There are so many denominations of Christianity today that it boggles the mind. Factor into that the many ways people actually live out their faith (or don't) and it's no wonder some people dismiss Christianity before even hearing the Gospel. To many, I imagine Christianity looks more like Baskin Robbins than the source of Truth and eternal life. In this post, I want to shed some light on the issue of division in Christianity as well as define what a Christian is, and more importantly, is not.
So we start at the beginning. The apostles, having witnessed the death and resurrection of Christ, went out into the world as He commanded to make disciples of all nations. They spread out in all directions, proclaiming to all who would listen what they had witnessed and baptizing those who believed. The early Church was born and continued to grow over the centuries. Now it is well beyond the scope of this post to go into details about the early Church. Certainly there was conflict and some groups broke off prior to the Reformation, but these were minor splits over non-crucial elements of the Faith and they pale in comparison to what happened after the Reformation.
A Christian by Any Other Name
Before I get into the division of the Church, let's start with the basics. What is a Christian? A Christian is one who believes God became man as Jesus Christ who then died for our sins and rose from the dead. He did this to reopen the gates of Heaven which were closed since the first sin. A Christian also believes in the Holy Trinity: one God in three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Finally, this professed belief is meant to manifest itself in the way one lives, following the teachings of Christ which He gave during His time on Earth.
This is where it starts to get complicated. Since the division of the Church, what it means to follow Christ has been rewritten and reinterpreted countless times leading to great confusion among believers, and worse, would-be believers. C.S. Lewis likened Christianity to a great hall that one enters with many doors to choose from, saying you can linger in the hall for a time but eventually you must choose a door. How does one go about choosing such a thing? Which one of those doors leads to the Truth?
Which leads me to what a Christian absolutely is not. All disagreements on doctrine aside, there are some things a person can never say or believe and still be considered a Christian. Anyone who says God hates anyone, is not a Christian. God does not hate anyone. Make no mistake, He certainly hates sin, but not those who commit sin. That, of course, is everyone so anyone who says they don't sin like the rest of us (I've recently discovered there are people who actually claim this) is also not a Christian. Lastly, anyone who declares someone is going to Hell is not speaking as a Christian. God decides who goes to Hell, and while we know certain sins are definitely punishable by eternal damnation, only God knows someone's heart and He is the final judge, not us.
|That Christianity thing? You're doing it wrong.|
A House Divided
In my humble, Catholic opinion, the Reformation is the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity. Not only that, but if we take an honest look, I don't see how any Christian can think otherwise. How can anybody look at the disintegration that followed and think it wasn't utterly destructive? Faster than you could say "sola" new denominations were popping up all over the place, and our focus went from winning souls to winning supporters.
Now, before I continue I want to make something very clear. I do not think that Catholics are the only true followers of Christ. I have many non-Catholic Christian friends who are truly inspirational to me and encourage me greatly in my faith. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Catholic Church does not teach that all non-Catholics go to Hell. A great series to read for clarification of common misunderstandings of Catholicism is Brittany's Letting God Lead series over at Equipping Godly Women. In this series, she shares her ongoing journey trying to discern truth as she learns more about the Catholic Faith. My goal is simply to make the argument in favor of Christian unity and, hopefully, convince some of you to take a fresh look at Catholicism. Many people have been rather misinformed about it, and as Brittany points out, we should all desire to stand firm on fact and truth in what we believe.
Another issue I want to be clear on is this: while I loathe that the Reformation happened, I certainly agree that there were issues which needed to be addressed. There was justified outrage against corruption. This was voiced even by those who remained faithful to the Church. Indeed, even the Church itself recognizes this officially in its Catechism:
"In this one and only Church of God from its very beginning there arose certain rifts...but in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame..." - CCC #817
And then it continues:
"However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from the separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers....All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."
"Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as a means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church." - CCC #818-819
The Church acknowledges that there was blame on both sides. It also acknowledges that non-Catholic believers today are not responsible for this separation and are indeed true believers whose Churches are used by Christ as a means of salvation.
Now I imagine that with the exception of history majors, most of us know just enough about the Reformation to justify which side of it we're on. If you would like to read further on what the Reformation was and why it happened, I highly recommend you follow along with Kenneth Hensley's series on his blog here. In it, he explores the historical factors that helped set the stage for the Reformation in addition to the reasons for the Reformation itself. Be sure to start at the beginning with "What was the Reformation?" and then move on to "Why did the Reformation Happen?" parts 1-4. This is an ongoing series and you will definitely want to stay tuned. And lest you be tempted to write this off as another biased Catholic blogging about the Reformation, read this excerpt from "What was the Reformation?":
"Before becoming Catholic, I was an evangelical Protestant for about twenty years, an ordained Protestant minister for more than eleven. My conversion was hard. I broke a lot of glass coming into the Church. Because of my background and situation, becoming Catholic wasn't something done quickly. It was the result of intensive thought and prayer over the course of some four years. It involved a rethinking of my entire worldview as a Christian --- the teaching of Scripture, the history of the Church."
The beginning of the Reformation is nearly 500 years in the past. Nobody can change what happened, but we can decide where to go from here. In order to do that, we have to take an honest look at the situation and ask some tough questions.
What was the end result?
The most consistent estimation I've seen is that there are currently more than 30,000 Christian denominations. That number is simply staggering and I don't think anybody can say with a straight face that this is a good thing. Are there really 30,000 ways to live as a Christian? Can all of those denominations possibly be faithful to the true teachings of Christ? I think it's obvious that they couldn't possibly be. You simply cannot rewrite Christianity 30,000 times and have the last version look anything like the first, and we're not doing ourselves any favors pretending otherwise. This is not a Burger King religion; you can't have it your way!
Now, is that what I think Luther was trying to do? Certainly not. I think Luther was a well-intentioned man who loved the Lord with all his heart and sought to correct abuses he saw within the Church. But I also think many things happened which he did not intend, things we should be trying to correct now. Luther opened the quintessential Pandora's box, and there was no stopping it. If he could rewrite Church teaching then so could everyone else who saw fit to make changes, and they promptly did. Look at this graphic of the splitting of Christianity:
Exactly where in there do we think we finally got it right? There are graphics like this all over the internet, but one of the most heartbreaking places I saw was on a former Christian turned Atheist's blog. He was using an image similar to this one to demonstrate our lack of unity and use it as an argument against Christianity. If that doesn't give us pause, nothing will.
Another question we must ponder here is this: if the Church had lost its way, as the reformers believed it had, and they were merely correcting flaws in Church teaching in order to restore them to the true teachings of Christ, wouldn't it have stopped with them? If a wrong turn was set right in the Reformation, wouldn't the divisions have ceased and Christianity continued on its now supposedly corrected path?
But it didn't stop, as we all know. Rather it was much more akin to a runaway train. The divisions continued on and on leaving anyone who disagreed with Church teaching free to reinvent the Faith as he saw fit. Finally today we are left with denominations who stand on opposites sides of even such polarizing moral issues as abortion. When we can argue both for and against an objective evil like abortion with both sides waving the Christian flag, how can we expect anyone to take us seriously?
Is unity the proper goal?
If what I said above doesn't convince you then let us turn, as we always should, to the Lord:
"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me." - John 17: 20-23
We can't read that and not recognize that our division breaks the Lord's heart. It's not an easy thing to face because to realize that our divisions are a problem is to realize that we have a really big problem. How many of you are cursing my name right now? Wouldn't it be so much easier to just tell ourselves that things are the way they are for a reason and they were that way long before we showed up so why try to change it? Certainly it would, but since when did God ever ask us to do what was easy? Brothers and sisters, we cannot stick our heads in the sand on this issue.
Where do we start?
Hopefully at this point you agree with me that division in Christianity is a bad thing. So if we decide that this is a problem, how do we go about fixing it? Where does one even start? I think as brothers and sisters in Christ we can all agree that we should all start on our knees. Let us all come to the Lord in prayer and seek His Truth rather than our own. Then let us do what all who have gone astray must: return to our roots. Go back to the beginning and look with a fresh pair of eyes. Read the writings of the Church fathers, those converted, taught and formed by the Apostles themselves and their immediate successors. Consider this:
"It is possible, then, for every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times. But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness or wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition." - St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 1-2, c. AD 190
These words of St. Irenaeus are taken from his series of volumes called Against Heresies which he was writing against Gnosticism. In this passage we can see how the early Church fathers recognized the authority of the Church in Rome and that other churches could look to her to evaluate the legitimacy of their belief and worship. Now this:
"The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things 'just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition are one and the same." - St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 10, 2
One soul, one heart, one mouth? Does that sound like Christianity today? It surely does not, but it should and I dare believe it can.
These quotes and many more can be found in this episode of The Journey Home. In it, Marcus Grodi, former Protestant Minister, talks about the writings of the early Church fathers and how they helped lead him to Catholicism.
You can hardly turn on the news these days without hearing about yet another denomination of Christianity changing its stance on some moral issue such as marriage or abortion. I can hardly go a day as a Catholic without hearing how my Church needs to get with the times. But please, for the love of all that is holy, can we stop and think about this logically? Does God change? Does the Truth change? If we believe in God, and we believe that we are His people blessed with Truth in His word, then we should not be looking to change with the times and we should not be attempting to correct God. All around us the dominoes are falling, all except the Catholic Church. Whatever the media might like us to believe about Pope Francis and a new progressive Church, we haven't changed, and we aren't going to. And the reason we aren't going to is simple: we don't think we can improve on the teachings of Christ.
It is my sincere hope that you haven't reached the end of this post thinking it was a shameless pitch for Catholicism. I would be lying if I said I didn't think that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, established by our Lord Himself. Of course I think it's the "right" Church. What would I be doing in it if I didn't? What are you doing at your Church if you don't believe its teachings are the true teachings of Christ, right?
Now am I expecting all of you to sign up for RCIA after reading this? Of course not. Will I think you less of a Christian if you don't run out and by the complete works of the early Church fathers? Oh please, let's not set a standard like that or I'm doomed. But I do hope that you are encouraged to do some reading, some watching, some listening. Whatever kind of Christian you decide to be, just don't be an apathetic one. Don't choose your church like a flavor at Baskin Robbins. Study, discern, think. Learn about your faith. Learn the reasons behind it. Learn the history behind it. Isn't it worth at least that much?
For anyone who would like to learn more about Catholicism I will post several resources below and you can always feel free to leave questions in the comments or contact me directly. Certainly, there is so much more to say on this topic so if there are specific issues you would like to see addressed in future posts I want to hear from you! I'll leave you with these wise words:
"There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church."
- Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Until next time, may God bless you.
Marcus Grodi's The Coming Home Network: a tremendous amount of articles, videos, blog, and you name it for anyone wanting to learn more about the Catholic Faith. There is also a forum and online community.
EWTN: Started by a nun, this is a Catholic television network, plus Catholic radio. You can watch free online, find a radio station(they're also on iHeart Radio), read articles, ask questions, or even buy a rosary(in case I've really convinced you).
Word on Fire: This is Father Robert Barron's ministry. You can purchase any of his books or DVD series here or just read and watch video commentary until all your burning questions are answered.
Ignatius Press: a Catholic publisher featuring books, videos, music, art, and now streaming video
Lighthouse Catholic Media: books, videos, and cds to help you learn about the faith. I especially enjoy their cds because, let's face it, we don't always have time to sit and read.