It’s not uncommon for people who are new to Christianity to be bewildered and overwhelmed by the countless denominations and churches out there. Furthermore, to many outside the faith the existence of so many conflicting groups seems to throw into doubt Christianity as a whole. After all, no sensible God would allow this kind of a mess, right? If God really wanted us to know the truth about him, why would he not make it inescapably clear and apparent? In my own experience I’ve known several people who were interested in Christianity, but after seeing the however many thousand denominations, threw up their hands, and wondered where they should even start. Who has the real truth? Is it the Baptists? The Catholics? The Methodists? Probably not the Mormons, but surely someone has “the Truth.”
Or perhaps everybody is just fighting for no reason whatsoever. Others see how confident some Christians are in what they believe and object, saying that we think we know it all. Surely we couldn’t be so arrogant as to think that we’re the only ones with the truth? Do we really think that we are right and everybody else is wrong? Instead, shouldn’t we say that as long as we believe that God loves us and want us to be nice to other people, it’s all good? Surely, it’s enough to love Jesus. Everything else doesn’t really matter anyway, right?
However, these kinds of responses to denominationalism miss a basic point: the Christian faith is quite simple. Certainly it’s infinitely rich and complex, but at a basic level it’s quite simple. Or perhaps we might say that it’s simple if we keep our focus on the main thing. If we have our focus on the main point, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners, then we can see all the disagreements and issues from a different perspective. This is not to say that the disagreements don’t matter or that the issues go away, but it is to say that while Christians may have some serious disagreements, all true Christians agree on the main central message. In fact, normally churches only go horribly wrong when they mess this central message or narrative up in some way.
An Example: The Descent into Hell
There were many in the Reformation during the late sixteenth century, after Luther had died, who were arguing over the particulars of Christ’s descent into hell. They argued about things like whether Christ descended in both his body and soul or just his soul. They argued about whether this descent into hell is to be understood as part of Christ’s suffering or part of his glorious triumph. The dispute was tied up in related issues, such as Christology, a controversial subject among Lutheran theologians as well as Christ’s suffering and passion. Surely a teaching touching such central parts of the faith would receive clear and definite answers. Yeah, no.
Yet, while the descent into hell makes it into the Apostles’ Creed, there isn’t much biblical discussion of the topic at all. 1 Peter 3:18-19 reads, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (ESV). Thus, Peter makes it clear that there’s something going on here, but he doesn’t go into much detail at all about what exactly that is or the manner in which this is happening, the way some of those involved in the controversy wanted.
For this reason the writers of the Formula of Concord (from the Book of Concord) dismiss this controversy entirely and instead encourage all to hold to what is essential and certain and not to become distracted by useless arguments:
For it is enough that we know that Christ descended into hell and destroyed hell for all believers and that he redeemed them from the power of death, the devil, and the eternal damnation of hellish retribution. How that happened we should save for the next world, where not only this matter but many others, which here we have simply believed and cannot comprehend with our blind reason, will be revealed. (FC Ep IX:4)
The main thing is nothing other than the fact that Christ’s suffering, death, and rising again has won life and freedom from death and the devil for all who believe in him. The writers of the Formula refuse to allow this controversy to create what they see to be unnecessary divisions. They also very helpfully point out that the Christian faith is simple. Faith does not need to know the answer to every question and controversy. After all, many questions and controversies are asking questions that the scriptures themselves do not answer. Any attempts to use reason to go beyond the scriptures and explain what has not been given to us in the scriptures is foolish at best and idolatrous at worst. Faith trusts what it has been given in the scriptures and even more importantly it trusts in the one who has revealed himself in the scriptures.
Now, what about the controversies that divide our churches today? Should we say that belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only thing that matters and any other questions are like this question of the descent into hell? It depends. Some issues are quite similar to that question. They are not questions that are completely answered by the scriptures and they need not cause any division. We should not speak where scripture is silent. Yet at the same time we do need to speak clearly where God has also spoken clearly. To be sure the death and resurrection of Jesus for sinners is the central teaching of the scriptures, but it is not the only teaching. And these teachings are all connected in some way. They’re not completely separate, stand-alone doctrines. Theology is not like a salad bar where you can choose the onions, carrots, and mushrooms, and leave behind the bell peppers, olives, and croutons. The various doctrines are in various ways intimately connected. Therefore, the way one answers some doctrinal questions can have an indirect impact on how one understands the central teaching of the scriptures.
For example, Lutherans and Baptists disagree on the Lord’s Supper, namely in what way Christ is present and what one receives there. To be sure, neither the Lutheran nor the Baptist answer on this question denies the sufficiency of Christ’s work for sinners. However, their understandings of the sacrament of the altar do affect their understanding of how the believer receives the benefits of Christ’s work. The Lutheran view emphasizes God’s promise to work through particular and dependable means through which he gives his church the benefits won by Christ. The typical Baptist or Evangelical view tends to put the emphasis on the experience and decision of the individual person, especially with regard to a particular conversion experience that one could mark on the calendar. The Lord’s Supper is then not a means through which God gives sinners the benefits won by Christ, but a chance to recommit oneself and remember Jesus. And that’s a difference that really does matter.
This is why we Christians live in an awkward tension. On the one hand we recognize that all people who share a faith in the resurrected Lord as expressed in the Nicene Creed are true Christians and belong to the one true universal church. After all, there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Yet on the other hand, because some of the differences between Christians within this universal church affect the way that the Gospel is received, we must also recognize that these differences really do matter. They cannot be swept under the rug and we cannot merely agree to disagree.
Yet in all this the writers of the Formula help us to keep our focus on the main thing: Jesus. Thus, when we are dealing with controversies and disagreements in the church, this focus may sometimes helps us to say that a question need not divide. At other times this focus on the main thing actually leads us to say that a dispute really does matter, because it affects the teaching and reception of the Gospel.
Thus, when responding to the person who is frustrated and bewildered by the seemingly endless variety within Christianity, we would do well to point such a person to this insight from the writers of the Formula, that the main thing is Christ and his work. The Christian faith is truly simple. It is accurately and sufficiently summarized in texts like the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer. While there are certainly important questions outside of this summary, some more important or legitimate than others, these secondary questions need not take away from the fact that these central teachings of the faith really do in fact unite and give a common ground to all true Christians. In a strange and unexpected way, the contemporary church, which seems terribly and hopelessly fractured is actually far more united than it may seem. The early church fought over things like the deity of Christ or the Trinity. We tend to fight about the sacraments, the role of the human will, and worship practice.
Now, this does not deny that some groups are truly outside of this faith, namely those who would deny the simple summary of the faith found in the creeds. It also does not deny that many of the questions that divide Christians actually matter. Someone new to the faith should be instructed to focus on this core teaching of the faith. When they are ready, they can and should begin to explore some of these questions that have divided Christians. Yet even in that, they, like the writers of the Formula, must keep Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners as the main and central focus.