COVER STORY – THE REFORMATION
Recently I came across the name of yet another Christian denomination that was new to me. I now don’t even recall what it was, but that led me to wonder just how many Christian denominations exist today. I was astounded by the answer. According to the two-volume World Christian Encyclopedia (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson; Oxford University Press, 2001) there are over 33,000: “World Christianity consists of six major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries.” (Vol. I, p. 16).
Nor is this a declining trend. In the eighteen years since that book was published, the number of denominations has reportedly grown significantly. Although the supposition that there are over 33,000 Christian denominations is based in large part on the definition of “denomination” (a definition that is about as hard to pin down as a peeled grape) one fact is clear: Christians today have no trouble separating from others and forming themselves into autonomous groups.
It wasn’t always so. Other than the “Great Schism” of 1054 between eastern and western Catholicism, the Christian church saw no substantive division until the Lutheran Reformation of 1517. Prior to the Reformation, in other words, if someone claimed to be Christian it meant that he was either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (which, in reality, were just twin sons of a different father). There were some splinter groups during the 1,500 years prior to the Reformation, but such groups were routinely condemned as heretical and mercilessly crushed. The wall that enclosed “the Christian church” was broken by the Reformation, and once the outflow began, the exodus was stunning. In just seventeen years (by 1534) Christian could mean Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Zwinglian, or any one of their ever-growing number of offshoots. Rome has been trying to reverse the flow ever since.
The central argument that Rome still uses to this day, their stated raison d’etre, is that doctrine must be centrally defined and regulated to prevent confusion and division within the church and corruption of the Christian faith. Lost in that argument is the fact that the very cause of the Reformation was the preexisting corruption of the Christian faith by that central authority. The sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) Reformation pillar gave notice to the world that the only true “central authority” was the Word of God. Every Christian therefore has all the authority he needs when he is armed with his Bible.
Yet, as with all divine gifts, man has sorely abused his God-given freedom. Having been freed from his Roman captors, modern man now imagines that he is subject to no authority of any kind—including God’s Word. Sola scriptura has been replaced with sola humanitate (“humanity alone”). The current abundance of denominations is a testament to man’s pride, as well as his stubborn refusal truly to submit his thoughts, opinions, and emotions to the authority of God’s Word. Martin Luther didn’t set out to divide the Christian church. His goal was to fix the one that already existed. When that church excommunicated him, he continued to proclaim the unaltered Word of God. Others affixed to him and to his followers the name Lutheran.
God does not desire discord and division. He wants harmony and unity. But that unity must be based always and only on the verbally inspired Word of God—sola scriptura. Our goal must also therefore be unity and harmony, not separation and discord. As Peter warned, “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.” (2 Peter 2:1-2 ESV) When error appears (as it will), we must cut ourselves off from it. Yet that necessary division can never serve as our goal or mission in life. The goal of the Reformation was unity, based always and only on the unaltered Word of God.
Michael Roehl is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.