People can get very confused when they see the large number of Christian churches around the place. North Grenville alone has a bewildering variety to choose from, and, sometimes, not even the people attending the churches can tell you what the differences are between them. But, in reality, there is only one Church, and all the varieties available share the same fundamental beliefs. The deity of Jesus, his historical life, death and resurrection, and the trinitarian nature of God as revealed in the New Testament: all of these are the essential and foundational truths upon which Christian denominations are based. Quite simply, according to Scripture, denial of any of these separates one from Christianity.
So, if all these denominations essentially believe the same things, why are there so many of them, and why can they be so different from each other? There are a few answers to that question, many of them historical. But, from the earliest days, Christians had a sad tendency to follow leaders instead of the Shepherd. Paul has to scold the Christians in Corinth, who were dividing into followers of Apollos, or Peter, or Paul himself:
“You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” [1 Cor. 3.3-5]
Christians have always seemed to want to associate themselves with a good teacher, or a charismatic leader, and sometimes this leads to going astray after anyone who “tickles their ears” with ideas that they find appealing, though not necessarily Scriptural.
After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century, elements of the older pagan system were also adopted, and those who followed the state church began to copy the pagan temples and titles. There developed two main strands of Christianity: the older form continued to meet in homes, without an official “clergy”, and keeping to the New Testament model of the Church. The mainstream version, as it became, developed a more hierarchical and liturgical model, with elaborate ceremonial, sharper separation of “clergy” and “laity”, and a closer relationship with the political systems of the day. This later split between Eastern, or Orthodox, Christianity and that of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reformation was, of course, the major division which shook the Christian community, and this changed the emphasis of the reformed denominations. The altar was largely replaced by the pulpit: the ceremonial by the preaching aspect. Reformed churches gradually developed their own “speciality” or emphasis, again associated with leaders (Calvinism, Lutheranism, etc.). And behind of all these, often unknown to the official world and equally often persecuted by it, were those groups which retained what they saw as the strictly New Testament way of being the Church of God. Often maligned and unfairly labelled by the “official” Church, sometimes seen as heretical (and sometimes sliding into that category), these believers usually met in homes, or somewhere private. They could be called Baptists, Anabaptists, Brethren of the Common Life, Cathars, Albigensians, Waldensians, there was no end to the terms used.
Since the Reformation, there have been many revivals within Christianity, each experiencing the Pentecostal experience of the New Testament, and each slowly evolving into a new denomination. Wesleyans, Assemblies of God, the Holiness Movement, the Pentecostals and Charismatics, all belong to this group. The variety of Christian denominations is a reflection of these various moves of God over the centuries, resulting in a bewildering choice of fellowships today.
The question, of course, is: Is this variety a good thing? On the one hand, there is a church for every personality: liturgical or not, clerical or not, charismatic or not. So much effort and energy goes into keeping these places open and active. So much money is spent on buildings and programs. The churches at Ephesus, Laodicea, Pergamum, Lystra are all gone. They were praised, or criticised, or encouraged by Jesus in Revelation, chapter 2. But they are no more. Is it always God’s will that denominations survive, no matter what the cost or reason? Do churches have a “Best By” date that we ignore? Are we centres of worship, or recreation centres? Surely that is more important than questions of history.