Over the past few years, I’ve become something of a student of church history. Sometimes this study reaffirms my faith in profound ways, while at other times it leaves me thoroughly confused. Perhaps you can help.
Take, for example, the thousands of institutional schisms that have taken place through the ages. This often presents two problems:
One: All of the great thinkers of the Reformation – every one – began from the basic premise that Catholic doctrine was essentially sound. Hence, when they were done with all of their "reforming," their new creeds looked a lot like a Catholic Catechism, and their liturgies could easily be mistaken for a Roman Mass.
Contrary to a popular belief, Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses did not introduce any revolutionary ideas; in fact they were already well-known, widely subscribed, and centuries old. Further, the text of this historical document actually defended the pope as much as it rebuked him. He never attempted nor desired to split the church, seeing as his complaints were few. Many modern historians believe that Luther would never have rebelled against the Roman church of today, and I’m inclined to agree.
John Calvin took a different approach, but like Luther he added very little of anything new to the discussion. His TULIP acronym introduced a convenient mnemonic, but it was basically a rehash of the teachings of Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Catholic pantheon.
In the case of the Church of England, they separated from Rome for reasons that had nothing to do with theology; hence the Anglican teachings and customs remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
Today the attitude of many Protestants mirrors that of the Pharisee in the classic parable (Luke 18): They go through life thinking, “I thank God that I’m not Catholic,” while in fact they are far more Catholic than they will ever admit.
Two: Within a group of reformers, two or more contradictory schools of thought emerge; yet both sub-groups stubbornly claim the same heritage. I hope you can follow along here:
As we know, the Roman Catholic Church believes so strongly in the saving power of baptism, that they routinely administer it to people who are utterly unable even to believe. In fact, such rites far outnumber the baptisms of actual believers, and have for centuries.
The situation in the Church of England is much the same: On the basis of identical doctrines, they routinely baptize people who are utterly unable even to believe. Such rites far outnumber the baptisms of actual believers, and have for centuries.
Just one additional schism away we find John Wesley, the Anglican priest who preached some unconventional views for his campus ministry at Oxford University. Even so, he retained the Anglican doctrines on salvation and baptism, and routinely baptized people who were utterly unable even to believe. Within his ministry, therefore, such rites far outnumbered the baptisms of actual believers.
Here’s where the confusing part begins (at least for me): Through the ages, Wesley’s ministry splintered into a large number of competing denominations. These include United Methodists, Nazarenes, Wesleyans, and the Salvation Army. All of these groups look fondly to Mr. Wesley as their spiritual ancestor. And yet…
Among this group, only the United Methodists share Wesley’s views on salvation and baptism.
Nazarenes and Wesleyans believe that baptism is merely a symbolic ritual for those who are already saved by some other means. The Salvation Army doesn’t practice baptism – in any form, by any name, or for any purpose – period. (And curiously, they also abolished the Eucharist long ago.)
Which of these groups are the true spiritual heirs of Wesley? I don’t have a dog in this fight, so I won’t claim to know. Truly, good Christians can disagree on any number of things and still remain both brothers and true believers. But in the present case, how can all of these groups honestly claim Wesley as their father, while they dare to disagree with his explicit teaching on something as important as SALVATION?
Whatever the answer, it seems that their first mistake – for all of these groups – was that they hitched their wagons to the star of a mortal man in the first place (1 Corinthians 1:10-15).
Those who proudly proclaim their distinctiveness, are actually not very different from one another. Those who revel in their unity, are actually miles apart on the most important issues. Why can't we just follow Jesus, and forget about the rest? Why isn't Jesus enough? What do they offer us that he can't? Why can't we just call ourselves Christians, and leave it at that? Nobody ever asked me those questions until I was 28 years old.