I read somewhere that there are now over 30,000 different denominations of Christianity. But it occurred to me, I wonder how many of those only exist in the United States? What would that number be reduced to if you only included international denominations? There seems to be a dark side to that so-called “rugged individualism” that our grade school teachers told us is what makes America so great. The dark side is that it also makes us particularly susceptible to factioning. Where else but in the U.S. can you see a town that has both First Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church? Where else do the names of churches come with multiple adjectives, meant to distinguish them from neighboring churches with equally long names?
I’m reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the members of the People’s Front of Judea criticize the Judean People’s Front for being “splitters.” When one character asks the question, “Whatever happened to the Popular Front?” the answer is, “He’s over there…” Maybe it’s not simply a side effect of American individualism. Maybe it’s human nature that we all subconsciously want to be a faction of one, in which I am my own highest authority. After all, wasn’t that the sin of Adam and Eve?
I’ve spent most of my academic career studying a guy named Novatian. He was a Roman priest in the third century, and although he was a prominent theologian, a series of unfortunate events led to Novatian being at the center of a faction that split from the Catholic Church. All the way back in the year 251, Novatian was responsible for what was arguably the first denomination: Christian, but not Catholic. Apparently, those who split from the mainstream Church didn’t feel the need to submit to the greater body. They sacrificed the connectionality (i.e., the unity) of the Church for the freedom to do things their way. Their method of settling an ecclesiastical dispute was not to settle it by consensus, but by mitosis.
Even the so-called megachurches are small when compared to the historic denominations, and they usually end up sacrificing denominational connection to be a generic but autonomous version of Christianity. It is interesting that many autonomous congregations (especially the fundamentalist ones) tend to be run by autocratic personalities who basically function as the pope of their own single-congregation denomination. They may criticize the concept of papal infallibility (or their misunderstanding of it), yet no one will question the interpretations of pastor so-and-so. I have even seen a senior pastor resign because the church council disagreed with him – he apparently reasoned that if his will was not law then God must be calling him elsewhere, someplace where his judgments would go unquestioned. Many of these fundamentalist churches also tend to be somewhat isolationist, believing it would be a sin to associate with those who have different interpretations of Scripture. Meanwhile, many of the larger denominations are intentionally working toward greater unity. Talks are ongoing between many of the historic churches, such as the Roman Catholic and the various Eastern Orthodox churches. Conversations are also being held with the mainline denominations, and the stated goal of this ecumenical dialogue is full Eucharistic unity. Sadly, though, that seems like it’s a long way off.
Just as our political parties are “hopelessly polarized,” (see last week’s blog) so our churches are polarized (both inter-denomination, and intra-denomination) around political and social issues. But the controversy that sparked the third century schism was an ecclesiastical issue, and now just as then, there are deeper issues that divide us – even deeper than the hot topics that seem to dominate everything from facebook posts to political debates.
What are the deeper issues? Here’s one example. As a former United Methodist ordained deacon, and now a Roman Catholic lay person, I am very interested in (and committed to) ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Methodists. In fact, Wesleyan (Arminian) theology is quite compatible in many ways with Catholic (Thomist) theology. However, there is one point on which Catholic and Methodist could not be further apart, and that is the Eucharist.
Methodists offer communion as an open table, inviting anyone who is willing to share in the Lord’s Supper. For the Methodists, it’s a matter of hospitality, in which the invitation to the table can also be an invitation to conversion and discipleship. In other words, the sacrament can be a doorway into the universal Church. For Roman Catholics, however, the table is reserved for those who are baptized, and although the baptism does not need to be specifically Roman Catholic to be valid, it is assumed that only those who are initiated into the worldwide Roman Catholic Church are invited to the table. As I like to explain it, the sacrament is reserved for Catholics for the same reason that a mother might tell her daughter, No one will buy the cow if you give away the milk for free. I know, that’s a terrible analogy, but the point is that in Roman Catholic thought, the sacrament is not to be offered to those outside the denomination because that would cheapen it – to give it without first requiring the commitment of membership would be giving it away too easily and would seem to take it too lightly, and it would also imply a unity that does not currently exist. To put it another way, for the Methodists the sacrament might be a doorway into the Church, but for the Catholics, the sacrament is more like the Holy of Holies – it’s the goal and culmination of Church membership. Both ways of looking at Holy Communion are logical, but they are mutually exclusive. This is why I think Eucharistic unity is a long way off.
To be fair, the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is not the polar opposite of Methodism’s open table. There are certain fundamentalist churches that take their isolationism to the extent of a completely closed table, in which only members of that particular congregation are invited. I would argue that the Catholic understanding is a middle way.
In I Corinthians 11, the apostle Paul criticized the Christians of Corinth for failing to “discern the body of Christ.” For United Methodists, the refusal to admit anyone to the table would be to fail to see that all are (potentially) members of the Body of Christ, the Church. For members of denominations with a closed table, to admit anyone who might receive “unworthily” would be to fail to understand that the table of the Lord must be kept pure, and ostensibly they are also protecting the unsuspecting sinner who may do himself more harm than good by receiving the sacrament. For the Roman Catholic, to offer the elements without the commitment of membership in the Catholic Church pretends a false unity, and this would be to fail to understand the true nature of the Body of Christ as Church, and it would disrespect the real presence of the Body of Christ in the sacrament. Three very different interpretations of Paul’s warning.
Is the table of the Eucharist the doorway into the Church, or is it the inner sanctuary where human and Divine meet? Does the sacrament embody potential unity, or realized unity only? And to what extent must we be unified in our beliefs (interpretations) before we can share the Body of Christ… and be the Body of Christ? These are just some of the deeper questions that divide us. I suspect that unity will come not so much by answering the questions, but by believing that with God all things are possible, and by praying for unity.