“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
– Revelations [3:20]
A close friend recently shared his newfound journey of faith, expressing his decision to attend an Eastern Orthodox church. As he narrated his story, he carefully watched my reaction, perhaps anticipating surprise or concern. I, however, was simply overjoyed that he had found a spiritual home. Intrigued, I inquired about his choice of denomination, to which he expressed a deep appreciation for the rich tradition, symbolism, and formalities that the Eastern Orthodox Church offers.
Indeed, the Eastern Orthodox Church stands out with its unique practices and traditions, especially when compared to the more commonly recognized denominations in America. Its closest counterpart would be the Roman Catholic Church, which boasts a substantial following, comprising sixty percent of Christians worldwide, amounting to 1.4 billion members. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Church has a more modest membership of 18 million.
The history of these two major denominations stretches back to a time when they were unified. It wasn’t until 1054 AD that a schism, driven by theological, political, and cultural differences, led to their separation. This marked the first major division within the Christian faith.
Another significant moment in Christian history was the Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther’s act of nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, is often regarded as the catalyst for this religious upheaval. His propositions challenged the prevailing practices of the Catholic Church, particularly the sale of indulgences, which were believed to reduce the punishment of sin. Although Luther’s initial intention was to spark scholarly debate, his ideas rapidly gained traction, resulting in profound religious and social transformations.
In the subsequent centuries, numerous Protestant denominations emerged, including the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, each with their own unique doctrinal and liturgical characteristics. Despite the multitude of denominations, consensus on religious matters remained elusive, even within the Catholic Church.
These religious disparities sometimes escalated to violence and warfare, with the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) standing out as a particularly brutal example. Initially a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states within the Holy Roman Empire, it eventually drew in most of the major European powers. This war had devastating effects on Germany, resulting in the loss of 25% of its population, either directly through warfare or indirectly through famine and disease.
These tumultuous times in history contributed to the establishment of religious freedom in the United States, a principle enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Even in England, where the national religion oscillated between Protestantism and Catholicism for nearly two centuries, leading to numerous casualties including the execution of King Charles I in 1649, there was eventually a return to stability with the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660.
These historical episodes of violence and discord amongst Christians prompt reflection on how well we embody the teachings of Christ, particularly the call to love our neighbors and live with kindness and humility. Gandhi’s observation that “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” is a poignant reminder of the discrepancy that can exist between faith and practice.
However, it is important to remember that these conflicts were not rooted in the teachings of Jesus but in human interpretation and disagreement. However, there is value in the plethora of denominations as it presents an opportunity for Christ to meet us wherever we are, responding to His knock as mentioned in Revelations [3:20].
When my friend chose to attend an Eastern Orthodox Church, I supported his decision wholeheartedly. I believe that the diversity of denominations enables Jesus to connect with people from all walks of life. Regardless of whether one is Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, or any other denomination, Jesus is ever-present and ready to engage with us.
Personally, I attend a Methodist church. This is not because I believe it is superior to others, but because it is where I feel at home. However, I also appreciate and enjoy experiencing Catholic Masses and Baptist services, finding that each denomination offers unique insights that strengthen my faith. Rather than debating which denomination is “better,” I choose to learn from them all.
In conclusion, Jesus never intended for His church to be divided, but He encourages us all to seek and explore our faith. Regardless of our denomination, we are all Christians. By responding to Jesus’s call and answering his knocking at our door, we allow Him to meet us exactly where we are, embracing the diversity of His body and growing in our journey of faith.