The night before Jesus was crucified, He gathered His disciples and prayed for them. For their strength and sanctification amidst the hardships that they were sure to face. As He prayed for them, He also prayed for us, the future generations of His church:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Unity. It’s something that Jesus values. Actually, that’s an understatement. It’s something that He lived for, prayed for and died for. In His mission to restore perfect unity between God and His people, Jesus prayed that that same unity would exist among believers. That we would be one as He is one with the Father. That future generations would follow His example of reconciliation and unity.
Fast-forward 2018 years to the present day and suffice it to say we’re not quite there yet. The church has certainly grown in numbers since Jesus said this prayer all those years ago, but it has also grown in fragments. With a variety of theological stances that divide us on pretty much any topic worth discussing, we’re left with today’s question:
How can there be so many people throughout history and the world who have hearts that love God, and yet there are so many drastically different beliefs, convictions and practices between them? Where is the Spirit in that?
I love this question. The way it’s worded makes it feel as though the person who wrote it is panting for an answer, wearied by the constant squabbles and eager to get to the heart of the matter. In order to do that, we need to get a sense for how these divisions came into existence in the first place.
The formation of Christian denominations
Within the Christian tradition, there are three main branches: Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Here in the states, the two latter ones are considered the most common. In Roman Catholicism, the traditions, rituals and beliefs are the same across the board. Protestantism on the other hand has been broken down into a variety of smaller groupings, including but not limited to Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Presbyterian and so on.
So the question stands: How did we end up with so many different divisions of Protestant Christian thought when Christ very clearly calls us to unity in Him?
I do want to note that all of the primary denominations of Protestantism are united in their core belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior who died for our sins and, in doing so, restored our relationship with God the Father. That primary, fundamental theology is at the root of all Protestant subgroups. It’s when we get to the second, third and fourth tier issues that the dividing differences emerge.
All schools of theological thought are shaped by their leader’s interpretation of God’s Word. Lutheranism, Calvinism and Wesleyanism are all named after the men who created the lens through which their followers interpret Scripture. It’s as though they’ve each developed their own prescription for the curious Christian to wear while they read God’s Word. With these glasses, they say, you will see God more clearly.
And they’re not wrong. We owe a lot to Martin Luther, John Calvin, John & Charles Wesley and many others like them. People who have searched God’s Word with a desire to not only grow in their own understanding of it, but to help others do the same. Their collective thinking has aided generations of believers in making sense of Scripture.
But as they and others have fervently studied the Word of God, they’ve come to a variety of different theological conclusions. Calvinist theology, for instance, affirms predestination while Wesleyan theology denies it. Pentecostal churches place far greater emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit than Evangelical or Non-denominational churches. Over the years, different thought leaders—each with a deep love for God and a hunger for His Truth—have found themselves in different camps on many issues. In following their teachings, we’ve done the same.
The intersection of God’s mystery & the Holy Spirit’s promptings
In his book “The Knowledge of the Holy,” A.W. Tozer shares an interesting observation about our human desire to make sense of God:
“Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him. We want a God we can in some measure control. We need the feeling of security that comes from knowing what God is like, and what He is like is of course a composite of all the religious pictures we have seen, all the best people we have known or heard about, and all the sublime ideas we have entertained” (Tozer 8).
We all want the safety and comfort of knowing that our understanding of God is the “right” understanding of God. That we’ve successfully interpreted and uncovered every attribute and every commandment. That our church or denomination has somehow cracked the code on knowing God in all His fullness.
There are a couple of problems with this. For starters, it creates hostility within the body. A sort of theological battle of us vs. them. From there, we’re tempted by pride and finger-pointing. This is when we hear things like “You can’t possibly be a Christian if you believe THAT.” Before we know it, we’re spending more time judging other people’s theology than living our own.
But the biggest problem with “reducing God to manageable terms” is that it leaves no room for the mystery of God. Tozer actually hits on this too a little earlier in this same chapter. He writes about Ezekiel’s description of God’s glory. “When the prophet Ezekiel saw heaven opened and beheld visions of God, he found himself looking at that which he had no language to describe,” explains Tozer. “What he was seeing was something wholly different from anything he had ever known before, so he fell back on language of resemblance.”
Throughout that first chapter of Ezekiel, we see him using phrases like “the likeness of four living creatures,” “they had a human likeness,” “sparkled like burnished bronze,” “like the appearance of,” and so forth. It’s clear that Ezekiel is grasping for words to describe what he’s seeing while in the presence of God’s glory. When I finish reading this passage, I like to imagine him saying, “You really just have to see it for yourself.”
Ezekiel 1 is a testament to the mystery of God. It tells us that even our language falls short in attempting to capture the fullness and majesty of His kingdom. And if our language falls short, our minds are even farther behind. Even so, we know from the New Testament that the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26). In that sense, as we wrestle through the formation of our theology, we must simultaneously remain humbled by the mystery of God and be attentive to the promptings of His Holy Spirit.
Same Spirit, different beliefs?
But if the same Spirit was and is working in Calvin and Wesley and every other theologian to walk the earth, how is it that there are so many dissenting conclusions about the things of God?
Thinking about this throws me back to my years as an English major. Every once in a while, a professor would set an assignment to apply a certain philosophical lens to a work of literature: A Marxist reading of “Jane Eyre,” A Feminist reading of “The Great Gatsby.” These papers are evidence that 1) your background impacts how you interpret a text, and 2) a person can read almost anything into even the most thoughtful combination of words—the Bible included.
Our ability to perceive and act on the Holy Spirit’s promptings in our lives is greatly impacted by our view of the Holy Spirit. While certain denominations, such at Pentecostals, encourage a constant sensitivity to the workings of the Holy Spirit, others seem to ignore His relevance altogether and rely solely on Scripture. Depending on what tradition you come from, you will experience the Holy Spirit differently and therefore interpret His promptings differently.
Perhaps that’s part of the beauty of it. Perhaps, in our human desire to confirm black and white truths about who God is and how His Holy Spirit works, we’re ignoring all the ways that this tapestry of opinions on secondary biblical issues—formed within the unique minds of God’s children—actually mobilizes His kingdom to truly reach every corner of the earth.
The Wesleyans use the image of a river and its many tributaries. Within this metaphor, the main river represents the heart of God and the various different streams that flow from it represent the many channels through which the heart of God is shared with a hurting world. Those who follow this tradition worship an unchanging God who fills His people with His Gospel of love and then sends them out to every crevice of this world to share it with others.
A Wesleyan would say that the various different denominations are represented in the many tributaries that flow from the heart of God. Because each denomination of Christianity shares the core belief of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, they would say that one is not better than the other. Rather, each one reaches a different group of people with different spiritual needs created by their cultural contexts. That the Spirit is working differently among each group so as the minister to them in the way that they need to be ministered to.
I’m reminded of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22). Earlier in this passage, Paul acknowledges the many different groups of people he has encountered in his ministry—”the Jews,” “the weak,” “those under the Law” (9:20-22). Rather than applying a one-size-fits-all for every tradition, Paul carries the Truth of the Gospel in his heart and delivers it in ways that acknowledge each unique context so as to minister more effectively.
The same Spirit is at work in every believer’s heart, but that doesn’t mean that He is working the same way in every believer’s heart. Take the example of a parent-child relationship. Most parents have a set of core values that they want to pass on to their children, but if you have four children with four very different personalities and temperaments, you may need to find four different ways to cultivate the same value in all of them. The core value remains the same, but the vehicle by which it is communicated can vary.
The Holy Spirit is a source of spiritual strength, wisdom and conviction (Romans 8:26; Isaiah 11:2, John 14:26). He may work differently in each person’s heart, but He reveals the same life-giving Truth to all who will listen.
So now what?
When I first started writing this response, I was pretty convinced that sin was the cause of denominational divisions. While I still believe that everybody would have a perfectly holy and united view of God if not for the sin that lives in the heart of man, I also believe that God is rendering miracles from that sin by using our diversity of thought on non-salvation issues to truly reach all cultures and nations.
What do you think?