Christianity: Unity and Diversity

On World Communion Sunday, the question once asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, see entries below) prompts us to look within our own faith tradition for an answer. How is it that we have moved from the days of Jesus, with a band of disciples following him on his journey through the Holy Land as he preached the good news of the Kingdom of God, to the point now, some 2,000 years later, when we have around 9,000 denominations listed in the World Christian Database?

Part of the answer to that question comes to us through the lens of the question once asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15). In the early days following the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his followers wrestled with this question and came up with a wide range of possible answers, for example:

• A man who became “Christ” at baptism (adoptionism)
• One manifestation of the single person of God (modalism)
• A created being (Arianism)
• And so on …..

Given this wide range of opinions, another question asked of Jesus, this time by Pilate, becomes significant: “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38a). In the days of Constantine, the search for truth (and peace within the empire) led to the Council of Nicea (325 AD), at which the Nicene Creed was developed, one translation of which is:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Creed speaks of Jesus using language such as “true God from true God” while also claiming that Jesus “became truly human”. Such claims led to a number of questions about how divinity and humanity can be present in one individual. Again, there were many diverse opinions about this subject and how it relates to the person of Jesus, for example:

• A being whose human spirit had been replaced by the Logos (Apollinarianism)
• Christ’s human nature was absorbed by the Logos (Eutycheanism)
• Christ had one single nature, neither human nor divine (monophysitism)
• Christ had no human will, only a divine will (monothelitism)

The Council of Chalcedon attempted to address these matters in its Confession (451 AD), one translation of which is:

Following the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach and confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; “like us in all things but sin.” He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one substance.

Not all of the followers of Jesus agreed with the outcomes of the Councils at Nicea and Chalcedon (and others), leading to a situation in which some accepted the essentially Trinitarian teachings of the Councils and others rejected them (a situation which endures to this day).

Outcomes largely rejected by non-Trinitarians (through to today):
• Arians
• Unitarians
• Mormons (current day)
• Jehovah’s Witnesses (current day)

Outcomes largely accepted by major Trinitarian groups:
• Roman Catholics
• Eastern Orthodox
• Anglicans
• Lutherans

The situation might thus be represented as follows:

The big division, however, came somewhat later and resulted in the East-West Schism. While there were issues of power and control between the leading centers of Christianity, there was also a theological issue that caused consternation, dating from the Nicene Creed (325 AD):

“…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], …”

The addition “and the Son” was adopted in the west (Rome and the Pope) but not in the east (Constantinople and the Patriarch), where the addition was seen as heretical. The result, in 1054 was the mutual excommunication of the Roman Cardinal Humbert (representing Pope Leo IX) and Patriarch of Constantinople Michael Kerullarios. This schism between western Christianity (which we now call “Catholicism”) and eastern Christianity (which we now call “Orthodox Christianity”) persists to this day. The situation might thus be represented as follows:

As time passed. another of the questions once asked of Jesus began to surface critically in the life of the western church; John 14:5b asks: “How can we know the way?” this was ultimately a question of authority; Do we know the way through the teachings and authority of the Church or do we know the way through the teachings and authority of Scripture? Importantly, what happens if the church teaches something that can’t be supported by Scripture? This issue came to a head in 1517 when Martin Luther wrote down his objections to certain teachings of the church that he believed to be unfounded in Scripture and nailed his “95 theses” to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was a “protestant” against certain practices of Rome (i.e. church authority) and is recognized as a pioneer of the
Reformation. Along with other key figures, including Zwingli, Calvin and, a little later, Knox, Wesley and others, a break with Rome became apparent and “Protestant” groups formed:

This fragmentation over the answers to key questions that date back to the time of Christ continued to lead to fragmentation. Today, over 9,000 Christian denominations are represented in the World Christian Database and 635 are reportedly represented in the US, including:

• Catholic 24.5% of the US population*
• Baptist 16.3%
• Methodist/Wesleyan 6.8%
• Lutheran 4.6%
• Presbyterian 2.7%
• Pentecostal/Charismatic 2.1%
• Episcopalian/Anglican 1.7%

*self identified; 2001 data (www.adherents.com)

This story, however, follows only one trajectory of Christianity and, especially as it is World Communion Sunday, it is important to recognize that the path followed by Peter and Paul that led to the growth of Christianity in the Mediterranean Basin, Europe and parts of Asia, is not the only path taken. The other followers Jesus also spread the good news. And so, when Vasco Da Gama arrived in Calicut (India) in 1498 and exploration of the Malabar coast of South India by the Portuguese beagn, they encountered Christians who traced their foundations all the way back to Thomas. In their founding narrative, Thomas landed in Kodungallur in AD 52, in the company of a Jewish merchant Hebban, and began to spread the Gospel. Their trajectory grew essentially independently of the paths taken in Europe. Historians are unconvinced that the Indian community was truly founded by Thomas – the person who asked Jesus the question, “How do we know the way?” – but certainly the oral tradition of the people includes such an understanding.

The global expression of Christianity is made more apparent in the worldwide statistics of Christianity:

Branch Adherents*

Catholic 1,050,000,000
Orthodox/Eastern Christian 240,000,000
African indigenous churches 110,000,000
Pentecostal 105,000,000
Reformed/Presbyterian/Congregational/United 75,000,000
Anglican 73,000,000
Baptist 70,000,000
Methodist 70,000,000
Lutheran 64,000,000
Etc., etc.

*estimates to assist in ranking by size, not to provide a definitive count of membership, from www.adherents.com

The third largest group is “African Indigenous Churches”, an expression of the faith that has grown up in its own setting. The example of Simon Kimbangu is illustrative:

• Where: Belgian Congo (now the DRC)
• When: Starting in 1918 (the year of the great influenza pandemic)
• Who: Simon Kimbangu (ca. 1887 – 1951)
• Why: As a result of visions calling Simon to be a healer and apostle
• How: Itinerant preaching, teaching, healing with his group of 12 apostles

After his death following some 30 years in prison, Simon Kimbangu’s followers looked to his son for leadership. And the result today is The Church Of Jesus Christ On Earth By His Special Envoy, Simon Kimbangu:

• Admitted to the World Council of Churches
• Reports of from 3 to 17 million members

Some aspects of church life in a Kimbanguist church would be familiar to an American Christian, other aspects reflect the uniquely African understanding of spirituality:

• Strictly monogamous
• Do not bathe or sleep naked
• Abstain from smoking and alcohol
• Shoes are removed when praying and in worship
• Trinitarian understanding of God
• Bible as the sole authority on matters of faith.
• The church adheres to the Nicene Creed
• Four sacraments: baptism (by laying on of hands), Eucharist, marriage and ordination
• Eucharist is celebrated three times a year: at Christmas (on May 25th), on 6th April (beginning of Kimbanguist movement) and 12th October (death of Simon Kimbangu).
• Male and female clergy

The question of how to reconcile the global Christian movement with our Scripture passage of the day, remains before us:

Ephesians 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all”

Perhaps one way is to think of the various expressions of global Christianity – represented by the branching plant-like structures in our diagrams – is as flowers growing in a garden. Each is nourished by the same soil yet not all flowers are the same. A tulip is still beatiful, even though it isn’t a rose. And so in a global, ecumenical sense, perhaps we can see the strengths of the various exprtessions of faith as a form of beauty – recognizing that among the roses and tulips there will always be some weeds growing – and learn to appreciate them.

Thanks for visiting!