It had barely been a few days since I first stepped onto my college campus as a freshman, and I was standing in the cafeteria line. The student in front of me turned around to ask my name.
I replied. His immediate follow-up question caught me by surprise: “Are you Catholic?”
I stopped for a moment, then said, “I’m Christian.”
“Catholic is Christian. You must be Protestant, then.”
“No, just Christian.”
I didn’t know quite what the student was getting at. Both of us were left a little confused as we speed-walked in separate directions with plates of lasagna.
Growing up in a non-denominational church, I’d only ever identified myself as Christian. I had always thought that was sufficient. But I soon learned that at my religiously diverse university, most people didn’t find that answer satisfying.
I soon began to realize how important denominations were to many students. When I’d ask about their beliefs, those who were Christian wouldn’t simply reply “Christian.” They’d say, “I’m Presbyterian” or “I’m Lutheran” or “I’m Catholic.”
They never enjoyed my own response that I was “non-denominational.”
“But everybody fits into some denomination,” they’d say.
Soon, I began identifying myself as Protestant to avoid the badgering questions. And when that didn’t prove detailed enough, I spent a whole evening scrolling through an extensive Wikipedia list of Christian denominations, landing on Baptist as the closest fit.
But the more dinner table debates I had about minute details of particular denominations and sectarian interpretations of obscure Bible passages, the more I felt that I’d taken a step backward. I’d walk away from those disputes feeling more at odds with my Christian brothers and sisters than with non-believing friends.
That’s when I began to realize that one of the biggest threats to the body of Christ on my college campus–and to the body of Christ everywhere–wasn’t attacks by non-Christians and atheists. It was the vehement denominational divides pitting us against one another. We were standing so resolutely in factions that we could not stand together for the ultimate truth of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Bible speaks gravely of this reality, warning Christians that to separate fiercely into denominations is to deeply misrepresent the Gospel.
In John 17, Jesus prays his “High Priestly Prayer,” anticipating his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. In verse 20, Jesus prays specifically for those who will believe in him. It’s crucial to note that for which he beseeches the Father:
“[T]hat all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Taken by itself, this plea is compelling. If Jesus asks for the complete unity of his followers, we ought to strive in earnest to honor his desire. But what makes Christ’s request even more convicting is its ultimate purpose: so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them” (John 17:23).
The global testament to the truth of Christianity hinges on the unity of its believers.
That’s pretty sobering.
Why would the world consider believing in the Gospel when its followers can’t even join together to affirm their common ground?
Some contend that this unity is impossible in the modern age. It was easy for Jesus to ask for unity when Christianity had just sprouted and was relatively faction-less, right?
But Paul the Apostle makes a profound statement in Galatians 3:28 that proves otherwise: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
To understand the absolutely radical nature of Paul’s statement, we must understand its historical context. In the eyes of the Jewish people, Greeks or “Gentiles” could not have been more different from them: in their dress, their food, their traditions, their beliefs. And as pagan Gentiles began converting to Christianity, they found themselves still at odds with believing Jews, particularly in terms of shared meals. Although shared meals were an integral expression of Christian community, some Jews refused to eat with Christian Gentiles because they had not been circumcised. Even Peter, who loved the Lord, abstained from eating with the Greeks, believing that one physical feature was enough reason to spurn them as Christian brothers and sisters.
Paul condemned Peter’s foolishness, explaining that all who believe in Christ Jesus are children of God, united with Christ and his Church through baptism and faith (Galatians 3:27). He begs for unity in 1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Here, an important distinction must be made: Paul is not calling for blind agreement in circumstances where splits result from substantive, Scripturally-driven, Gospel-central concerns. Some denominations have arisen from the desire to defend God’s Word and reject doctrines that blatantly ignore it—and these are necessary. However, when sects begin to spawn from human opinions and trivial feuds, that is where we must draw the line.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul criticizes such Christian factions, calling the Corinthians “mere infants” for claiming “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3:4). Paul reminds the church that he and Apollos are but servants of God, and no one can lay a foundation for Christian belief apart from what Christ has already laid (1 Corinthians 3:11).
Paul makes it clear that what Christ said and did on earth is sufficient for the knowledge of salvation. All other concerns–like epistemological theories about the rapture or debates about proper methods or worship–are add-ons to our faith.
Both Christ and Paul stress the importance of defining ourselves by our relationship with Christ and the simple Gospel as declared in John 3:16. First and foremost, we are followers of Jesus Christ. We may be Methodist or Catholic or Anglican, but these are secondary identities. If we fail to recognize this, the warning of Jesus in Matthew 12:25 will ring true: “every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”
If we want to testify to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the truth, we must take this matter seriously. The shift to healing these deep divides is not easy; there are certainly core issues to the Christian faith that we must wrestle with, especially in a world where some claim to follow Christ but cherry-pick from His Word. However, recognizing that separation in general is a problem is the first step.
We have broken the body of Christ, but healing and strengthening remain possible.
Thankfully, it’s not a matter of changing our church traditions or settings. It’s a matter of changing our spiritual priorities. When we meet other believers in Jesus Christ who strive to follow God’s Word but differ denominationally, we must continually call to mind Ephesians 4:4-5: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
And when we do so, may the world say of us what one ancient non-believer said of the early Church: “Behold, how they love one another.”
Taryn Murphy is a summer intern with the Creative Services department at Focus on the Family. She is a California native and currently studies Philosophy and Religion at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Taryn is a singer and songwriter, releasing two singles “Polaroid” and “Oh Darlin’” in 2017. She is passionate about analyzing and discussing the deep problems facing humanity, and treats these issues in her upcoming poetry collection due to be published by the end of 2019.