Causes of divisions & conflicts
among Protestant faith groups
||"Now I beseech you...that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."
Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:10, The Christian Scriptures (New Testament),
The religion of the followers of Jesus remained unified for fewer than ten years after Jesus'
execution circa 30 CE.
||Jesus' disciples and other
followers had formed a reform Jewish group -- the Jewish Christian
movement. It was centered in Jerusalem, and was under the leadership of
James, the brother of Jesus. It was essentially a reform movement among
Judaism -- one of about two dozen Jewish traditions which were active at
||Within a decade, Paul started to organize a
competing Christian movement which was primarily aimed at converting the Gentiles
-- mostly Greek and Roman Pagans -- to what has been called Pauline Christianity.
Christianity formed the third major component.
In any large city of
the Roman Empire, there were often religious leaders from each of these
three movements -- and probably more -- teaching their own conflicting views on Christianity.
Although the Jewish Christian and Gnostic movements were eventually
scattered and/or exterminated, the successor to Pauline Christianity
survived, and became the established church. However, it later split into
thousands of Christian faith groups with competing beliefs and practices.
These are often grouped into four categories: the Roman Catholic church, Eastern
Orthodoxy, the Anglican communion, and Protestantism. Sometimes, the
Anglican communion is considered part of Protestantism. There are over
1,500 Protestant denominations and sects -- over 1,000 in
North America alone.
Splits within Protestantism:
There have been many reasons why Protestant denominations split, and
re-split. Some are:
||Theological differences: e.g. disputes over baptism,
salvation, the nature of Jesus, etc. From
the wide diversity of beliefs among Protestants, it is apparent that the
Bible contains a great deal of ambiguous text which can
be interpreted in very different ways.
||Church organization: e.g. the role of the laity vs. the
church leadership; components of the religious service; whether power
should be concentrated in one individual or spread democratically; the
degree of spiritual autonomy of the individual, and of each congregation, etc.
||Other factors: Some have split over major moral issues. A few large
American denominations split over the abolition of slavery in the
middle of the 19th century. Some split today over whether females
can be considered for
ordination. Some observers believe that the
Episcopal Church USA,
Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian
Church (USA) and/or the United
Methodist Church may be unable to reach a compromise position over equal
rights for gays and lesbians, including church membership, ordination
and the recognition of same-sex committed
relationships. Some of these denominations may be headed
towards a schism.
What keeps Christianity divided today?
We discuss elsewhere on this web site how religious writers often
classify Protestant Christianity as being composed
of two or three main groups, each of which is composed of many individual
denominations. This split resulted from two major revolutions in religious
thinking: the Enlightenment and higher criticism (i.e. the analysis) of the Bible.
Liberal author Marcus Borg comments:
"Conflict about how to see and read the Bible is the single
greatest issue dividing Christians in North America today. On one side
of the divide are fundamentalist and many conservative-evangelical
Christians. On the other side are moderate-to-liberal Christians, mostly
in mainline denominations. Separating the two groups are two very
different ways of seeing three foundational questions about the Bible:
questions about its origin, its authority and its interpretation."
On the origin of the Bible:
||Very conservative Christians generally believe that the
Christian leaders of the 4th century who selected those books
that were to be included in the official canon were inspired by God to
reject all heretical texts and incorporate only those books whose
authors were inspired by God and whose texts
were inerrant -- free of error in their
original form. For example, they
believe that the Christian leaders at the time selected the only four
valid gospels out of the approximately 40 gospels then being used by
various Christian groups.
||Very liberal Christians generally believe that when the
official canon of the Bible was selected, the church leaders picked
those books which most closely matched their own beliefs and rejected
books that excessively promoted Gnostic Christianity or Jewish Christianity. For
example, the 4th century Church accepted the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke because
they harmonized well with each other and with the beliefs of the 4th
century church. The Gospel of John had a more difficult time being
accepted because some viewed it as having excessive Gnostic content. However, it
was finally allowed into the canon, with reluctance, and profoundly
changed the beliefs of the Christian movement thereafter.
On the authority of the Bible:
||Very conservative Christians generally believe that the
God inspired the authors of the Bible to
write text that is inerrant. Thus, the Bible
is unique in that it not only contains the will of God; it is
the Will of God.
||Very liberal Christians generally believe that the Bible is a
human document, written by spiritually acute authors, but is not
inerrant. They view the Bible as teaching an evolving belief system,
that includes some material that is opposed to the will of God.
Typical beliefs in biblical interpretation:
||Very conservative Christians generally believe that the Bible is unique
among all of the books that have been ever written. As noted above, the authors of the
Bible were inspired by God and thus preserved from error. The Bible is
considered the inerrant "Word of
God," free of any error -- at least in the original version
written by the authors. Conservatives do allow for the existence of some
copying errors and the rare insertion of a forged text. The Bible is intended to be read literally,
except for those passages which are clearly metaphorical. They take a
what might be called a "top-down" approach: the
Bible's purpose is for God to communicate religious and spiritual
truths to humanity. Thus, the Bible is internally consistent. It
teaches the same message from Genesis to Revelation. All passages from one of Paul's epistles
really instructions from God, unless the author specified otherwise.|
Many conservatives Christians believe that the Bible cannot be
understood by the natural person. Only after one becomes
saved by trusting in Jesus as Lord and
Savior, then God will enter the person's body and the meaning of the
Bible will become clear.
||Very liberal Christians consider the Bible as one among many
of the world's important religious texts. It was written by a number of men, and
perhaps one or more women. They attempted to describe their personal
religious beliefs, and those of their faith group, to their readers.
But "many parts of the Bible cannot be taken literally, either
as historically factual or as expressing the will of God." 2
Liberals take what might be called a "bottom-up"
approach: the Bible is a "human response to God." 3The Bible was written by members of the Jewish, Jewish Christian and
Pauline Christian faith groups over about a 1000 year interval, circa
900 BCE to 150 CE. Its
original purpose was to allow the authors to disseminate their
religious and spiritual thoughts among their fellow
believers. Thus, a passage from one of Paul's epistles is a
description of how Paul interpreted the will of God. It may or may not
actually reflect God's actual will.|
Many liberal Christians believe that we cannot understand what the Bible
teaches unless we first realize that some biblical passages:
or adapted from the religious writings of nearby Pagan cultures.
||Are derived from folklore.
||Describe events, like the creation story and flood of Noah, that
||Do not represent the will of
||Reflect beliefs promoted by the Bible's authors which evolved over time.
||Are profoundly immoral
by today's religious and secular standards.
Concerning our descriptions of Christian beliefs:
In the rest of this web site's essays on Christianity, we attempt to
describe both the very conservative and very liberal beliefs and practices, which
are each derived from their very different methods of viewing and interpreting
the Bible. Most Christians in the U.S. are members of mainline
denominations. Their membership is often split between religious
conservatives and liberals. We will also describe beliefs of Catholics, where
they differ from those of Protestants.
We often include the beliefs and practices of
first and second century CE Christians in our essays. Some
Christians believe that, because the early Christian movement was only a few generations away from the time of Jesus' ministry, they
might well accurately reflect the teachings of Jesus. Others believe
modern-day beliefs are more accurate, because they reflect millennia of
theological study and refinement.
Protestant Christianity is so seriously divided on its understanding of
the Bible and of God's will that conservatives will often consider some of
the beliefs of liberals to be blasphemy. Liberals often believe that some
of the teachings of conservatives are blasphemy. Since we reflect all
points of view in our essays, many of our visitors become quite angry at
the content of our site. Hopefully, they see their own beliefs described
accurately. However, they also see explanations of the beliefs of other
Christians and of denominations very different from their own. We receive
many E-mailed comments. Most are quite
supportive; some are hate filled; a very few contain death threats. Ours
is a lose-lose situation. We receive criticism from all sides.
Fortunately, we have developed thick skins.
Related essays in this web site:
Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2008-MAR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson