How Important is (fill in the blank with favorite Christian topic)? or Why are There so Many Denominations?

Pull a copy of the yellow pages off the shelf and set it before you.  I’m assuming you keep one copy of the annual directory in case of a power outage or a dead cell phone.. Turn to churches and look at the list sorted by denominational affiliation or dropped into the non-denominational catch-all bucket.  This method works with online directories, but the print version provides greater visual impact.various crosses

Then within one denomination, say Lutheran, look at how the churches are subdivided further.  My local directory splits the listings into Lutheran, Lutheran – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran – Missouri Synod and Lutheran – Wisconsin Synod.  The Baptists are categorized as Baptist, Baptist – General, Baptist – General Conference, Baptist – Independent, Baptist – Missionary and Baptist – Missionary Association of America.

How did the church started by the disciples of Jesus and declared in the Nicene Creed to be “one holy apostolic catholic church” become subdivided into more lots than a California housing development?  A complete answer would require an extensive history lesson into the split in 1057 AD between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, the split resulting from the Reformation between Protestant and Roman Catholic, and the further division among Protestants between Lutheran, Reformed, Pietist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Anglican, and other denominations.

A shorter answer is Dogmatic Rank. The phrase may incite fear, sound stuffy or too theological, but stick with me here.  I was first introduced to this method for categorization of beliefs by Dr. Elizabeth Sung, Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and have found it incredibly useful.  Friends have too, and thus I am sharing it with you.  

Begun by the Lutheran Scholastics in the 1600’s, dogmatic rank helpfully recognizes a conceptual distinction between beliefs of greater or lesser weight.  A scriptural basis for this distinction appears in Matthew 23:23-24 when Jesus reprimands the Pharisees for not focusing on the “more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” and instead concentrating on correctly tithing herbs from the garden.  Parents of adolescents are counseled to choose their battles carefully as not every issue is of equal importance.   Let the daughter wear the giant hoop earrings or mismatched clothing to school even if you find them tasteless and focus instead on resolving the question of when she must be home after the football game.

Dogmatic rank provides a  basis for determining which theological position or issue of church practice requires steadfast defense, which are debatable (hopefully cordially), and which are matters of opinion. These three categories divide the topics into dogma, doctrine and opinion.

PlatformDogma  –  This word carries negative connotations in general use, but in the realm of ranking theological issues it is supremely positive.  Here dogma refers to positions which are essential, binding, obligatory, and universally recognized within the catholic church (catholic in the Nicene Creed’s sense of worldwide, not Roman Catholic).  These are the matters central and definitive to the Christian faith and known by divine revelation through the Bible and Christ’s incarnation.  The Bible is clear and consistent on the view and importance of these topics.  A person holding a different view would be considered heretical.

Issues of dogmatic importance include the identification, existence and works of God through creation and redemptive salvation and the Trinity.  Read the Nicene Creed again for a good summary of these issues to understand the position of orthodox Christianity.

Doctrine – General usage of the word includes all the subjects listed above, but within the ranking system, doctrine refers to secondary matters which don’t compromise the shared belief in the Trinity or the salvific work of Jesus Christ.  On these issues, those on opposing sides aren’t at risk of heresy.

Caution is warranted in arguing either side is the “biblical” position because the position can’t be conclusively proven.  The same scriptural text often produces diverse views and holders of either view aren’t jeopardizing their salvation.  Interpretations of these issues are community specific and often the basis for division between denominations and churches.

Issues include: creation and evolution in Genesis 1, divine sovereignty, Calvinist vs. Arminian, the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, covenant vs. dispensational, eschatology timeline – pre-millennial, a millennial, post millennial, church order and government – congregational vs. elder-led, ordination of women, baptism – infant, full-immersion, sprinkling, and the list goes on.

Opinion or personal conviction  – Issues in this category are those which may be individually held, but are not to be demanded or prescribed for other Christians.  One’s position on these views has no bearing on one’s salvation.  In Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 Paul addresses these kinds of issues being dealt with by the churches in Rome and Corinth.  The Roman believers disagreed about whether to eat meat or only vegetables (v. 2-3) and whether certain foods were clean or unclean. The Corinthians wrestled with whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Paul allows leeway for individual decisions in these areas, but strongly urges consideration for those brothers and sisters who hold the opposing position so they aren’t harmed by your behavior (I Corinthians 8:9-11).

Examples include whether or not to drink alcohol and watch Harry Potter movies, political party allegiance, style of worship music and school choice – public, private, home school.

With this many points of divergence possible between Christians who hold to the same dogmatic tenets, I find the question of why there are so many different denominations becomes more understandable; particularly in a culture where personal choice and freedom of expression are important values. If you’re disheartened or confused by the denominations, I encourage you to pick a couple and study their positions on some of these issues.  Look into the history of a denomination’s formation and discover what theological positions were considered of such importance as to lead to the formation of a new group.  Afterwards I think you’ll have a greater appreciation for this particular branch of the Christian family tree.

Hopefully this method of weighting issues also challenges you to think about how you personally rank and discuss these topics.  When you’re in a debate, consider where the issue would fit on the ranking scale.  Is it worth staunchly defending, or is it a point fellow Christians can gracefully disagree about?  Are you prone to elevating a personal conviction to the doctrine level or granting too much leeway on issues ranked as dogma?  Do you dismiss those of different doctrinal positions as not worth listening to?  Next time you’re tempted to do so, consider the issue’s importance and be more open on those non-dogmatic issues.

What issues are you prone to raise from doctrine to dogma?   How might this weighting system prove helpful for you?

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