Mon. Mar 8th, 2021

WHY SO MANY CHURCHES?

By: Greg Brothers

My mother was baptized a member of the Assemblies of God, my father Swedish Lutheran. I was baptized a Methodist, confirmed a Presbyterian, and ordained a minister by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Confusing?

Yes, but probably not all that unusual. America’s 135 million church members belong to a bewildering variety of groups, ranging in size from the Roman Catholic Church, with its 23,500 local congregations, to the National Gay Pentecostal Alliance, with two. One expert estimated there were 1,275 “primary religious bodies” back in 1977. Nobody knows what the number is today.

Why are there so many different churches? After all, every one of them claims to follow Christ – the Christ who prayed that His followers “may all be one.” So what happened? What turned “one” into “many”?

Imperial Christianity

Strange as it sounds, we have so many churches today in part because of one man’s long-ago effort to unify Christianity.

Nobody knows precisely why the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity back in A.D. 313. Some say he’d been converted as the result of a vision he had, just before an important battle. Others say he was an opportunist, looking for a religion that could unite his empire.

Whatever his reasons, everyone agrees Constantine was not a man who liked dissent. Before his conversion, Christians had quarreled over everything from the date of Easter to the nature of Christ. No more. Councils met. Decisions were made. Victors were rewarded, heretics punished. Christianity was now both orthodox (“right teaching”) and catholic (“universal”) – Constantine saw to that.

Constantine’s help came with a price, however: the church’s fate was now tied to that of the empire. And when the empire split between east and west, it wasn’t long before the church divided into a Greek Orthodox east and a Roman Catholic west.

What’s more, converts to “imperial Christianity” didn’t always join for the best of reasons. Politics often played a part; so did the shine of imperial gold. On at least one occasion, for instance, an ambitious tribal warlord marched his soldiers through a river, thus making them both “instant Christians” and imperial allies.

As a result, medieval Christianity was like a thick coat of paint over an old house. It touched everything, but changed almost nothing. Local churches were often staffed by the poor and the ignorant – when they were staffed at all. Common people lived and believed much as they had when the land was officially pagan. Constantine’s vision of church and state had led Christianity to the brink of disaster.

The Reformation

Many Christians were appalled by the state of their church, and many attempted to reform it. Religious orders founded schools. Missionaries patiently taught converts. Groups such as the Franciscans and the Moravians did their best to educate the common people.

By and large, however, most believed that change could only come from the top down. “Strengthen the authority of the church,” men such as Hildebrand had said. “Give its leaders more power, and they will see to it that conditions improve.

Power made church office all the more attractive to the ambitious, however. Bribes became common, and many church leaders were so busy repaying the money they’d borrowed to buy their way into office that they had little time for spiritual things.

And the church’s multiplied problems overwhelmed even the good peop1e among its leaders.

That’s why Martin Luther urged a different approach. “Teach people to read the Bible for themselves,” he urged. “Let them see that they are put right with God through their trust in Him. Once they learn to deal with God directly, they will become true Christians. Then the church will be truly reformed, from the bottom up.”

Luther’s words were too much for some church leaders; they succeeded in having him kicked out. That’s not to say they were against reform; Roman Catholics and Protestants differed on how to change the church, not on whether it needed to be changed. And even those who agreed with Luther’s approach disagreed as to the shape that a “truly reformed” church would take.

Anabaptists, for example, took Christ’s Sermon on the Mount more literally than most. Spiritual ancestors of today’s Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites, they avoided politics, refused military service, and baptized only those old enough to choose church membership for themselves.

John Calvin’s followers, on the other hand, shared Luther’s views on the Bible, faith, and infant baptism. They placed more emphasis on God’s authority, however, and upon the civil power of the church.

English experiments

While admitting the need for reform, however, most Christians weren’t willing to go as far as the Protestants – England’s King Henry VIII, for one. He had nothing against the teachings of the church’s traditional leadership; he’d even written a book against Luther.

No, Henry’s concerns were political. Though his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was a happy one, she’d been unable to bear him an heir – a fact that would almost certainly lead to civil war when Henry died.

Hoping to avoid this, Henry asked the church to annul his marriage so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, Catherine’s nephew, however, was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V – a man with little love for England and an imperious way with church leaders.

Result?

No annulment – and no heir.

Frustrated, Henry made himself head of the church in England, then saw to it he was granted a divorce. This was no reformation, mind you. True, he dissolved monasteries, allowed services to be held in English, and appointed a married man as archbishop. But Henry still saw himself as a Catholic -just an English Catholic, not a Roman one.

But others tried to push the Church of England toward Protestantism – Calvinists, especially. Some remained Anglicans, hoping to purify the church from within. (Not surprisingly, they were known as Puritans.)

Separatists despaired of the chance for reform, however, and went off on their own. Presbyterians, for instance, thought the church’s power should rest in an elected council of ministers and lay people, rather than in the hands of the king and his bishops. Congregationalists (who baptized infants) and Baptists (who did not) went one step further; they taught the supremacy of the local congregation.

And then there was George Fox, who dealt with church authority by denying it altogether. God speaks to us through an “inner voice,” he taught; our conscience is supreme. His followers called themselves the Society of Friends; their enemies nicknamed them “Quakers.”

Most of these churches began intentionally; John Wesley’s did not. Wesley was an Anglican priest known for his “methodical” worship habits. A public reading of Luther’s introduction to the book of Romans left his heart “strangely warmed,” and he set out to share this experience with others – preaching to the poor, organizing them into study groups, disciplining them when they strayed. His movement grew rapidly; after his death, it became the Methodist Church.

Early nineteenth-century America

Even after the Reformation, however, religion was rarely a matter of choice. By and large, you belonged to the church your neighbors did. If you were Swedish, you were Lutheran. If you were Dutch, you were Calvinist. If you were Irish, you were Roman Catholic. And that was that.

Unless you lived in the United States or Canada. There, Swiss Mennonites lived next to English Quakers. Scottish Presbyterians argued free will with Welsh Methodists. And Lutherans tried to decide which Lutheran church to attend Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Germans, Finns, and Icelanders had all brought their national churches to America.

Faced with this confusion, some began looking for a simpler faith one that would unite all Christians. They hoped to return to the “pure” Christianity of the religion’s founder, stripping away centuries of tradition and wrangling in the process.

The problem lay in the process. Many Congregationalists, for instance, felt the key lay in human reason. Opposing “irrational” doctrines such as the Trinity, these people started the Unitarian Church.

Others followed Alexander Campbell in basing their beliefs solely upon the “simple” words of Scripture. “Where the Bible speaks, we speak,” they said. “Where it is silent, we are silent.” But even this policy left the “Campbellites” with more than enough to argue about; they are divided today between the Disciples of Christ and the more literal-minded Church of Christ and Christian Church.

Joseph Smith offered a way out of this impasse; he claimed to have found records of an ancient American civilization – records answering almost every religious question of the day. The majority of his followers became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – better known as the Mormons.

Not every new church came about because of a “restored gospel,” however. Race also played a part. Even before the Civil War broke out, the question of slavery had split Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists into northern and southern factions. Then too, white church members seldom welcomed African Americans as equals – a fact that led to the founding of the African Methodist, Christian Methodist, and National Baptist churches.

The Civil War and beyond

The late nineteenth century found many Americans Christians at something of a loose end. The anti-slavery movement had given them a sense of purpose and meaning. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had ended that. In addition, Darwinian evolution and new ways of understanding Scripture – not to mention a surge of Catholic immigrants – put many Protestants on the defensive.

As a result, some took another look at ideas that had been swept aside by the fight against slavery. Despite its name, for instance, the “New Thought” of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore’s Unity School wasn’t really new. Their perception of matter as an illusion and God as a life-giving spirit reflected the thinking of the Transcendentalists of an earlier day.

Holiness churches, on the other hand, hoped to revive the spirit of early Methodism. Like Wesley, churches such as the Salvation Army, the Nazarenes, and the Church of God (Anderson) worked among the poor. They stressed the importance of holy living. And they emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit in everyday life.

This emphasis on the Holy Spirit led some to take another look at the “gifts” mentioned by the apostle Paul. And when Agnes Ozman began to speak in tongues on New Year’s Day, 1901, the Pentecostal movement was born. Separatist to begin with, it spawned the United Pentecostal Church International, the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) as well as a number of smaller churches.

Recently, however, many who believe they’ve received the gift of tongues have chosen to remain in their own churches rather than to join a “classic” Pentecostal church. Baptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans have all become part of this “charismatic” movement.

If the charismatic unites individual Christians, then the ecumenical movement hopes to unite churches. A large number of “immigrant” Lutheran churches, for instance, have joined to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. American Congregationalists merged with other Calvinist groups to form the United Church of Christ; in Canada, Congregationalists joined
Methodists and Presbyterians to form the United Church of Canada.

Experimental churches

Every time two churches merge, however, the result always seems to be two churches – the newly “united” church and a “breakaway” church made up of those who opposed the union. One lesson of history, as a matter of fact, is that church members rarely lose an argument; they just start a group that declares them to be the winner!

Just because a variety of churches has arisen, however, is no reason to be cynical or discouraged. Yes, many denominations began for reasons that seem trivial or even silly today. And yes, Christians have too easily let themselves be divided by pride, habit, prejudice, and even just plain laziness.

But, however flawed, each group has been an experiment. Almost every idea people have had for living out the teachings of Christ, you see, has been tried in some church, somewhere. Both celibacy and communal living. Pacifism and holy war. Believer baptism, infant baptism, no baptism – if it can be imagined, it most likely has been done.

And we can benefit from what others have tried. As we see the results of these “experiments in Christianity,” we can learn from their mistakes. We can build upon their triumphs. And when we find like-minded believers, we can join them to make sure that their experiment continues.

Sure, having so many churches to choose from can be confusing. But worse things have happened to Christianity than confusion.

Just ask Constantine.

WHO GOES WHERE?

More than half of all American Christians belong to just two religious groups: the Roman Catholic and the Southern Baptist churches. The eight largest denominations take in three-fourths of all church members, and 19 out of 20 members belong to the 25 groups on this list.

Keep in mind, however, that numbers have nothing to do with importance. Groups such as the Moravians and the Salvation Army have made a tremendous difference, despite their small size.

RANK GROUP U.S. MEMBERS
1. Roman Catholic…………………………………57,000,000
2. Southern Baptist……………………………….15,000,000
3. United Methodist………………………………..9,000,000
4. National Baptist (U.S.A.)………………………..5,500,000
5. Evangelical Lutheran…………………………….5,200,000
6. Latter-Day Saints……………………………….4,200,000
7. Church of God in Christ………………………….3,700,000
8. Presbyterian (U.S.A.)……………………………2,900,000
9. National Baptist………………………………..2,700,900
10. Lutheran (Missouri Synod)………………………..2,600,000
11. Episcopalian……………………………………2,400,000
12. African Methodist……………………………….2,200,000
13. Assemblies of God……………………………….2,100,000
14. Greek Orthodox………………………………….1,900,000
15. Churches of Christ………………………………1,600,000
16. United Church of Christ………………………….1,600,000
17. American Baptist (U.S.A.)………………………..1,500,000
18. African Methodist (Zion)…………………………1,200,000
19. Christian Churches………………………………1,100,000
20. Disciples of Christ……………………………..1,100,000
21. Orthodox Church of America……………………….1,000,000
22. Jehovah’s Witness…………………………………830,000
23. Christian Methodists………………………………720,000
24. Seventh-day Adventists…………………………….700,000
25. Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.)……………………580,000

(The above material appeared in the October 1992 issue of Signs of the Times.)

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