Wed June 20th, 2018
Depending which website you read there are around 40,000 different denominations in Christianity, many of which are tiny, but a significant number are large. One has to remember that there are about 2.2 billion Christians alive today (Just over 2 in 7 of the world’s population), so there are a lot of people to go at. There are also 195 countries and when you think that language and culture are two obvious factors that split people up, then this is obviously a contributor.
In the natural sciences there is a factor that comes out of the Second Law of Thermodynamics called “Entropy”, depending on the context it can be defined a number of ways, but one of these definitions is: the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward an increasing state of disorder – if you prefer “chaos increases”. Whereas this is about microscopic and macroscopic systems it also seems to be applicable to communities like the church also. The older a church becomes the greater the chaos…
The fact is that church becomes stayed, mechanical, old (by age profile), less flexible and more predictable with age and like the human body’s DNA, error creeps in. As these factors increase, so does inertia – that’s the resistance to any change in position. We have all experienced times when people’s opinions and positions have been intractable, and discussions have become debates, debates have become arguments, arguments have become disputes and disputes have led to a falling out.
Over the centuries the church has had to face lots of schisms and most of those have resulted in one group ‘pealing-off’ and forming another group. There were issues in the early years of the church with small groups peeling off but in the majority of cases these groups faded out with time. One thinks of the Catholic church as being one church before the reformation, but even then, there were differences over the years that led to splits. For example, in 1054 the Orthodox church split from the Catholics.
If we remember the words of Jesus “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18), then when inertia and entropy have set in, or when people have drifted away from the truth, then Christ will revive or renew his church. Continually over the centuries as men’s hearts have hardened and as the structure of the church has become more important than the Christ of the church, then revivals have come and new groups have been started.
In the 15th and early 16th century the selling of indulgences (in essence: advance forgiveness for sins you may commit in the future) was worrying some people and in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a door in Wittenberg, the next split began. The Bible was being read by people who realised that the church’s teachings were incompatible with it. There wasn’t a single protestant church that came out of that split, but a number. Whereas Luther was in Germany, Calvin was in France and Arminius in Holland. The Church of England which was initially an excuse for a monarch to have his marriage annulled became part of this movement and over the years the church swung back towards Biblical truth. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t always a remnant of people who were true followers of Jesus, but the religion of the masses was at fault.
The 16th century Mennonites and other Anabaptist denominations lead to the Baptists in the 17th century, all who rejected the teaching of baptising infants. In the 18th century the revival lead by John Wesley brought a new focus on personal holiness and preaching the gospel and saved our nation from revolution, it also introduced Methodism to the list of new churches. In the 19th century the Salvation Army came along too.
Who can deny that the birth of these denominations didn’t bring a period of revival in the nation? Thank God for the Methodists and the Anabaptists and all of these periods of renewal.
In the early 20th century, Pentecostalism broke out everywhere as believers reading their Bibles rediscovered the baptism in the Holy Spirit (although to be fair it wasn’t lost totally, only from the mainstream, as there have always been pockets of Spirit filled believers through the centuries). Like with other renewal movements there was much persecution of Pentecostals. Like other denominational births there was massive amount of missionary endeavour from the Pentecostals, which has been very fruitful as massive world growth in Pentecostalism has lifted them above all but the Catholics in numbers. Out of Pentecostalism emerged other waves of renewal, one of which impacted the traditional churches with the Holy Spirit in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
A significant renewal took place in the late 1970’s and 1980’s when most of the ‘new church’ movement started in the UK – the Restoration churches, Ministries without Borders, Pioneer, New Frontiers, Ichthus, Ground Level, Salt & Light, etc. Much of the church growth in the UK since the 80’s has been through these movements.
Style & Substance
Now that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is spread across the mainstream churches as well as the Pentecostal and New Churches, perhaps there is no need for these more recent expressions? Style has something to do with the reason for all these different manifestations of church continuing to exist – people find a place that suits their choice of style of worship. The length of church meetings, the time allowed for preaching, the style of worship music, nostalgia, are all issues that people will gather together around – and divide over. Whereas style is in many ways a personal thing, substance is less so, but also a reason why people make choices.
Some ministers have chosen to leave new churches or Pentecostal churches and join more traditional groups – the Baptists or the Church of England. Some of this is to do with stability of income and long-term future (pensions and housing), particularly when they have maybe struggled for years on low incomes. Some church members have also moved to these groups because of friendships and also a sense that there is no longer any need for separation. The latter reason of course can be true in a local church under a particular minister, but the Church of England is still very patchy in terms of its emphasis on Biblical teaching, adult baptism and charismatic worship. The truth is that you have to find somewhere that you can have a good conscience to represent and to stand for, a place where the community of the church is active and welcoming, and where God is worshipped, Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is active.
Sometimes we struggle in different circumstances to engage in worship – perhaps in a group that uses a lot of liturgy but doesn’t explain what is happening (possibly because they are not used to new people being there?) I know that I find music that is organ lead very difficult to engage with and I also feel very excluded when prayer is read rather than simply the fresh and instant expression of an ordinary person to God. I think I also find it difficult when what is happening isn’t explained for the benefit of visitors. Whatever style we prefer, the reality is that we can get a little too possessive about what we like sometimes, neglecting to think what everyone else wants. In the church, we must always think about what the majority want and need, rather than being too personal about things.
When I grew up in a small town with only five types of church, there was little choice for me. The church of England in that town propagated a liberal view that Jesus may have existed but certainly wasn’t born of a virgin or rose from the dead and there was only one that you could really say taught people to believe the Bible. As much as there were many difficulties with that church I thank God that I met Him there and always found Him to be there with me. In a sense, if we are committed to Jesus we can always find Him in a place that teaches the Word of God with a high view. These days in cities there is almost too much choice – so many Pentecostal/Charismatic churches to choose from.
Hope for the future
Through it’s Gather network, the Evangelical Alliance has discovered the existence of city wide prayer-based groups of church and ministry leaders all over our nation. It appears that there is a real move of God where the Spirit is setting up relational groups who respect each other’s differences but who recognise the Lordship of Christ together and have a joint concern for their city and the Kingdom of God. As these groups (like One Voice in York) work together for the Kingdom of God our effectiveness increases and friendships blossom across denominations. I don’t believe for one minute that we should all give up and join one local mega church, but I do believe that relationship is what it is all about and that together we can be more effective than we can be alone.
Do we need other denominations? Well if I am brutally honest there are one or two whose purpose I cannot see who will die out naturally with the ages of their congregations, but basically, we do need each other. The church is one body – the body of Christ – and as our leaders develop better relationships there is no need for our congregations to be so suspicious of each other or so separate. People need a church that operates in the style that suits them, and Jesus told us not to be judgemental, lest we in turn be judged. Would I ever join the C of E? No – but I thank God for them every day – particularly in York, where there are a number of really good men and women of God who lead significant congregations.
The truth is that in this country (UK) there are only two dominant types of church – the Catholics and the Pentecostals (the Church of England now only representing 17% of believers). It shows us that about 30% of all Christians want the tradition of a Catholic church and about the same want the different traditions of a Pentecostal church. Could I be a Catholic – no, but I respect so many of my Catholic friends who are often hungrier for their Bibles than some Pentecostals who have been brought up on it and have become less grateful. We should spend less time comparing with other denominations and more time reaching those who have no connection with any denomination – after all according to Jesus that is why we are here!
Matt 28:18 Then Jesus came near and said to them, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. HCSB