31 August 2022

Why are there so many churches?

Properly, Jesus’s church is his followers. Not a church institution nor organization; not the hierarchy of a denomination nor the people in leadership who try to steer the masses; certainly not a building. It’s people. The church is people. All the people who are enroute to God’s kingdom… and all the hangers-on who may yet get in as well.

So since Jesus’s church is that, instead of all our individual denominations… why are there so many different denominations of church? And why do some of ’em even actively compete with one another, as if they’re a bunch of different retail businesses trying to win over customers?

Well there are lots of reasons. Some are good and valid. Some really not.

I’ve simplified them down to five. Maybe oversimplified; you can tell me whether I’m missing any particular nuances here. The first two reasons I consider valid, and even have scriptures to back me up. The last thee… not so much.

1. We need a local group to interact with!

So: Imagine there’s only one church building on the planet, headquartered in Jerusalem. (It mighta relocated to Constantinople for a bit, but now it’s definitely back in Jerusalem.) And that’s the only place we can worship. Can’t do it anywhere else.

Well… maybe Christians have created smaller, individual Christian schools in our local communities, and we might gather there every Sunday morning and talk about Jesus, and maybe interact and pray together. But again: If you wanna worship Jesus, you can only do it in the church in Jerusalem. And you really should go there for that reason. Ideally three times a year, but if it’s only once in a lifetime, God is gracious.

Okay. This sound completely impractical to you?

Arguably it wasn’t all that practical when God’s kingdom only consisted of ancient Israel. Even though the bulk of the population lived less than 100 kilometers away from Jerusalem. Nonetheless they had to shut everything down, load their belongings into a wagon, and head to Jerusalem thrice a year for temple. Dt 16.16 ’Cause temple was the only place they could worship. I mean you could try to build a shrine for him in the house, and maybe meet for synagogue services every week at the local school. But sacraments?—you were only permitted to do them in Jerusalem.

You might notice Jesus taught in synagogue. Often. And in houses, fields, hills, on the beach from a boat, and temple. But he himself recognized it was impractical to only worship God in a specific location, which is why he had been planning from the very beginning to turn his people into the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus we could worship anywhere. No more limits to where and when.

John 4.21, 23-24 CSB
21 Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. […] 23 But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth.”

Because Christians can worship anywhere, we can meet as the church anywhere. We can meet in our homes—the living room if it’s big enough, or the backyard, or in the garage or barn. Or meet in a tent at the local park. Or rent the school gym, or one of the library or community center’s conference or multipurpose rooms. Or rent or purchase or build a building—however big we need.

Traveling vast distances to meet for church isn’t practical. Not everyone can travel; not everyone can afford to travel. And in a giant church where people travel long distances to get there, it’s way too easy to go completely anonymous: You can avoid having anyone in the church know you, or love you. Which plenty enough Christians already do as it is.

This is why Jesus had his followers spread out to other cities and territories, Ac 1.8 and plant churches. You’ll notice the New Testament refers to the churches of different cities. Paul's letters were written to these cities’ Christian communities—Romans to the church of Rome, 1 and 2 Corinthians to the church of Corinth, Galatians to the churches throughout the province of Galatia, Colossians and Philemon to the church of Colosse which met in Philemon’s house, and so forth.

Inevitably, all these local churches are gonna adjust to the special needs of the locals. And here’s where we get into specialization.

2. Different communities need different churches.

Really, all churches should adapt to meet the needs of the people they minister to.

Fr’instance if your church is in a Spanish-speaking city, it’s gonna minister to the locals in Spanish. Doesn’t matter if the city’s in the United States, where most people presume we oughta speak English: You minister in whatever language the people speak. If English, okay English. If German, better learn German! If Navajo, same deal—and hey, it wouldn’t hurt if you found some native Navajo speakers who are mature Christians, and get them involved in leadership as quickly as possible.

’Cause that’s precisely what the first Christians did. They spoke Aramaic, but they quickly found out they had a large Greek-speaking community among them which was kinda getting shafted. So they put Greek-speaking Christians in charge of that community. Ac 6.1-6 They didn’t shout at the Greek-speakers, “What’re you doing in Judea if you can’t speak Aramaic? Go back to Greece! Somebody call Immigration.” They met the people’s needs without being dicks about it.

And yeah, I use the example of language barriers, but there are all sorts of differences in our communities which are gonna require Christians and churches to adapt. If the people in our city are poor, we’re gonna have to figure out how to meet them where they are—and not harangue them for donations, not charge ’em for church functions and resources, not have expectations and demands of them which’ll break their budgets.

Likewise if we’re near a military base, we’re gonna cater to the military, and the needs of military families. Suburban churches get a lot of wealthy people. University churches get a lot of young people—and a lot of short-timers. And so on.

It’d be dumb to tell a church full of French-speakers, “Our denomination comes from South Korea, so our prayer books and ministry resources and sermons are only in Korean. Don’t worry; we’ll teach you Korean!” Yet Christians have regularly been guilty of this sort of behavior. Too often we try to adjust other cultures to suit us, and our own culture’s version of Christianity, because it makes us comfortable. Our missionaries have tried to turn people into westerners, not Christians. The first Christians were guilty of it too—by trying to convince gentile Christians they had to become Pharisee first, then Christian. Ac 15.1-2

True, there are useful things we can learn from the culture where our particular branch of Christianity originated. And there are useful things we can learn from the culture where we minister. And really there’s stuff to learn from every culture: God’s put useful things into all of them. But the focus of each individual church, regardless of where they are and who’s in ’em, needs to be the person and teachings of Christ Jesus. Everything else is optional: Keep what’s good and what works. Adapt what’s good but doesn’t yet work. Throw out what’s not good, whether it works or not, whether we like it or not.

3. Different styles for different people.

Now we move into the not-so-good reasons for multiple churches. And yeah, there are gonna be people who claim these are good reasons for different churches. It certainly gives them a good excuse for splitting from their previous churches and starting up a new one.

Style is a very common reason. Different Christians prefer different worship styles. Or different teaching styles. Or more (or less) formality in their services. So we create churches to suit us.

You want a church where the pastors wear Hawaiian shirts instead of suits or robes? They exist. You want a church where the music pastor rocks the bagpipes instead of playing a pipe organ or guitar? Gotcha. You want a church full of ikons, statues, stained glass, and candles, instead of blank bare walls? Done. You want a church that’ll let you smoke a big bowl of weed during the service? Yep, they exist too.

A big long sermon isn’t your style? How about a 45-minute service, where you’re in and out of church with plenty of time to beat the Sunday lunch crowd at the restaurants? But maybe a big long sermon is your style, and plenty of churches will accommodate you. Holy communion every week? Can do. Favorite bible is the King James Version? Some churches will actually ban every other translation.

Now. Are stylistic differences a good reason to create separate churches? Some say absolutely: They can’t abide the other styles. I know lots of Christians who grew up going to formal churches, and think formality is the same thing as holiness: They’re hugely offended by churches which permit worshipers to wear T-shirts and jeans, and can’t imagine the people at those churches are even Christian. Conversely I know people who grew up in those churches who now hate formal services, and praise Jesus there’s such a thing as informal churches; they’d never set foot in a church building otherwise.

These stylistic differences are huge deals to more than a few Christians. Even the most tolerant among them, who agree we shouldn’t be so petty as to fight over guitars versus piano: If their church were to suddenly change music style on them, most will switch churches within the next month or two. Doesn’t matter how close they are to the other folks in the church: Once the music changed, their church doesn’t feel right anymore. And since many Christians confuse their emotions with the Holy Spirit, they’ll seriously believe the Spirit left the building! They have to leave, and go find him again.

Regardless of styles, the thing we must always look for is motive. Is our style of worship seriously helping us follow Jesus closer or better? Or is it only to make us comfortable?

Are we dressing down because we hate dressing up? Do we play hymns on organ because we like the sacred feeling—even though we don’t understand half the old-timey words, and kinda like it that way because we’re avoiding theology? Do we dance in church because God appreciates our enthusiasm, or because we feel like dancing?

When anything is done without considering the wishes of others, it should never be done. 1Co 10.31-33 There’s nothing wrong with trying to make our churches comfortable—after all, we’re supposed to comfort one another! But anything which puts comfort ahead of following Jesus, or ahead of people who are seriously trying to follow Jesus too: It’s made an idol of comfort.

As for the churches where people get to smoke weed… well, all I’ll say is don’t be stoned on marijuana but filled with the Holy Spirit. Ep 5.18 And that’s all for now.

4. Different doctrines.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Some churches are heretic.

Jesus, some’ll claim, isn’t the only way to the Father; there are lots of ways, and any good-intentioned Buddhist or Muslim or pagan will get to heaven same as everyone. Jesus, others’ll claim, isn’t really God; he’s a lesser god or a nothing more than a good moral teacher. Crap like that.

Other churches aren’t heretic, but they will teach certain doctrines where Christians don’t agree—and with these particular doctrines, Christians are actually free to not agree. Like how the End Times will play out. Or whether women should be in church leadership.

Calvinists don’t believe Jesus died to save everyone. They insist he only died to save Christians; not pagans. I don’t agree. If I went to one of their churches, and their pastor decided to preach a 10-week series on why Jesus didn’t die for pagans, I’d be very frustrated with it. It’s why I go to my church, where my pastor correctly believes Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. 1Jn 2.2

But are Calvnists heretic? Absolutely not. Can I worship with them? Absolutely I can. Can we forgive one another for our “errors,” and work together as sisters and brothers in Christ? Absolutely we can. And should. And we have no good excuse for not doing so.

Now, this live-and-let live attitude between Calvinists and non-Calvinists is a fairly new concept in human history. In the past, it hasn’t been let-live. Medieval Calvinists killed non-Calvinists over doctrinal disagreements. And vice-versa. And if religious killing ever became legal again, like many Christian nationalists are secretly hoping, you know many a Christian would go right back to killing everyone with whom they disagree, and think they’re right to. Doesn’t matter if the scriptures condemn murder; they’re pretty sure this is a legitimate loophole.

A lot of the “heretics” of the past—Anabaptists, Lutherans, Moravians, Huguenots, Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists—were just as orthodox as their persecutors. But their few minor differences were blown out of proportion. (Sometimes solely for political reasons.) And many were murdered for it.

Now yes, being forced to create your own church because you were persecuted out of your previous one by less-than-Christian dogmatists, is a rotten reason to start a church. Starting your own church because you wanna teach Christ your way, and are tired of fellow Christians demanding you pay attention to such things as orthodoxy and context, is also a rotten reason to start a church. But it’s been the case many times in Christian history. We’ll take any minor thing—the stuff Christians should be free to disagree upon, like how to baptize, what communion bread really is, how Christians oughta do good works, how gifts of the Spirit function, how church leadership functions, even End Times theories—and split churches, denominations, and nations over them.

Again: Jesus is Lord. That’s the most important thing. Pp 1.15-18 Doctrinal differences are important—we want to know what God’s really trying to teach us!—but our differences should be handled carefully. Arguments—even friendly ones—create strife, and that’s confusing to immature Christians. 2Ti 2.14 To disagree for disagreement's sake—and we have way too many Christians who love to be controversial—is a sign of godlessness. 1Ti 6.2-5 Errors must be corrected with kindness, gentleness and patience. 2Ti 2.24-25

So if bad teaching or errors make you angry, be very careful. The devil has found your weak spot, and will quickly twist it into something which will destroy your relationships with fellow Christians.

If we absolutely can’t agree, we can agree to disagree. We can create and attend different churches to avoid disagreements. This rarely happens peacefully, sad to say. I know of very few friendly church splits. Most have been nasty and selfish, done for nasty and selfish reasons. Church splits, like divorce, are never ideal, though sometimes understandable and necessary. Better to have a friendly split than an ongoing intra-church battle.

Friendly or not, divided churches can’t refuse to work together. It violates the scriptures. 1Co 1.10 We’re still one kingdom under King Jesus. Our differences must be put aside when we serve him.

5. Personal reasons.

And lastly: Some churches split not for doctrinal reasons, stylistic reasons, ministry reasons, or logistic reasons. Fact is, some people just don’t like one another, and will break up a whole church over it. Pastors will fight over petty things, and one will go off to start their own church. Racists will refuse to worship with other races. Partisans will refuse to worship with Christians of other political parties. Family members who can’t stand one another will deliberately pick different churches—same denomination, but across town—just to avoid one another.

There should be absolutely no personal divisions in God’s kingdom. Any such thing shows people aren’t being guided by the Spirit, but by the flesh. 1Co 3.3-4 Christians are to love one another. It’s a sign we’re Jesus’s disciples. Jn 13.35 When we won’t love one another, we’re not obeying Jesus.

Jesus prayed his people would be one. Jn 17.11, 20-23 The fact we’re fragmented for many reasons—usually stupid ones—grieves him, entertains the devil, and gives skeptics plenty of ammo to say, “You can’t all be right; therefore none of you are.” We must recognize there’s one kingdom, one body of Christ— many members, 1Co 12.12 but all our churches work for the same Lord Jesus. It’s not a bad thing that Christians are different; it’s only bad how our differences divide us. This must be undone.