November 1, 2013 by Alex Johannigman
I recently ran across an article at Relevant Magazine written by Jason Todd about why denominations within Christianity are a totally awesome thing. Conveniently, it was just in time for a holiday that I didn’t really realize existed until a couple days ago and is celebrated on the same day as Halloween each year, Reformation Day! I thought that the first article was frustrating for the same reasons that I, and apparently others too, think that Reformation Day is not something that should be celebrated. I don’t like either, because they celebrate and praise division in something that should be united. To steal a quote from a Protestant pastor friend of Jonathan Ryan at Patheos, “celebrating Reformation Day is like celebrating a divorce.”
First, I should start by clarifying that I don’t think the Reformation was a totally bad thing. Like many Catholics, I recognize that the Church in the 1500s was in need of some serious overhaul. Unfortunately, what started out as a desire for a more Christ-like church turned into one of the biggest failures in church history, the dividing of the body of Christ into what has now become literally thousands of smaller pieces. It’s an event that I don’t think the Christian church will recover from any time soon, as the number of Protestant denominations is now in the order of around 40,000 different groups.
I think the Bible is plenty clear on the issue of denominations within the church, and it doesn’t like them one bit. Christ himself prayed: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23).
Paul also writes to the church in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
Todd mentions both of these scriptures in his article, but downplays them by saying “Within the realm of orthodox Christianity, denominations are the result of brothers and sisters disagreeing on secondary issues. Though we all rally around the preeminence of the Gospel (and are thus united), we differ on doctrines that are not of first importance.” Essentially, he says that we are not truly a divided church because we all agree on the primary parts of the gospel, and only disagree on small, insignificant secondary matters. I would not be so quick to state that all of the different Christian denominations only disagree on small things like what type of music to use in a worship service, or whether people should be baptized by being submerged completely or just sprinkled with water on the head. Some of these divisions include huge theological issues like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the importance of confessing your sins to a priest rather than just privately to God, and what exactly must be done in order to go to heaven. These issues are so primary to our understanding of God that huge wars have been fought over them. I know of no one who would start a war because his neighbor uses a guitar during his worship service, while he thinks the best way of praising God through music is with a piano.
He also states that “true division would come only if a Lutheran were to say something like, “I follow Luther” as opposed to following Jesus.” Yet, isn’t that exactly what the reformers and their followers did? They said that they followed the teachings of a particular reformer, be it Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or another, rather than the teachings of the church that Christ established. They even took on the names of those that they followed, identifying themselves as “Lutherans” and “Calvinists.”
With all of that said, I did find some awesome truth in what Todd has to say. He spends a lot of time talking about how denominations bring out the beauty of the diversity of the body of Christ. I absolutely love the following paragraph: “Different traditions have beautiful expressions of faith that we can all learn from. If one group of Christians cherishes a secondary issue to the point that they will find a different corner of the nest to protect it, that doesn’t give another group the right to try and kick them out of the nest or to accuse them of not caring about the preeminence of the Gospel. Christianity is a large family, and we have much to learn from other brothers and sisters, even the ones who are not like us.”
And this, my friends, is why I love today, All Saints’ Day, so much. Christianity is as diverse as its members, and through the lives of the saints we can see thousands of different ways to live out the universal call to holiness. We see that saints come in all shapes and sizes, from all parts of the world, and see the beauty of Christ and his Church in their own unique ways. Some see God through complex philosophy, like St. Thomas Aquinas. Some see God through simplicity and practicality like St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Some live long lives like Blessed John Paul II, while others fall in love with Christ at a very young age like St. Maria Goretti, who was martyred at the age of 11. Some are married like St. Peter, while some remain single like St. Paul. And we can learn from the saints who are like us just as much as we can learn from the saints who are not like us.
Over the centuries, the saints have also helped us come closer and closer to the ultimately impossible goal of understanding God completely. They, along with all members of the Church, have worked together to come to a greater understanding of truth. Rather than break off from the Church when they disagreed with some of her members and leaders, they discussed and dialogued. There have been saints who constantly got into arguments with other members of the church hierarchy in pursuit of the truth, such as the debates between St. Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople, about Christological issues. They didn’t break off from the Church. They instead sought to make it stronger.
In addition to the lives of the saints, we can also see the beauty and diversity of the Church through the different religious communities that it contains. I once heard it said that it is a truly diverse and beautiful Church that can contain the Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines, and Franciscans and have them all agree on the same dogma. Each community has a radically different way of engaging God, worshiping Him, and learning from Him. For some, Christ is found most easily by living a life of simplicity and poverty, and for others it can be through a life of contemplation and reflection. Like the different traditions that Todd loves within Protestantism, different religious orders bring their own traditions and approaches to Christianity that show the beauty and diversity of the Church, yet they continue to have the same, united faith. I think Catholicism is a living testament to the fact that Christ’s Church is capable of being diverse without being divided.
So rather than celebrate Reformation Day with my Protestant friends and celebrate the divisions within the body of Christ, I choose to celebrate All Saints’ Day and the beauty of the diversity and unity of the Catholic Church. Because differences shouldn’t be a reason to divide ourselves. It would be far better if we instead treated them as opportunities to learn from each other and strengthen each other so we can all grow in faith, hope, and charity. As Jesus Christ himself said, it is only when we are united that “the world will know that you (the Father) sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”