Mark Twain reportedly told the satirical story of a gentleman who locked a cat, bird and dog in a cage. In another cage, he locked a Protestant pastor, a Catholic and an Orthodox priest. Several days later, he checked on both cages. The animals were all were thriving. His visit to the clergymen was quite a different story. All three were dead!
The above story illustrates a criticism often leveled against the church: it is too divisive and is guilty of infighting. Has the church forfeited the moral high ground because of its failure to get along? Put another way, is the fact that there are numerous churches/denominations a bad thing?
At first glance, the answer would seem, “Yes.” After all, Jesus did pray there would be unity across his church. “(Father, I pray) that (my people) may be one…that the world may believe that (you sent) me.” John (7:21, 22) It doesn’t take an astute student of current culture to realize that, in many ways, this prayer of Jesus is far from reality.
But that still does not answer the question, “Is the plethora of churches a bad thing?” It is my contention that it is not. Of course, mean-spirited attitudes and behaviors that manifest themselves across parts of the church are wrong and deplorable. The haughtiness of some claiming they are the only true church or that their church has a corner on the market of truth disgraces the cause.
However, it is my opinion that the number of different churches is good and pleasing to God. For one thing, its diversity enables the church to appeal to a greater number of people. Just as not all of us prefer the same brand car or type eating establishment, so not all of us prefer the same type church. Take the issue of worship style: some people prefer contemporary; others traditional. Some prefer a blending of both; others all or nothing. Some prefer a setting in which the mind is challenged; others one in which the heart is warmed. Bottom line? With all the options, everyone ought to be able to find a style of worship to which they can relate. Variety can be a good thing!
Take the matter of belief. The fact there are numerous churches is a tremendous protection of the faith and guard against heresy. If truth were entrusted to a single church and that church “went south,” truth could be jeopardized. The fact that there are numerous churches counterbalancing each other means that we have a more reliable preservation of the truth.
And don’t underestimate the fact that, because of the variety of churches, we have a greater grasp of the truth. Certain churches tend to emphasize specific aspects of the faith to a greater degree than do others. Some tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty, others his grace. Other denominations remind us that God’s love is a “holy love” while others emphasize God’s call to social justice. Others call us to cultivate the gifts and fruit of the Spirit while some demonstrate “signs and wonders.” Some churches remind us to heed voices from the past; others challenge us to be open to God’s voice in the present. When the various branches of Christ’s church respect and listen to each other, there is a fuller comprehension of the truth which God seeks to communicate to us.
Many attempt to defend their lack of commitment to the church on the grounds that it is too divisive and unworthy of their support. I suggest we think ahead to the day on which each of us will stand before God and give an account of our life. Should we offer such an excuse on that day, most likely God will respond, “Really? You mean to tell me that, with all the churches from which you could choose, you couldn’t find a single one you liked? Not one?” Let us make sure we aren’t one who hears that reproving question on our day of reckoning!