Father Knows Best

Father Knows Best: Why Christianity has so many denominations

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Hey Rev! 

What’s your take on why the world has so many (33,000+ and counting?) denominations of Christianity today? Is it due to a failure in the early church? Do you believe a reversal is possible in this 500-plus years of steady fragmentation? Do you agree with the notion only Jesus’ return can heal his church? 

- Fascinating Schism

 Dear FS:

I’ve been reflecting over the last several days on the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s extraordinary turn of phrase, “the nearness of the wound to the gift.” Winterson argues that literature offers us one character after another whose pain or loneliness or hurt or limitation is the very thing which frees her or him to act in a powerful and a transformative way. Likely the most famous contemporary example is Harry Potter, whose early-life injury and loss sets him apart and allows him to later defeat Voldemort. In my own (non-fictional and non-magical) life, I have a number of friends and colleagues whose wounds and gifts are similarly linked. These are the creative people whose glorious vision is somehow indivisible from their grief, from their illness, from their pain.

I wonder, FS, if there may also be occasions when wounds and gifts operate together on a corporate level. If, in particular, a fractured church, as sad and frustrating and hard as it is, might sometimes be better equipped than an entirely unified church to generate insight and inspiration about ourselves, about our neighbor, about creation, and about God. While, for instance, I love being an Episcopalian, I sure have learned a lot about faith by spending time with Christians from other traditions. My Baptist friends have taught me so much about prayer, my Roman Catholic friends so much about social justice, my Evangelical friends so much about the urgent love of God. The list goes on.

All of that is to say that I am hesitant to understand the numerous expressions of Christianity today entirely as evidence of failure. I am hesitant to wish things to be different, lest the end of our wound also bring the end of our gift. After all, the very history of the Christian movement is inseparable from the history of division. Those divisions didn’t begin 500 years ago with the Reformation. Consider the East-West Schism in 1054. Consider that we attend church rather than synagogue because of the early split between those Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ and those who did not.

While acknowledging the sadness of our divisions, therefore, I would also like to acknowledge and even to celebrate the ways in which our diverse traditions make the Body of Christ manifest across the globe. I would like to ask: what if?

What if, much as the hurts in our own lives are integral to our growth as individuals, we are who we are as Church because of the breaks (might we think of cells dividing to create new life?) which have come throughout our past?

Someday, Jesus will come again. And, on that day, we will remember that there is, and that there always has been, but one church. In the mean time, in spite of our fractures, maybe even because of our fractures, we will go on. We will take our wounded gifts and, limping though we may be, we will carry forth the Gospel.

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