In defense of religion(s) / denominations

In another thread (Ken Ham accepting ECs as Christians), @Randy posted the cartoon (re-pasted below here) which I thought was clever, funny, and with a good measure of self-focused humor at all our denominationalizing. But it provoked me to think on this a bit further - which I will share below.

Here is my reflection: what if we treated the general practice of science like religion is here treated? I.e. science, too, has many branches and specialties of study that could be shown in hierarchical form … off the main limb of physics come big branches like particle physics, thermodynamics, optics, astronomy, etc. And off of astronomy come finer “twigs” like cosmology, astrophysics, or other myriads of more specialized stellar or planetary studies. And those specialties will be recent outgrowths from the main historical trunks which at one time would have included much (like astrology) that has died away. How silly would it be today for a chemists to think, “our field finally got it right, and physics and all those others are just out to lunch.” Immediately we face an obvious objection: but this isn’t the same at all. Chemists study quite complementary things and the physicists, far from being in competition with all these others even freely use physics and other sciences to enhance and even illuminate their own field, and so it is with the whole gloriously populated field of scientific specialties. Furthermore, all these fields thrive on being pushed and challenged so as to cull away less productive inquiry and cultivate growth of knowledge.

In contrast, all these denominations / religions presumably do have a same focus (i.e. God and/or ultimate truth) and therefore are in competition with each other about who is right, and they ostensibly (on the anti-religionist’s view) only thrive by stifling any challenge or question to their authority.

Or so thinks the critic, along all these well-rehearsed and deepening ruts. Climbing up the steep edges of this rut to take a look at the broad landscape beyond might open up a new vista for consideration. Denominations too are outgrowths from previous bodies with a hope of improving on something or leaving behind some perceived liability. Nobody – scientist or religionist – ever moves from more desirable to less desirable territory. We always move toward perceived gain in understanding, goodness, or truth. We may be wrong to do so, but we never think so at the time. And just as the scientist appreciates what other specialties have to offer to help her in her own, so the perceptive religionist keeps her eyes open to what others outside her own group have to offer. In the healthy mind there is little room for the dogma that only one group has some entire monopoly on all truth, leaving all the others entirely in error about everything. In fact, the Christian even has a metaphor ready-made to help us see beyond our own self-importance, even at denominational levels: it’s called the body of Christ. Fingers and toes shouldn’t get uppity with eyeballs and ears or vice versa. Yes, competition and conflict still exist along with mutually exclusive claims, but just as all the fields of science ultimately work together despite their territorial spats and turf wars, so the world of denominations and religions also have their niches. And when bad parts get challenged and culled away, they too improve just as science and any other field also would improve through such struggle.

From the outside I never know how much denominational divisions represent a sharp division in belief rather than a preference in association based on the manner of worship. I would think believers range between those who think there is an objectively best set of beliefs which a correct reading of the Bible supports to those who depend on a gut approach to religion who see differences in practice as more dispositional. I would be inclined toward the latter position. Given the hiddenness and essential mysteriousness of God, absolute certainty just seems misplaced.

I see denominations as a sad result of the Protestant Reformation and the Great Schism of 1054 between the East vs. West.

I would agree with this point of view myself. Though I am of the Wesleyan-Methodist position, I would say that all Protestant churches have their flavor and mixture to the Biblical truth, even if we have arguments of how we define that truth through our denominational lens.

Schisms are sad things, for the power structures that endure them and the individuals who may suffer loss of community in the moment. But I’m also fascinated with Paul’s attitude toward differences that he expresses in 1 Corinthians 11 where he states to the effect: “no doubt there need to be differences among you in order to show which of you has God’s approval.” At first, the doctrinaire will lick their chops on reading that … “Oh goodie - somebody is right and somebody is wrong - my kind of world!” But in reading all of that passage Paul is not finding any cause for celebration over divisions. Over all, it looks to me like community practices and beliefs are subject to judgment and even correction - not to produce condemnation, but to produce edified community. So there is some “proof in the pudding” mentality that goes with various religions and the parts of them that work well vs. other parts that don’t. That isn’t all just on the science side. And in fact I would go so far as to say it’s a bit disingenuous of anti-religion enthusiasts to insist that modern science was entirely independent in its development of this “challenge brings strength” attitude towards human thought and endeavor. I think what we can say for modern science is that it helped to develop this attitude into an art-form, so-to-speak.

[And I would also note that there are no great schisms, whether the one you mention, or even the Protestant Reformation itself, in which it is accurate to think it was a “winner takes all” scenario. After the schism is completed there will be divided treasure some on one side, some on the other.]

I thought he was sarcastic–“no doubt you have to fight for God’s favor”–when in actuality, God has no favorites :slight_smile: I have read it both ways, but like this view best!

I appreciated your lead note. I’m not sure entirely of what to make of divisions. Ideally, we would not need a division to still appreciate someone’s insight to God’s art and charisma (as in the Pentecostals), meditation and silence (as in some of the more High Church ones), or open handedness (as in the Methodists or Mennonites, I would imagine).

In some ways, medicine is like that science comparison to religion–many specialties exist, but few would say they could do what the others do. For example, an orthopedic surgeon, as brilliant as she is, would not take over an internal medicine ICU management of pressors and intubated patients; and vice versa. It’s not that some don’t forget and mistakenly step outside their boundaries of training, but most realize that they have to refer to someone who has worked in the field more. I am not sure exactly why we have to have so many different schisms in faith (and this is in many religions other than Christianity); is it because most religionists are concerned about losing their souls if they get things wrong?

Thank you.

I hadn’t thought of seeing sarcasm in that! I had to go back and read it again to see what that might sound like. Here is the NRSV versions of v.18-19:

For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.

Were you referring to the sarcasm view as your favored one?

I’m really going adventurously beyond the scope of these couple verses here in comparing denominational (much less religious) divisions to Paul’s subject since he is speaking to people who are still meeting together despite their differences. I don’t think it necessarily wrong to do that - it is how we apply lessons, after all; it’s a good reminder that doctrinal humility is always needed to allow for and respect entirely different applications from the same verses.

I think Paul stands in a long line of prophetic tradition that is not above trying to provoke jealousy among different groups for the purpose of driving them toward Christ and Christian living.

Speaking from my own recent heritage, there are Mennonite churches of the last century or two who have split over much sillier (to us) things than salvation issues. E.g. what kind of music to worship with - is harmony okay? Accompanied? Which instruments are allowed or which are of the devil? What manner of baptism is authentic - sprinkling or full immersion?

We may have forgotten many of those older disputes now (and have moved on to new disputes that we in turn take quite seriously). But the result of those older disputes is that there are now varieties of practices among churches, musically or baptismally. Some churches (Amish) have nearly a monotone chanting (or so I hear about some of them) because they have historically been concerned about how pride is cultivated if people get their vanities up about how good they are sounding with all their harmonies and accompaniments (not an entirely misplaced concern, right?) And on the other hand, who hasn’t enjoyed the rapturous worship among churches that take joy in making wonderful (deliberately practiced) sounding music to the Lord? Maybe some put their pride to work toward quality in music in the same way that Amish might take pride in their woodwork or quilts. Nobody ever really escapes the dangers of vanity. But my main point here is to ask: have those historical schisms been an entirely bad thing (in any denomination) when it results in such a variety of styles and choices for people later on? I don’t see why the “body of Christ” metaphor couldn’t include this variety as well as variety among individuals.

[It always amused me to hear of the apparent Shaker tradition of putting one deliberate flaw in any piece of wooden furniture they had crafted in order to serve as a reminder that only the Lord is perfect. To my way of thinking … what kind of arrogance would I need to have to think that I am so at risk of perfection that I had better deliberately insert a mistake somewhere lest I accidentally do something perfectly. It would be as if I deliberately did one small sin each day just to avoid the risk of sinlessness. It shouldn’t need saying that this is not a concern of mine. At all. My “flaw factory” spins out its wares quite efficiently each and every day - no additional help needed, thank you.]


Crazy things indeed split over, within my tradition of Methodism, most splits till post American Civil War were over slavery, that’s how we got the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Free Methodist Church and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. During the American Civil War, the once united Episcopal Methodist Church spilt into North and South due to the Civil War and didn’t really unify till 1936 into the Methodist Church USA, they would later become the United Methodist Church of today when they united with the United Evangelical Brethren Church. Almost all splits post-Civil War were over the issue of liberal theology, some happened before hand, thus we got the Bible Methodist Connection of Churches, Congregational Methodist Church, The Southern Methodist Church and the Evangelical Methodist Church.

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That is a very interesting anecdote–I did not know of that! Thanks.

I agree that we can certainly use the image from science to strongly encourage cooperation among the Body of Christ. Thank you for that!

Bear with me, and teach me-- but I thought that I Cor 11:17-34 was about divisions among the body of Christ when they ate the Lord’s supper together–some ate more, and some got nothing. He starts out “I have no praise for you,” and at the end of the passages says, “So then, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.” --so I thought this was about the way that they focused on themselves, not on God, when eating. Not that it matters much.

I like what you said about the flaw factory. I at first was really impressed with the Shakers’ idea–then realized that yes, as you said, there’s an element of pride in that approach, too. I like Lewis’ humor about how introspective discipline in rooting out pride is self defeating–“By Jove, I’m being humble!”–is an element of pride, too.

I have been listening on and off to “Knowing God” by Packer, and was a bit taken aback by his admonition that we should apply the Commandment of having no graven images to include no crucifixes, pictures of Jesus or God, as they could cloud what is eternal with what is temporal. I’m not sure I agree with him there, though I respect that idea. In contrast, it seems that God’s use of various names for Himself (Jehovah Jireh, Rapha, as a mother with a baby at its breast; etc) would also fit in this category–so I don’t think God’s entirely against that sort of thing, either


It is - you are quite right. And so purists can rightly hang back with caution over such free and extended application of concepts far beyond what the original author was addressing.

I can only plead that I think I’m in good company in doing this since, if I’m not mistaken, it’s how original Hebrew Rabbis freely treated the scriptures they had, and even Jesus and the apostles themselves made free appropriation of the law and prophets toward their own ends as the Spirit moved.

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What a dry world this would be if everybody was in agreement about everything, no? It might be nice if we refrained from excommunicating and killing each other over stuff, though. One would think we should at least be able to reach an agreement about that!

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@Mervin_Bitikofer, you have taught me so much; thank you! I think that this adaptive view that you illustrated was actually in the majority at my church when we discussed the passage last year in Sunday School. That is very insightful.

I just introduced my son to “The Chosen,” today, and hope he likes the Jewish discussion of Scripture and search for God. Would it not be fun to sit down with Reb Saunders and Danny and the others to go over the meaning some day? The book celebrated the secular and Hasidic, mystical points of view and the breaking down of “aphorism” barriers too. It is in the vein of your very instructive post, I think.

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Have any of those latter splitters made moves since then toward re-unification? Are you all on talking terms with each other?

From my knowledge non of the churches that split off post Civil War hadn’t made contact with the UMC, there was talks between the UMC and AME Church back in either the 70s or 80s for reunification but it fell short due to issues of liberal theology but a pact was made to where ecumenical communion is held between the UMC, AME Church, Free Methodist Church and I think the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. I believe there were talks between the UMC and EMC (Evangelical Methodist Church) but fell short to good relations with each other.

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…but good enough not to deny each other communion! That’s not a bad thing. So some churches are more liberal and others more conservative. That’s probably the situation with every one of our denominations too, and usually it’s serious enough to prevent those who differ from settling into any permanent church home with those who lean the other way on those things. Think how many (on either side) would be denied fellowship if one of those political wings simply didn’t exist?

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The United Methodist Church practices Open Communion, so all who are apart of the Christian faith can partake of the Holy Eucharist. The UMC is very open minded. While a lot of UM churches here in Oklahoma are very conservative, the one I attend is a mix of liberal and conservative and we tend to mingle pretty well but the fallout of this year’s General Conference over the issue of LGBT marriage has caused a minor strain but the wounds are healing and though many of us are divided on what marriage is, we are committed to loving all individuals regardless of why they are and believe they are welcomed into the church.


@Sealkin, You are close, but to set the record straight the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1700’s o9ver discrimination. The Methodist Episcopal grew out of the Methodist Episcopal al Church. The M. E. Church South sp0lit off from the M. E. C. before the Civil War over slavery.

The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church took form when the Black Churches broke off from the M. E. C. South after the Civil War. The M. E. Church and the M. E. Church South along with the E. U. Brethren came togethe3r as the United Methodist Church. None of the historically Black Churches have united with the UMC.

As for denominations, while unity is good, so is diversity. It is a problem of the One and the Many. Uniformity is certainly not good and I see aspects of the Roman Church that are certainly not good. Protestants no doubt go to the other extreme, but I do believe in the Holy Spirit Who is the real Source of Christian unity between all members of the faith.

We do not have the Holy Spirit in other faiths, so we have no real unity with them. Still I would not judge other people, since only God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can so this. I take Jesus at His word that God judges people by how they love others, and not by the name of the faith they espouse.


Ok, I’ve enjoyed this discussion so far. There certainly are a lot of facets to this, and I agree that a division can help–maybe more as Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce, because your hearts were hard.” Thus, it is an outgrowth of our own failures. The representative forms of government in democracies certainly do seem to prove that we each need our own voice.

However, a bit of gentle pushback–Robert Frost’s “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” is a bit of poetry that gives name to the schadenfreude of this discussion.



Say more about this, Randy; since a wall is what so many prize - and are they always wrong to do so? Isn’t slavery something that we now prefer to be walled out? Ruled as out of bounds? Seen as the party now disapproved in the Apostle’s challenge to observe which faction finally has God’s approval?

There are times when we want good neighbors. And then there are times we wish our neighbors to simply be gone - to disappear either by conversion or by removal. And likely our neighbors wish the same about us.

So when are we justified in waving our ecumenical banners? And when are we justified in yelling “no compromise!”?

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It sounds like there is no clear, always–applicable rule for this. Maybe we can only learn as we go, with God’s help. Thanks for the discussion.

Like many, I once thought “good fences make good neighbors” was a positive statement in favor of walls, not realizing that like Shakespeare’s " To thine own self be true," it means something quite different in context.
Indeed, in the body of Christ, the comparison of fences and denominations is appropriate, as while made necessary by our coarser natures, it is shameful they exist.