The Whole Church of Christ

41, 000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world!! That figure is from The Center for the Study of Global Christianity. When I looked this figure up two years ago, the number was 37,000. Clearly the church has splintered off and again and again, way beyond what the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century might have set in motion when there were the Catholics, the Eastern Churches, the Lutherans(Martin Luther), the Presbyterians(John Calvin), the Moravians(John Hus), the Baptists(under several different names before settling on Baptists)(John Smyth), Anglicans(Henry VIII), Unitarians(Michael Servetus) and maybe a few others. In the 17th Century there were the Quakers(George Fox), followed in the 18th Century by the Amish,(Jakob Ammann) the Methodists(John Wesley), and the Shakers(Ann Lee). Then in the 19th Century these denominations were founded: the Seventh Day Adventists(James Springer White), Christian Scientists(Mary Baker Eddy) and Pentecostals(Charles Fox Parham). Please note that I have only named the most well-known of the splintered churches. 

In Paul’s time, as well, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it was difficult to hold the church together under one interpretation of the Scriptures and experience of Jesus, but I doubt that he would have predicted such broad diversity of Christian experience as we have today. Perhaps it is helpful to see the founding of each of these denominations as the Holy Spirit breathing new life into the church as the body of Christ. To take just one example from the history of the church, the Pentecostals with their focus on the experience of the Holy Spirit had a great impact on Protestant and Catholic churches later in the 20th Century in the Charismatic movement which swept through many churches.

Could all these movements been the work of the Holy Spirit? I think they have been. I draw this conclusion from the varied history of denominations and the fresh air they bring into Christianity: the Spirit is always trying to breathe new life into the churches; what often happens is that men and women in the church who don’t like the change, refuse to change, so that the human instrument of the Spirit, the prophetic voice, must found yet another denomination to express this new knowledge.  It is our refusal to change, to be open to other ways of worshiping God, to incorporate what so clearly moves others that forces the people bringing the changes to the church to form yet another denomination in order to be faithful to the Holy Spirit.

Here I would point you back to Paul’s declarations about the church in 1 Corinthians. He was clearly speaking to this tendency to splinter off in the early church. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”(12-13) “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”(27) We are called to respect, even embrace each part–read denomination–of the church, the body of Christ, and embrace it as necessary to the whole.

Just as an eye isn’t the whole body, but is essential to it, so any denomination isn’t the whole church, but is essential to it. Respect for other denominations, and love for its adherents is essential.  In the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians is Paul’s treatise on love(13:1-13).  When we respect and love the other denominations in our one church, then we can learn from them other ways of being with God, living in God’s love and honoring Christ.

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