I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day. We all have. Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born. The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old. The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point. Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations. All of these divisions occurred before we were born. So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.
There are many ways one might answer that question. Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it. Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it. Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer to pretend there are no divisions among the groups. Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them. None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience.
I knew from pretty early that there were different kinds of Christians. One set of grandparents is cultural Catholic, and the other set is charismatic Catholic. As a child of lapsed Catholic parents, I cared nothing for the distinction, other than that I thought the charismatic Catholic grandparents were too religious. When I got more combative in my atheism, I also learned about Protestants, and met Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Evangelical Covenanters. I seized upon the differences between different Christian groups as evidence for their falsity. Later, as I became more agnostic than atheist, I still found Christianity unappealing, in part because of the visible divides among Christians. “Those Christians can’t even agree what they themselves think,” I objected, “so why should I join them and add to the muddle.”
Then Jesus claimed my life, and it was clear that I had to join a church. But which? How to pick? There were so many to choose from: Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalians, Mormons, and, for the really brave, Serbian Orthodox. I did not initially see how to distinguish among these groups on any religious grounds.
My reasons for going to particular churches early on were decidedly non-theological and very human. I got a list of recommended churches from a cute girl, and I was interested in visiting churches with her. When she moved off the continent with her family soon thereafter, I continued going to the church she used to go to, for the duration of that summer. I also started meeting with a Christian couple who took me into their home and taught me what Christianity is. In the fall I started going to their church instead. There was, in a sense, a wonderful naivete of not knowing what the real differences between churches are or are thought to be, and they made no difference to me at the time. My main requirement in a church, at first, was whether I could sit in the back pew and sneak out the door before anyone noticed me.
Later on, of course, I learned about other varieties of Christianity, and what (almost) all the different labels mean. Early in my Christian life it was important to me to be called by no label other than that of Christian, follower of Christ. A bit later, I learned that “non-denominational” is itself a brand name for a certain kind of church, so I rejected that too. God called me to attend seminary, and in the process of discerning which to attend, I considered a very wide range of schools. He clearly led me to one rather than the others, though without any condemnation of those others. I chafed at the fact that that the seminary he led me to belonged to the same denomination as the church I attended at the time, because I wished to cross denominational lines as a demonstration of Christian unity. But I continued to discuss Christianity with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic Christians, and Protestant Christians of various kinds, and I continued to learn from each, and to marvel at the ways in which they often said the same things, sometimes in different words. I can see the same Spirit guiding devout Christians of whatever denomination.
This trajectory shaped my response to the issue of Christian denominationalism. My earlier use of Christian division as an excuse to reject Christianity has meant that I wish to foster visible Christian unity, so I cannot follow most Christians in ignoring those who go to different churches. On the other hand, as a historian, I am keenly aware that there have been substantial differences of theology and of practice among the different denominations, so I am unsatisfied by any attempt simply to pretend those do not exist, and to act as if the past didn’t happen. As a historian, I also think the goal of persuading all other Christians to give up their Christian background in order to adopt my own is entirely futile. It will convince some, and lose others. Of course, as a Christian I reject the notion that the multiplicity of denominations is evidence that Christianity is false. On the other hand, my ecclesiology has developed in a way that leads me to identify the True Church not with any single denomination, but rather with all true Christians organized into their various denominations, and so quests to discern which denomination is precisely coterminous with the True Church are doomed to fail.
In my understanding, the central component of the Christian life is love. Our Lord summarized all of God’s law with two commands revealed of old: “Love God with all that you are; love your neighbor like yourself” (paraphrased from Matthew 22:37-39). The only new command which Jesus gave is the same: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; 15:12). This command could only be given late in the Christ’s earthly ministry, as he also indicated the depth of his love by pointing to his coming death: “No one has greater love than this, that he lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And lest we think this love is simply one virtue among others or a nice addendum to Christianity, it is the only thing which Jesus identifies as defining his people to a watching world: “By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
How do we live out this love in light of Christian divisions? Usually poorly, but not necessarily so. “Love is patient. Love is kind” (1 Corinthian 13:4), and so we should be kind to Christians of other denominations and patient with them when we disagree. (This is always easier said than done.) “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” (John 3:16), to people who rejected him (John 1:11), so we too should love those who reject us, who deny that we ourselves our Christians. What does it mean to love such people? It doesn’t mean telling them they’re just fine; none of us are just fine, but God by the grace of his Holy Spirit is redeeming and transforming us. It could be love to tell people that they need to shape up and join my church, if joining my denomination were necessary for salvation; I do not believe that it is. Telling them that I am entirely correct in everything and they just need to shut up and listen is (a) false, (b) offensive, and (c) not even what Jesus did, though had he done so it would have been true! Instead, Jesus gave us a model of listening to others (John 4:7-26 comes to mind), and he understood them perfectly. We also should listen to other Christians, should attempt (as we are finite) to understand their viewpoints, should seek to serve them and provide them with what they need. And since we ourselves are not omniscient, in doing this we will find that we can learn some things from them as well, so that our humble service will turn out by God’s grace to enrich us more than boasting in the pride of our denominational distinctives ever could have done.
Will this love lead to denominational reunions? Perhaps, perhaps not. It will at least reduce future fracturing, and it will lead to a generation of Christians who understand and practice “the weightier things of the law” and who are known for their love. Real love, self-sacrificial love, is very rare in our day; it stands out in a crowd. “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).