Let’s start with the obvious: Christianity is an outwardly fractured religion. You’d think Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and bloody each other’s noses over, like, Every. Single. Thing.” Just for perspective, note that there are far more denominations than there are languages spoken around the globe. We’ve out-Babelled Babel.
Even the most unrealistic optimist doesn’t believe this’ll improve. After all, we’ve been on this kick for 965 years. Humpty Dumpty has been on the ground for a long time. And all the king’s councils and all the king’s ecumenists, aren’t putting him back together again.
What we can do, however, is at least be keenly aware of a danger that breeds like rabbits inside Christian denominations—and battle against it.
Any group—social, political, religious—runs the risk of devolving into this danger, which we might call collective egotism.
The groups inflate their own importance, break their arms patting themselves on the back, classify outsiders as inferiors, and their thin skin bruises under the slightest touch of criticism.
Inject religion into this equation and—look out—things are about to get really nasty. Now, not only is the collective egotism dangerous; it can become downright diabolical, especially if they shrink God down to the size of that group. The collective “I” deems him to be pro-us and anti-them. God begins to look an awful lot like the group photo.
I was convinced my five-acre patch of soil in the vast kingdom was Jesus’s favorite hangout.
Frequently, what transpires next is the group, fueled by a mixture of fear and the desire for control, barricades itself off from everyone else. Builds a high wall and digs a deep moat. They have all the music, books, wisdom, and resources they need in their insulated, little denominational castle.
SLUMMING WITH INFERIORS
I’ve lived inside a version of this castle. For years, I read almost exclusively books authored by members of my ecclesial echo chamber. These, after all, were “safe” because they’d passed strict doctrinal review guidelines. Attended and presented only at my denomination’s churches and conferences. Looked down from my superior height at those poor, theologically Lilliputian outsiders. Believed we were the pure, visible, church of Christ on earth. Read my church’s dogmatic writings as virtually on par with the Bible. And so forth.
I was convinced my five-acre patch of soil in the vast kingdom was Jesus’s favorite hangout. When he went anywhere else, he was slumming with inferiors.
OUTSIDE THE CASTLE WALLS
For the last decade, I’ve spent lots of time outside those castle walls. And I must say, the air is much fresher. The vistas are amazing. And the people I meet are—surprise, surprise—full of wisdom, know their Bibles well, love Jesus, serve their neighbors, and have opened my eyes to see ancient truths in new ways. Far from matching my prior prejudices, many have proven to be the kinds of believers I could only aspire to be.
Let’s learn to rejoice in the work our Father is doing in every denomination.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not advocating that we leave our denominations for so-called non-denominational churches. After all, those churches are nothing but little denominations adopting a trendy pseudonym. I’m still an active member of a congregation in the denomination I’ve been a part of the last 30 years.
I am, however, advocating for this: that whatever Christian stripe you may be—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Reformed, Lutheran, Whatever—fight against collective egotism. Develop friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ outside your group. Purposely read books and articles that challenge your thinking instead of merely confirming what you assume you already know. Cultivate an openness to new, fresh ways of expressing the faith as well to ancient, patristic ways of doing the same.
You may be surprised to discover that, rather than changing your theology, these other voices deepen and expand it in ways that never would have happened if you listened only to the “approved” voices.
Let’s learn to rejoice in the work our Father is doing in every denomination. Wherever the Spirit baptizes sinners into the body of Christ, preaches the word of God, gathers believers around the altar to consume the body and blood of Jesus. Wherever the saints sing the songs of the kingdom, pray for people’s needs, and take the Gospel to the highways and byways of the world. Let’s rejoice in—what the creed calls—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
There will always be disagreement over matters of theology, but there needn’t be disagreement that, wherever Christ is active among his people, there is the church, there is the body of Jesus, there are sinners just like all of us who live solely by the grace of our crucified and resurrected Lord.
Thank God no denomination has a monopoly on that.