There’s a popular Christian contemporary song that starts with the lyrics, “Maybe we’ll get to Heaven and realize we were both wrong.” It’s a shockingly open-minded statement, especially considering the fact that differences in the Christian faith have led to unimaginable bloodshed over the centuries. Catholics and Protestants, Puritans, Mormons, Quakers, Episcopalians, Lutherans…what’s the real difference here, and why can’t we all just get along? We all believe in Jesus, isn’t that enough?
Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, the answer is much more complicated than that. I come from a non-denominational background, but I recognize that these denominational differences can cause huge issues and disagreements, not to mention the impact that they have on our day-to-day life as Christians. I probably don’t have to tell you that a Catholic mass is much different than a non-denominational Christian service in a major city. For starters, there are way less acoustic guitars.
These issues are much too complex to be addressed in a single blog post, but as usual, I’m going to paint in broad strokes to answer a common objection to Christianity: “Isn’t the amount of division within Christian belief an argument against it being the one true faith?” To get our heads around this issue, I think it’s best to take a two-pronged approach. I’ll start with giving a quick overview of the early Christian church and how disagreements began to manifest into clashing factions. I won’t go too in-depth here, and I also won’t really touch too much on the Reformation; simply put, I want to give you the reader an idea of why there have been divisions in the Christian faith from its earliest days. From there, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the question of the songwriter and its application for today’s topic – what if we get to Heaven and realize we were all wrong?
A Church in Turmoil
While Jesus himself preached love, harmony, and unity amongst believers, this was almost immediately pushed to the side as his disciples began to establish churches in the wake of his resurrection. As we see in the Bible time and time again, God has a vision of redemption for the world and gives humans the knowledge of this vision but also the free will with which to carry it out. When greed, arrogance, cultural differences, and plain stubbornness enter the mix, the beauty and light of God as revealed in Christ can be muddied. This happened 2,000 years ago with the early Church, it has happened in the 2,000 years since, and it is still happening today. I suppose it is simply something we must get used to.
Our earliest reputable source documenting the divisions in the early Church is the letters of Paul the Apostle, written roughly a decade and change after the resurrection of Christ. In his letter to the newly planted church in Corinth (a coastal city in southern Greece), Paul writes this:
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should 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.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-17)
Paul, as one of the earliest and most effective evangelizers of the early Christian movement, saw it as his duty to quell the divisions that were already cropping up in churches that he considered far too young to be having such disagreements. With the statement “…that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you,” we may assume that Paul is simply naive. In any organization, especially one that is so new and under such intense scrutiny, there are bound to be clashing ideas and personalities. However, what Paul is getting at here is a much larger concept. He’s calling the Corinthians to put aside their petty squabbles and be in agreement on what matters – that God is the creator of Heaven and Earth, that Christ is His Son and is one with Him, that Christ was crucified and resurrected and now sits at the right hand of the Father. The other minor issues should be summarily squashed like one would squash a petty argument.
While this is a noble and true idea in theory, the divisions within the early Church only continued to deepen. The most significant issue, and one that Paul touched on at length in his letters, was the circumcision of new, non-Jewish Christian converts. Within the early Christian movement, the vast majority of converts were former Jews; this makes sense considering the movement began in Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s resurrection, and spread outward from there. As it continued to spread west into the Roman Empire, the Church began to see more and more converts who came from a non-Jewish background.
Historically, the Jewish people had simultaneously been persecuted and had also operated under a Torah-sourced cultural identity as God’s chosen amongst the nations. With this came an attitude of protectiveness when it came to outside influence, especially when dealing with long-held beliefs and traditions. Within the Roman Empire, the Jewish people were the only ethnic group who were not required to worship the emperor; after years of strife, the Romans had decided it simply wasn’t worth the effort of trying to force them. Given these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand that this new Christian mixing pot of Jews and non-Jews coming under the same tent caused a significant amount of collision.
The practice of circumcision, taught to Abraham by God in the book of Genesis to represent the covenant between God and the Israelites for all generations, was a defining characteristic among men of the Jewish faith. While the early Jewish Christians recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah, they also carried with that recognition the cultural traditions of their people as well as the promises made by God to the Israelites in the Hebrew scriptures. The missed point here, and one that Jesus addressed repeatedly in his ministry, is that the coming of the Messiah represented a new covenant between God and humanity. God’s vision had been fulfilled: through Israel, and the culmination of its purpose in the personhood of Jesus, the whole world could be redeemed. The coming of Christ did not represent a dissolution of the original covenant between God and the Israelites, but instead its ultimate fulfillment.
With this, as Paul notes, physical circumcision was no longer necessary. Belief in Christ is a “circumcision of the heart,” as he puts it, a representation of human acceptance of the covenant between man and God. Try telling that to a group of men that not only held circumcision as an inseparable part of their cultural identity but also who had already had the physical procedure done! Even at the risk of alienating Jewish Christians, Paul argued vehemently against the circumcision of non-Jewish Christian converts, even going so far as to chastise Peter the Apostle for his opposing viewpoint.
Finally, as we see in Acts 15, a council was called in Jerusalem in AD 50. The council, aptly called The Council of Jerusalem, decided that non-Jewish Christian converts did not have to be circumcised, and also did not have to observe the specific fasts and rituals of the Jewish people. Among Christians, this council is considered the original prototype and forerunner of all ecumenical councils that would come later, establishing a tradition in Christendom: we meet, we break bread, we compromise, we move forward. Unfortunately, this has not always worked as intended, leaving us with the somewhat “fractured” state of Christianity today.
The Prism of Christ
Even after the Council of Jerusalem, there were certainly still “Judaizers” within the early Christian Church who strongly felt that all newly converted Christians should be required to follow Jewish traditions and customs. Does this mean they were wrong, and died having been wrong, and were therefore cast into Hell for all eternity? Or maybe they were right, and it was all of us who have been wrong for the last 2,000 years, and we are the ones who will suffer eternal damnation? With so many different Christian denominations in our modern world, it can be difficult not to entertain thoughts such as these. For example, I’m not a Catholic for a variety of reasons (saintly intercession, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, etc.) but I will admit that they’ve got something right with the Mass and the importance placed on communion with the living Christ. I’m certainly not a Calvinist (I disagree on the idea of election) but I am firmly in their camp when it comes to their stances on justification and human will.
I’m sure there are many Christians who feel the same way I do. Perhaps there are Catholics who aren’t comfortable with weekly confession and prefer the Protestant way, or Protestants who wish their worship service had a little more liturgy and a little less tambourine action. What I’m getting at here is that within all denominations are practices that glorify God, and in the end, isn’t that what we are all striving towards? I will refrain from singing “Kumbaya” and suggesting we all just get along, but was it not Christ who said:
“Whoever confesses me before men, him I will confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)
As Christians, it is our purpose to not only worship Christ to the best of our ability and understanding, but also to proclaim him proudly. Any Christian denomination in the world would affirm this. Christ as we see him in the Gospels is a figure who, at every turn, knows more and understands more about human nature than we could ever imagine. Christ teaches us to love God, love our neighbor, and to follow him in everything we do. If I believe this means a sermon on Sunday and you believe it means a Mass, we are both right – we are both gathering and proclaiming Christ just as he called us to, utilizing the diversity and beauty of human expression.
The verse that tends to support denominational divisions comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus states:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name? ‘And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
To me, a verse like this does not show Jesus condemning Christian denominations who “get it wrong,” as some churches will lead you to believe. Instead, he is attacking those who he knows will use his name for personal profit, pretending to preach the saving grace of God but really manipulating people’s hearts and pocketbooks. It is this that we should be afraid of, not disagreements about worship or who is saved. As long as Jesus is at the center, no disagreement or division can ever tear apart the Church, the body of Christ on Earth.
I will say one more thing, an analogy that has been helpful for me to understand this concept. Imagine Christ as a prism, a transparent glass with refracting surfaces that can take in a beam of light and blast it outwards as a dizzying variety of gorgeous colors. With Christ being the prism, his message and the vision of God is the light being beamed in, and the refracted colors are the countless denominations of Christian churches all over the world. The colors are distinct, and cannot be the same; green is not yellow, and red certainly isn’t purple. However, these colors are all beautiful and unique, and all owe their source to Christ and the vision of God. The differences of opinion that arise such passion in believers are simply representations of the power of Christ’s message and the awe-inspiring presence of God. To remember this is to remember that we are all one in Christ, and no squabble can ever tear apart the body that is here among us or threaten our salvation.