Why are there so many different churches?

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Christianity teaches that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). There is one God, and there is one Lord. And yet Christians are many! How many different churches and denominations are there, all of whom claim to believe in the one God and to serve and worship the one Lord?

There are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Among the Roman Catholics, there are your run-of-the-mill Catholics who go to church every Sunday and on holy days of obligation; there are some who go to English-language services and others who only attend the Latin mass; there are very liberal types who believe that the Church is falling behind the times, and there are hyper-traditionalists who believe that things went off the rails after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Among the Eastern Orthodox, there are those who side with the Church of Russia and those who side with the Church of Constantinople; there are those called the “Old Believers” who keep the liturgical habits of yesteryear, refusing to follow along with modern reforms; there are those who insist on re-baptizing converts from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and those who do not; and so on. Among Protestants, there are Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Adventists, and Pentecostals. There are even non-denominational churches. But even this isn’t the whole story. There are also various Christian churches in Africa, the Middle East, and in Asia that are themselves quite diverse, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt or the so-called “Nestorian” Church of the East. And then there are various groups whose connection to the more popular Christian denominations are a bit more difficult to determine, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and unitarians of various kinds.

There is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. And yet there is such a dizzying plurality of churches and theologies! How can we understand this situation? If there is only one God, why are His followers on Earth seemingly incapable of agreeing with each other on so many important things? Why do they disagree with each other about so much and in many cases even declare curses on each other, threatening each other with hell fire and damnation because of differences of opinion and practice? How to understand this situation?

This is a very controversial matter, and it is hard to say something that will not upset at least some people. Nevertheless, I think that the Bible actually anticipates this situation and has some important things to say about it.

Some people look at the plurality of churches and theologies as a serious problem. Moreover, the debates and disputations between Christians are seemingly unending. They want an easy way to establish one point of view as correct. For such people, the Roman Catholic church is very attractive. It offers an easy, logical system for understanding what is and is not necessary to believe. For example, in Roman Catholicism it is necessary to believe anything that has always and everywhere been taught by all the bishops of the Church, or that was declared by an ecumenical council of the Church, or that was officially declared as a part of the faith by the Pope in a formal statement. The authority of the Church’s teachers and especially that of the Pope functions to end all debates and to provide a solid ground for one’s theological convictions. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself a long tradition that it claims traces back to the Apostles of Jesus Himself. Thus, many people are attracted to Catholicism for the reason that they become in this way a part of a greater group or community with a rich history.

Other people seem not to be concerned with having a grand system and an easy way to resolve every possible theological dispute ahead of time. Rather, they simply are convinced that a certain point of view is right and commit themselves to it. A lot of Protestants are like this. Whether or not they can convincingly justify to themselves or to others any particular theological matter, nevertheless they are firm in their convictions and maintain them in the face of contrary arguments. The system and the possibility of proving others wrong is not as important to them as the things they are convinced are true.

Thus, there are at least two kinds of approaches people can take toward this issue. Some of them are concerned to have some kind of logical system. They want “mechanisms” in place that can, in principle at least, resolve any issues or disputes that might arise between people. They want an authority in place which can determine what is to be accepted or rejected without court of appeal. On the other hand, others don’t care so much about all that. They simply maintain what they think is true, whether or not they have a great system in place for resolving disputes or for proving the matter to others. They know what they know and that’s that.

Both of these approaches can lead to a sectarian mindset. In other words, they can lead a person to reject others who do not believe the same as they do. They come to the conviction that all outsiders are lost, that they do not have the truth and that there is no hope for them. As a result, the churches break up into factions, with little hope of reconciliation. Each person sticks to his or her own point of view and is unwilling to go along with others who don’t share it.

At the same time, what goes unnoticed in many of these debates is just how much people of differing opinions have in common. For example, it is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on a number of issues, for example on how to understand the Virgin Mary and her relation to Christ. But they also have very many things in common, most notably that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. It is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on things that both sides consider to be of grave importance. But they can also be mistaken about how important the points of disagreement really are, or at least with respect to how devastating the fact of disagreement might be.

As I said, it is difficult to say anything about this issue which might not upset at least one party. But nevertheless, I think the Bible has something to say about this matter. And if we attend closely to what it says, then perhaps we can find a different way of thinking about the problem of the plurality of churches.

Much like the Christian churches in the modern day, the church at Corinth during the time of the Apostle Paul was afflicted by many divisions and factions. Paul describes the situation as follows:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:10-12 New Revised Standard Version

Notice what happened! Just as in the present day we have Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and all kinds of Christians, also in the ancient church at Corinth: some people associated themselves with Paul, whereas others with Apollos or Cephas (that is, the Apostle Peter), or with Christ directly. There were a plurality of factions within the church, each corresponding to some important or significant teacher within the early Christian community.

Paul does not appreciate this situation at all. As he writes: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13). In other words, the Apostle considers it inappropriate that a community of Christians identify themselves in any other way except with Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul says that when he first went to preach to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). In other words, whereas the Corinthians were dividing themselves according to whether they followed Paul, who first preached to them, or else Apollos, who came along later on, the Apostle means to draw their attention back to the most important person of all: Christ Himself, about whom both Paul and Apollos were concerned to preach to others. On the other hand, Paul considers that it is very worldly to be concerned with the messenger rather than the message. He writes:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 New Revised Standard Version

Here as elsewhere, Paul’s concern is once more to redirect the Corinthians’ attention and concerns away from human teachers and to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, Paul goes on to say something very fascinating after this. And I think that what he says will be relevant for the discussion about the plurality of churches that exist today. He writes:

According to grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire…

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or even by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 4:1-5 New Revised Standard Version

Much of what Paul says in these passages is surprisingly relevant for the present discussion of the plurality of churches and theologies. In the first place, Paul claims that Apollos built upon the foundation he laid in the Corinthian church, which foundation is the teaching about Jesus Christ. And this is in fact what all the churches of the present day try to do! Whether you go to a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox or a Protestant church, you will hear a sermon about Jesus Christ which draws in some way or other on the teachings of the Apostles, in whose number Paul also was included. Just as Apollos came after Paul and tried to expand on what he had taught in various ways, so also all the churches that exist in the present day are concerned to take the teaching about Christ of Paul and the other apostles and share it with others, building upon it and commenting on it in order to make it intelligible for present-day believers. Thus, Paul not only expected but even experienced first-hand the diversity and plurality of teachers and the possible factions and divisions which might come about as a result.

What does Paul say about this situation of diversity and plurality? First, he says that he laid a foundation, namely that of Jesus Christ. The foundation was not himself but rather “Christ and Him crucified,” as he says elsewhere. Thus, everyone else who is to build up the Church of God must build on this foundation. But Paul also says that not everyone builds equally well or equally valuably. Some people build with gold, silver, and precious stones. Others build with wood. Still others build with hay and straw. Not all of these building materials are equally resistant! And Paul teaches that there will be “a Day” in which the Lord will come and judge the work of each person. This judgment is compared to a “fire” that will burn up the work of some while the work of others will remain and even receive a reward. But even those whose work is burned up will nevertheless be saved, so long as they sought to build on the foundation of Christ Himself.

Thus, Paul recognizes that there is only one foundation of the Church, Jesus Himself, whom Paul preached, and people build upon this foundation in better or worse ways. But he also has something very interesting and perhaps provocative to say about the matter of judging the work of others. Even though Paul himself says that some build well and others poorly, he nevertheless emphasizes: “I do not even judge myself… It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4). He enjoins his audience to take up the same attitude: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (v. 5). Indeed, they are not to make distinctions between Paul and Apollos and Peter, but rather to think of each as a “servant of Christ” and a “steward of God’s mysteries” (v. 1). They should leave the judgment to God and – to quote from what Paul says in another place – test everything, holding fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thess 5:21).

I think what Paul teaches here can be useful for understanding the plurality of churches and theologies that we have in the present day. Just as then there were Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, so also today there are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants of various kinds. But the foundation laid by the Apostles remains Christ. Each of these churches try to build on that foundation in some way or another. If they didn’t, they would cease to be a church altogether, according to what Paul says; but it is obvious that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants are all concerned to build on the foundation of Christ in the way they see fit. Now, they may not all build equally well. Some may build with gold, silver, and precious stones, others with wood, and still others with hay and straw. But this will be disclosed on that Day when the Lord comes to judge all things. The building of each will be passed through the fire. But Paul also teaches that even those who built poorly will be saved, even if as through fire. As for the present time, he calls us to leave the judgment to the Lord.

Of course, Paul’s words should also be a warning to all of us. They should motivate us to ask certain questions. Do we build with gold, silver, and precious stones? or with wood? or with straw and hay? Will our building survive and we receive a reward? or will it be burned up? This is a question that each person must ask him- or herself. But at the same time, Paul shares with us once more, toward the end of his epistle, the foundation on which everything is built:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 New Revised Standard Version

This is the message that saves us, according to the Apostle Paul. This is the foundation on which everyone builds: that Christ died for our sins and that He was raised again on the third day. It may seem too little, too simple, to function as a proper foundation. But this is in fact what Paul says. Everything else that a church might teach or propose for others to believe must in some way be built on this. And if we hold fast to this above all, then we will be saved.

Someone might say: “But doesn’t every Christian church teach this? What about all the points of disagreement between them? What about all the debates and the disputes and the divisions between them?” Yes, every Christian church teaches this. The differences between them may be quite significant, and it may be that some churches simply cannot get along so long as those disputes remain. But I consider that if we take Paul at his word, then many of these differences will turn out to be differences between gold and silver and precious stones, or wood, or hay and straw. They are not differences in foundation, but only in the building materials.

Someone might ask again: “But how can we be sure who is building correctly?” Paul answered this question, too. He never gives easy answers. He is not naïve about the nature of things. He specifies the foundation on which each person must build, but he does not tell us the difference between a person who builds well and one who does not. He says that he does not judge this matter, that it is a small thing in his mind that he should be judged by anyone, indeed even that he does not judge himself. The Apostle leaves it to the Lord to judge, while he tries to live with a clean conscience (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27). As for us, he tells us: “Do not despite the words of prophets, but test everything” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Perhaps we can give an analogy here. Scientists do not have all the answers given to them from the start, but rather have to start with what they’ve received from their teachers while trying to improve upon it, testing everything and holding fast to what is proven. So also with us. Each of us received the foundation from the Apostles, as well as from whomever came before us. We have to test these things, holding fast to what is good and rebuilding where we consider there should be some improvements. But the difference between gold, silver, precious stones, and wood, and straw and hay will be revealed on that Day when the Lord comes again. That is perhaps the best we can hope for.