A man was walking along San Franciscoâ€™s Golden Gate Bridge when he saw a woman about to jump off. He ran up to her, trying to dissuade her from committing suicide. He told her simply that God loved her. A tear came to her eye.
He then asked her, â€œAre you a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, or what?â€
â€œIâ€™m a Christian,â€ she replied.
He said, â€œMe, too! Small world! Protestant or Catholic?â€
â€œMe, too! What denomination?â€
â€œMe, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?â€
He remarked, â€œWell, ME TOO! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?â€
She answered, â€œNorthern Conservative Baptist.â€
He said, â€œWell, thatâ€™s amazing! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?â€
â€œNorthern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.â€
â€œRemarkable! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?â€
She told him, â€œNorthern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.â€
â€œA miracle!â€ he cried. â€œNorthern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?â€
She said, â€œNorthern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.â€
He then shouted, â€œDIE, HERETIC!â€, and pushed her over the rail. (1)
Perhaps we laugh with some degree of discomfort at such a joke. After all, many people associate Christianity with division and religious rivalry. And our track record hasnâ€™t always been good. Indeed, things used to be much worseâ€”matters of life and death. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe experienced religious conflictâ€”indeed, warfareâ€”often between Protestants and Catholics. There was the Peasantâ€™s Revolt of 1524-25 in Germanyâ€”with Protestant peasants opposing their Catholic overlords. Over the next decade or so, tens of thousands of Anabaptists would be killed by Catholics, Lutherans, and Zwinglians. The St. Bartholomewâ€™s Day Massacre of 1572 brought the slaughter of around 100,000 Protestants. The Thirty Yearsâ€™ War (1618-1648), ending with the Treaty of Westphalia, involved fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Englandâ€™s two civil wars (1642-45 and 1648-49) involved Oliver Cromwellâ€™s leading the Puritan revolt against King Charles I and his Anglican and Catholic supporters, resulting in the kingâ€™s execution. The list of examples goes on. This era of religious intolerance and warfare has certainly damaged many peopleâ€™s perceptions about the Christian faith.
Doesnâ€™t Jesus pray to his Father that his followers â€œmay be one, even as We areâ€ (Jn. 17:11, 22)? Doesnâ€™t Paul write that â€œGod has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one anotherâ€ (1 Cor. 12:24-5)? Though the early Jerusalem church â€œhad all things in commonâ€ (Ac. 2:44), what has happened to this ideal? Though we live in a more tolerant age, some Christians argue that the existence of Christian denominationsâ€”Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.â€”is shameful and sinful. Denominations seem to indicate Christian disunity and diminish our witness for Christ in the world.
However, is this necessarily so? How should we think about Christian denominations? Here are some brief considerations. (I expand on these items in a forthcoming book with Baker Books. Sorry if the summaries are too short!)
First, we must remember that not all professing Christians are genuinely or consistently Christian. As Matthew 7 indicates, spiritual and moral fruitfulness (or fruitlessness) is an indication of a deeper reality within oneâ€™s soul or character. Jesus himself strongly warned against hypocrisy; so in some ways, this comes as no surprise.
Second, think in terms of â€œcommon denominatorâ€â€”that is a â€œbasic Christianityâ€ that different denominations share. As one Lutheran scholastic put it, there should be unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things. So denominations donâ€™t necessarily suggest disunity. Genuine Christians of different denominations can work together, pray together, and evangelize together.
Third, believers are in reality connected through their union with the triune God in Christ, not through denominational label. In fact, people may adhere to a certain denominational title, but they may reject certain fundamental biblical teachings. So Christians who are genuinely united by Godâ€™s Spirit should seek to make visible the invisible unity they share.
Fourth, the many Christian denominations remind us to be humble and Scripture-seeking rather than arrogant and smug. That said, we must recognize that the phenomenon of denominations indicates that not all of them can right in their unique doctrinal emphases (e.g., infant baptism vs. believerâ€™s baptism).
Fifth, since no one Christian denomination will fully capture the totality of the Christian faith in its particular denominational expression, we should humbly learn from Christians of other denominations, of other cultures, and throughout church history. Christians can become myopic because they read they read Scripture through their own cultural or denominational or contemporary lenses. So they need the enrichment of a global, cross-denominational, and historical perspective to enhance and deepen their discipleship.
Sixth, an awareness of our own traditions and denominational distinctives may give us a clearer idea of what is heresy and what is not. Adherence to denominational doctrinal/confessional standards may actually help Christians be more attuned to potential error than certain â€œgenericâ€ or â€œindependentâ€ church congregations.
Seventh, admittedly, â€œtheological hospitalityâ€ towards other denominations may involve challenges and tensionsâ€”such as leaving one confessional stance for another. Some Christians will recoil out of fear or because of a lack of confidence in their own theological beliefs. In such cases, oneâ€™s denomination may be more like a self-protective fortress rather than an inviting home. (2)
Let me close with an illustration. I was in Moscow in October of 2002. During that time I was speaking at an American club where Russian speakers would come to practice their English. I spoke on the topic of truth and relativism. Afterwards, a young man, who had been listening attentively, approached me and asked me what my â€œreligionâ€ was. I replied, â€œChristian.â€
He answered, â€œYes, I know, but what kind of Christian?â€
â€œIsnâ€™t the important thing that we are obedient followers of Christ?â€
â€œYes, but what kind of Christian are you?â€
â€œI prefer to think of myselfâ€”in the words of C.S. Lewisâ€”as a â€˜mere Christian,â€™â€ I responded.
â€œBut are you Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox?â€ he persisted.
â€œIf you want to label me, I identify myself as a Protestant,â€ I told him.
â€œWhy are you coming here to bring division? We are Orthodox in Russia!â€
I replied, â€œI havenâ€™t been the one trying to divide. It seems that you are dividing by putting a label on me!â€
This incident illustrates how having certain denominational label doesnâ€™t guarantee a spirit of unity. A Christian can affirm the faith of fellow-Christians from other denominations with charity and grace.
(1) Iâ€™ve slightly modified this (anonymous) joke. Found at: http://www.bible.org/illus.asp?topic_id=1380. Accessed 31 March 2005.
(2) W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 263.