Of Christianity and Denominations

It was around two in the afternoon and the class was in a siesta mood. A reporter was explaining the history of the Mindanao conflict but his monotonous voice lulled several students to sleep.

He started with the Arab trades in Southern Philippines down to the “oppressive” Spanish era, and the “materialistic” American Regime. Several times in his report, he talked about the long-standing Christian and Muslim feud in Mindanao. He cited examples like land-ownership, cultural freedom, political autonomy and secession—but always a Christian versus Muslim conflict.

At the end of the report, one of his recommendations was for people to research on Islam to better understand who Muslims are.

As he wheeled to unplug the laptop, applause filling the tiny room, a hand shot into the air. There was a question, or rather, another recommendation.

One of his classmates said they should research not only on Islam but on Christianity as well to understand the complexity of its denominations. The recommendation arose because of the haphazard use of the term “Christian” without regard to the distinctions of the branches of the religion.

Denominations, divisions, distinctions

Strictly speaking, for example, the Philippines is a Roman Catholic country but not necessarily Christian in the standards of mainstream Christianity. South Korea is more of a Christian country when the same mainstream standard is used.

The issue of denominations is a serious blow to the once united church founded by Jesus Christ in the first century A.D. However, it is also an issue seldom discussed primarily because of the lack of knowledge of its existence.

Denomination is the term used by Christians to describe the different divisions or branches of the religion. It is synonymous to the word “sect” but is preferred because of its positive connotation.

At present, there are at least a hundred denominations tracing their roots to the first-century Christian church. But as to how many of these are truly Christian denominations, one must refer once more to the standard of mainstream Christianity.

No compromises

A truly Christian denomination may have a unique set of creeds and rules or emphasize certain truths, but it never compromises on the Biblical teaching on salvation. That is, humanity is saved from the penalty of sin by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus alone.

The implication of this core teaching is immense, but is seldom understood. It is important to stress the word “alone” because this single word shook the foundation of the Christian church.

Everyone who adheres to such belief agrees that humans, in their own capacity, cannot attain salvation. No amount of good work, charity, self-effort, donation, penance or sacrifice can bring a person closer to God.

This Biblical belief also disproves the popular idea of God with a balance, allowing people to enter heaven only if their good deeds outweigh their sins.

On the contrary, mainstream Christianity adheres to the Bible’s teaching that humanity cannot attain freedom from the clout of darkness through self-effort because of the sin nature in them. It is only by placing their faith on Jesus, which in itself is a gift from God, can they be saved.

In a word, the Bible and mainstream Christianity teach that salvation equals grace through faith in Jesus alone, yielding to good works. Salvation is never equal to faith and grace plus good works. Good deeds are products of salvation, not a component.

Denominations under scrutiny

Every denomination that claims roots to Christianity must satisfy this prerequisite before they can be called a Christian denomination. In the same way, a person who professes to be a Christian must agree that salvation is wholly by grace through faith in Christ.

There are three main denominations that claim roots to the early Christian church. Conservative theologians claim that two of the three may be considered Christian, while liberals say only one of the three main branches is Christian.

The two oldest are the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox or the Eastern Orthodox Church. The break between the two, known as the “Great Schism,” happened in 1054 primarily because the Greek Orthodox Church refused to acknowledge the pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the head of Christendom.

The great divide caused two distinct sets of beliefs. The Eastern Orthodox, however, remained more faithful to the teachings of mainstream Christianity. As to the Roman Catholic Church, it is a historical fact that politics, power and wealth corrupted it.

Such corruption introduced extra-Biblical teachings like the purgatory, indulgences, worship of Mary, the infallibility of the pope among others. But this also moved the German theologian Martin Luther to initiate reform inside the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, his views on the infallibility of the pope, indulgences and salvation which run against the teachings of the Catholic Church were considered heretical. These, however, are Biblical and are parallel to the teachings of mainstream Christianity today.

These “protesters” broke off with the Catholic Church and slowly formed the Protestant Reformation or what Filipinos loosely call the Born-again Church.

Luther emphasized the sole authority of the Bible in matters of faith, thus, all the teachings of Protestants are taken from the Bible. This makes them Fundamentalists, but at the same time staunchly Biblical and at par with the teachings of mainstream Christianity.

A number of theologians like Charles Spurgeon and John Calvin even claim that the Protestant branch is the mainstream Christianity—not in number but in teachings and doctrines.

Unfortunately, this is also the most dispersed branch. Denominations like the Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Anglican, Born-again and Presbyterians belong to this branch. These denominations differ slightly in minor teachings but they all adhere to the standard of mainstream Christianity, making them all Christian denominations.

United but not uniform

Interestingly, Christians agree among themselves that Jesus desires the unity of the church. This shows that denominationalism is unbiblical. The complex tree that sprouted from the once united church baffled people of other faiths and confused even those professing the Christian faith.

A Catholic, for example, is hard-up on distinguishing the differences between a Lutheran and a born-again. A born-again may even doubt other denominations because there are just too many sub-branches sprouting everywhere.

For this very reason, the word “Christian” was diluted and reduced to mean the umbrella group of all churches associating themselves to Jesus Christ. The standard set by mainstream Christianity was utterly disregarded.

The very division was used against Christians. In fact, in one conference, preacher and apologist Ravi Zacharias was asked by a Muslim why Christians had so many “churches” and which one is the “true” church.

His answer was very telling. He admitted that there are many churches or denominations especially in the Protestant tradition, but he stressed that all the Christian denominations shared the same core—that of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone.

All other differences they had were but minor. He ended by saying that unity is different from uniformity. The differences of the denominations gave strength to Christianity because these reached a broader spectrum of people.

In the end, however, he conceded that there is still division—irreconcilable ones—especially when the questions deal with salvation and the deity of Jesus Christ.

The need to know

After the second recommendation was raised, the class was silent. It appeared that no one understood the point. The only thing the reporter said was that people must also understand their own faith.

True enough, people must examine the teachings of their faith. This call is not new and was echoed by great men and women in history. In the Philippines, the greatest perhaps is Jose Rizal.

In his work entitled, “The Religiosity of the People of the Philippines,” Rizal rejected blind faith and urged his countrymen to question the very foundation of the religious teachings brought by Spain to the Philippines.

Truly, the word “Christian” is more complicated than it seems. There is a disparity between what popular culture knows and what the Bible teaches. Fortunately, today, one has all the freedom to question and discover.
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