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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Unity of Christians

You know, I was going to put up a post - and a long one too - with regards to Roman Catholics and their strangeness in refusing Holy Communion (also known as the Last Supper, or the Eucharist) to non-RCs. Well, to be more precise, to 'other Christians who are nonetheless not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church'.

And oh boy, it would have been a major post. I would have gone into the specific reasons why the RCs prohibit Holy Communion save under exceptional circumstances (and impose conditions even when those circumstances are encountered), why those reasons didn't hold up, and what they were doing was actually a divisive act and not in keeping with the mission of the Church Universal.

But then, I found out to my dismay, that there are other Christian groups who are equally blockheaded and moronic in their insistence that their way was the right way (or that they were the only group who truly obey God, and that their
worship is true worship). So, I decided to expand my post a little bit and address what I see to be the core issue.

This much is true; the universal church has no divisions. We are all members of the Body of Christ. We are all brothers and sisters (the term Christian was originally a derogatory one, something along the lines of 'Bible thumper' or 'God-botherer') in Christ. Paul went to great lengths in his epistles to wipe out potential tensions and divisions in the church. Jesus in His prayer asked that we may all be one, as He and His Father are one.

I agree, by the way, that denominations are not what God wants out of His people. We're not going to Heaven and asking which of us was Baptist and which of us was Anabaptist. But the question is, is it really so bad as to say that we are entirely different churches - or faiths, and that we worship entirely different gods? The answer to that should be... not really, not any more. Yes, there was a time when the wrong answer could have you tortured and killed. That time is no longer, and should never have been.

You see, the way we think of denominations has been warped over the centuries. Well, to be sure, when this first came up, it was a matter of importance, and it came up right from the very beginning. The first hint of a denominational split can be seen from Paul's own letters, where he describes a potential rift between people he baptised, and people Apollos, a fellow church-worker, baptised. Paul deals with this in his usual no-nonsense manner, asking bluntly whether Paul was crucified for their sins, or whether it was Apollos' body which was broken for them.

It continued on; you can see this in Gnosticism, Arianism, Monophysitism, and countless other doctrinal differences which the church summarily dealt with as heresies. But what we would consider as the first true denominational split occurred around the 10th century AD, when the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church would split from one another. The split wasn't really over doctrine, or even worship methods, mind you, it was over church governance. The Orthodox churches believed that since the Apostles died, apostolic authority died with them, and the churches should be self-governing, fairly autonomous with a minimal hierarchical structure, and the highest administrator would be the Patriarch over a particular geographical area. The Roman church, on the other hand, believed that apostolic succession was maintained in Rome, as St Peter, upon which the church was built, laid his hands on his successor the Bishop of Rome (and the Bishop of Rome subsequently lays his hands on other Bishops and so forth). Hence the Bishop of Rome should be the Big Kahoona, or the Pope (Father).

We all know about the Protestant Reformation movement, and since then there have been even more denominations that have come up. But here's the thing; with no exceptions, denominations are basically segmented by either (a) geographical location or (b) certain specific worship traditions/rites. The Anglicans are basically offshoots of the Church of England. The Methodists are an offshoot of the Anglicans. The Lutherans threw out the unbiblical and quite frankly sacrilegious practices of the RCs during the time of their formation. The Presbyterians are the Church of Scotland. The various Orthodox churches are named after their locations; Greek, Syrian, Russian. The Baptists practice full body immersion baptism and strict teetotalism. Messianic Jews (Jewish Christians, the first Christians there ever were) maintain the Law of Moses in its fullness. By the way, I don't have a major problem with that; it's quite clear that they do so as a matter of choice (and out of a sense of obligation, true, but I do not believe they think it is salvific in nature). Generally speaking, we ALL agree on the doctrines of Christianity; what is a salvation issue and must be defended to the end, and what is not and hence a matter of choice.

Okay, there are exceptions, where doctrine is the separating issue. There is the Roman Catholic church. And there are the cults, who are not considered Christian in any sense, except as Christian heretics. Which is why there are a number of Christians who think the RCs should be considered a cult as well. But they do agree on the salvation issues as well, so maybe we can cut them some slack.

The point is, Paul himself says that for issues that are not core (i.e. not as important), freedom and not stumbling your brother are the two main points to consider. Some Christians (like the Messianic Jews) do not believe in eating food offered to idols. Others (like the Seventh Day Adventists) believe in keeping the Sabbath (Saturday) holy. (Just noting that the ISO calendar defines Monday as the 1st day of the week, so maybe they should be keeping Sunday holy instead). In both instances, Paul says let everyone be persuaded in his own mind. So if the Baptists insist on not getting drunk, this is alright. And the Anglican believes that only ordained men can be celebrants of Holy Eucharist, this is alright too.

And so, at the end of the day, almost all denominations break down to a bunch of people who generally feel comfortable with a given set of worship practices and traditions. As we are all different, and we all play different roles in Christ's Church, I do not believe that we should use denomination as a stumbling block. Mind you, I look forwards to the day when I can say unambiguously, "I am a Christian", and not have to qualify that with "I am an Anglican". That day is closer than you'd think, though - many newer churches don't care about denominations any more.

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