I’m currently in a Church History class going through the Reformation period of Christianity. During the Reformation, Martin Luther’s partner in crime (literally) was Philipp Melanchthon. After Luther’s death, Melanchthon carried the torch as a leader of the movement spreading throughout the Medieval world. In the years following the start of the Reformation, there were several different strains of non-Catholic Christianity that popped up.
To withstand the Catholic majorities at the time, these non-Catholic groups started talking about what it would look like to unify under one banner. Believe it or not, even though all these movements were really young and were reacting to the same problems they saw in Catholicism, these groups had really big differences between them that were hard to overcome.
In these conversations, an aging Melanchthon used an old Greek philosophical phrase to suggest a way forward: Adiaphora. Greek for “indifferent things”, he used it to describe how he felt that some beliefs and practices could be considered adiaphora (non-essentials), and could be compromised on for the same of unity. He argued with his fellow Lutherans that some beliefs were more essential to Christianity than others and didn’t require so much division. The others around him, of course, disagreed.
This got me thinking about the trajectory this set for us today. We now feel perfectly free to think a whole host of different things and still call others Christians. And yet still, much of Christianity’s most bitter judgmentalism and cries of heresy, unfaithfulness, sin, and arrogance are directed towards other who are also trying to follow the God of Jesus best they can. This has caused rifts, schisms, splits, and divisions into a huge number of Church denominations. Is this healthy for us? What does Christian “unity” look like? Do we all need to look the same?
I’m a huge believer in adiaphora. I actually think that denominationalism can be healthy, allowing each Christian to worship in a way in which their conscience is free. ut remember, this is when it’s healthy: when worship is a matter of conscience, not simply preference (or, to our shame: when we divide based on race, ethnicity, economic status, etc.).
I look at all the things that have been super-contentious among Christian groups over the years and, give it some time to cool off, they often eventually have a chance to move forward. Reformed groups and Lutherans have agreements on the sacraments now (heck, Catholics have baptismal transfer agreements with many mainline denominations). Luther would surely not have split from a post-Vatican II Catholicism. And in more and more places Baptist and Presbyterian groups are building coalitions in spite of the same sacramental and church-government differences for which they used to kill each other.
In fact, I know this is disagreed upon by different scholars, but I would say you see a huge diversity of doctrinal thought even within the Bible! You can’t read through the Scriptures without seeing how people’s views changed over time and even writings from the same time period represent different doctrinal camps within God’s people.
But in that case, is it a free-for-all as to what defines a Christian? No. There are certainly “essentials”. Historically, I think this same idea if shown in the Apostle’s Creed. But even within the Bible, you can find things like 1 Corinthians 15:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death….For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
(Scholars argue if the rest of that chapter is also part of what Paul calls “of first importance”. I think so. Others don’t.)
For the most part, even amidst all the diversity of thought, opinion, expression, and practice in the Church, you would be hard-pressed to find a large group that believes outside the boundaries set in those articulations. Think about this. Among the biggest and most variegated religion in the world, that is a shocking degree of unity on cosmically-big things, even amidst the yawning chasms among us on other issues.
I find a lot of comfort in the fact that the Scriptures are diverse, God’s people are diverse, and so God gives us the freedom to hold to only a few small essentials, and then be fully human on the rest–feeling free to be bothered by some things, wrestle with others, doubt, hold dear, and even speculate, all while holding what is “essential” as essential, and the with others? Not so much. It’s a comfort to know that God is building the church–not us–and so we have only a small doctrinal responsibility in this whole enterprise.
With this heart, I can walk into anything from an Assemblies of God church to a Catholic one, from a non-denom megachurch to a small town fundamentalist one, and still be able to worship freely under our common identity. As long as we hold dear to that, I think we’re in good hands.
And lastly, I’d say that because God is building the Church by the work of Christ and the moving of the Spirit, I trust that whatever the “right” doctrinal ideas are, they are still being worked out by the Spirit through her church. Prophecy, healing, and words of knowledge still happen in cessationist churches; women still end up being powerful forces to reckon with even in complementarian churches; and the Real Presence of Christ is still in the sacrament, even if you’re more Baptistic in your sacramental theology. These things are still true and happening in Christ’s Church.
Well, that is, if you hold the same doctrinal convictions as I do, haha.