often. Not that it is a bad thing. It’s just my experience. During my time in the Catholic church, through my childhood and early adulthood, I had no connection with God. I can’t lay the blame for that at the feet of the Catholic Church. That was just where I was.

When I became a Believer, when I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, my life changed. I also began to see the Catholic Church in a different light. I was never into the ritual and observance, which is a major component of the Catholic Church. Not that other denominations and religions don’t have central religious rituals. All religions have ritual observances and traditions.

Those ritual observances and traditions are not, in themselves, bad, but they can create a facade that hides emptiness, darkness and sin. They can create an appearance of piety with no spiritual reality behind them. They can be more superstitious than spiritual, like stroking a rabbits foot for good fortune. In these and other ways, ritual observances can become a substitute for relationship with God.

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Vain Discussions

We get into the weeds on issues that may be interesting, but they aren’t central or necessary to the Gospel.

Male friends arguing


“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” (1 Timothy 1:3-7)

What Paul characterizes here in the first chapter of his first letter to Timothy is something that goes on quite a bit in religious circles today. We may not speculate about “myths and endless genealogies” today, but we engage in similar discussions. I don’t think that myths and genealogies are so much the issue, as the time we spend locked into trying to prove and persuade others of particular points and principles that are peripheral and distract us from “the stewardship of God that is by faith”.

When Paul talks about certain persons teaching a “different doctrine”, I don’t think he is speaking about doctrine in the way we might view the word today. In Paul’s time, there were no systematic theologies. Doctrinal issues focused on the fundamentals – who is Jesus? Did he rise from the dead in bodily form? Must believers be circumcised?

Today, there is no end to the theologies and doctrinal points of view that get so finely tuned as to focus on modern equivalents to how many angles can dance on the head of a pin without jostling each other. I jest of course; but that is the point. We get into the weeds on issues that may be interesting, but they aren’t central or necessary to the Gospel.

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