Why is the church divided? What do those divisions mean for God’s Kingdom? Should we unify the church, and if so, how? What will happen when we do? I’ve already blogged on that last question. I believe Jesus is waiting for us to unify, and when we do, He will return! But I plan to tackle those other questions too, beginning with the first one.
Why are we divided?
The first formal split in the church happened in 1054 AD, when the church in the East split from the church in the West. There were doctrinal differences between the two sides, yes, but in addition, the Eastern church just didn’t buy into the idea that the Pope in Rome was the ultimate authority for all Christians.
The second split happened in the Protestant Reformation, pretty much for the same reason. Martin Luther was not the first reformer, but he was the most successful. His timing was perfect, thanks to the printing press. His ideas couldn’t be suppressed. They were mass produced and distributed! The power of the published word!
The issues associated with the Reformation were complex. I mean, the entire Western world was changing. But we can understand this complicated historical moment through one simple issue: the sale of indulgences in exchange for the forgiveness of sins.
We’re all very familiar with Martin Luther’s frustrations over the sale of indulgences. That was a corrupt practice and no one agrees with it, not Protestants, and not Catholics. You do not have to pay money to the church or anyone else for the forgiveness of sins. The Pope was obviously wrong on this point.
It all came down to politics, of course. At the peak of its power, the Roman Empire ruled a huge territory that stretched from England in the west to Iraq in the east. Over time, though, it grew weak and started to crumble. It collapsed in the 5th century AD, and when that happened, Europe fell into chaos. Someone had to step up and provide order and security. The Church in Rome did that. It ruled for centuries, but couldn’t keep it up. Why not? Because there’s only one ruler, and that’s the Trinity: Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. There’s only one King of Kings!
No one, not the Pope, not anyone, can say that God comes through them and to them for everything. Jesus said there’s only one King. And with the Bible translated into popular languages, and printing presses printing them, people were learning to read and they were reading the Bible for themselves. So they knew what it said.
If you’re in control and you’re a human being — like we all are — and you’re running a big church empire located in the Vatican, and only a small elite can read the Bible, then what do you think will happen? You can get away with saying whatever you want!
But once the Bible was available to everybody and people started to read it, they said, “Wait a minute! We all have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ! It says so right here! It’s not the Vatican’s relationship with Jesus, it’s our relationship!” So some people stood up and protested. That’s how the Protestants got their name. They were the ones that stood up to the Roman Church and said, “You know what? We’re tired of you telling us what we’re supposed to do!”
I’m not saying that Protestants or Catholics or Eastern Orthodox are wrong. And I’m not saying that the people of any church are wrong or bad. I’m only saying that when you look at history, you can see how the church got divided.
I also don’t necessarily think that it’s bad that we have Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, or that we have all these different kinds of Protestant denominations. In fact, what grieves me about denominations is not that they exist, but that sometimes we feel like, “If you don’t belong to this denomination, then you are wrong.” I don’t believe that. Not at all.
More on this next time. See you Monday.