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Causes of divisions & conflicts
among Protestant faith groups

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bullet "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), KJV.

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The religion of the followers of Jesus remained unified for fewer than ten years after Jesus' execution circa 30 CE.

bullet 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 the time.
bullet 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.
bullet Gnostic 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.

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Splits within Protestantism:

There have been many reasons why Protestant denominations split, and re-split. Some are:

bullet 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
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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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." 1

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On the origin of the Bible:

bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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On the authority of the Bible:

bullet 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.
bullet 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.

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Typical beliefs in biblical interpretation:

bullet 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 are 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.
bullet 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:
bullet Were copied or adapted from the religious writings of nearby Pagan cultures.
bullet Are derived from folklore.
bullet Describe events, like the creation story and flood of Noah, that never happened.
bullet Do not represent the will of God.
bullet Reflect beliefs promoted by the Bible's authors which evolved over time.
bullet Are profoundly immoral by today's religious and secular standards.

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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.

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Related essays in this web site:

bullet Descriptions of divisions within Protestant Christianity (Menu)
bullet Two basic mechanisms to interpret the Bible
bullet How Christians view non-Christian religions
bullet Differences between Roman Catholicism and Conservative Protestantism

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  1. Marcus J. Borg, "Reading the Bible again for the first time," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001), Page 4. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  2. Ibid, Page 5.
  3. Ibid, Page 9.

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Christianity > Introduction > here

or Home page > Christianity > Christian groups > "Wings" > here

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Copyright 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Last update: 2008-MAR-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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