We’re so accustomed to the varied textures of modern Christianity that many people are unaware that up until about 500 years ago there existed only one Christian religion. There was simply “The Church”—an organisation headquartered in Rome that sprouted from the work of Jesus’ disciples and quickly grew past martyrdom and marginalisation into a rich, powerful, state-allied structure.
The early church leaders eventually fell victim to their own hubris, but along the way they codified the canon of Scripture and clarified important doctrines, such as the Trinity, that Christians still rely upon. At the same time, they allowed serious errors to creep into Christianity that wouldn’t begin to be addressed for another 1000 years, during the Protestant Reformation.
While Martin Luther was the most colourful figure of the Reformation, he wasn’t solely responsible for it. He built on the work of John Wycliffe and the martyr Jan Hus, both of whom relied upon the Bible not only to show the truth of the gospel but also to expose the corruption in what by that time had become known as the Roman Catholic Church.
By then the Catholic Church had trapped the Bible in a dead language (Latin) that most people couldn’t read. Wycliffe’s first English translation of the Bible was banned by church leaders, as was Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German some two centuries later. Yet by the early 1500s, translations of the Bible (especially the New Testament) had proliferated: Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Czech, French—and numerous English translations, culminating in the still-popular King James Version in 1611. The spread of the Bible in the common language was unstoppable.
It was this—the freeing of the Bible by translating it into various everyday languages—that more than anything else sped the Reformation forward. It broke the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on Christianity.
Where before people had relied upon the church to tell them what the Bible said and meant, they could now read it and interpret it for themselves. The first church teachings to be targeted were obvious nonbiblical abuses, such as asking people to pay for their sins to be forgiven (a practice called “indulgences”).
The enforced “unity” of the Roman Church was replaced with a new spirit of freedom. New religious groups (or denominations) arose that placed authority in the Bible rather than in the papacy: Lutheran, the Church of England, Puritan, Calvinist, Methodist, Anabaptist. The American colonies, where religious pluralism thrived along a barely civilised frontier, became a hothouse for the growth of new Christian groups. The number of Christian denominations expanded exponentially and continues to do so. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that the number of denominations and independent churches in the world went from about 1600 in the year 1900 to about 43,000 today.
Disunity of the churches
This fragmentation of Christianity has proven an opportunity for sceptics. “If Christianity is a true religion,” they ask, “then why do you all seem to disagree with one another? Why are you split into so many denominations?” These are fair questions. Many Christians wish there was less doctrinal division among us, especially since unity seems to have been Jesus’ original intention. “I in them and you in me,” He prayed to His Father. “May they be brought to complete unity” (John 17:23).
Yet the unity of Christians on every doctrinal point is an ideal that has never been realised and it’s doubtful that it ever will. This has much to do with the “open source” model of Bible study that arose out of the Reformation. The Bible is a document of such depth and richness that it never ceases to yield deeper truths—and not just to scholars and priests. The only way we could all be perfectly united in doctrine is to return to a system where a magisterial form of church leadership dictates to all of us what we should believe—which becomes impossible when you realise that the Bible itself places personal choice, based on biblical evidence, above any enforced creed (Acts 17:11). When studied as it was meant to be, the Bible serves as a corrective to errors like those that crept into the church in Christianity’s first millennium-and-a-half.
For example, around the third or fourth century, the Roman church selected Sunday as a day to worship, in spite of the Bible’s clear teaching that the day for Christians to worship is the seventh day of the week, Saturday. The seventh-day Sabbath teaching was given at Creation (Genesis 2:2, 3), continues in God’s Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8–11) and is renewed by the words and example of Jesus and the apostles (Luke 4:16; Acts 17:2, 3).
After the Bible became available to everyone, the truth about the Sabbath was rediscovered by a group of nineteenth-century Bible students and today millions of Christians worship on the seventh day of the week. While many still hold to Sunday worship, Bible study has led to a growing awareness that it does matter to God that we worship Him on the very day He has asked us to.
So while the Bible is a dynamic document, it isn’t for merely subjective interpretation. It’s also an authoritative document, which means there are unifying themes that no-one can deny while bearing the name Christian.
Unity in Christ
When the Church was but decades old, there were already doctrinal differences. The apostle Paul describes one such conflict in the church at Corinth: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’ ” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul had no patience with such squabbles. “Is Christ divided?” he asked. “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). (What would he have said today?)
While Bible readers may differ on some particulars, Christians are not Christians if they’re not united around the identity, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostle John insisted that “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).
The lordship of Jesus transcends more than doctrinal differences. It transcends all differences. Human beings are by nature tribal. For a variety of weak reasons, we exclude some people while exalting others. But in Christ, racial, national, linguistic, class, economic, gender and educational differences are to be put aside, for “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus Himself said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
When studied as it was meant to be, the Bible serves as a corrective to errors like those that crept into the church in Christianity's first millennium-and-a-half.
Churches that indulge in angry conflict are, by Jesus’ measure, not even qualified to call themselves Christian. Within congregations, normal human conflicts should succumb to patience and forgiveness, as modelled by Jesus: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:13, 14). In the ministry of Jesus and the teachings of Paul, love wasn’t a mere sentiment but an organising principle.
Paul’s most comprehensive statement on unity is found in Ephesians 4:4–6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Lest we be too critical of Christianity for not yet realising this goal, remember that all who have faith in Christ are gathered at the foot of His cross, even if we haven’t yet achieved the unselfishness that helps us to recognise the others who are gathered there with us.
Today the spirit of the Reformation lives on and individuals should strive to measure every doctrine by the Word of God. It’s the only safe course of action, one which must be tempered by heeding the advice of the obscure Reformation scholar Rupertus Meldenius: “In all essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity.