What Church Should I Go To: Comparing Christian Denominations
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). This verse, while explicit and easily understood, seems to be the hardest commandment of the entire bible. Looking at our modern world, divisions are present on every level. It has been calculated that their now exists approximately 34,000 denominational divides in the “One” Church (Barrett 16). Whether Catholic, Orthodox, one of the myriad of Protestant denominations, or simply a church seeking believer, it has become increasingly difficult to discern what true faith is. Which Church is the true church? Is there a true church? The question comes down to history, doctrine, and belief. Since Christianity is about being closest to Christ’s teachings, the true church should follow the lessons and commandments handed down to the apostles by Christ as closely as possible. Looking at the history of the Churches, and the doctrines that followed, I hope to provide enough guidance for those seeking answers to find their true Church.
A Brief Look at the Apostolic Church
After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in AD 30, the twelve apostles began to build their church in the city of Jerusalem. Choosing seven men to deal with all Church affairs, the Apostolic Age ensued. Consequently, seven was the same number as the Jewish synagogue Pharisees, and unfortunately led to many animosities between the two religions. Still, this early-age church was in many ways still parallel with the Jewish Traditions; i.e. fasting, Sabbath, and liturgical sermons (Schaff).
The separation arose in the fact that the apostles took heed of the final commandment by Jesus, and set out to the world becoming fishers of men by preaching the gospel. This Apostolic Church was erected in the image of the Body of Christ. All the members were unified with each other in order to mirror the union believers have with Christ. Everyone’s specific differences and talents were used in tandem like the many parts of the anatomical body, with Christ acting as the head of the believers (Maximovitch).
In this age, sacramental worship was led by the apostles, who handed down their teachings to both Jews and Gentiles. The first step to becoming a Christian was baptism. As it is written in the Didache, also known as the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, this baptism is a literal submergence into running water (Hoole). Without this, a convert was unable to partake in the Eucharist, more widely known as Holy Communion. In this sacrament, the believers partook in the recreation of the Last Supper. This single liturgy was the only liturgy recited in the church, and was the presumed consumption of Jesus’ flesh in the form of bread, and his blood as wine. As stated in John 6:56, “He whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”
However, Greek was the language of scholars in this time period and thus would have the most accurate translation. The interesting twist on this New Testament verse is that when the Greek Translation is made, it reads more closely to “He that gnaws on my flesh and drinks of my literal blood, in me will dwell and me in them” (Biblios). The important notations exist in the literal nature of flesh and blood, and in the translation of eat to gnaw. This implies that the action of taking the Eucharist was a graphic experience involving a literal body and actual blood. From this church foundation, 2000 years of future Christian institutions were conceived.
Churches of Apostolic Succession
As the twelve original apostles were martyred across the land for their teachings, a new age of Christianity had begun. Looking to the gospel, Jesus stated in Mathew 16:18 “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Peter would in turn hand this authority to the rest of the apostles as well. It was decided that, to stick close to the origins of the faith, an apostolic succession of leaders was necessary. This is consistent since it was Peter who was handed authority by Christ himself. Based upon a geographic location Apostles were divided out amongst the western world inhabiting the five Empire cities, or Sees of the church; Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. These capitols became centers of the faith (Goscoigne). Deacons, priests, bishops, and archbishops were elected by the believers to represent them and govern the organization of the church.
To decide upon issues of heresy, doctrine, and theology, Local and Ecumenical Councils were held. Through prayer to God, revelation, and intense discussion, decisions were made about what was heresy, what was canonized doctrine, and how the theology of the Church was going to be interpreted. The best known and important of these was the first council of Nicaea. In these councils, the idea of the Nicene Creed was erected. The creed explained the nature of the trinity, and the fundamental foundation of the faith:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into the heavens, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets; In One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come, Amen. (Nicene)
The creed was ordained as an unchangeable doctrine, meaning the actual theology of the text was to remain as it was first implied. One exception was that an Ecumenical Council could be convened to make any revisions. It was with this creed that the first modern church truly began – The Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church followed the mold of the Apostolic Tradition, believing Paul’s epistles, or letters of the New Testament, spoke blatantly of following the teachings of tradition. This meant that the Sacraments were again a huge part of worship. Within the church there exists seven major sacraments; Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation (confession), Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders (ordination under apostolic succession), and Anointing of the Sick (Seven Catholic). To support the adherence to these, the Roman Catholic Church has stated that “while God gives grace to man without outward symbols (sacraments), He has also chosen to give grace to man through visible symbols. Because God has done this, man is foolish to not make use of this God-provided means of gaining sanctification (Are the Seven).”
Matt Fuhrman, a devout Orthodox Christian (a denomination we will discuss shortly) who graduated from Penn State University, defends the sacraments with an interesting analogy. He says, "we must imagine our lives," in tandem "with the biblical teachings, as a map." We know "where we are going," and "where we start." However the road is confusing and hard to traverse. "The sacraments and traditions of the church are like God providing us with a protractor, a pencil, a compass, and a GPS to help find our way" to our destination. It is thus "possible to succeed without the sacraments" but "much harder" to do so.
A total of seven universally recognized Ecumenical Councils exist, each of which, tackled their own specific issue. Under this style of leadership the church remained united for more than 900 years. However, slowly relations began to break down between the Sees and Rome (Goscoigne). At this time Rome was allowed to have primacy, or the ultimate deciding vote in all political and theological issues. The definition of primacy, however, was becoming an increasingly violent point of contention.
On one side primacy meant superiority. The Pope, leader of the See of Roman, had the final say when it came to issues of interpretation and was in turn awarded infallibility. Followers of this school believed that because his authority descended from Peter, his decisions were divinely ordained and inspired, and thus could not be overturned. The other Sees, in comparison, saw this as heresy, believing that primacy meant first among equals. They argued that the nature of primacy was supposed to match that of the Trinity. The Father begets the son and the spirit, but is equal with both of them. They also argued that the gospel spoke not of Peter being the rock, but of his confession representing the rock. Augmenting this argument they referred to Matthew 18:18 where Peter handed his authorities to the other apostles and did not keep it all for himself (Flanagon).
In 587 a revision made to the Nicene Creed changed the nature of the trinity. The father instead of alone preceding the son and Holy Spirit, shared it’s precession with the Holy Spirit. The split between the Western Roman Catholics, and the soon to be Eastern Orthodox churches became the first denominational divide of the church (Goscoigne). Each side however, has textual support to back up their claims. The east referred to John 15:26 which said “I [Jesus, the son] will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father.” The verse directly spoke of the Spirit proceeding directly and only from the father. They further argued the Pope enacted this revision without the consultation of the other Patriarchates or Sees. The councils of Nicaea and Constantinople stated that revisions could only be made with the authorization of Ecumenical Councils.
Rome and its western proponents supported the alteration, known as the filioque, by saying that it ensures the nature of the trinity is consubstantial, or of the same being. Referring to the same verse that the Easterners used, the Catholics believed that since Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit from the father, both the father and the son together send the Holy Spirit as one (Filioque). The final split came in 1054, after a mutual excommunication by each respective set of Sees. Disagreeing on the issues of primacy, the filioque, and icons, as well as a said to be mistaken sacking of the Orthodox capitol in Constantinople by the Roman Catholics, both churches went their separate ways, believing themselves to be the true One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (Schaff).
In the East, the new communion of churches became known as the Orthodox Church. Orthodox, meaning the adherence of traditional and accepted beliefs in the faith, was an adequate name for this new fellowship. Also attempting to follow the foundation of the Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church held true to the same Sacraments. In governing, all members of the church have a say, but decisions must be made by a council of patriarchs, or Ecumenical Council. Instead of the Pope, an Ecumenical Patriarch, who is the Patriarch of Constantinople, will act as a moderator. A council of this proportion has not been called since the last of the seven universally accepted councils (Fuhrman).
Other than differing on the issues of the filioque and primacy, the Orthodox Church also relies heavily on icons. These icons are visual and artistic representations of biblical figures and saints. The argument against the use of Icons in worship, follows a line of reasoning close to this; Icons are made by men, and men are imperfect. God can’t be seen in imperfectly made images, and thus Icons are useless. In addition, the images depicted on Icons are not only of Christ but other faith figures, and for many this can be seen as the worship of other idols. For other faiths icons are graven images and their use is no better than idolatry in paganism.
Father Stylianos Muksuris, Ph.D. Th.D. alluded to the writings of the Church Fathers to combat this mostly-logical argument against icons. He first said that “St. John of Damascus argued that although the worship of God is indeed primary among the Orthodox, God still commanded the tabernacle to be decorated with religious images.” These images were to “lead the Israelites to a greater worship of God.” Muksuris’ next point was that “the Fathers taught that God made images of Himself, first and foremost being Christ Jesus, ‘the likeness of God” and “the image of the invisible God” (cf. 2 Cor 4.4; Col 1.15).” In addition to this argument, he also stated that “humanity itself was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1.26). Hence, since God dwells in each human being, and since man’s image was depicted everywhere else in the world, how could Christ’s holy image not be depicted upon the holy icons?” The final defense of iconic worship, is the idea that the images and saints are in fact not worshiped but instead venerated. Veneration is an act of honoring, not worshiping. In the issue of the saints, these men and women are being honored and remembered. Praying to them is similar to asking an acquaintance to pray for you. An example is that you don’t pray, “Saint Peter guide me” but instead “Saint Peter, pray that I find guidance.”
These two churches are similar in almost every way when it comes to practices. The major differences, other than the previously discussed doctrines, arise in the fact that Catholic doctrine is more malleable. If a Pope finds issues in an idea or former belief, his infallibility allows him to change it without too much difficulty. Over the years, stances on issues such as purgatory, the filioque, and indulgences have rapidly switched. Whether this is good or bad, is up to how one personally perceives it.
The History of the Catholic and Orthodox Split
Churches of the Protestant Movement
In the 1500’s, after the Catholic Church had gained dominance over Christendom, many people begun to see heretical doctrines entering the Church. The era that ensued became known as the Protestant Reformation. Tackling the issues of indulgences, the paying of money to augment forgiveness of sins, and Simony, the bribing of church leaders to receive positions in the Catholic Hierarchy, these reformers hoped to mend the Church, and deliver it from its sins. The reformation took a sharp turn toward succession when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on a church door, challenging a slew of Catholic false doctrines (Goscoigne). However, unity was scarce among the reformers and soon denominational divides spread like wild fire among the Protestant sects.
Still, despite the high number of Protestant sects, underlying similarities exist within their ranks. Unlike the Churches of Apostolic Succession, the source of teaching does not arise from bishops and ordained teachers but instead personal revelation and the bible itself. Some argue that this personal interpretation style leads to too many differences in belief and are often made by uneducated Christians. Pastor Matt Mitchell of the Lanse Evangelical Free Church countered by saying that there are some issues that “cannot tear the church apart” but instead can be seen by different people in different ways. He would argue that the actual nature of God is nearly impossible to determine, and thus should not be divided over. These issues include things such as free will, predestination, and pre-millennialism.
In Protestantism, the sacraments are classified as works, and are said to not guarantee entry to heaven. They are not outlawed though as they can be attributable to God’s grace. The sacraments tend to be celebrated in a down-played fashion (Catholic). Baptism is no longer necessarily the literal submergence, although many churches practice it as a symbol, but instead the recollection that Christ is your savior and your repentance of sin. This view is supported biblically in John 3:15-16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In this verse, the idea of salvation by faith alone, and not works or baptism, is easily read as he says “whoever believes” shall have everlasting life not just those who participate in sacraments.
This anti-literal look at the sacraments is also visual in the Eucharist, as the bread and wine is not literally body and blood, but instead a memorial of the sacrifice. The Greek word anamnesis, which is the actual word for “do this in remembrance of me”, is commonly translated to a remembering or recollection. This connotation supports the idea of the memorial sacrifice, and combats the graphic language of gnawing of flesh (Mizzi).
The final and most key agreement among Protestants is the fact that there is no one true church in organizational form. Instead, all believers of every sect of Christianity comprise the body of Christ. It is that body that creates the One Church. Seeing as how baptism in Protestantism is seen as a repentance of sin and acceptance of Christ, the idea of all believers being the body of Christ makes a lot of sense. If baptism admits one into the church, and protestant baptism is correct, than all who repent comprise the Church (Catholic).
History of the Protestant Reformation
Final Statements and Findings
Looking back, it is possible to decipher three courses of action when deciding what the true church is to you. One, do you believe that the true church is a historically consistent organization and that the foundation of the church exists in the governing body that the apostles developed? Two, do you believe that the interpretations of the Bible, and the extra doctrines are what decides who is most consistent with Christ? Or is no church really true? Is Christianity rooted in a belief that all who believe are of the church, no matter the differences? These questions cannot be answered by me or this paper alone. You don’t go and ask a Buddhist about what it means to be a Muslim. No instead you ask those of the faith. I encourage everyone to do this. Talk to your pastors, your deacons, your priests; ask them what it means to be a member of their denomination. Ask them what their claim to the Body of Christ is. They have studied their faith diligently and understand what it means to be a member of their church – most likely in a deeper sense than any researcher can understand.
But most of all my friends, I encourage you to look to God. In 1 Kings 11-13, Elijah is ordered to go to the mountain and await God. As he arrived “a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind.” And then as the wind subsided “there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.” When the earth finally settled “there came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.” It wasn’t until the flame was doused, and all was at rest, that in the silence sounded “a gentle whisper.” And that whisper, my brothers and sisters, was the voice of God. The lesson; stop where you are; let go of this hectic life for just a second, and listen. No one who seeks God will find him, yet God will find those who listen to their fullest. Ask him what the truth is, and somehow he will find a way to answer. Whether it is through something I said in this paper, a church leader’s sermon, or maybe when you are alone and rock bottom, God will answer if you believe. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. Cheers, folks, and god bless!
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