by: Deji Yesufu
I have had a long drawn debate with Adeyemo Temidayo on the subject of denominations. He’s of the opinion that denominations within Christendom is evil and should be done away with. I contend that while unity is good and desirable, it is not practical this side of heaven. To shed greater light on my position, I hereby share a lesson I just gleaned from reviewing Bruce Shelley’s account of Protestantism and Puritan Christianity as part of my course work at the #IPTT. I’ll be relaying a brief history of how denominations came about in Christianity and conclude with a thought.
Before the coming of the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther, all Christendom were under one denomination, called Roman Catholicism. Permit me to say here that it would have been the ideal situation the likes of Temidayo seeks for today. Church history shows that situations then were less than ideal. With all Christians under one man, the Pope, the Romish head became the most powerful person on earth. He even ruled over kings: deposing and imposing at will.
Despite the imperial person of the Pope, dissenting views existed within the Catholic Church. Many people criticized the corrupt lifestyle of Romish leaders then. One man, Desiderius Erasmus, was a leading person in this project. Although a humanist, he published a translation of the New Testament to Greek in 1526, and this singular action led to the translation of the Bible to many other languages in Europe. Despite his criticism of the Catholics, Erasmus never became a Protestant.
Martin Luther himself never ventured out to form a new Christian denomination. Providence simply led him as he stayed true to his conviction of scriptures, its preaching and his practice of religion. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the wall of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany, criticizing the sales of indulgence to the ordinary people. He called for a public debate. The debate never occurred.
The Catholic Church was slow to respond to the German “heretic” but in the summer of 1520, it sent Luther a Papal Bull, condemning his writing and requesting he recants his beliefs. In response, Luther, in company of his students, burnt the Papal Bull. The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther in January 1521. In response, Luther began holding church services by himself. The movement that resulted from his teachings and practices was called Lutheranism.
At about the time Luther was contending with Rome, a small Protestant group in Zürich, Switzerland, felt convinced that infant baptism was not biblical. They therefore stopped baptizing their new born children. They were heavily persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. By the close of the 16th century, no less than 5,000 of them had been killed. The movement survived nonetheless. Their off strings are Mennonites today (named after Menno Simmons), while many Protestants have adopted their practice of adult baptism.
In 1536, a 27 year old young lawyer, by the name John Calvin, published a book: “The Institute of the Christian Religions”. The word “institute” would be more appropriately translated “principle” today. It was a masterpiece of a work that stated in a clear and lucid manner the essential doctrines of the Christian religion: defending Protestantism before the King of France. Calvin started ministry in Geneva in July of that same year and from his work, came the “Reformed” brand of Protestantism.
At about this time, the king of England, Henry VIII, broke relations with the Pope. He needed to divorce his wife so as to marry a lady who will provide him a male heir to the throne. In the process the Church of England, Anglicanism, was formed. Therefore by the close of the 16th century, four distinct denominations had arisen in Europe, apart from Roman Catholicism, and all of them were at daggers drawn with one another. They were Roman Catholicism, Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptists and Anglicans.
In 1618, religious war broke out in Europe and it lasted for thirty years. The main cause of the conflict was the existence of varied religious groups in each city in Europe and there was constant fighting. Thirty years of war led to deaths, maiming, anarchy, losses and lack of development. In 1648, the peace of Augsburg was called. And all warring parties agreed that every ruler or prince, had liberty to choose what religion was to be practiced in his domain. So, for peace sake, a Catholic will live under a Catholic ruler and a Protestant will seek a Protestant city to live in. This was the first act of religious toleration in Europe. It created the idea of denominations. Denominations will later flourish under greater religious tolerance in North America.
Bruce Shelley says that denominations was the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. By nature it is exclusive. “If you don’t belong to us, you are damned”, says the sect members. Denominations on the other hand was inclusive. “It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group, the church, to which all denominations belong”, says Shelley.
Therefore the word “denominate” is merely a naming of a group within a larger and inclusive group. Therefore if I were to call myself of a certain denomination, I am not condemning other denominations but simply reserving the right to view church doctrines and practices in a way different from others. They remain my brethren in Christ.
At the long run, we see that the concept of denominations that gained increasing acceptance in the New World, in the 18th century, was actually a unifying concept from day one. It unified the church, while permitting differing views. This does not mean that there are no Christian groups that claims exclusive rights but when they do so, we realize that a sect and a cult is in the making.
Here is my final argument on the matter of denomination: when man seeks unity of the church by sheer efforts and human wisdom, especially as seen in modern ecumenical endeavors, it ends up working against God, reducing doctrinal standards and providing a compromised religion. However, when the church pursues truth, fellowship and the conversion of sinners, the Holy Spirit unites God’s people himself beyond denominational barriers. Unity is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is not ours to pursue. When we pursue the truth, unity will result.
As I have mentioned to Temidayo in the past, those who pursue unity at all cost, will undermine gospel truth and eventual compromise religion. They will also end up creating a new denomination: “a denomination that has no denomination”.
In this life Christ has permitted various denominations in the church to cater to our differing manner of seeing biblical doctrines. But in the Spirit, he is setting up a unified body of Christians whose essential element is a changed heart and a commitment to holiness. This the church of the firstborn: the church that will stand united in heaven (alone).
First published on Facebook 12, May, 2017