I recently had the pleasure to do something I've never done, I attended the ordination of an old friend of mine. We met in high school (Catholic,) attended the same youth group (Reformed) with another friend who later became a (Presbyterian) minister. Long time readers will know that I pastored a small, Baptist church in the past. Reflecting on this this week has got me thinking: Are we really all that different?
Yes. Yes we are.
Pastor Jeff, Father Trevor and I are different, and we have real differences between us, but if a priest, a minister and a pastor can all become friends and learn about Jesus at the same youth group, and then go on to minister and serve His church in three different denominations, is there a point in having denominations at all? Do the differences mean anything?
Of course they do, but it's not what many people think.
One of the more common objections to the Christian faith that I've heard is this idea that: "There's so many denominations, you guys can't even agree among yourselves, why should I buy into that?" It's a valid complaint, especially when it comes from someone outside the faith, but it's a complaint that largely ignores the vast agreement between Christians. Even between Protestants and Catholics.
Open and Closed Hands
Now I am not fully qualified, nor do I want to delve into all of the details of things Christians disagree on, but I do want to briefly talk about what are called "open" and "closed" handed issues. There are essentially two types of theological disagreement: Things that Christians CAN disagree on (open handed issues) and things Christians CAN'T disagree on (closed handed issues.) When I say "can and can't disagree" what I mean is that there are things that make us Christian, and things that Christians believe. There are issued that belong in the closed hand and that all Christians believe simply because they are core and central to Christianity, then there are issues that are in the open hand. These are issues that Christians can (and often do) disagree on and still they remain Christians. If there's one thing I've learned in nearly twenty years as a Christian it's that there are a precious few issues in the closed hand, and precious they are. As an example, let me offer three of each.
In the Closed Hand
Here are three issues that make us Christians:
These are three of the most foundational and important issues within Christian theology and doctrine. To deny these teachings is to deny Christianity itself. For brevity's sake, I won't dive into each of these here, but if you're interested, I've linked to some excellent articles on each above.
In the Open Hand
For fairness and balance, here are three issues that are firmly in the open hand. Here, I've chosen to comment rather than link but I'm limiting myself to fifty words or less (something that proved more difficult than I thought) per example.
- Mode and method of baptism - Do we baptize infants or adults? What constitutes an adult? How Christians answer this question has a lot to do with how we see and apply the atonement, but disagreeing on this doesn't exclude you from the Kingdom.
- Women in leadership - When it comes to women as pastors/elders there is a right and a wrong answer. Women either can or cannot be pastors/elders. If you are on the "no" side of this and believe, however, that women pastors are condemned because you think they're wrong; you need to repent of that.
- Old or Young Earth - Believing that the earth is billions of years old does not make you a heretic nor does believing that it's ten thousand years old make you a Luddite. They are two options with Biblical arguments. One is right and one is wrong, but the wrong team isn't going to Hell.
Ecumenism and You
My experience at the ordination was an interesting one. There were a couple moments I was moved to tears, and there were a couple (one in particular) that made me theologically uncomfortable. However, one thing that I cannot deny, is that my friend has a zeal and love for the Lord that rivals my own and any other pastor from my own "tribe" that I have met. He feels he's right theologically, just as strongly as I do and he has sacrificed (more than most protestant pastors) much of his own life and ambitions to serve the King and care for the sheep. One day, we will both know who was right and who was wrong about what, but it won't matter because we'll both be in the same place, with the same Lord when we do. This is ecumenism at it's heart. Believe that you're right, and be firm in your beliefs, but be humble and gracious enough to admit you might be wrong here and there. I've written about this before, use the measure of grace when you judge.
Dividing for Unity's Sake
So what about all of those divisions? There's a time and a place for those. Our imperfect understanding of the Lord, and His word means we will get things wrong and our consciences may not allow us to do certain things or worship certain ways. Our job is to do the best we can with what we have, and be gracious with those with whom we disagree. Have faith, dear reader, a time is coming when all of these things will be clear and we will worship the Lord all together in spirit and truth, just like the book says we will.