After moving to Pennsylvania, the process of locating a new church to which to belong led us out of the denomination that my wife and I had been born and raised in, and into one that is quite similar in many ways as far as structure, doctrine and church polity goes, but lacks the cultural essences. But the culture that exists within Southern Baptist churches, and in the denomination, which is missing from our current congregation, is practically the only difference. As far as doctrine goes, it would be difficult to find differences. I’d guess that the similarities are probably extended into other churches and denominations.
But that isn’t the perception that many people have about Christian faith. Critics constantly point to the differences between Christians, churches, and denominations, and cite references and examples. The examples are real enough. I’ve seen many of them, and I can certainly understand why a negative conclusion is the result. I recently read a blog whose author felt that Billy Graham should be excluded from the “conservative Evangelical community” for his “inclusive theology.” So that’s an extreme example, sure, but there are plenty of those out there.
When I was younger, it created a lot of doubt in my mind about the validity of my faith. I heard my own pastor, on some occasions, criticize the beliefs of others in order to make a point about our own. Now I understand there are pretty significant differences out there, and groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons preach a gospel that is interpreted by their own human “prophets,” who have claimed the authority to alter the Bible itself, or bypass it altogether. Those groups, and others along those lines, are actually altering the Gospel itself, re-writing and completely replacing teachings of Jesus with an identifiably different gospel. The differences are much more than just a matter of difference of opinion over interpretation in that they are changing the nature and definition of grace, and the character and nature of Jesus himself.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I Corinthians 13:12, ESV
That’s a statement embedded in a passage of scripture emphasizing love as the greatest element of knowing God and having Jesus as savior. The passage is both very descriptive, and prophetic. Descriptive in that it leaves no doubt about what kind of love is to be demonstrated by followers of Jesus, and prophetic in that it nullifies anything else that is a non-negotiable element of Christian faith if it is not accompanied by that kind of love. The fact that we see the whole gospel “dimly” and we only know in part should make us humble, not arrogant, when it comes to observing and comparing what other people believe, and how they practice their faith.
Being firm, and not compromising truth is one thing. Our “knowing in part” does not prevent us from understanding the scripture. We also have the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we are part of both the universal body of Christ, and if we have an understanding of the nature of our faith, a local body of believers. There’s a dynamic built into a group of Christians organized under the plan in the New Testament, with leaders who meet the qualifications for spiritual discernment, that moves us forward. We can discern truth from error. But restoration and repentance are also key elements of the Gospel, and foundational to the Christian faith. Arrogance is not. We can define the core doctrines and practices of our faith in the local church without having to justify them by encasing them in a long list of secondary and tertiary requirements.
The patchwork of denominations, each set behind their protective barrier of doctrine, is a result of our dim vision. There’s a lot of personal identity wrapped up in their existence, and the way they move forward (along with a lot of gigantic egos of pastors and preachers who push them). In my Christian experience, I’ve found that we have a lot more in common than we think, and that a lot of what divides us is petty and insignificant. I can’t change someone else, but I can change me.