Debating Denominational Differences while Non-Christians Watch
Christian unity is very special to me as a believer in Jesus Christ. In fact, I feel called by God to promote truth, unity, civility, and charity among all who embrace the historic Christian faith. Personally, I would much rather talk about what all historic Christians affirm theologically than discuss the doctrinal distinctives of my particular theological tradition. I guess that is one reason I find the ecumenical creeds of Christendom (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed) so appealing.
Nevertheless, I am well aware that there are critical—perhaps intractable—theological differences among the three conservative branches of Christendom (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism). The most challenging differences lie in the areas of authority (Scripture and tradition) and soteriology (salvation, specifically the relationship between grace, faith, and works). And yet, while the Protestant denominations share more doctrinal common ground together, there are also some very strong theological disagreements present within the Protestant ranks. For example, the differences between the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions over God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are quite evident.
Yet even with all of the ecclesiastical differences and debate over the centuries, I agree with C. S. Lewis that, “When all is said (and truly said) about the divisions of Christendom, there remains, by God’s mercy, an enormous common ground.”1 This enormous theological common ground of which Lewis speaks is reflected in the Nicene Creed. All conservative branches of Christendom affirm this ecumenical statement of faith, and the creed is also accepted among the many Protestant denominations.
The Appearance of Disunity
In reality, much more agreement exists among the churches of Christendom than disagreement, but I think non-Christians view the divisions, and particularly the frequent bickering among Christians, as a huge turnoff. Thus, I think the appearance of a fractured and divided Christendom seriously hurts the Christian witness to an unbelieving world. As one skeptic said to me, “Why should I seriously consider Christian truth claims when Christendom is so deeply divided?”
Consider C. S. Lewis’s comment about how the doctrinal differences among Christian bodies affect the non-Christian’s openness to the faith:
I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.2
A Proposal for Unity
In order to promote unity and protect the integrity of evangelism, I have a proposition for my Christian friends on social media and on the web. When non-Christians are present and watching, I strongly advise to avoid debating the denominational differences within Christendom.
Because social media and the internet involve a community of believers and nonbelievers, I suggest finding a more private and appropriate venue for such important and needed interactions among Christians to take place. I recognize that Christians need to discuss different doctrinal points of view within the faith, but why not do so on pages and within groups on social media dedicated to that very purpose apart from a public venue?
When Christians do find it necessary to publicly discuss, debate, or clarify issues over which Christendom is divided, then be aware that non-Christians may be observing. In such cases, it may be prudent to first insist upon discussing what all historic Christians affirm (mere Christianity, ecumenical creeds) before moving to the distinctive denominational differences. It is also important for believers in Christ who engage in ecumenical dialogue to consider how they can express their affirmation of Christian truth claims with genuine civility, unity, and charity toward others within Christendom.
Non-Christians need to know that while Christians don’t hold everything in common, they know how to disagree in a respectful, gracious manner. Unfortunately, many Christians—especially on social media and the web—show that they don’t know how to disagree with grace and respect.
Even if you disagree with my proposal, as a Christian I hope you’ll think about the challenge that the appearance of disunity poses for the faith and consider how to address it appropriately. A watching world stands to benefit greatly from our civil, unified engagement.
For further study of both the unity and disunity within Christendom, listen to my Straight Thinking podcast, “The Idea of Mere Christianity.”
- S. Lewis, Christian Reflections(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1967), vii.
- S. Lewis, Mere Christianity(New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.