Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Church Unity, or Lack Thereof

A friend of mine has been participating in an exploration into starting a new church of his preferred denomination near his home. The process prompted him to write about one of the great questions about Christianity: why are there so many different denominations and what are the implications toward the faith as a whole? This is in part a response to what he wrote, and also and attempt to consolidate some of the things I have pondered on the subject over the past few years.

Personally, I'm a Methodist. Why? The basic tenants of the Methodist Church match my personal feelings. I suspect, I hope, that's a big reason why people choose the churches they choose. (Other reasons could include: it was close to home, you have a good kids' program, I was raised a [fill in denomination], all my friends go here, etc.) After some thought, I've come to believe that having different denominations is actually a good thing for the Church. For instance, I believe that Biblical Inerrancy and the related Sola Scriptura theologies can actually be dangerous to the Church. That doesn't mean that I can't acknowledge the comfort that people take in such beliefs, or the power of their faith that allows them to hold the beliefs. And it doesn't mean I'm right about the subject. What it does mean, is that the Methodist doctrine embodied by "Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience" is a much better fit for me than some of the more Lutheran denominations.

People need different things. If someone can't in good conscience be a member of your congregation, isn't it a good thing that there is another across the street that might welcome him? In this way, splits between the denominations can help prevent endless doctrinal debates, and allow the Church as a whole to go on with its work. God has provided through his flawed people a place where I can go with my beliefs, and a place where others can go with theirs.

Here, I will reference the eloquent words of Romans 12, which were written about individual believers, but I think can be applied to the role of denominations in the wider Church:
"Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. ... Each of us finds ourselves fashioned into these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't."

This isn't to say we shouldn't worry about the correctness of our faith or the spiritual health of those around us. And I don't want to imply that I wouldn't love to see the denominations consolidate behind the true core tenants of our faith. But I do want to emphasize that denominational differences aren't as pronounced as they sometimes seem, and there's always something you can learn from someone who doesn't follow the same path you do. Even if it's just apologetics. Brian McLaren provides his story of learning about and from other denominations in the book A Generous Orthodoxy, and I found a great deal of food for thought in it.

What I'm trying in my meager way to get across here, is that if you are worried about the people around you (and you should be) and your denomination's place among other denominations and the world (and you should be), then there is always one simple thing you can do. Follow the example of Jesus: love one another. Believe me, doing that is hard enough to keep us all busy.

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