The primary reason there are 39,000+ Christian denominations is that each are trying to maintain “purity” of beliefs. Here is how that logic usually plays out:
” If we allow differences of opinions among us then we will soon reach a slippery slope where we will slide into heresy. For that reason we must be on the constant watch to exclude anyone among us who asks the ‘wrong’ questions or dares to disagree any of our creeds or beliefs.”
I have personally felt the stink of one of these churches. But what these church authorities espousing this view overlook is that they are looking at Jesus through the lens of many others who came before them. Things like their recent stubborn insistence that every word in the Bible came directly from God is putting themselves into a straight-jacket that is almost impossible to wear, and very uninviting to those outside their clique.
Of course institutional purity is not new to the twenty-first century. It has been going on since the time of Constantine in the fourth century and probably even before that. Here are some words from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:
During the ensuing “Constantinian era,” Christianity, at least in its official version, froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy. The year 385 CE marked a particularly grim turning point. A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. Christian fundamentalism had claimed its first victim. Today Priscillian’s alleged theological errors hardly seem to warrant the death penalty. He urged his followers to avoid meat and wine, advocated the careful study of scripture…
There are countless similar stories from the years following. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness. And of course we all know that in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. In the twentieth century she became a saint.
Here are some additional words by Philip Gulley in his book The Evolution of Faith about trying to maintain institutional purity:
Some Christians have thus concluded that we are our own worst enemies, that our best option for a viable future lies in our determination to embrace a rigid faith in order to stave off the adulterating influences of other cultures and religions. But I would contend that this has been tried repeatedly throughout our long history and always ends the same suspicion, intolerance, exclusion, division, and, finally, war. No, if the church has a future indeed if our world has a future it will rest in the church’s ability to honor and assimilate the best of each religious tradition, just as Jesus found virtue in Samaritans, publicans, centurions, and Gentiles. How this good man came to be the focus of a creedalism that ultimately excludes others is a mystery for the ages. The incorporation of other traditions into our own will undoubtedly change us, but for the better, for it will lead us toward one another, which is also and always a movement toward the Divine Presence and the universal grace that Presence represents.
Inspiring words indeed! We should not be locking and bolting the church door against others beliefs but instead should be embracing them if they celebrate the Divine Presence of Jesus Christ. In other words we should do as he did. And that is what I hope the coming emergent church will bring about.