IF JESUS IS THE SAME LORD OVER ALL, WHY SO MANY DIFFERENT CHURCHES?
We’ve arrived at our final week in our “Questions/Answers” series, and today’s question is one of the questions we’re most frequently asked, because it gets to the heart of what we’re doing here—to the heart of the church itself. And the question is this: “If Jesus is the same Lord over all, why are there so many different churches?”
I’m taking it for granted that what most people mean when they ask that question is not “Why are there so many different local churches?” (since that’s easy to see on one’s own: no one thinks there should be only one church—in, say, London—because anyone who doesn’t live in or around London wouldn’t have access to it). What most people mean is, “If Jesus is the same Lord over all, why are there so many different denominations of churches?” (Denominations are recognized, autonomous branches of Christianity.) I’m going into this message realizing how risky it is: a lot of what I say here could be easily misunderstood. But the answer to this question, I believe, does go to the heart of what it means to be a Christian: what it means to be part of the family of God.
In Revelation 21, we have John’s vision of heaven, of that moment in history just after Christ’s return, when God will gather his people to himself in the new heavens and the new earth. And at the end of the chapter he writes this (v. 22): 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
Scripture ends with this beautiful picture of the nations of the world bringing their “glory and honor” (that is, everything that every human culture has contributed that bears the mark of the image of God, everything human beings have made over history that is good and glorifies God) and laying them at his feet in unified worship. It is important to keep this in mind as a backdrop as we go along; I hope you’ll see why as we go.
On October 31, Christians will celebrate “Reformation Day,” and this year is a particularly important year, because it marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, not in order to start a new church, but rather to reform the Catholic Church. In his Theses, Luther protested the fact that the church had recently set up the selling of indulgences (basically tickets to get time out of purgatory). Not only was the idea of indulgences wholly unbiblical, but the motives of the church in selling them were wholly improper—initially, they were primarily sold to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome! So Luther’s 95 Theses protested against the Catholic Church’s practice. In January of 1521 Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church; in April of that year, he was brought before the Diet of Worms and asked to recant.
And on April 18th, he was recorded as giving this very famous statement: “Unless I am convinced by the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. [Here I stand. I can do no other.] God help me. Amen.”
This was, effectively, the beginning of Protestantism. And one thing that has remained in the spirit of Protestantism is the freedom, and sometimes the necessity, to protest—to disagree, to hold to one’s convictions even when it’s hard. Over the last five hundred years, many different branches of Protestant Christianity have sprung up, precisely because of the freedom the Reformation afforded. Some examples of denominations in France would be the Association baptiste to which we belong; the Assemblées de Dieu; les églises Darbistes (Brethren churches); les Communautés et assemblées évangéliques de France; la Fédération baptiste, etc. There are lots more.
Each of these denominations hold to a few core tenants of faith: they all believe that man is a sinner, and that God sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and that if we place our faith in him, we are united to God and have eternal life. But there is a massive amount of disagreement about how that works, and how other aspects of the Christian life should operate.
All of these denominations began and exist still because of one disagreement or another—not about the core of the gospel, but rather mostly about these secondary matters of how the gospel plays itself out in the life of the church. But many Christians have felt an increasing sense of unease at the existence of all these different groups. How can we truly say we are united? Why would anyone believe the truth of the gospel if Christians themselves can’t agree on how it works?
On the surface, it seems that all of this is indeed a departure from what should be. If Jesus really is Lord over all, shouldn’t we be united under one banner, that of Christ, and Christ alone? The text most people go to in order to contend for this idea is 1 Corinthians 1.11-13, in which Paul says, 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? These are rhetorical questions: the answer to each is a resounding “No!” So it seems, at least initially, that Paul would agree with those who say this kind of “partisan loyalty” (so to speak) should not exist.
But in the context of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this is not what he is saying. The problem in Corinth was not loyalty to any particular teacher, but pride: certain people are looking down on others, they are fighting amongst themselves, because they “followed Paul”, or Apollos, or Peter (Cephas). In fact, a little later in the letter Paul encourages the Corinthians to remember his influence, to remember what he taught them, and to follow him in that. 1 Corinthians 4.14-16: 14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
So the point he is making is not that Christians should not imitate any human teacher or guide. He’s not saying that Christians should not follow the example given to them by their predecessors, those who led them to Christ, those who taught them—on the contrary! It is a good thing to remember those who led us to Christ, who were influential in building our own faith and helping us understand the gospel. But unfortunately, when we do this, we sometimes get sidetracked. What happened in Corinth happens with us: there is often fighting and boasting and disdain among denominations, because we are still sinful people. So what is the solution? Would he have us get rid of denominations altogether? I don’t believe so, and to explain why, I’d like us to go to Romans 14.
Principles to Guide Our Thinking (Romans 14.1-9)
We need to keep in mind that the context of Romans 14 is not one of denominations—denominations didn’t exist when Paul was writing this, at least not as they do today. But the principles he lays out here are every bit as applicable to the body of Christ, corporately, as they are to us individually.
Paul has just finished talking about how the gospel produces in us love for one another, and wisdom to know how to obey God. It is very important to take those things together—because inevitably, people will disagree on just how to do that: how to obey God faithfully. And it is vital, if the gospel is working in us, that we respond to those disagreements in love for our brothers and sisters. So he gives us an example.
V. 1: As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
So you have here an example of something that is actually present in our day as well: a Christian who thinks that eating meat is wrong. Today, it’s usually because of questions of animal rights; at the time, it was probably because of fear that they might inadvertently eat some food that is unclean. The mature Christian knows better: he knows that now that Christ has fulfilled the law, no food is unclean in itself. Another example is the “days” mentioned in v. 5. The weak Christian thinks one day is particularly important (probably the Sabbath), while the strong knows that every day is important. The point here isn’t the food or the days, but rather that one person mustn’t pass judgment on another person if they disagree with you on this issue: I can’t pass judgment on you because of what you refuse to do; and you mustn’t pass judgment on me because of what I accept to do. We are not going to give an account to other people for what we do, but to the Lord: It is before his own master that he stands or falls.
If you are convinced that eating meat is wrong, the solution is simple: don’t eat meat. If you are convinced that eating meat is a good thing which God gives us, then go for it! Eat and be glad for the freedom you have in Christ! Listen to your conscience, and do what it tells you to do. But don’t look down on your brother because he disagrees with what your conscience is telling you to do. Because—and this is key—Paul takes it as a given that both Christians are listening to their conscience, and doing whatever they are doing because they believe it is right.
V. 6: 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
So what’s not happening here is someone doing something even though he feels it’s probably wrong, but who uses the gospel to excuse his sin because he wants it so badly. (This is what happens with a lot of Christians who clearly see what the Bible says about certain subjects, and who refuse to accept it because they want so badly for that not to be the case. It’s one thing to sincerely not know that the Bible says, for example, that an embryo isn’t just a mass of cells, but a human being; or that God’s plan for sexual relations is that they be between one man and one woman. It’s another thing entirely to know perfectly well what the Bible says, and to reject it because it goes against our society or our own logic.)
So let’s be clear: that’s not what’s happening here. In both cases, these two Christians are convinced that they are saying what the Bible teaches, and they are doing what they are doing in honor of the Lord. In both cases, we are doing our best to honor the Lord, and we know the ultimate authority is not another person, but the Lord. I am not the ultimate authority here, God is; so I cannot look down on my brother as if I had the market cornered on right and wrong. Despite these disagreements, I am still called to love my brother, and build him up, and humbly serve him.
This is what we are called to do as individuals. But I hope you can see the importance of this text for our discussion today. In denominations, the exact same thing is happening, just on a larger scale. So given that, I’d like to draw out a couple of principles to help us navigate the situation.
PRINCIPLE 1: WE WILL DISAGREE (V. 1-5A).
There are two things that are important to remember here—firstly, that both of the people Paul mentions in his text are Christians. He allows that one is weaker in his faith than the other, but not that this faith is not real. The second is that the disagreements here are over secondary issues: eating meat and the importance of one day over another. And just to clarify, here’s what we mean by “secondary issues”—think of a target. In the center of the target is the gospel—the good news that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16). The gospel is non-negotiable: if someone disagrees on whether or not Jesus really was the Son of God, or why God gave his Son for us, then that person is not a Christian, no matter what he or she says, because he doesn’t know and hasn’t accepted the gospel. Now, there’s a ring outside of that, that isn’t the gospel itself, but that touches strongly on the gospel: how the gospel works itself out. Did God predestine us to salvation, or did he merely choose those whom he knew would one day choose him? This is a secondary issue question. It touches on the gospel, but is not itself the core of the gospel message. Now, there’s another ring outside of that: what Christian life should look like. Should Christians drink alcohol? Should Christians eat certain foods? Should Christians say certain words? This touches less on the gospel, and so is even more secondary. And so on.
The point is this: genuine Christians, who have real and saving faith, will sometimes disagree on these issues. We agree on the core of the gospel, and we have accepted that gospel by faith in Christ. But we may disagree on other things. And this is okay; our disagreements on these secondary issues does not mean that we are not brothers and sisters, reconciled to God and to one another by faith in Christ.
PRINCIPLE 2: EACH SHOULD BE FULLY CONVINCED (V. 5B).
V. 5: One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. Église Connexion is a church plant launched from the AEEBLF (l’Association des églises évangéliques baptistes de langue française), and we agree in all points with their Confession of Faith. In addition, we have our own Confession of Faith which is not in opposition to that of the AEEBLF, but which goes a little further in detail, which more specifically explains what we believe as a church.
This is vitally important: we hold to our denomination, we hold to our confession of faith, because we are convinced that what our denomination (generally), and our Confession of Faith (particularly) teaches is what the Bible teaches. There is nothing wrong with making that assertion: we believe that what we state in our Confession of Faith, what we preach here, is what the Bible teaches. In fact, according to Paul it would be wrong of us to do anything as a church without believing that—each should be fully convinced in his own mind.
When you become a member of our church, we ask everyone to go through a membership class, during which we go over our Confession of Faith in great detail. In that Confession of Faith, there are points which are considered nearly universally true for the body of Christ—we ask that all members understand and agree with these points. In addition, we hold to a number of what we call “theological distinctives”—that is, secondary issues. You don’t need to agree with those secondary issues to be a member, but you have to be aware that this is where we land as a church, and this is what we will preach in the church. It is a good and healthy thing for a church or a denomination to be completely convinced that what they believe is in fact what the Bible teaches; it is in fact a necessity.
However, that does not exclude the reality that someone in this situation is mistaken. For example, I know a guy in England who believes we should baptize babies. I disagree with him; I believe the Bible calls us to baptize Christians after they have professed their faith in Christ. So one of us is wrong. I’m convinced it’s him (and I am fully convinced it’s him); he’s convinced it’s me. So what do we do with that?
PRINCIPLE 3: IN THE BODY OF CHRIST, DISAGREEMENTS ARE AN OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW UNITY (V. 2-3, 6-8).
One of the main complaints about this argument that everyone should be convinced in his own mind, that each denomination should be convinced that what it teaches about the Bible is right, is that it creates arrogance. People say it is arrogant to be convinced that we are right—and so, we should make no such claims. Sadly, it is true that sometimes, denominations can be arrogant: I grew up in a Pentecostal denomination in which I was told on multiple occasions that the Baptists down the road didn’t really love Jesus because they disagreed on certain aspects of how the Holy Spirit works. So here’s where Paul’s text is such a wake-up call for us. He is crystal clear that not only is it healthy to assert conviction, it is necessary for obedience: Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. But that conviction should never be alone. The strength of conviction God calls us to is always paired with humility with regard to our brothers or sisters who disagree with us.
V. 3: Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. What do I do with my friend in England who thinks we should baptize babies? I love him as Christ loved me, and I serve him as Christ served me, and thus I prove that our unity in Christ is stronger than our disagreement.
Now, something needs to be said at this point; there is one area in which denominations differ from individuals. The brother I mentioned is a dear friend of mine—he is, sincerely, one of my favorite people in the world. And when we spend time together, we build one another up, and we are very grateful for the opportunity we have to love each other well. But we could not work together as elders in the same church, for a very simple, practical reason: no one would ever be baptized if we did.
Elders have to agree on what to do in a situation like that. Some points are of secondary importance, but are close enough to the core of the gospel that if we don’t agree on them, nothing would ever get done in the church. Diverging convictions can exist in the same church, but where they are too numerous or too central to the gospel, it will simply be impossible to get anything done or to preach the gospel consistently or faithfully. So given that reality, there are only three possible options. 1) We wage a war on everyone who disagrees with us, effectively trying to set up our own version of Catholicism. 2) We all do church in our own little corners, with no accountability to ensure that a pastor doesn’t become a guru. 3) We have denominations, which disagree on secondary issues, but which are united on the fundamentals of the gospel.
This is why I believe denominations are not only necessary, but healthy. Not only do denominations give us the kind of accountability we need, but with denominations we have an amazing opportunity to show the world unity in disagreement. Think of political debates in our society. Both sides say they are united in their desire for the common good of the country. But is that what we see? Sometimes, maybe; but most of the time, no—all too often we see backbiting and ridicules and animosity. The implicit message which is sent is that it’s us vs. them. But because we are united in Christ, a Baptist can get on stage with a Presbyterian and a Pentecostal and an Anglican and be honest about their disagreements, while at the same time celebrating their unity in Christ as brothers.
Brothers and sisters, this is the goal of the gospel: to create a unified Bride of Christ from many different members. In the Bible, those differences are spoken of as mainly cultural—God will united all of his children from all nations of the world, who will bring with them the beauty of their distinct cultures and lay them at his feet in worship. Our cultures our different; our world views are different; our lifestyles are different. And even where we have the same culture, people are different. So inevitably, we won’t see eye to eye on every point of doctrine. And we don’t have to, because if we are faithful, then what we do, we do in honor of Christ, and we answer to Christ alone. How beautiful will it be, after Christ’s return, when all Christians throughout all of history will be presented to Christ as his Bride, despite the fact that we disagreed on many secondary issues while we were on earth? How beautiful will it be to see what is good about the Baptists, what is good about the Pentecostals, what is good about the Presbyterians, united under their Lord Jesus, and perfected?
We’re not there yet; we’re not yet home; we’re not yet perfect. So until then, God has given us a means to remain united to one another and still hold true to our convictions; to genuinely believe our Pentecostal and Presbyterian and Anglican brothers and sisters are wrong about certain things, and yet are still our brothers and sisters; to genuinely and humbly love them, and serve them, and pray for them, and rejoice in the work God is doing among them. This is a beautiful picture of God’s plan for the whole world: to unite that which was once separate; to bring a multitude of different people, from different cultures, into one family, under one head, Christ; to present the church to Christ as his bride, spotless and purified and joyful in their union with him. Denominations are not enemies to that end; they are a means of proving, by their unity despite their differences, that his plan to bring all things into subjection under Christ will be successful.
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